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Seminarians and CCM

Marc Kolden (Olin S. and Amanda Fjelstad Reigstad Professor in Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

March, 2000

INTRODUCTION: Assuming that the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) approves CCM this coming summer and that ELCA leaders push ahead despite our opposition, by no later than January 1, 2001, the historic episcopate system will begin to be implemented. In what follows I want to describe possible options for seminarians who are opposed to CCM and, in particular, to the requirement that the ELCA adopt the historic episcopate.


OPTION #1 – Just go along. Do it, but don’t believe it—like the document says! There will be many seminarians who don’t really agree with CCM but who will choose to go along for a variety of personal, family, and especially financial reasons.

Some of us may be tempted to wash our hands of these people, who are not as pure as we would like to be. But I think it would be more faithful and wiser if we would practice Jesus’ saying “Those who are not against us are for us.” (Mark 9:40) I think we need to understand the bind they are in and welcome them into the opposition. Who knows what we would have done in their position? As they begin to serve as pastors they too will come to see that the congregation gathered around the means of grace is the church — which must not be displaced by the synod gathered around a bishop.

OPTION #2 – Refuse to cooperate at all with the new system. This could mean graduating from an ELCA seminary, complete with internship, with an M.Div. degree but without approval from a candidacy committee or assignment for a call within the ELCA. Or it could mean studying at a seminary of some other church body. In either case, there is a risk here above all for the student, of course, but also for the church—that we will lose this person for our ministry.

If a congregation that is opposed to CCM calls and ordains such a seminary graduate—after examination and certification, of course—the ordination would not be recognized by the ELCA. Therefore, the congregation could be placed under discipline for up to five years or until it gets rid of this unapproved new pastor. If the congregation did not comply, it would probably be removed from the ELCA. How serious this might be for the congregation and the seminarian-pastor would vary — depending on many factors, from pension/health matters to fellowship/isolation possibilities to future directions/pastors/programs, etc.
A short-term wrinkle on this “refusal to cooperate” option might be for an opposition congregation to call a seminary graduate and permit him/her, under the direction of the local church council, to undertake all pastoral tasks without benefit of ordination. I call this “short-term” because it isn’t a very satisfactory solution but it might prevent the congregation from being put under discipline and it would buy some time both for the seminary graduate and the congregation to see if the situation in the ELCA would improve. (In any of these irregular situations, it should be noted, opposing or WA congregations would need to provide alternative health/disability/pension coverage, since there probably would not be a way to maintain ELCA coverage.)

OPTION #3 – The seminarian goes to an ELCA seminary, goes through his/her synod candidacy process, gets approved for ordination, gets assigned to a synod, gets recommended to a congregation and receives a call, but then refuses to participate in ordination by a bishop in historic succession.

The advantage of this approach would be that the ELCA itself would have determined that the seminarian was approved for call and ordination. Then, if the seminarian accepted a valid call from an ELCA congregation in good standing but refused to be ordained by a bishop in the historic episcopate, the onus would be placed where it ought to be—on the ELCA and its puzzling claim that the historic episcopate is not necessary though it is required. The synod bishop would be caught in a bind, between the congregation that wants this new pastor and the national church’s policies (probably complicated by where the majority in that synod stands). The seminarian would be caught in the same bind plus in a tense relationship with the bishop. The ELCA would be under the glare of publicity that would expose its rigidity if it acted against its own candidacy procedures, not to mention its own practical needs for pastors.
This option would require a very strong and independent seminarian who could withstand the pressures from the bishop and the ELCA, who could get along without income in the interim, and who had the support of the WA or some other network of opponents. It also has the downside of being manipulative in several directions—probably against the bishop (unless the bishop welcomes this “leverage”) and the candidacy committee, surely against the national ELCA, possibly against the congregation (unless the congregation was sympathetic to the cause), possibly against the seminary. It also could mean that the seminarian would never get another chance in the ELCA if this strategy failed. But it also may be the most effective way for at least some seminarians to proceed because it attacks the problem head on.

OTHER OPTIONS? – There may be others, but those are the ones I thought of. There may be other sorts of actions, however. For example, perhaps seminarians could form an organization, something like a labor union—or, better, a support system. There are lots of dangers in this, obviously, not only to the seminarians’ careers but also in dividing student bodies into the righteous and the unrighteous. But such a student organization could draw strength from those seminaries where there are many students opposed to CCM and could offer support to students in small minorities in other seminaries. Imagine if, in February of 2001, seventy-five graduating seniors (out of a total of 250? from the eight seminaries) refused to accept regional and synod assignments because of the requirement that they be ordained into the historic episcopate system? If the total of 250 graduates amounts to less than half of the projected needs of synods and if 30% of those were to refuse assignment, congregations and synods would be screaming—some at the protesting seminarians, of course, but many more, I hope, at the ELCA. I don’t think it is fair for the rest of this to ask this of seminary students, but if they should decide to do it WA would need to be prepared to support them—not least with financial help.

CONCLUSION: Now I do want to say something about the seminaries themselves. Probably every ELCA seminary has at least one faculty member who is opposed to CCM, but only at four, to my knowledge, have opponents dared to speak out (Luther, Trinity, LSTC, and PLTS). Only at Luther are opponents in the majority. At Trinity, LSTC, and PLTS those few who speak out pay quite a price—not least from their colleagues.

Seminaries are not particularly good at taking part in church fights. But we faculty members love and care about our students. I think one thing WA can do is to flood the seminaries with good, confessional candidates for seminary admission. A critical mass in the student body makes a huge difference.
I know that some of you think we should give up on our seminaries; you believe we have sold out. That is shortsighted, to my way of thinking. I think WA can help strengthen them by prayer, sending us good and faithful students, playing a part in governance (our boards are elected by synod assemblies), and financial support. If you don’t want to give the money to a seminary, give it as scholarship aid to particular students. But please don’t give up on our seminaries. Criticize us, fine. We need that. But don’t give up on us. Instead, help us and our students to act on the basis of principle and conscience in these difficult and important times.