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Behind the scenes: A look at the call process

It’s October 2017 and a young couple — a future pastor and his wife — walks into my office for their placement interview. They have already met with Placement Counselor Dr. David Peter for an initial interview and have filled out a number of forms.

As Concordia Seminary’s director of Placement, I will spend more than an hour with them going over what type of ministry emphases they would consider, his strengths, whether he is leaning toward team ministry or a sole pastorate, how much geography and city size need to be taken into account, finances, housing preferences, his wife’s plans, their hopes for this first call into the ministry and a variety of other items.

This will not be the first meeting I will have had with this couple because I also served as the director of his vicarage the year before. We have developed a relationship, one that I hope allows for trust and openness. It will not be the last meeting I will have with them. I seek to be transparent as I work with them for their placement, and so we will talk about possibilities and perhaps, as time goes on, some changes in their initial answers to my questions.

Now expand that to the 50 pastoral candidates who were placed in congregations nationwide this past year. These post-interview conversations happen in my office, the lunch room, following daily chapel, after one of the monthly graduating class meetings, via email or phone calls or text messages, in class or a chance meeting on the sidewalk. The process is similar for our deaconess students.

My goal is to involve the students in the process as much as possible, getting their input about a call that has arrived or a reaction to an interview for a team ministry or whether a location will fit their life or family situation.

At the same time, calls from congregations start arriving in January and will continue to be sent to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) International Center for processing through April. So I am in contact with calling congregations who need a pastor, call committees who are asking for a candidate for a team ministry situation and district presidents who will provide information about the calling congregations from their districts.

From January through April, phone calls and emails pour into my office, and all this information is coordinated with what I know about the students and their families. I am also in contact with Director of Placement Dr. Jeffrey Pulse at our sister seminary, Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind., so that we work together cooperatively in placing our students in these various congregations.

Of course, I could not keep track of all the paperwork, forms, scheduling and the like on my own. Cathy Whitcomb, executive assistant in the Placement Office, processes the paperwork, schedules interviews, assists the students, prepares information for churches and district presidents, and makes sure things get done when needed.

By now you should have realized that the old joke about throwing darts at a map is far from reality. Too much is at stake for that approach. I am working with students who have families. These students have differing strengths and interests. Spouses have careers or parenting concerns for their children. Or it could be that the student is older and there are obligations with aging parents. I am working with congregations that have a history and a current situation that needs to be taken into consideration. One team ministry may be looking for more of a youth leader, another an outreach emphasis and yet another, someone to share the ministry with a senior pastor. In recent years more congregations are asking for candidates than students available, so LCMS district presidents share which congregations they especially believe need a candidate or express their concern that a congregation won’t receive a candidate. Underneath the assignment process, there are many emotions — hope, fear, joy, disappointment and excitement.

Dr. Glenn Nielsen, right, congratulates concluding seminarian William Grueninger on Call Day. Photo: Sid Hastings

But my responsibilities only go so far. The LCMS Council of Presidents (COP) is the Board of Assignments for these first calls. I make recommendations to the district presidents, but the final decision rests with the COP and its vote on the Saturday before Call Day.

Some have wondered about the secrecy surrounding decisions about where a student is going. Many students have a good idea of where they are headed because of the conversations I have had with them throughout the call process, but nothing is certain until the COP votes on the assignments. So until that vote is taken, things are kept “secret” because changes may need to be made in the week leading up to that vote. Of course, after the vote is completed, we could let the students know, but we don’t.

With Call Day only three or four days later, we want the joyful celebration of the Call Day worship services to announce the assignments that have been made by the COP. What excitement! What a high point for the life on the campus! It is good to give praise to God in these services in combination with the announcement of the calls. After months of work, these services are such a fitting way to make known where the candidates are going for their first calls.

But even more is going on in the placement process in addition to all this activity by students, family members, church officials and congregational leaders.

Imagine that you are walking with me early in the morning, around the neighborhood where I live. The congregation my wife, Sue, and I attend have a Lutheran Church Charities Comfort Dog. His name is Noah and we are his caregivers. One responsibility of a Comfort Dog caregiver is to exercise the dog. So Noah and I start the day by walking and running the streets in the subdivision where we live. It is also prayer time for me. Luther’s Morning Prayer is spoken. So also are prayers for my family. Noah and I turn to go down another street, and the next prayer is for wisdom and guidance in my work for our students, for their placement, and vicarage and deaconess internship assignments.

Morning after morning the prayers sound similar. “Lord, please give me wisdom as I work with these students. Guide me as I recommend them for congregations. Help me to make a good decision for [student’s name] and his wife as I’m not sure which congregation is better for him.” Many times these prayers are spoken quietly but loud enough for Noah to hear them. He doesn’t answer them, but enjoys the sound of my voice. No, the One who is answering them is God, who is working through me to “match these students with these congregations.” On those walks, I am trusting that He is enjoying the sound of my voice and answering those prayers with the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide me. With the risen Savior Jesus by my side, I am serving as the director of Placement (and Vicarage and Deaconess Internships) at Concordia Seminary, and I depend on His presence throughout this process.

“In ways unseen by most, maybe even by me, He is guiding this whole process to His glory and the good of His church.”
— Dr. Glenn Nielsen

I am humbled by the realization that the two realities are running together through my work. I have been entrusted with the lives of these students and their families. As the year goes along, they become like my own children and I want what is best for them. I also serve the church, in this case, the LCMS, and want to do so faithfully so that the congregations are going to be best served by the graduates they receive.

So, many hours are spent juggling all the pieces of data that land on my desk, and on the outside it looks like I’m the one who is determining what will happen in the placement process. I suppose in a way that is true. But the Lord of the church is also at work through me.

In ways unseen by most, maybe even by me, He is guiding this whole process to His glory and the good of His church. I am firmly convinced of this guidance as I watch how the process runs its course before my eyes — my work and God’s work, intricately combined, in prayer-answered ways.

And that is how the placement process works.

Dr. Glenn Nielsen is professor of Practical Theology, director of Placement, and director of Vicarage and Deaconess Internships at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.