Set Apart to Serve
“Being a pastor was never something I would have considered on my own. I was likely my own largest impediment as I did not believe that I was ‘good enough’ to be a pastor. We all know our own deficiencies and shortcomings, and it is easy to think that God cannot use us for big things. It was so helpful for me to hear, along the way from people I loved, that God was using me and would continue to do so.”
Like Seminarian Jesse Brubaker, a second-year student at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind. (CTSFW), most church workers don’t just happen upon their vocations. They are set apart and encouraged by those around them, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) members and church workers. Everyone has a part to play.
A 60% decrease in 5 years
“The Lord commands every generation to ‘pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’ (Matthew 9:38),” said Rev. Dr. James Baneck, LCMS executive director of Pastoral Education. “His desire is that all be saved and have eternal life through His death and resurrection. The church is always in need of workers in the harvest to serve existing congregations and ministries to start new churches and to send national and international missionaries into the world.”
According to Baneck, enrollment in church worker programs at Concordia universities and seminaries has decreased by about 60% in the last five years. “This has once again gotten our attention to heed the Lord’s command to send out laborers into His harvest,” Baneck said.
In fact, a study by the LCMS discovered that enrollment for the Master of Divinity programs at the seminaries is down 55%; Lutheran school teacher enrollment is down 61%; deaconess enrollment is down 43%; and director of Christian education enrollment is down 56%.
With nearly half of LCMS pastors 55 years old or older and nearing retirement age, there’s a need to identify the next generation of church workers.
The LCMS response
To engage the conversation and focus on the action of “identifying, catechizing, encouraging, and supporting young boys and girls for church worker vocations,” (2019 LCMS Convention Resolution 6-01) the LCMS has developed a comprehensive, multi-year church worker recruitment initiative called Set Apart to Serve (SAS). The literature explains “since church work is rooted in baptism and a lifetime of hearing the Word, SAS encourages young people to consider church work vocations primarily through their continued and faithful involvement with their congregation.”
In other words, it’s a recognition that God will provide and form pastors and other church workers through His Church, and He will use His people to accomplish this great task. But what does it often look like when God works in this way?
Simple comments open doors
“For me, the suggestions came from my Lutheran grade-school teachers,” said Andrew Asp, fourth-year seminarian at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis (CSL).
“I can remember them suggesting it as early as third or fourth grade. They would make comments on a somewhat regular basis, pointing out character traits which they said would ‘make me a good pastor someday.’ Actually, a lot of times, they would suggest it after I was being reprimanded. I typically only got in trouble for being noisy, with my loud voice!”
Those simple comments from Asp’s teachers began to take root. What happened next is only something that God could orchestrate.
“When I was in high school … I really began to understand the beauty of the Gospel, and the magnitude of Christ’s love and grace, in a way that allowed me to understand the importance of pastoral ministry,” Asp said.
“This is when I began looking at seminary more seriously. So, to receive encouragement from my pastor and teachers was incredibly important to make me feel as though pursuing such a career wasn’t crazy. It’s very possible, that without that encouragement, I would have simply written the idea off as foolish.”
Asp’s experience isn’t isolated. In the LCMS study, the age of greatest potential influence for one to consider church work was found to be for those of middle school and early high school age, as 60% of high school graduates already have their careers chosen.
Sharing the joy
Thankfully, there are initiatives in place by the Synod to encourage young men and women toward church work.
“In high school, I was introduced to the Christ Academy: High School program at CTSFW,” shared David Woelmer, fourth-year seminarian at CTSFW. “It was there that I was able to visualize what life at the seminary would look like. I found how much I enjoyed the rich Lutheran theology taught by the well-respected seminary professors, and it was encouraging to share this joy with like-minded young men who were also considering the pastoral office. After attending Christ Academy for three summers, I was not only encouraged by the friends I made there, but also by my home congregation that supported me and the many members who shared their joy and encouragement with me.”
What they give up
For Rev. Matthew Wietfeldt, assistant vice president of admissions for CTSFW, welcoming new seminarians and deaconesses into church work programs is pure joy.
“I enjoy meeting them and hearing their life stories and how the Lord has prepared them for this work,” said Wietfeldt.
“As a seminary, we take these individuals and shape them as servants for a broken and dying world. One of the joys is simply just being there as they are making this transition. Often they are giving up a lot of different things, whether a former life, closeness to family, potentially well-paying careers, a lot of things in order to come residentially to the seminary. I love being able to be there and still some of their fears and anxieties with those initial first steps, knowing that the Lord will provide, tangibly, for their every need.”
Be honest about church work
At times, fear and doubt can creep into the hearts and minds of those whom God is preparing for service to His church, and the encouragement of faithful Christians can make all the difference.
“Every man, at some point in his education at the seminary, feels completely unworthy, undeserving and unprepared for service in God’s church,” said Woelmer.
“For many young men in high school, these feelings are multiplied, as they might not even understand what they might be ‘getting themselves into.’ Pastors [should share their] joy, excitement and passion for the ministry [as well as] challenges and difficulties. Help them see the reality of the office of the holy ministry: the reality of sin and pain in the congregation, but most especially the reality of God’s abundant forgiveness and comfort He so freely bestows on all of us, as unworthy and undeserving as we are.”
Why the youth can take the leap
It is hope and joy that drive the Set Apart to Serve initiative and the opportunity for every person in the LCMS to encourage young people toward service in the church. With so many ministry partners and supports in place in the LCMS, we can confidently suggest that the youth of our church take a leap of faith and immerse themselves in the work of sharing the Gospel, teaching the faithful, showing mercy to our neighbors, and administering God’s gifts. After all, it is through LCMS partners like LCEF, who work with churches and church workers in countless ways to help mitigate difficulties, that the joys of ministry are enhanced.
Rev. Dr. Gregory Walton, retired president of the LCMS Florida-Georgia District, agreed that “where pastors are joyful in their ministry, there is a greater propensity to influence young men and women to consider church work professions. Pastors who are well supported by their parish, who are happy and healthy, who are energized by the mission and ministry of the church, seem to have the greatest capacity to encourage youth to consider ministry careers.” (Rev. Walton joined LCEF in September 2022 as the vice president of Grace Place Wellness, Ministry Solutions.)
There’s no greater joy than the front lines of ministry
The joy that Lutherans have in the Gospel is only multiplied when engaged in full-time church work, even during difficult times. That’s why most church workers want to see others experience this same unique joy of being on the front lines of ministry and being steeped in the Gospel day in and day out.
“I love teaching in Lutheran schools,” said Marie Sipes. “Every morning begins with devotions. Lutheran schools cultivate wonderful work environments with a community that is rooted in Christ. They provide a community to lean on when prayers are needed, to rejoice at the announcement of a new baby and to be a listening ear when kids are rambunctious. While living in a sinful world where morals are always changing can be overwhelming, it is comforting to work in a Lutheran school where the truth is consistent because Scripture is the foundation of our worldview.”
This makes all the difference
Encouraging youth toward church work doesn’t have to be an insurmountable task. Sometimes, rather, it’s just a brief mention, an authentic compliment, or a word of encouragement. Being surrounded by many people offering this encouragement, however, makes all the difference.
“I think the biggest thing is just planting and cultivating seeds,” explained Asp. “For me, and for others too, the journey from the first time I thought ‘maybe I should be a pastor’ to my eventual call and ordination was nearly 20 years. And during that time, there were lots of opportunities for off-ramps, so to speak, where I could have abandoned the idea all together or simply just done something else. It was the encouragement and support of primarily pastors and church workers around me that really allowed me to cultivate my passion for church ministry.”