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Preparing Leaders for U.S. Immigrant Ministry

Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology Program updates address 21st-century challenges

You see them all the time, foreign-born U.S. citizens. They are your doctors, first responders and other health care workers. They are athletes and entertainers. They are construction workers, shop owners and sales people.

There are about 44 million foreign-born immigrants in the United States today, and many of them have connections with the Christian church by the time they arrive in this country. About 39 percent of these Christian immigrants identify as Roman Catholic and about 25 percent as Protestant, according to the Pew Research Center.

But as Lutherans well know, it is easy for people to get lost, especially when they stand at the beginning of a whole new way of life. U.S. immigrants often find little support for their Christian faith in the surrounding culture unless Christians care. On top of this, they face struggles that people who have lived in the United States their entire lives often don’t recognize. Ordering food in a restaurant, addressing an envelope or opening a bank account can feel like insurmountable challenges to immigrants who aren’t familiar with the English language and U.S. culture.

While each person experiences these challenges differently, the challenges themselves aren’t new. Back in the 19th century, Dr. C.F.W. Walther, the first president of Concordia Seminary and the first president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), himself an immigrant from Germany, recognized that new immigrants needed to hear the Gospel. As such, Lutherans in his generation devised ways of attracting and incorporating the new arrivals into the life of the church at once, before they became lost in American culture.

Twenty-first century immigrants need to be approached as soon as possible upon arrival too, especially since they are entering a culture in which freedom of religion means freedom from religion to more and more people. Recognizing this need, the LCMS has encouraged congregations to reach out to the immigrant communities around them. We recognize that people who are so dedicated to serving God that they care for their communities, providing pastoral and diaconal care, gathering people together for instruction in the Christian faith and life, and assembling them for the worship of God who loves them for Jesus’ sake — these people have servant hearts, and they belong in ministry.

New EIIT students pause for a group photo during 2018 Orientation. Photo: Harold Rau
As part of this initiative, Concordia Seminary in 2003 established the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT), a distance education program aimed at increasing the number of immigrant men and women prepared for ministry in the Lutheran church. EIIT students are immigrants themselves who become certified as pastors or deaconesses to serve immigrant communities in the United States.

For the most part, ministry is these students’ vocation, not their job, since the communities involved are generally too small and too poor to afford full-time pastors. EIIT students are required to have served as congregation leaders before entering the program and to be involved in service when they enroll. As soon as they are admitted to the program, they are placed as vicars or deaconess interns in the congregations they are serving. They also are assigned a mentor who accompanies them through the entire program.

“EIIT students are very special people,” says Dr. John Loum, an immigrant from The Gambia and the director of the EIIT Program. “We admire them not only because they are involved in the EIIT Program, but most of them also have jobs to support their families. It is not easy to be a job holder, a Seminary student and the leader of a congregation all at the same time.”

“The Missouri Synod began as an immigrant church reaching out to new immigrants. I hope that all our graduates … will be equipped and ready to cross cultural boundaries to share the Good News of Jesus and be the missionaries our country so desperately needs.”
— Dr. Douglas L. Rutt

During the LCMS convention in July 2019, delegates passed a resolution reaffirming the importance of reaching multiethnic communities in their primary languages through church workers who recognize community needs. With 15 years of experience behind the EIIT Program and with renewed vigor from the resolution, the Seminary is taking a serious look at how the program can be updated to meet society’s current needs. New course offerings are being examined that address the fast-changing culture of the 21st century and take advantage of new tools available for effective distance education programs.

The updated EIIT Program consists of 20 seven-week courses and four three-week courses offered over a four-year period. Aside from a brief orientation on the Seminary campus at the start of the program, all class work is via distance education techniques.

“Courses deal with topics regularly discussed in a Lutheran seminary curriculum,” says Dr. Joel Okamoto, one of the architects of the Seminary’s updated Master of Divinity (M.Div.) curriculum and the EIIT’s revised curriculum. “Particularly close attention is paid to practical theology, but study of the Bible, church history and Christian doctrine are not neglected and are always applied to the life of the church.”

There are more than 70 EIIT graduates serving in ministry today, and the Seminary looks forward to forming many more faithful pastors and deaconesses to serve U.S. immigrant communities.

“The Missouri Synod began as an immigrant church reaching out to new immigrants,” says Provost Dr. Douglas L. Rutt. “I hope that all our graduates, whether they are out of the residential Master of Divinity (M.Div.) Program, the Specific Ministry Pastor Program (SMP) or the EIIT Program, to name only three of the choices, will be equipped and ready to cross cultural boundaries to share the Good News of Jesus and be the missionaries our country so desperately needs.”

Find additional information about the EIIT Program at csl.edu/eiit.

Dr. Daniel Mattson is an academic assistant in Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.