South Dakota Synod Helps Seminarians Answer the Call
by Shelley Cunningham, '98, M.Div.
Five years ago, Justin Mootz was working in admissions at Augustana College when the South Dakota Synod asked him to be on an advisory committee for a new initiative focused on raising up leaders for the church. Today, Mootz is on his way to becoming one of those leaders--in part because that initiative, Answer the Call, opened his eyes to his own gifts and desire to serve and showed him how committed the synod is in making the path to seminary as smooth as possible.
"Ministry is this long discernment process," said Mootz, an M.Div. junior. "There are so many factors--timing, finances, fit. But to know you have support takes a huge burden out of the discernment process so you can focus on what God is doing."
Answer the Call Leads the Way
The Answer the Call initiative has made the South Dakota Synod the country's leader in both seminarians and the number of scholarships awarded. Its initial aim is to engage young people and encourage them to listen for a call to ministry.
"We know that if pastors and other adults in the church start identifying gifts for ministry when they (members) are kids, it makes a difference," said Kristi Lee, director of development for the South Dakota Synod. "We want to make it a part of the culture of our congregations that our pastors, our lay leaders, our parents or anyone who touches the lives of our young people are actively talking about attending seminary as a real possibility for the future."
Tapping into Outdoor Ministry
The initiative has particular success with South Dakota's extensive outdoor-ministry network.
Nina Joy, a diaconal student in youth and family ministry from Trinity Lutheran Church in Vermillion, S.D., witnessed this firsthand while working at camps such as Atlantic Mountain Ranch and Outlaw Ranch, both in Custer, S.D. A representative from Answer the Call attended staff training for young adults and would occasionally speak to interested campers about how God is calling them as well.
"They would hand out caribiners and say, 'If you are thinking about seminary, we want to partner with you,'" said Joy. "So many people in ministry come out of an outdoor-ministry background. It seems like a small thing to talk to kids at camp, but in the long run starting them thinking about seminary early is really important."
This has been phenomenally successful, said Lee. In the past, the South Dakota Synod had five or 10 students at seminary. Now there are 50.
Scholarships Drive Success
This is due, in part, to the second focus of Answer the Call. The synod has put its money where its mouth is by providing scholarships for seminarians. "There are a lot of congregations who support seminary students, even if they don't have a current seminarian from their church," said Lee.
One example of this is a scholarship provided through American Lutheran Church in Presho, S.D. American member Pauline Engen wanted one of her sons to become a pastor. Even though her boys all continued the family tradition of ranching, they never forgot her dream. They started a scholarship fund for students who wanted to serve rural areas like Presho, which increased as each of the sons died. Since 1972, more than 800 Engen scholarships totaling more than $600,000 have been distributed.
In the last five years, congregations and individuals in the South Dakota Synod have committed more than $3 million to seminary scholarships.
"What's great about the South Dakota Synod is that it really understands the realistic financial needs seminarians have," said Craig Wexler, an M.Div. senior from Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, S.D. Wexler started thinking about his vocation while meeting with an Augustana College Koinonia group. He wanted to attend seminary but felt the burden of his debt from Augustana.
"I said, 'Look, I feel called, but I also feel broke. I need your help,'" said Wexler. Through its scholarship fund, the synod paid for a third of his tuition costs during his first two years at Luther Seminary.
Wexler hopes to return to South Dakota when he graduates in the spring, in part due to the support he received and the connections he made.
Committed to South Dakota
That is the third goal of Answer the Call: that future pastors will develop ties with people and congregations in the synod that lead them to wish to serve there.
"We know we have challenges. There is a shortage of pastors," said Lee. While clearly that is true for many regions of the country, it can be particularly challenging in less populated areas. In a place like South Dakota, despite the church's deep roots, typically the starting wage doesn't satisfy the amount of student debt. Many calls are in rural areas, where spouses may not be able to find work.
"People get the fact that we need to attract and retain pastors who love this area," said Lee. "In the past, it has been difficult but not impossible. But I am very optimistic that if candidates see the commitment the synod has made to their financial and career success they will feel called to say yes to South Dakota."
This year, the synod will launch a $2 million capital appeal to fund the second and third phases of Answer the Call: creating a fund endowment that will assist with leadership development, including expanding first-call theological support and education, annual leadership development retreats for pastors in their first five years of ministry and assistance with debt reduction for some seminary graduates.
And even that comes with a long-term dream: "We would love to work our way out of debt reduction by raising enough money for scholarships so students aren't burdened with that worry as they are looking for a call," said Lee.