Friday, January 18, 2013

Lutheran Look: What do you have to do to become a pastor? (Before Seminary)

I hope that these Lutheran Look posts can address a number of questions I commonly get about the Lutheran point of view on various things.  That might include why certain things are or aren't included in a worship service, theological positions, looking at various Bible passages (not included in the weekly Sunday readings), and random thoughts on how the church works as an organization.  I'm going to do my best, when it's necessary, to keep separate my thoughts from official positions held by the ELCA, but don't expect me to be perfect on that score, please.  (Or any other!)

This seemed like an appropriate question for my first Lutheran Look post, because I'm nearing the end of the process of becoming a pastor myself.  Obviously requirements are different between denominations, but I can certainly talk about what you have to do along the way in the ELCA.

First, you have to have the call to ministry.  A pastor's work is not easy, and isn't something you can take up lightly.  It's a long road to get there, and that old joke about a pastor working one hour a week is actually not that funny, thanks.  If you don't feel that God is calling you to be there- if you don't feel like that's where you belong and what you're supposed to be doing- you won't last, and you'll have put a lot of years of your life (and probably a lot of money) into a degree for a career you can't stick with.

How do you know if you have the call to ministry?  There are a lot of ways that people "hear" the call- sometimes it's a person, or a lot of people, who tell you you'd be good at it.  Sometimes it comes through prayer.  Sometimes it's that your life lacks something, and when you go looking for what's missing, you're led to ministry.

In the case of a friend of mine, it was a pastor who walked up to him, handed him some books about Biblical Greek, and said, "Here, you'll need these when you go to seminary."  That will probably not happen to you.

In my case, I was fifteen years old, and yelling at God (as one does), and God yelled back.  And lo and behold, here I am.  (God didn't stop telling me, by the way- sometimes it's a yell, sometimes a whisper, sometimes a swat to the back of the head, but the call stays with you, it isn't a one time thing.)

So, if you're wondering if you're called to ministry?  Talk to your friends, your family, your pastor and other pastors (seriously, go out of your way to talk to more than one- and in denominations that aren't yours, if you can).  However much you're talking to them, talk to God more.  Get used to prayer being a normal part of life, it's only going to become a bigger part of your life as you go.

When you're ready?  Well, first there are some basic educational requirements.  In order to get into seminary, you have to have a four year college degree from an accredited institution.  ("Accredited" means you didn't print the "diploma" out yourself on your printer.  Look up your local synod's office phone number on and ask them if you're concerned about yours.)

If you haven't gone to college yet, I can offer some advice about what to do when you get there.  This first part is going to sound weird- don't major in religion.  Seriously, I mean it.  Seminary will teach you what you need to know when you get there, and you will want a reasonably broad background so you can relate to your congregation.  This is not to say that you shouldn't take any religion classes- I suggest ones that focus on practical stuff, pastoral things like how to deal with grief and things like that, which will give you a good idea of what being a pastor as an everyday sort of thing is like.

There are a lot of majors that could be really useful to a pastor, but really, take something you like, something you can nerd out about.  And preferably, leave yourself a lot of room for electives, things outside your major.  Take a basic Accounting class if you can- church budgets can get weird.  Act in a play, or take an acting class, or at the very least take a public speaking class- pastors not only have to preach, but very often, have to have a decent sense of timing (and a sense of theater helps keep people paying attention).  Take some history- particularly non-USA, non-Western European history, and all the Middle Eastern history on offer.  Learn Spanish, or another language that is in regular use in whatever area you're planning on working in.  Take an Intro to Philosophy class and learn how to construct and critique an argument (and I'm not using "argument" in a "yelling at each other" kind of way).  Take all the Psychology classes you can, pay particular attention to the bits about old people, young people, and the problems that people with mental illnesses face in our society.  Sociology and Social Work classes are also good for that, and a Human Resources or a Business class couldn't hurt.  Take a science or math class that sounds cool- you will have a lot of science and math people in your congregations to talk to, and a lot of confirmation students wondering why they have to take science and math.

You see why I said leave yourself a lot of room for electives, now?  Know exactly what the requirements for a degree are before you get on campus, if at all possible, and plan ahead as far as you can.  Get to know as many different kinds of people as you can- foreign exchange students are awesome, adventurous people (did you leave your country, and likely your native language, to go to college?) and can give you a wonderful perspective on how Americans are seen elsewhere.  Talk to atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Wiccans, etc., and Christians of all stripes, and treat them all like human beings, and get to know them and what they think about things that aren't religion.

Be very, very careful about how much debt you rack up along the way, by the way.  Get scholarships, work a lot, whatever- pastors make okay money but student loan debt can haunt you and no one gets into this field for the paycheck, okay?  ELCA pastors are not the ones that live in the gigantic houses and drive BMWs, we are not (generally) televangelists.  If you graduate college with more than $30,000 of student loan debt, your synod will worry about you.  It won't keep you out of seminary, but they'll want to be sure you're financially stable.  And these days, it is really easy to rack that much debt up.  Don't take any loans you don't have to.

In seminary you will have to take some classes of Biblical Greek, and possibly Ancient Hebrew as well, depending on which one you end up going to.  Anyway, if you have any chance of doing Greek or Hebrew while you're still in college, do it.  (Not Modern Greek or Modern Hebrew, they are very different.  There is also Homeric Greek, and Ancient or "Attic" Greek, and they are both different from each other and from Biblical "Koine" Greek, but they will likely help you some, while Modern Greek really, really won't.)  If you're not that great at foreign languages and you haven't chosen your college yet- pick a college that offers at least Biblical Greek.  All the seminaries offer "Summer Greek" (better known by the people who've taken it as "Suicide Greek") to get you up to speed if necessary, but if you can, avoid it.

There are 8 ELCA seminaries (and while technically you can go to a non-ELCA seminary and become an ELCA pastor, it's a weirder, harder road, and most of the people I know who've done it wouldn't recommend it unless you have a really good reason) and they're scattered around.  Three on the East Coast (two in PA, one in SC), four in what I'd call the Midwest (OH, IL, IA, MN) and one in California.  Geography will likely play a role in your decision, as will money.  They do all have reputations of focusing on different things, but they are all good schools and will give you the education you need, if you're willing to work for it.

If you went to college awhile ago, and are now thinking of entering the ministry and changing from your current career path, congratulations!  You are what we refer to as a second-career pastor, and while taking a few years out of your working life is going to be very hard, congregations tend to love second-career pastors for their life experience.  You may want to look into studying a bit of Greek before you go- call the seminary you want to go to and ask them for help on finding materials.  Fifty bucks for the books and a few months of hard work before going to seminary can save you a lot of grief.

When you start seminary, you'll enter Candidacy (ask your synod about that) and agree to live by Visions and Expectations, which is a document that outlines the basic life rules for pastors, and I believe you can download it off  I suggest looking at it now.  During seminary is certainly worth another post, it looks like, so I'll do that another day.  God bless!

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