By Stacey Egger
In January, leaders from each of the Concordia universities — Irvine, Chicago, Ann Arbor, St. Paul, Nebraska, Texas and Wisconsin — and from both of the Synod’s seminaries — St. Louis and Fort Wayne — gathered at the LCMS International Center in St. Louis to discuss church work recruitment.
This Church Work Directors Conference was convened Jan. 31–Feb. 1 by the LCMS Office of Pastoral Education as a part of its Set Apart to Serve (SAS) initiative, a result of 2019 Resolution 6-01, “To Support and Participate in the Comprehensive Church Worker Recruitment Initiative.”
Two representatives from each institution attended. The group — which included university presidents, professors, pre-seminary program directors and directors of recruitment and admissions — came together to learn more about SAS, discuss and seek solutions for obstacles to church work, and share what they are doing in their own institutions — and what they might commit to doing — to more effectively raise up church workers.
“We want this initiative to have an impact far into the future, and we need the collaboration of our entire church body,” said the Rev. Dr. James Baneck, executive director of Pastoral Education, in his opening presentation to the conference. Baneck noted that not only those who were present but others — including district presidents, Concordia Publishing House and several Recognized Service Organizations — have a role to play in the initiative. “We want to continue to collaborate and make this a Synodwide cultural shift,” Baneck said.
To open the meeting, the participants were asked to introduce themselves and state one hope for the conference.
“Past practices will likely result in past results, which are inadequate to address present [church work] needs and future opportunities,” said Dr. Bernard Bull, president of Concordia University, Nebraska, Seward, Neb. “I’m looking forward to seeing if we can figure out some paths forward.”
Problems and solutions
Much of the conference’s first day was spent in a series of collaborative group exercises aimed at identifying barriers that keep young people from pursuing church work, as well as possible avenues toward removing them. The exercises were led by two team members from Standing Partnership, an organization with which Pastoral Education has partnered to research, build and execute the initiative.
One group determined that a lack of personal connection between church workers and youth is a major barrier to recruitment. Among the ideas for solving this problem were:
- Identify current workers who can serve as church work ambassadors to young people;
- Encourage more district-level initiatives and events that bring together and encourage youth interested in church work; and
- Build awareness of generational differences so that pastors and other influencers will better understand what motivates the young people they are trying to reach.
“Young people want to know what their impact is going to be on the world,” said Carrie O’Donnell, assistant to the president of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. “If you’re telling them, ‘Go to [a Concordia] because we’ve got to support our institutions,’ it will be [less effective] than, ‘Go to [a Concordia] because people are dying without Christ.’ ”
Another group noted that “heathy, joyful church workers make good recruiters,” and suggested ways that the LCMS might strive for worker wellness, such as:
- Train lay leaders to identify signs of church worker burnout, and act to prevent it before it happens;
- Train lay leaders to ensure that workers are taking regular time off to recharge and avoid burnout; and
- Reinvigorate church worker wellness efforts from the Synod’s entities.
“Church workers who [are unhappy] are not going to be good recruiters. They’re never going to recommend it. And even if they do, if they are obviously stressed out all the time … then [youth] are not going to want to follow in their footsteps,” said the Rev. Scott Stiegemeyer, assistant professor of theology and director of Pre-Seminary and Pre-Deaconess Studies at Concordia University Irvine (CUI), Irvine, Calif.
The third group noted that role models are key to church work recruitment and suggested the following ideas:
- Find ways to work within the existing district/parish structure to encourage youth to consider church work; and
- Encourage youth involvement in the church through mission trips, service projects, the Youth Gathering, Higher Things and more.
“If [the youth] are involved — not just being talked to, but having real participatory roles in the church, then they’re going to start seeing themselves as pastors, teachers, DCEs, etc.,” said the Rev. Dr. Mark Koschmann, chair of the Theology and Ministry Department at Concordia University, St. Paul, St. Paul, Minn.
‘The Lord will bless’
On the conference’s second day, participants discussed how the Synod’s campuses are currently encouraging church work and what they might do in the future. One common thread was the need for better cooperation among the Synod’s teaching institutions, particularly the universities.
“It’s surprisingly difficult,” said Dr. Russell P. Dawn, president of Concordia University Chicago, River Forest, Ill. “For instance, there are areas where we very much want to cooperate, and it would make perfect sense financially, but things like state regulations … get in the way.”
Dawn suggested that a “groundswell” of collaboration and alignment from those doing church work recruitment, such as pre-seminary directors and admissions staff, is the best way to make collaboration happen.
Bull noted that funding for church work student tuition from an outside organization such as an RSO might incentivize the Concordias to collaborate in this area. “That’s something that would absolutely result in ongoing partnership,” said Bull.
Participants also discussed strategies that could be implemented within their institutions, including:
- Equip and encourage faculty to identify LCMS students not currently in church work programs who would be good candidates;
- Reduce tuition costs for church work students; and
- Expand or improve online options for students with location restrictions, including “post-traditional” learners.
“The online education piece is going to be a huge part of getting more church workers,” said the Rev. Dr. Gerard Bolling, assistant professor of Leadership and Theology at Concordia University Texas, Austin, Texas, and pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Louis, noting a shift in the demographics of college students in recent years. “So how do we bring the expertise and knowledge … to them, in a way that’s sustainable for the life that they live? We’ve figured out how to do that for a lot of high-context careers, even things like nursing. I think we can figure out how to do it for church work.”
Participants discussed a few steps into online church work education taken by some of the campuses already, noting the strengths, weaknesses and challenges of this model.
“When it comes to church work, there is a cost to be paid [for remote education] in terms of lacking the immersion in Lutheran culture. … I do believe there will be a loss if we think of [church work training] as getting a skill set, and that’s it. … The increase in remote learning is happening … and it’s good for many of the reasons that have been raised. That being said, there is a cost,” said Dawn.
The Rev. Dr. Steven P. Mueller, professor of theology and dean of Christ College at CUI, noted the pitfalls of competition that online programs can create.
“Online, every one of us is competing head to head. And that’s where … if we’re not careful, we could show very bad churchmanship, and act like it’s a defeat when someone chooses one of our sister schools. Because frankly, that’s a win. If someone qualified is preparing for ministry at … any one of our schools, it’s a win,” said Mueller.
The group also discussed ways to:
- Reach out to Lutheran ethnic communities within the U.S. to recruit church workers;
- Work with Lutheran partner churches on church work recruitment; and
- Improve catechesis at church, school and home.
“That is 100% of what we’re driving at here. It is not just pastors, or just teachers, or just parents; it is everybody in their congregations creating that culture,” said Nick Sargent, vice-president of Standing Partnership.
In his closing remarks to the conference, Baneck acknowledged the size and complexity of the task facing the church. “It is huge,” he said. “We can talk about the Lutheran schools, we can talk about the culture, we can talk about what our pastors are doing. … And as we each continue to contribute in our own circles, and collaborate together, the Lord will bless us, without a doubt.”
Posted March 7, 2022