By Roland Lovstad
Building on a successful start, the LCMS seminaries have enrolled their second classes of students in the Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) program.
“I think it is going amazingly well,” observed Dr. David Wollenburg, SMP director at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. “The reaction and responses have been wonderful and enthusiastic.”
Dr. Douglas Rutt agrees. The dean of distance learning at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, added that both seminaries are committed to a program that will respect the doctrine of the ministry while enabling men to be trained for specific ministry contexts without having to leave homes, jobs, and congregations.
This fall, the Fort Wayne seminary enrolled 13 students in its second class. The St. Louis seminary enrolled 25 students. From the initial classes, 22 of the first 25 students are enrolled for a second year of study at Fort Wayne; 23 of 29 are enrolled in St. Louis.
The SMP program was approved by the 2007 LCMS convention. In the four-year program, students take most of their courses via distance education while they serve in a congregation, mission plant, or ethnic ministry. They are classified as vicars as they complete their first eight courses during their first two years in the program. After two years, students may be certified by the seminaries as eligible to receive calls to serve as SMPs at their vicarage sites. During the last two years, students take eight more courses. They serve under the oversight of a general pastor while studying and after completing the program.
Most SMP instruction is delivered via the Internet with lecture and discussion using streaming video, web cams, and discussion forums. Students complete readings, assignments, and tests, and meet regularly with their local pastor-mentors. Students also attend an annual weeklong session on the seminary campus.
Rev. Glen Thomas, executive director of the LCMS Board for Pastoral Education, said a survey of the inaugural class and their supervising pastors showed 90.9 percent would recommend the SMP program to someone contemplating such study and 86.1 percent indicated a positive overall reaction to the program.
“The Lord of the Church has blessed the initial design and implementation of the program and it appears to be meeting the need for which it was created,” Thomas wrote in a report of the SMP Committee that is guiding the SMP development. The progress report was requested by the 2007 Convention.
“In approximately one year, the first SMP students will be ordained into the office of the pastoral ministry,” the report stated. “The SMP Committee joins the Synod in praying God’s abundant blessings upon these students and those whom they will serve!”
Since the program is new, both seminaries continue to develop aspects of the current and future curriculum.
“Some students are more astute when it comes to use of technology and some have Internet connections that make some things a little different or difficult,” Rutt said. “So we’ve got to provide some technical assistance and support, which we have readily available.”
Since assessment is a part of the process at Fort Wayne, Rutt said the seminary is surveying all students in its first class to determine how well the program is meeting their needs and preparing them for their ministries.
Wollenburg said the St. Louis seminary intends to begin another cohort in the spring quarter. “That will enable us to better serve the needs of congregations, because not everybody’s needs come together at the same time,” he added. “It will also be beneficial if a student has to drop out for a quarter. The mid-year cohort will allow him to work into the fixed sequence of courses without waiting an entire year to rejoin the program.”
Fort Wayne will evaluate and begin another cohort if needed, according to Rutt.
Wollenburg emphasized that the SMP program involves “a lot of work.” Study involves at least 10-12 hours a week and three to five hours with a pastor-mentor, plus service in the ministry context. Some students are employed in the ministry where they serve, but others also work outside jobs.
“No one should think the SMP program is an easy way to get into pastoral ministry,” he said.
Rutt and Wollenburg indicated that cost is a concern for current and potential students. Congregations that nominate men for SMP should be prepared to assist with educational expenses in addition to employment, they said. They urged employing ministries to consider study time as part of the students’ ministry.
Because SMP students are eligible for ordination at the mid-point of their studies, Wollenburg noted that the seminaries will conduct certification interviews for the first SMP class in 2010. The seminaries ordinarily certify candidates for ordination, but Wollenburg said the St. Louis seminary is exploring a process that involves districts and congregations.
Because the SMP program is designed to meet specific ministry needs, candidates who meet the scriptural qualifications for ministry are identified by a congregation, circuit, or district. The candidates are invited to submit an application and related documents to the district office. The district determines if the individual and ministry qualify for the SMP program and submits the application package to the seminary. The seminary then acts on the application and notifies the applicant and the district of its decision.
Prior to admission a man must show basic competencies in Old and New Testament, Christian doctrine, worship, preaching, teaching, and Christian witness. These competencies can be gained through lay training offered by LCMS districts, Concordia colleges and universities, and seminaries.
Students may choose to take their SMP courses for academic credit toward a Master of Divinity degree. To earn academic credit, they are expected to do additional work at the M.Div. level. The M.Div. degree must be completed through residential study at an LCMS seminary.
Last February, both seminaries received preliminary approval from the Association of Theological Schools for distance education and may now offer courses for credit toward the M.Div. degree.
About half of the SMP students at Fort Wayne are taking their courses for the M.Div. level credit, according to Rutt.
The SMP Committee report and the evaluation of the SMP program can be found at www.lcms.org/pastoraleducation.
Roland Lovstad is a freelance writer and a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Perryville, Mo.
Posted Oct. 21, 2009