Sunday, February 24, 2008

Listen, God is Calling- Can you afford it?

I was hanging out at my fellow Lutheran Blogger Prepare Ye, and I encourage you to take a gander at his post, Baptism of Fire. And inspired by the match he lit, I want offer my own addition to the burning question- What is the future of the seminarian? Are some of us destined to be known as the "once and former" seminarian? I fear so.
What are the reasons for this? They are as many as the day is long. We could talk about how it is time to consider retooling seminaries, as Nick Carter suggests in his "Constraints and Opportunities" article in the new issue of Christian Century. We could talk about how giving to the national expression of the ELCA (or any other denomination) is down. How this is in part because giving to congregations is down, which means giving to the synods, who give to the ELCA is down. We could talk about the efficacy of having four years of college debt and jumping from the fire into the frying pan by adding another four years of education debt. We could talk about lots of things, but the truth is that there are several goals of the church as an institution- 1) we want educated pastors; 2) we want them to come to our congregations even when that is in a rural parish or a declining sized parish; 3) we want our parish to be a nice place to be; 4) we want our pastors to be under 65 when they get here.
If we are to believe Mr Carter, he thinks seminarians should be trained to be entrepreneurs, who need to plan for "increasingly independent futures." Well, excuse me if I vehemently disagree.
Where is God in all of this? What about the part of the story where after Jesus tells the disciples to come, and bring nothing, we hear how the community will provide. With all due respect, if you want me to walk by faith and live in that word, I want to know what about the other end of the equation? The part where when it says you will feed me lunch on Sunday because I am with you from 7:30 until 4 or much later, that you do it. I want to know that when we say we are proud of our seminarians, we show them not just by kind words, which are great, but by actions in love. Seminarians living on the blessing of 19 cents a pound dry goods, worried about how to keep their car running, and their health intact is not the vision. Yet these same seminarians, try to donate to the needy. We just voted to offer labor to a playground building project because we want to give, but have no money.
There is a suspicion I have that people still envision that we go to school and it costs $250 a semester and there is a houselady who feeds us and does our laundry. Because it once was that way. But, it is not. If we all go to school part-time until we can finish in an economically responsible way, expect a couple decade's worth dearth of pastors, or pastors will have to be only those for whom wealth and priviledge exist. ( In the interest of fair disclosure, I must say that I am blessed, but on behalf on many wonderful, caring and brilliant scholars, I cannot say this does not concern me.)
I especially like when we get the slick multi-colored brochures that talk about mission and giving and theological education. Maybe if we took that money and used it to create broader support for those of us studying there would be more of us able to finish this. And we would save the rainforest too.
What about synods working to relieve first call pastor's debt so much a year for the first five years of a call? What about lifting up the real world of the seminarians in 2008 not 1958?
We are all here because we feel called, and we love being here, and we love serving Christ's church. And we know this is not a maximum income potential deal. But there is a difference between sacrificing and loss of dignity. We are all preparing for long and odd hours, for stressful times, and uncertainties. But if we are, as Carter suggests to become "entrepreneurs" to be savvy in this post-modern world, then we may as well say that external call is irrelevant. Because who will bother or care to be in larger community if it is each man or woman for him or herself? If that is the direction of the church, I say bring back indulgences.
Since I suspect this is not desired, and indeed it should not be, I call upon all who care for the church to be intentional about looking at the present and future with eyes wide open. Deeply committed people are sinking- now is the time for a new vision, but one where God and not the almighty dollar is the core.
Listen, God is calling us, all of us, to care for the future of the church.

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