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Cheerleading for Lutheran colleges for 101 years

Lutheran Educational Conference keep up the chant

There was no big party celebrating its hundredth birthday last year. Perhaps there should have been. The Lutheran Educational Conference of North America (LECNA) reached the century mark quietly during 2010. Hardly anybody noticed.
That’s not surprising. The group operates like a lot of Lutherans do — modestly, without fanfare, behind the scenes. But the institutions for which LECNA advocates are well-known to Lutherans — and are considered by many to be the church’s gems.
LECNA is the oldest pan-Lutheran organization in the country. (The name is something of a misnomer: These days the agency promotes schools in the United States, but no longer those in Canada.) When it comes to inter-Lutheran cooperation, this agency is a real success story. Founded in 1910, LECNA helps Lutheran colleges in North America be the best they can be — colleges of the church.

Augsburg College, an ELCA school in Minneapolis, is a member institution of the Lutheran Educational Conference in North America. Photo provided by Stephen Geffre, Augsburg College

William Hamm says faculty who teach at Lutheran colleges choose that venue “because of the faith commitment there.”

Lutherans organized their colleges for specific reasons. Originally, they wanted their schools to prepare candidates for seminary and, eventually, ordination as Lutheran pastors. They wanted to train teachers for Lutheran parish schools. And, in most cases, they wanted to preserve a particular heritage — which often had as much to do with ethnicity as theology. (Hence, sending a German-background Lutheran youngster to a Norwegian heritage Lutheran college might have been considered counter-cultural, at least in the early days.)

The vocation of training for vocations

Those purposes have changed. Most Lutheran colleges in this country are no longer the primary feeder schools for Lutheran seminaries. While Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod colleges (all known as universities these days) continue to prepare teachers for parish schools, this function has virtually disappeared in ELCA-predecessor colleges.
And the concern to maintain Northern European traditions evaporated decades ago. So, when a national pan-Lutheran group continues to serve as chief cheerleader for Lutheran colleges and universities, what is it exactly that it’s cheering for?
The simple answer would be that these schools are championing Martin Luther’s concept of vocation or calling. Luther grew up in a world where “church vocations” — holy orders, ordained service, professional church leadership — were considered superior to every other occupational calling. Luther turned that idea on its head. In his view, a shoemaker and a prince — or a priest — had equal value in God’s sight. All provided a God-pleasing service. The calling to pastoral ministry, Luther said, was important, but so was every other useful calling.

LECNA represents Lutheran colleges across the U.S. Pictured here, Lenoir-Rhyne University is located in Hickory, North Carolina. Photo provided by Mike Langford, Lenoir-Rhyne University

The evolution of Lutheran schools, from “parochial” institutions into liberal arts schools, went hand-in-hand with a reclaiming of Luther’s concept of vocation. Today, a music major at St. Olaf, a political science major at Concordia, St. Paul, or a biology major at Wartburg will get a healthy dose of “vocation with values” training.

LECNA is the oldest pan-Lutheran organization in the country.

That’s the sort of thing LECNA tries to put before Lutheran parents and college-bound students. It is also a mission these schools serve on behalf on non-Lutheran students, who are now in the majority on most Lutheran campuses.

Helping young people choose

How does LECNA promote its 38 client schools? One way is through annual “Lutheran college fairs.” There are 40 of them scheduled, across the country, all at local Lutheran congregations. In the Twin Cities, they are now held in both spring and fall. (For this year’s spring schedule for the Metro Lutheran readership area, go to
LECNA’s current president, William Hamm, says, “It’s a remarkable thing for students and congregations to have access to so many admissions officers all at once in one place. That’s what these college fairs provide.” Having served as both president and interim president on more than one Lutheran campus, Hamm is keenly aware of the difference a school’s environment can make. He says, “A Lutheran ‘values set’ shapes everything that happens at one of our LECNA colleges. That includes how the curriculum is designed and what’s expected of the faculty.”
Hamm says faculty who teach at Lutheran colleges choose that venue “because of the faith commitment there.” Not all faculty are Lutheran, but they affirm the values of the Lutheran college that employs them. Otherwise, even with sterling credentials, they would not be hired.
Each college in the LECNA network will describe its mission in unique ways, but Hamm thinks they all have some things in common. His list includes respect for a faith community (Lutheran campus pastors and worship opportunities are available); a service component (that includes service projects that reach beyond the college community); and civic responsibility (students are coaxed toward aspiring to citizenship with integrity).
LECNA’s Web site offers a wealth of information for prospective college students and their parents. Included there is a listing and a link to every member college or university. (Currently only ELCA and LCMS schools are listed.) There is also information about significant research comparing the quality of education and affordability at Lutheran colleges with that offered at flagship public universities (According to the report, the Lutheran schools outrank and outscore their tax-supported counterparts in virtually every category measured.)
Is it worth keeping these 38 schools — 28 in the ELCA, 10 in the LCMS — alive and well? A 1999 LECNA summary paper makes the case: “Lutheran colleges and universities [exist] to educate and train Christian citizens and evangelical Lutheran pastors to be effective in service to God and society.”
Who can argue with that?

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