As seminaries rework the ways they train new pastors, congregations may have to alter their “image” of a pastor.

“We look at the world around us, and the church, as beautiful and wonderful as it has been, is not effective in reaching out to new people,” said Louise Johnson, president of Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa. “We’re not growing.”

Congregations often believe it’s the pastor’s job to get new members and increase attendance at worship, but evangelism is actually the task of every member. Furthermore, “serving the world” is the goal of today’s church, and that means more outreach in the community.

One participant involved in the listening portion of the Theological Education Advisory Committee study said, “The entire Christian church in North America (not just Lutherans) has focused much too heavily in the past 60 years on meeting the needs of its members.”

“Our congregations have for too long been places where people had their needs met without being sent out to meet the needs of the world,” said another person involved in the research. “We need to form and equip leaders who can both cast a vision and help people own and live it.”

Pastors prepared for greater service in the world will be teaching members how the gospel enables everyone to reach out and engage in the needs of the world, not just their own spiritual lives. This is a different image than the view that the pastor is primarily the spiritual leader of a congregation.

New pastors, trained for this kind of outreach, may meet resistance in congregations that see the leader’s role as primarily providing care within the church walls. Those new pastors will need to have the leadership skills to handle opposition.

But it’s vital to the spiritual health of congregations and the whole ELCA, said one participant, that churches focus on missions and ministries that extend beyond the walls of individual congregations.

Said another respondent: “I believe we are being called to create ways in which seekers/nones/the lapsed can gain an experience of the living God. I believe we are being called to find new ways to create genuine community.”

Charles Austin
Charles Austin is a retired ELCA pastor who has served parishes in Iowa, New York and New Jersey. He has also been a reporter for The New York Times and other news organizations.

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