As with years in the past, reports surfaced that some of our graduates neglected to receive calls at the recent placement service. Remembering the excitement of that day now nearly 23 years ago, my heart goes out to any who must now wait. Reports of how many graduates did not receive calls from each seminary seem a bit sketchy at present, but the initial report indicated the possibility of a disproportion of delayed calls from Concordia - Ft. Wayne. Naturally attempted explanations fly freely at this point, with all of it being laced with a certain amount of conjecture. The dilemma in many minds is the seeming disparity between the ongoing claim of a pastor shortage in Synod versus the seeming unwillingness of some congregations to utilize a seminary graduate. So what explanations might I be willing to volunteer?
First of all it seems overly simplistic to offer a single answer to cover what certainly amounts to a multifaceted situation. Being a Ft. Wayne grad I am naturally tempted to jump to a "there is a bias against Ft. Wayne" as my first shot at the issue. While making such a blanket assessment seems even to me a bit overgeneralized, it does, as with all assessments, contain a possible element of truth to be explored. Being a circuit counselor who is involved in the call process out here in the field, I can tell you that there is a "Ft. Wayne bias" to some degree. Where this bias exists - and here I offer no real survey of reliable statistics - it is no doubt informed as much by rumor and innuendo as by any semblance of fact. Over the years it seems that the picture of "The Fort" as a place of Eastern Orthodox leaning high churchmen with a rigid "Herr Pastor" mentality that only divides perfectly good congregations persists in too many minds. Turning such thinking around proves difficult every time a Ft. Wayne graduate fails and becomes the poster boy for this reasoning. I hope someone may be able to provide a truly informed and honest explanation for any disparity between the placements from the seminaries, if some a disparity continues to exists.
That being said, might other explanations be offered for the delays? One recently offered by a district president concerns an issue near and dear to us all: finances. As costs rise, especially health care costs, congregations struggle through each budge cycle trying valiantly to find a way to keep a reasonable salary and benefit package for its called worker(s) while still still remaining realistically solvent. As I have observed in the past, the time is quickly arriving when we must look seriously at having more of our parishes return back to shared arrangements with other parishes. I am concerned that some churches, in an effort to control costs, will look instead to employing more lay workers or turn increasingly to alternate route programs which provide less training but a cheaper product. My fear remains that such alternatives will become, in time, the norm rather than the exception, and in the process our seminary training and level of training overall in the church will suffer.
One interesting option to explore might be the idea of the "worker priest." Unfortunately the Missouri Synod is currently ill equipped to use this concept with few pastors even in a position to realistically explore this. We encourage our young men to go straight through the system with the single goal of a pastoral vocation, which is right and proper. Yet might another route be explored alongside this with men who are able to balance two vocations in the interest of the Gospel?
Clearly the shortages tell us all something about the future of the church and how we will continue to staff them. As potential customers ultimately vote their preferences with their feet and pocketbooks, as they say, so too our congregations appear to be telling us something by their hesitance to call our graduates. They are voting, as it were, by their silence. At the very least we need to be talking with them to find the reasons for their reluctance to look to our seminaries for their future pastors. Only then might we have more concrete material to better analyze and with which we might then plan more effectively for the future.