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Finding future pastors, deaconesses

Rev. Jaime Nava hugs Joshua LaFeve during Commencement exercises in May 2017. Photo: Jill Gray
Rev. Jaime Nava leads a Bible study discussion at Vocatio in June 2017. Photo: Kendra Whittle
Rev. Scott Holder, right, was installed as an admissions officer during the Opening Service in August 2017. Also pictured, Seminary President Dr. Dale A. Meyer. Photo: Jill Gray.
Rev. Scott Holder on campus with his children, Rachel and Aaron. Photo: Melanie Ave

If there’s one thing Rev. Scott Holder and Rev. Jaime Nava believe in, it’s that there are future pastors and deaconesses out there, ready and willing to serve. But these prospective students at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis need to be identified and encouraged. Holder and Nava say that’s their job, but they can’t do it alone.

Holder and Nava are part of the three-person recruitment team at the Seminary. Both have been on the job in Stoeckhardt Hall for a fairly short period of time – Nava was installed in October 2016 and Holder arrived the following spring and was installed during the 2017 Opening Service.

“Jaime, Scott and I bring to our service a total of 32 years of combined experience as parish pastors,” said Rev. Bill Wrede, director of Ministerial Recruitment and Admissions. “Each of us has had unique experiences along with the ‘this is what a pastor does’ experience that we now use as we talk to prospective students about joining this labor force for the church.”

Nava, the son of a Mexican immigrant, was raised in Orange, Calif. He was 20 when he felt the call to become a pastor. Up until that point he had planned to study elementary education and become a teacher. He earned a degree in Theological Studies at Concordia University, Irvine, Calif., and later earned a Master of Divinity at Concordia Seminary, with an additional year at Westfield House in Cambridge, England. He was called in 2011 to Yucaipa, Calif., which was incidentally his wife’s hometown. He remained in his position in Yucaipa until his call to the Seminary in 2016.

Holder, a born and bred Texan, was influenced to enter the ministry by a Lutheran Student Fellowship group during his undergraduate years at Texas Tech University. He also received encouragement while serving as a preschool teacher operated by a local congregation. After graduating from Concordia Seminary, he first served a congregation in Logan, Utah, for 11 years, and then a congregation in the Atlanta metropolitan area for more than four years before returning to the Seminary as a staff member.

Nava and Holder both agree that the decision to leave their parishes for roles as Seminary recruiters was extremely difficult. But they both believe that accepting the call to the Seminary was not about leaving pastoral ministry, but rather about shifting to a new focus.

“What we do has an impact on the whole church,” Holdersaid. “It’s wonderful to touch all of those individual lives in the congregation as pastors, but now our work is extended more broadly.”

Nava adds that helping recruit pastors and deaconesses for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) is a different job and a different challenge than in years past. “In the past, we just sat here and the applications rolled in,” Nava said. “Now it’s different.”

As admissions officers, they travel to their designated territories within the continental United States for up to 10 weeks out of the year, once from September through November, and once from January through March.

No day is typical for them. The pair fill their hours visiting local congregations, meeting with interested men and women, interacting with students at Lutheran high schools and Concordia University System schools, and even attending national youth events like the LCMS Youth Gathering and the Higher Things conferences.

There’s also a lot of coordination on campus. The Seminary hosts 10 admissions events each year for different groups of prospective students, from high schoolers to second-career men and women. Some are undergraduate students who have not yet fully discerned their calling while others already have their Seminary applications filled out.

Holder and Nava both log many hours on their phones, calling men and women who are already on a list of prospective students to encourage them in their discernment and answer any questions or concerns they might have.

“A lot of it starts with, ‘Could you ever see yourself doing this [become a pastor or deaconess]?’ And then getting into questions like ‘What are the experiences that you’ve had that might make this something you would be good at?’” Holder explained.

It’s a lot to tackle for a team of three, and Holder and Nava readily admit that the responsibility of recruiting new students cannot begin with them. They contend it must begin largely at the grassroots.

“We can come and visit, we can talk with them, we can send them a Seminary calendar or a birthday card, but it really starts at the congregational level,” Nava said.

He says encouraging congregational support has become part of the admissions officers’ day-to-day job. He says part of their visits and calls to Lutheran churches around the country is to challenge the pastors and members to be actively thinking about men and women in their midst with gifts for ministry.

Furthermore, Holder draws from his own experience working with confirmation classes, recommending congregations to engage students by having them serve in worship as readers and ushers. Both Nava and Holder have found that more often than not, students find themselves at the Seminary largely based on encouragement they receive from others and their participation in congregational life.

On Call Day 2017, some 60 LCMS congregations received the sad news that they would not be receiving a pastor. Nava and Holder say the statistic is disheartening, but they have reasons to be encouraged about the future of the church. Nava says he was especially heartened during Orientation in August, when many of the students he had helped recruit finally arrived for their first semester.

“It was all the work of the year before coming to fruition,” Nava said.

It is this kind of work that he and Holder are hoping to expand in the coming years. The admissions team has already exceeded the number of applications it had received compared to this time last year. And both Nava and Holder say they’re not worried at all about filling the classes in the coming years.

“I have an inquiry for the Seminary class of 2029,” Holder said, “We have a fourth grader on the inquiry list. There are future pastors out there.”

Kendra Whittle is a communications specialist at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

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