Our church is aging. Many of our congregations are graying. They wonder what their future is, whether their grandchildren will have a place to worship.
The clergy roster is graying, as well. Baby boomers are coming of age, and with the recession mostly past, baby boomers are beginning to retire. A large percentage of our pastors are in the baby boomer generation. Once, the church could count on seminaries to produce enough pastors to replace the retirees. But no longer.
It is not the fault of seminaries. It is not anyone's fault. But things have changed. Once, candidates going to seminary had their way paid for them. Seminary cost was not an issue. But just as other education costs have risen, seminary costs have risen dramatically, as well. Many students enter seminary with significant college debt, and leave seminary with even greater debt.
Across the ELCA we are working to find ways to help lessen seminary student debt. One way is shortening the amount of time it takes to get an M.Div., the degree normally required for ordination. Our seminaries are trying out a variety of approaches, from giving academic credit to religion courses taken in college, to making internship more flexible, to lessening the credit hours required for graduation.
Another approach is to support candidates in seminary, not only with our prayers, but also with dollars. The ELCA has started a Fund for Leaders in Mission Scholarship fund, and has raised millions of dollars to assist students. Each year several students at each ELCA seminary get a full scholarship. Jessie Obrecht, of First Lutheran in Havre, is our most recent recipient. In addition to these national scholarships, the Montana Synod has a synod fund and is able to give out smaller scholarships to some of our students. This fund started with several bequests, and we ask that offerings at Installations and Ordinations be directed to the Fund, along with First Call Theological Education. Some congregations have scholarships for seminarians, either from their congregation, or at large.
Last weekend the Montana Synod Candidacy Committee met and interviewed candidates for ministry. Not only do we work with candidates for word and sacrament (pastors), we also work with candidates for word and service (Associates in Ministry.) If you could see the candidates we have, you would be very hopeful about the future of the church. Who will lead in the future? These folks will, along with others.
The church of our grandchildren will not look like the church of our grandparents. We may have congregations without buildings, and pastors who are bi-vocational. We may have a vibrant ministry of the baptized, strong lay leadership, and LPA's who assist in all kinds of ways. Our newest class of LPAs numbers 30 people. How exciting to have so many people committing themselves to doing God's work with their hands!
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA