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Lutheran colleges embracing Martin Luther's call to Christian vocation

Lilly grants are shaping new initiatives on five area Lutheran campuses

A new focus on the concept of vocation has been energizing the academic programs at five ELCA colleges that draw large numbers of students from the Twin Cities metro area.
Changes in curriculum, the opening up of many new internship and study-abroad opportunities and strengthening of faculty advisory roles are among the tools the schools are using to encourage students to view their career choices as “callings” (vocatio = “I am calling you”), leading to lives of service to community and church.
“Everybody has a calling to be of service in the world,” said Chris Johnson, director of the Center for Vocational Reflection at Gustavus Adolphus College. Said Johnson, “We’re trying to make this invitation to make one’s life a calling more intentional and make it as widespread and comprehensive as possible.”
There’s no mystery as to why the colleges —Augsburg, St. Olaf, Luther and Concordia (Moorhead) as well as Gustavus — embarked on this new emphasis shortly after the start of the 21st Century. In 1999, the Lilly Endowment, a philanthropic enterprise launched by the founders of the big Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical firm, invited colleges and universities —mostly church-related liberal arts schools — to design programs with this “vocation” emphasis.
These initiatives, called Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV), were expected to do three things:
* assist students in examining the relationship be-tween faith and vocational choices;
* provide opportunities for gifted young people to explore Christian ministry; and
n enhance the capacity of the school’s faculty and staff to teach and mentor students effectively in this area.
Between 2001 and 2003, the Lilly Endowment made grants totaling $176 million to 88 colleges to implement the plans they had submitted. The five area ELCA schools each received grants of $2 million to be spent over five years. Lilly subsequently agreed to follow up this funding with three-year matching grants of $500,000 to assure that the colleges were able to integrate the programs they had started into their budgets.
While most of the ELCA colleges had programs of some sort in place to help students relate their faith to vocational choices, leaders at these five schools express strong appreciation for the opportunity the Lilly Program has provided to intensify those efforts. In conversations across the campuses, “vocation” has now become a frequent subject, and consideration of it has been woven into the fabric of the place, they say.
Mark Krejci, vice-president for academic affairs at Concordia, describes the effect of the Lilly Program on both faculty and students as “profound.” Bruce Dalgaard, director of the Center for Experiential Learning and supervisor of the Lilly Program at St. Olaf, says the new program has been “warmly embraced” by the campus community and “there is tremendous interest in the vocational discernment initiative.”
At Augsburg in Minn-eapolis, the momentum from the Lilly grant has led to the introduction of two new courses on vocation that all students are required to take in their freshman and sophomore years. Titled “Christian Vocation and the Search for Meaning,” the courses seek to make vocation a lens through which students see their education, said Mark Tranvik, associate professor of religion and director of the Lilly grant program.
A seminar in the senior year at Augsburg asks students to look back on their years at the college, also emphasizing the perspective of vocation, Tranvik added.
St. Olaf has established a Lilly Teaching Fellows program under which more than 35 faculty members have been given time off during the past three years to work on integrating the concept of vocation into their courses. New courses have also been created, and faculty members have been encouraged to do research and writing about vocation, drawing especially on the Lutheran tradition.
Numerous articles and several books have been published by St. Olaf teachers, including a book by Doug Schuurman, professor of religion, titled Vocation. It provides a look at writings in the area of vocation by Martin Luther and John Calvin.
At Gustavus, some 70-80 courses across the curriculum have been created or reshaped to emphasize the idea of vocation. This includes ones in which faculty members supervise students in work-study programs or have mentoring relationships with them.
Many of the schools bring in outside speakers with ex-pertise in the area of vocation. At Luther College a Vocation Visitor program brings to the campus persons who have been very thoughtful about the path to vocation they have taken. They engage in conversations with students, faculty and staff, in addition to speaking to larger audiences.
The program has been “absolutely wonderful,” said Ruth Kath, director of the school’s vocation programs and professor of French.
These guests, who stay for periods from a few days to a month, have ranged from seminary professors to experts on the environment to poets. Forty of these visitors have come to the campus in the first two years of this Lilly-funded program, and it will continue at that pace, according to Kath.
Besides funding internships for students at non-profit organizations around the Twin Cities, Augsburg uses money from its Lilly grant to pay modest wages ($500-$1,000 apiece) to 10-15 students each summer for working at church camps. The students meet together both before and after the camp experience to discuss its impact on their sense of vocation.
Similarly, Gustavus offers a Servant Leadership Pro-gram. Under it, 40 students receive $1,500 stipends from the college to spend the summer doing some type of service work — at a human-service agency, a church camp, a health-care facility or the like.
The students must commit to spending time during the following full school year in reflection on the experience. That takes such forms as retreats, workshops, doing readings and engaging in small-group projects — all designed to help students get meaning from the experience and a sense of their call to lives of servant leadership.
At Concordia, up to 10 students a year are given the opportunity under the Reflections Internship Pro-gram to explore what they feel is some sort of calling in a foreign or domestic setting.
St Olaf has worked to enhance its international-study programs by including a service component for the teams of faculty and students who travel abroad during the summer.
The ELCA colleges have taken seriously Lilly’s desire to provide op-portunities for gifted young people to explore Christian ministry.
Officials of the Endow-ment have explained that they believe “vital religious communities are essential for a flourishing and hu-mane society” and “in order to keep these important communities strong and vibrant, a new generation of talented, energetic, creative and committed pastors and religiously informed lay leaders is needed.”
At Augsburg, besides the subsidies for 10-15 students to work at summer church camps, another 10 students with an interest in careers in the ministry are named Lilly Scholars each year and receive stipends of $2,000 apiece. They meet in monthly seminars to study issues of vocation, have the opportunity to take courses at Luther Seminary and can meet with people who are out practicing ministry.
Luther College awards fellowships of $1,500-$2,000 to 50 students each year to do summer internships in churches or church-related camps. Similarly, Concordia has been able to expand its unique interdisciplinary Church Professions Program by adding clinical internships that enable students to work in summer church camps.
St. Olaf collaborates with Luther Seminary in a program which enables six students to test out their calling to ministry by living at the seminary during the summer and spending their days working in Lutheran congregations in the Twin Cities. They return to the seminary in the evenings to work with a professor there as they reflect on their experiences and evaluate whether full-time ordained ministry is the career path they should follow.
Similar immersion experiences for six students in congregations in poorer sections of New York City served by St. Olaf graduates were added last winter.