Reflections from President Erwin
April 1, 2022
Week of Lent 4
Dear ULS Community:
When I last wrote to you two weeks ago, I described the meeting I had at the very beginning of March with the other six leaders of the ELCA seminaries, at which we talked about our common work, how we understood individually and collectively what we and our seminaries were being called to do, and how we were facing the uncertainties of the future in a time of change. The month has now just ended on a very similar theme, with another out-of-state meeting of a working group—this time one convened by the staff of the ELCA’s Churchwide organization.
For those with deep ELCA experience, “Christian Community and Leadership” is the newest articulation of what used to be called the “Domestic Mission Unit” of the ELCA—and for those who don’t live in the world of denominational structures, it is the part of the church that works administratively to promote congregational life and the formation and education of God’s people and their leadership. Ministry, candidacy for ministry, and seminary and other church-sponsored education all fall under its umbrella of responsibility. But for the purposes of this meeting, it was what the ELCA calls “candidacy” that is on the table for review over the next few years.
Candidacy is the process through which the church identifies, accompanies, forms and ultimately approves individuals in their call to public ministry in the ELCA as pastors and deacons. The candidacy process is defined and prescribed by the ELCA on a national basis but carried out more locally by synods or groups of synods, who establish “candidacy committees” to work with candidates for ministry from their synods and guide them through the multi-year process of becoming a “rostered minister” (pastor or deacon) in the ELCA.
The ELCA seminaries have a central role in this process: we are the normal providers of the theological education the church expects of candidates for ministry. Traditionally (and still most often) candidates are expected to attend one of our seminaries to earn an academic degree—for pastors, usually a Masters of Divinity degree—as part of the process. Other normative parts of the process, like the internship required of ELCA candidates, are also administered by the seminaries. There is much more that could be said than this, but that’s the gist.
Some ELCA candidates attend seminaries not affiliated with the ELCA, mostly for reasons of convenience or cost, but ELCA seminaries still play a role in their candidacy and the church normally requires all candidates to at least be “affiliated” with one of our seven ELCA seminaries as they go through the process. There is much complexity in the system and much more that could be said—the church and the seminaries have been innovative in creating alternative pathways through candidacy for those who are qualified—and part of our challenge today is that exceptions to the rules seem more common than not. That’s not really the case in the church overall, but for those who administer the process, the exceptions require most of the administrative effort.
The meeting in Chicago from which I returned yesterday was of a new group of 12 individuals called together to do some creative thinking about this whole process, and how to make it more flexible, coherent, and effective for the sake of the church, recognizing changing times and changing needs. As a group, we are a cross-section of the church in terms of identity points, except that all but two of the group are ordained pastors or deacons. We do not have any authority to make changes to the existing systems on our own, but we will—in time—make recommendations to the Churchwide staff, who will then submit them to the groups who do have such authority or who must agree, the ELCA Conference of Bishops and the ELCA Church Council. This is a multi-year process that will seek wide input throughout the church and—to the degree that any of its conclusions have constitutional implications for the ELCA—will not be complete until the Churchwide Assembly of 2025 can vote on them.
I won’t say more about the nuts and bolts than this: the formation of the group and its membership are being made known to the ELCA Church Council at its meeting today, and there may be some subsequent public announcement after that. The meeting I just attended was to get acquainted, to discuss parameters and “big questions” and develop some ways of working. Two of the members of the group represent our seminaries directly: yours truly and a faculty member from a different seminary. I will report back to my fellow seminary leaders what I have learned and where the conversations are heading.
I know this is all pretty technical and might not be interesting to some of you, but it gets pretty deeply into what it means for ULS and its sister seminaries to be the “official” providers of Lutheran theological education for the next generation of ELCA pastors and deacons, and for us to be close collaborators in the ELCA candidacy process in a way that touches every candidate, no matter where they study. As a seminary, ULS’s rules about who can study for which degrees are based on the ELCA’s mandated candidacy process—for example, we do not grant the MDiv degree to ELCA members who are not candidates in good standing in the ELCA candidacy process. This sometimes surprises applicants who think that they can simply apply to ULS to study for an MDiv, then take it to the church as proof of readiness for ordination. The seminary is part of the church’s candidacy process from the beginning to the end, and the process is not just one of education and training but also of discernment and spiritual and professional formation.
I tell you all this because you all have a stake in this conversation too, and as I sit in these meetings and share my perspectives I bring with me also your concerns: that our future pastors and deacons be people of deep personal faith, passionate commitment to preaching the gospel, skilled leaders and sustainers of community, and faithful interpreters of our church’s teachings for a new generation. Candidacy processes and even seminaries are (though very important) simply means to an end: showing forth and proclaiming God’s life-giving, death-defying promise—manifest among us in the church as the Word made Flesh—and present through the Holy Spirit in the church, in our preaching, sacraments, and service to neighbor.
Next time, I’ll tell you more about the strategic planning process for ULS we are initiating this spring, and which will go into high gear after the May board meeting. That, too, is an exciting project with multi-year implications. From my perspective, it is very helpful to be having all these future-oriented conversations parallel to each other, and I will do my best to weave them together for the seminary’s ultimate benefit.
On a personal note, I ask your prayers for Rob’s family as his father has had another health setback, an injury to his head caused by a fall that has required surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. At 93 every ailment is serious, and this one is likely to have longer impact on his quality of life. Rob is spending the weekend in Morgantown, WV, where his dad is getting treatment. I am holding watch with Echo in Philly as Rob travels.
You, who sustain us—both ULS and me—through your prayers and gifts and other support, are our most powerful reminder of God’s love and providence working in the world. Please keep us in your hearts, especially the new class of students who will be graduating in May.
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary