Friday, February 1, 2013

Lutheran Look: Becoming an ELCA pastor- Seminary

This is a follow up to my earlier post about how to become a pastor, which covered the pre-seminary part.

So, you feel the call to ministry, you've figured out the finances, you've gone through the Entrance into Candidacy with your local synod, and it's time to show up to seminary.

Now, if you're lucky, you'll be showing up on the first day of regular classes, because you've taken a Biblical Greek class and you don't have to do Summer Greek at your seminary.  I didn't do Summer Greek, so if you do have to do it, I have no advice to give you, other than breathe deep, keep praying, and keep up.

Again, just like I suggested in college, I'm going to suggest getting to know the course catalog early and well.  Know exactly what you have to do in order to graduate.  Take a look at any special certifications you may want to get (some seminaries have that sort of thing for youth ministry or other special topics, read your course catalog).

The ELCA seminaries have a fairly similar structure.  Two years of academic classes, one year of internship (somewhere), one more year of academic classes.  There's also a Clinical Pastoral Education requirement- this probably means that for a couple months during the summer between your first two years, you'll be working at a hospital as a student chaplain, but there are also options where you can work at nursing homes, or doing social work, and there used to be an option for prison ministry.  I'll get to that in a minute.

Your first year is going to be hard.  The seminaries don't want students who aren't going to make it through the program to waste their money, so academically speaking, the first year is a trial by fire to see if you can handle it.  It'll cover the basics of theology and history.

Then you'll probably do CPE after that- which is, again, a trial by fire, but not academically.  This is where they make sure that you truly feel called to ministry.  Chaplaincy is hard, challenging work, in any of the settings.  I did mine in a hospital, and it involved a lot of different things.  Most days I went around my floor visiting people who'd asked to see me, or who had been there several days.  Some of these people wanted help filling out a DNR, some wanted to confess, some wanted to talk about what dying would be like.  A lot of people thought I was a nun (or married, or a high school student). 

Walking into a room, you never knew what you were walking into- could be a whole family or a person who hadn't talked to anybody but the nurses in days.  Sometimes I was on call to the ICU and ER for codes and deaths- I wound up doing the paperwork and helping the grieving families of, I think, 8 deaths over the course of 10 weeks.  Each was different, each family is etched in my memory, each experience was life-changing for me.  I visited the Mental Health Unit, did night shifts, talked to nurses and dietitians and local pastors.  I talked to a guy in the ER who was very drunk, and had requested a "man of the cloth"- that was interesting.  You will spend a lot of time at CPE taking classes on various special topics, reading, and doing a lot of self-examination.  And when you leave, I guarantee you, whatever background you came from, you will be a different person than when you walked in.

Second year of seminary will probably be a little easier academically.  Get to know your professors- they're involved in your Candidacy process too.  Focus on pastoral topics as you can, as you'll soon be headed out for Internship.  First, though, you have to be Endorsed by your synod committee for internship.  That involves an essay and an interview- it'll be pretty stressful.  Start figuring out what your gifts and "learning edges" are early so you know what kind of internship you're looking for- you won't necessarily get what you want, but knowing what you need is important.

Internship is probably a year long, maybe nine months.  You'll either be attached or detached- that is, you'll either be working in the same congregation as your supervising pastor or you'll be at another congregation nearby.  (If you aren't second career, you will almost certainly be attached.)  Internships are hugely individual- maybe you'll do special projects, or read books with your supervisor, maybe your congregation will be in crisis.  Your supervisor, depending on personalities, may teach you mostly what to do, or teach you exactly what you don't want to do- but either way, you'll learn.  I absolutely suggest finding your local ELCA pastor's text study (call the local synod to ask where and when) and go every single week, whether or not your supervisor does.  The pastors there may or may not be your style either, but they will be essential to your social life, and variety is a good thing.  Keep in touch with your classmates, hang on to your support system, you'll need it.

Senior year of seminary, you're putting together everything you've learned.  Application of theology will probably become more important to you for this year than it has before.  You'll prepare for and then go through Approval for ordination (which means another essay and at least two interviews, one with your synod, one with faculty members).

If you're Approved right off (and most people are, again, the people who run the seminary are not there to waste your time) you'll get assigned to a synod, and then be able to start interviewing.  (First call is a little different than how it'll work after that.)  And there you go, you're a pastor!

God bless!


  1. You were approved for ordination? wow, soooo cool.

    1. Yep, not that long ago. I'm very happy about it!

  2. Hello! I want to say thank you so very much! I have been looking into seminary and have come across very little that is this detailed. I have no ELCA congregation near me except for an hour away which has only a part time pastor who is leaving us for another position. I have reached out to a couple pastors but they do not know me so their guidance was very vague though still helpful. Your guide at least has given me an idea of what to look forward to. One thing I did still wonder about, another site that was just pointing someone to a starting point mentioned that you have to already have a 4 year degree. Is this accurate? I only ask because I currently have an AS in Computer Science and working on a BIT: Networking. I am just wondering if I should continue to finish this or save the money to go towards seminary school.

  3. I just read your previous post which answers the one question I had. Thank you so much again! I will definitely continue to read your stuff and appreciate you sharing your information.

  4. Hi Travis, sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Glad you found the info you needed. If you have other questions, you could certainly try the ELCA Facebook page, if you´re on Facebook. I know they get a lot of questions there. I am also happy to answer your questions but as you can see I haven´t been keeping up with the blog as much lately, life´s been kind of hectic. Another resource would be your local synod office- you can look that up on give them a call and they will happily answer all your questions. Blessings on your journey!

  5. So, sorry it took me so long to respond life has been kinda hectic lol. I actually am well on my way now actually. I have been assisting at church and have several days this summer where I will be preaching. I attended the synod assembly recently and have talked with the Bishop as well. Thanks again for your blog and even though I didn't see your response it was still helpful!