Lutherans in Minnesota

Continuing ed for clergy is in a state of flux

To everything there is a season. And to every season there is an end. For the Charis Ecumenical Center, a ministry located at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, that end came this summer after 39 years of ministry.

The Charis Ecumenical Center provided lifelong learning to congregations in central, northern, and southwestern Minnesota, North Dakota, and parts of South Dakota. It had formal relationships with four synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), two Catholic dioceses, two United Methodist Church conferences, a United Church of Christ conference, an Episcopal diocese, and one Presbytery. Each of these groups provided financial support and participated in the governance of the program.

However, due to tightening budgets and financial stresses caused by a down economy, the Charis Ecumenical Center has undergone immense stress in recent times. So, as the center’s director Pastor Arland Jacobson, a pastor in the ELCA, prepared for retirement, he began to take a close look at the viability of the future of the organization.

Based upon the changing times and the organization’s current financial situation, Jacobson recommended that his departure mark the end of the Charis Center’s formal work as an organization. On June 30, 2009, Jacobson retired and the Charis Ecumenical Center officially closed its doors for the last time.

“Our judicatories have been both surprised and not surprised,” Jacobson said. “All have their own struggles. They’ve had to cut back in their own ways. I think that when they heard, they understood because they know times are tough out there.”

During its nearly 40 years of ministry, the Charis Center offered courses on theological topics, as well as topics such as stewardship and how to manage and serve a congregation. During his time as director of the Charis Center, Jacobson found increasing interest by clergy in practical topics such as the day-to-day running of the church and building preaching skills.

During its long tenure, the Charis Center experienced trends and changes in continuing education methodology. Pastors in various affiliations throughout the Lutheran church have found that while the times change, so do the ways pastors receive continuing education.

Michael Brandt, a pastor in the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (AFLC), has seen many pastors seek practical skills in areas of counseling, hospital chaplaincy, nursing home chaplaincy, as well as practical classes on topics such as addiction. Often, these pastors are looking for ways to expand their ministries so they are more relevant in broader areas as they may need to work longer and/or find ways to serve more people.

Steve McKinley, who has served as a pastor in the ELCA for 41 years, credits much of clergy’s shifting interest toward seminars that focus on more practical topics, such as daily accessibility for text studies and sermon preparation tools on the Internet. “Pastors are educating themselves online. In a way, their continuing education is more integrated into their ministry all the time. We can never today underestimate the impact of the electronic revolution. You don’t have to go off to a course or a center. It’s out there online for you.”

However, while pastors have constant access to theological Web sites and text studies over the Internet, theological conferences remain an important part of continuing education for clergy and lay leaders.

Gaylin R. Schmeling, pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) and president of Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, notes the importance of pastors gathering together at conferences, which gives them a chance to study daily ministry needs, as well as to receive continuing theological education.

“[At our conferences], there are [topics of] concern [such as] evangelism and presentations on a variety of topics — historical, biblical studies, doctrinal things, and practical materials. [We work to maintain] a proper balance between the more traditional areas and also what might be considered practical,” he explained.

The many seasons of ministry may have come to an end for the Charis Ecumenical Center. However, if in name alone, Charis is an important reminder for Lutheran clergy. Coming from the Greek New Testament, charis means “grace.” This word, which, for 39 years, guided the ministry of an ecumenical, continuing education ministry center, may also serve to remind Lutheran clergy that God’s grace in Christ is their foundation for witness and service to the church.