Archived Sections, Commentary

Smarter, Stronger, Sooner!

Seminary students are a gift to the church. We need to celebrate them.

The church is mildly interested in how many people are enrolled at Luther Seminary, where I work and teach, as well as at similar Lutheran pastoral training schools. What it really cares about is how many will graduate ready to lead Christian communities in the callings God gives them. As one bishop said, “We need more of your graduates, and we need them smarter, stronger and sooner!” What does that mean to you?
* “Smarter” means IQ (intelligence quotient). It also means EQ (emotional intelligence) and LQ (wisdom for leadership), and especially GQ (discernment of the Gospel). When the graduates process across the platform, the faculty in the front rows are proud of their bright scholars. They also know that many others will prove to be superb pastors, musicians, youth leaders and evangelical ministers. After an annual meeting or two, the graduate will have learned lessons the school could not teach.
“Smarter” means readiness to learn from others and to listen to what the Spirit is saying in the mission contexts of the churches. The deepest lessons will require a lifetime. “Go and learn what this means,” said our Lord, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13)
* “Stronger” means depth of faith, sturdiness of character and healthy living. Leadership in Christian communities is taxing work, never finished, open to criticism, enmeshed in family and community systems. God’s gift of forgiveness in Christ Jesus still confronts sin in the church and the world.
A dean from the University of Minnesota reviewed our curriculum at Luther Seminary, after its reform in the late 1990s. He said, “This is a remarkable educational strategy to prepare people to lead in a time of mission.” Then he paused, and said, “The single biggest predictor of your success will be who comes in the front door of the seminary.”
Agreed! And the largest factor in our practical control is how burdened our graduates are by their debt load. “Stronger” means spiritual, physical, emotional and financial health.
* “Sooner” means the church needs these leaders now. The current shortage of first call candidates will increase as the retirement curve catches up with the roster. God is in these changes too, teaching the church to value its leaders, inviting new configurations of congregations and staffing, and creating space to develop community-based leadership. One graduate smiled and said, “I crammed four years of seminary into nine!” She was teaching when she began, gave birth to two children, and attended well to her studies. But the slow path is often required to keep bread on the table, and still the debt mounts. “Sooner” means providing encouragement, support and incentives to complete seminary.
The news is promising. For the past few years, Luther Seminary has asked its alumni to join the prayer to the Lord of the harvest for laborers (Matthew 9:37-38). This is doubtless the case at all Lutheran seminaries. The Alumni/ae Calling Team at Luther Seminary has sought to rally 5,000 recruiters in communities throughout the nation and the world.
The “Previews” campus days of high school students with the pastors and youth leaders has expanded to 500 participants. And the enrollments rose this past year, with a sharp increase coming next September. A large class will come in our front door next year, and they excel by the “smarter” and “stronger” measures.
Be careful when you pray, but never cease. The students who are our answered prayers are also our sacred trust. We are going to need hundreds of congregations and individuals to “adopt a seminarian” so they can finish “sooner” and “stronger.” They will make their sacrifices, take on the mantles of their callings, and discipline themselves to get ready. This is joyful, complex, and costly work. You can walk with them and make a difference.
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Tiede is president of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. Because Metro Lutheran includes a focus this month on how Lutherans train their pastors (please turn to pages 10-12), the paper asked him to share this commentary piece with readers. It is slightly adapted for publication here.