One of the Reformation’s ambitious goals was to create an educated clergy. Both Protestant and Catholic reformers shared this goal, but the methods they chose varied somewhat: Protestants relied on the educational systems available to them, mostly universities; each Catholic diocese was expected to have its own “seminary”—a “seedbed” for the cultivation of skilled and able clergy. In fact, both traditions borrowed from each other.

The first Lutherans to arrive in North America didn’t speak English—those language barriers plus theological differences made the existing educational institutions unsuitable for training Lutheran clergy. But the newly planted church continued to raise up clergy: first by importing them from the homeland, later by apprenticing them to experienced clergy and having groups of pastors examine and approve them for ordination.

Eventually a network of seminaries was founded by the various Lutheran church bodies in North America. Today’s seven ELCA seminaries are heirs of that system, each with its own significance in our American Lutheran story. Distinctly Lutheran, yet consistent with other Protestant traditions in structure, and accredited by higher education authorities, our seminaries are fully part of and accountable to both the ELCA and the American higher education system.

One of my duties as a synod bishop is to encourage and help prepare candidates for public ministry in the ELCA, and then help place them in congregations. Ordaining new pastors and deacons is my greatest joy in this office because of the excitement and promise every new leader brings to the church. I firmly believe the future of our church depends on the quality and commitment of its rostered ministers.

And as a former seminary professor, I also believe in the value of the rich and intense pattern of study and life together that our seminaries have traditionally offered. It has been a “gold standard” of preparation for generations of learned and skilled pastors and deacons. But these conventional expectations (a college degree, years of study in residence, and a one-year internship in another location) have become too rigid for a church of such variety as ours.

Our seminaries expose students to varied ways of being church and of worshiping, along with ideas that will stretch them and expand their horizons.

The burden of student debt, the challenges of family life, and the increase in second-career students and candidates from underrepresented communities means past expectations no longer fit. Fewer of our congregations can support a full-time pastor at levels previously experienced, but our need for a dedicated and well-prepared clergy hasn’t changed.

ELCA seminaries have been resourceful in finding new paths amid shrinking resources: distributed learning (online, weekend intensives, groups in other locations), more flexible (and shorter) degree programs (often in conjunction with an ELCA university) and alternate paths to ordination that don’t require the Master of Divinity degree are some ways to make the educational process shorter and less expensive without lowering quality.

Our seminaries expose students to varied ways of being church and of worshiping, along with ideas that will stretch them and expand their horizons. Many people come to candidacy for ministry with the strong model of one good congregation and one effective pastor: our seminaries show them a church of great variety, in which the gospel is proclaimed—and God’s work done—in many languages and styles.

At ELCA seminaries our candidates encounter others like themselves, but also many, many others. One is likely to meet a future Lutheran leader from every race, class and background and from another country. Together they learn about and experience Christian fellowship in a Lutheran way, while gaining flexibility to strengthen their future ministry in changing communities.

Seminary education isn’t the only way our Lutheran faith is carried forward. But it ensures that our future ministers are rooted in Scripture and have a clear, faithful Lutheran understanding and interpretive lens that allows them to bring the gospel to our world without falling into simplistic formulas.

And our schools don’t stop with seminarians—they offer all rostered ministers continuing education, and their faculties (and our ELCA theologians in many other institutions) work together to guide the church in its public witness to justice and peace.

ELCA seminaries are the place where the church has both (and perhaps paradoxically) its deepest connection to its traditions and the greatest energy for innovation today. There is nothing static or stuffy about ELCA seminary education, and paired with a deep experience of real congregational life lived among our people as they really are, it offers the best possible preparation for wise, faithful and compassionate ministry in our church today and in the future.

R. Guy Erwin
R. Guy Erwin (Wazhazhe/Osage Nation) is president of United Lutheran Seminary, and served from 2013 to 2020 as bishop of the Southwest California Synod. He was the first openly gay and Native American bishop in the ELCA. For over 25 years he has taught about the Reformation and Martin Luther in universities and seminaries.

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