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Ministry preparations evolve for today

By Mary Stamp


Mark Nelson sees changes in ministry candidates to match changes in churches.

Ordained ministry and preparation for it in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have changed since the Rev. Mark Nelson was in seminary and began serving churches. 

Changes in the last 10 years have shifted emphasis from earning a standard master of divinity degree focused primarily on systematic theology and biblical studies to including competency in community organizing and creative leadership.

“We need leadership to help us evolve for the changing church in the changing world,” he said.

Pastors today need to be missional leaders as traditional congregations do more outreach and want pastors to support lay people as they do outreach.

“Today, we are rooted in presence and action, cultivating vision and skills to lead a community to participate in God’s mission,” said Mark, who is now coordinator for missional leadership in Region 1 of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which includes six synods in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

“As church life changes, congregations seek pastors with skills to help them do ministry in new ways,” he said.

Lutheran denominations grew with immigration from Scandinavian and German countries.

“The boats have stopped coming, so our churches are less about Scandinavian or German culture and more about how Martin Luther interpreted theology,” Mark said.

There are fewer positions for graduates with master of divinity degrees than 10 years ago, but the national ELCA does not educate more seminarians than there are churches.  After seminary, candidates go into a national pool and are assigned based on their gifts and the needs of churches. 

“The American model of one pastor one church is not necessarily the case today.  We are adapting the model of ministry in Africa and Central America where one pastor supervises 10 to 12 lay evangelists,” Mark said.

In Region 1, there are nearly 60 master of divinity or TEEM candidates and many part-time students taking their time to earn degrees.  TEEM is Theological Education for Emerging Ministries, developed for pastors serving in remote rural areas or serving in an urban ministry.

“Previously Lutheran pastors were trained in the European model, which is heavy on academics.  Now we also want pastors who connect with people, as people who can share their faith and life experiences,” Mark said.

Lutheran congregations that have aged out or completed their mission may connect with others to gain a new mission, as All Saints Lutheran in Spokane has done.  It serves a Tuesday dinner to homeless people, houses a community center, connects with housing programs at Salem Lutheran, and offers a food bank, community garden and mental health chaplaincy.

“Jesus talked often about the poor and oppressed.  Connecting with folks in need is a regular part of who the church is as they do ministries in their communities and draw people from communities.  Ministers work in a congregation to help it see what is happening outside the church walls,” Mark said. 

“Luther understood that God’s grace is a gift that does not need to be earned.  We are sinners and saints at the same time.  God calls each baptized person into ministry as educators, parents and teachers,” he said.

“Our first call is to be children of God.  That may or may not mean we are called into ordained ministry in a church,” he said.

Today, ministry may mean a United Church of Christ pastor with the needed gifts serves a Lutheran church, or a Lutheran pastor serves an Episcopal church. The bishops and judicatory heads talk about needs of the congregations.

“Working ecumenically is hopeful.  It’s a fun time to be Christian.  There are so many different ways to reach people.  The younger generation is excited about faith,” said Mark, 

For many years, candidates were older and in second careers, but today they are younger.  There are as many women as men, and there are more multicultural candidates.  In Region 1, the multicultural candidates are Korean, Japanese, Thai and Latino.  Most are west of the Cascades where there are many Asian people and new church starts.

The Eastern Washington Idaho (EWAID) Synod has trained candidates who are Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander and Taiwanese.

“Many young people are into faith as spirituality, not as religion,” said Mark.

“For churches, evangelism once meant, ‘We have a story to tell about Jesus that we think you need to hear.’  Today, we might ask, ‘How do you understand God’s spirit to be alive in your life?’ It’s a different way to encounter people who are not in congregations,” Mark said. 

“Perhaps young people can be drawn into a community of faith as people who have something to teach and as people desiring to walk with others in community.  They may or may not become part of the worshiping community,” he said.

While once people first asked what Christians believed before they joined a church, now many belong and walk with a community of faith to discover together what they believe.

“We understand that God places people in our path,” he said. “We show who we are and invite them to join us.”

Lutheran churches, like other mainline churches, have been losing members, but interest in the Gospel continues. 

Another change for the ELCA is that it is more diverse racially, economically and in age, said Mark, impressed as young people come to church and connect with long-time, older members. 

“In the ELCA, gay and lesbians also find a home, as is true of many denominations,” he said.

Mark, who lived in Spokane until he was nine, graduated from high school in Seattle.  He earned a degree in psychology and religion in 1976 at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and began seminary at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. 

His studies included a year with Dominicans at Aquinas Institute, also in Dubuque, clinical pastoral education (CPE) in New Jersey and an internship in Michigan before he earned a master of divinity degree in 1980 at Wartburg Seminary.

His first call was to a three-point parish—Lind, Sprague and Ritzville and his second call was at Cashmere.  In 1991, he began as assistant to the bishop of the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod, serving until 2013, when he was called to his current position.

His work with the synod involved candidacy, vocations, conflict management and the call process.

Now his focus is on candidacy in the region’s six synods, working with people interested in ordained ministry for word and sacrament, or for word and service; and people interested in diaconal ministry, associates in ministry or being deaconesses.

Mark said that the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), which accredits seminaries, has changed guidelines for master of divinity candidates to have more contextual preparation, placing them in congregations earlier and requiring internships and clinical pastoral education.  The ELCA requires both a year-long internship and CPE for master of divinity candidates.

With the new requirements, the eight Lutheran seminaries have revised their curricula.  There are Lutheran seminaries at Berkeley, Calif., Chicago, Ill., St. Paul, Minn., Dubuque, Iowa, Gettysburg and Philadelphia, Pa., Columbia, S.C., and Columbus, Ohio.  Most of them offer online classes. 

Because there is no Lutheran seminary in the Northwest, candidates can go to any ATS accredited seminary, plus take Lutheran formation and do an ELCA internship. 

About seven attend Seattle University’s ecumenical School of Theology and Ministry.

“The culture of the Christian community is that we care for people,” Mark said.  “We relate theology with the historical context and culture.”

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