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More students needed to meet growing demand for pastors

Recruiting remains priority

As Concordia Seminary strives to address the No. 1 priority of its 2018–20 strategic plan, Concordia Seminary magazine spoke with Dr. Glenn Nielsen, director of Placement and director of Vicarage and Deaconess Internships, about the need for more students and the related impact of fewer calling congregations.


Q: Concordia Seminary’s No. 1 strategic priority is to recruit qualified ministry candidates and leaders in sufficient quantity to meet the demands of the church in today’s world. Please help us understand the numbers.

A: It’s no secret that enrollment in the pastoral, residential programs of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s (LCMS) two seminaries is a top priority for both institutions. In the last three years, combined enrollment in the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) and Residential/Alternate Route (RAR/AR) programs at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (CSL) and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., (CTSFW) dropped from 436 in 2016 to 381 in 2018 — a decline of 13 percent.

On Call Day 2019, the two seminaries had 82 M.Div. and RAR/AR students available for pastoral placement. By comparison, in 2009 the two seminaries had 159 M.Div. and RAR/AR candidates ready for placement — a 48 percent decrease.

Q: Many in the church are aware that fewer students mean fewer future pastors to fill pulpits and to serve as missionaries. But there also is another consequence that may not be as widely recognized. Please explain.

A: As spring rolls around each year and Call Day approaches, there are fewer students graduating from the seminaries, ready to be placed as pastors in LCMS congregations. As a result, some parishes which would have sought a candidate from the seminaries will instead call from the field.

Between 2016 and 2019, the number of calling congregations to the two seminaries slipped from 178 to 148. When congregations call a pastor from another congregation — rather than from one of the seminaries — that means a different congregation is now without a pastor. It doesn’t reduce the number of vacancies in the LCMS. In fact, with many pastors now retiring, the number of vacancies will continue to increase. Further, congregations that go without pastors for very long often struggle to stay open and to properly serve and shepherd their communities. And as they struggle, many lose members and become unable to afford a full-time pastor. The result is an increasing number of congregations using part-time pastors.

In 2017, there were 360 congregations with part-time pastors. That number increased to 432 in 2018 and to 485 in 2019. In the last two years alone, the number of congregations served part-time has jumped 12 percent. The dip in calling congregations is a concern not only for the seminaries but for the entire church body. Very simply, we need more students because if we don’t have more students, more congregations will go without pastors and will become too small to support one.

Q: It will take a concerted, churchwide effort to create a culture of recruitment. What can our readers do to help?

A: Congregations and their members have a key role in increasing pastoral enrollment. This is a churchwide imperative. Everyone can pray for, identify and encourage prospective students to enter the pastoral ministry.

When I went to high school in Pittsville, Wis., my pastor was Rev. E.T. Keller. He took care of the church in town (Pittsville had a population of 708 then) and a small rural congregation 15 miles away in Sherwood. He also guided me toward the pastoral ministry. When congregations like these are without a pastor, not only will they suffer without a full-time pastoral presence, but someone from the congregation may miss out on the encouragement to go to the Seminary like Pastor Keller did with me. We don’t want that to happen.