There is a movement within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that knows our identity as Lutherans is rooted not in ethnicity, but in the good news that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Led by such knowledge, this movement seeks to change the fact that we are whitest denomination in the country. This movement is known as #decolonizelutheranism. They are collecting incredible stories of Lutherans with cultural heritages that span the globe. I encourage you to read them.
The theologian Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas recently wrote that she is tired of being asked to trot out her story of marginalization for no purpose other than to make white people feel good about themselves for paying attention to racism. She and other people of color have asked people with privilege to do the hard work themselves of identifying the structures that benefit them and dismantle those structures.
I am a person of incredible privilege. Here are two structures within the ELCA that make sure this denomination caters to me and to people like me.
1) Our pastors must complete eight years of higher education at their own expense, and 2) local congregations pay their pastors.
From a purely financial analysis, these two structures are central barriers to being a church of and for the poor. And in this country, class lines tend to follow racial lines.
The College Board found that a moderate budget for an in-state university this year was $24,061. Let’s multiply that number by four years to get, $96,244. Seminary costs more. My alma mater, which admittedly is on the pricier end of Lutheran seminaries, estimates a student's annual cost to attend to be $36,575. Pastors only have to pay tuition for three of their four years (the remaining year is a full-time internship, modestly-paid but only if you are able to move anywhere in the country). So let’s multiply the annual cost of seminary by three to get $109,725. Combined with the cost of an undergraduate education, the expected cost to become a pastor of the ELCA is $205,969.
To be clear, $205,969 is nothing compared to the value of a well-educated pastor. Having clergy who understand the historical context of scripture, who can think critically about theology and who can separate that which builds up and that which exploits, who have been vetted to ensure that they have sought a position of leadership not for personal power but to serve in love, these are some of the core reasons I became a Lutheran, and I would never give them up for any price. But let’s be honest about how we currently pay that price.
There are certainly scholarships, grants, and the support of congregations to help cover these educational costs. So let’s say that a student manages to get grants to cover half the expenses; they are still left to cover $100,000. Even with an optimistic view of financial aid, the two most obvious recourses to pay the remaining hundred grand of educational costs are to either be from a wealthy family, or to go into debt. Most go into debt.
Now imagine you have $100,000 of student debt and you are considering two churches that you could serve. The first church is a small urban or rural congregation whose members are deeply dedicated to the gospel but the building has decades of deferred-maintenance, and they can’t afford to pay you a full-time salary. The second church is a large suburban congregation whose members are deeply dedicated to the gospel, whose building was recently renovated, and who can pay you a comfortable salary. You have $100,000 in student debt. Which congregation would you serve? If you are reading this, you may well be a seminary graduate, and this is likely not a hypothetical question.
Small congregations and congregations in poor communities are less likely to get pastors because they can’t afford to pay pastors enough to cover their educational debt.
But let’s say that a pastor chooses to go to the small congregation; who is that pastor likely to be? It will likely be a person who has had support and encouragement to go to graduate school and for whom hundreds of thousands of dollars is not a major obstacle. It will most likely be a person who is white.
I am one of those pastors. I graduated without debt. My mother is a Mexican immigrant, but my skin is white. My father is a college professor; I did not have to pay for undergraduate education. I received many scholarships in seminary, and while I certainly worked, it was the wealth and support of my family that allowed me to finish without taking out a loan. Not having debt gave me the freedom to take a financial risk moving across the country to serve a Latino congregation with ten members in Brooklyn, possible thanks to synod and churchwide funding that would run out in one to four years. In what I describe above, I am rare.
I am preparing to move to a new congregation. I would not go somewhere where I do not feel the Holy Spirit calling me to proclaim the gospel, but it is uncomfortable to admit that I find it easier to hear the Spirit when God’s call comes with stable paycheck. In this, I am not rare at all.
One of the most heart-breaking and beautiful descriptions of Lutheran seminary that I have read comes from Lenny Duncan, who writes that seminary is “designed so straight, single, white young men can come here…[and be] ordained and sent to the dystopian nightmare of strip malls and soccer games that trump the sacraments.” He describes being one of two black students in his Lutheran seminary. Mr. Duncan tells of seminary discussions of prisoners and being the only person in the classroom who has ever been imprisoned, discussions of recovery and being the only person in the classroom who has ever been addicted.
Most Lutheran pastors are well prepared to address the brokenness found in professional and academic settings, well prepared to speak to the existential angst of the middle class, and well prepared to debate the theological concerns of philosophers. Most Lutheran pastors are not well prepared to discuss the brokenness of poverty, the pain of racism, the theological concerns of daily survival. This is not only because our seminaries do not focus on these subjects, but because the institutions which prepare our leaders are designed so that it is significantly easier for people from well-educated, prosperous, and, dare I say, white families to become pastors. The effect is exacerbated by the fact that it is significantly easier for people from well-educated, prosperous, white families to become seminary professors who then teach and evaluate students based-on how those students conform to the professor’ own cultural, spiritual, and professional background. With a seminary system that encourages, trains, and evaluates based on the experience of wealthy, well-educated white people, is it any surprise that the ELCA has not even come close to meeting its 1990 goal of becoming 10% people of color? This is a systemic preferential option for the privileged. This is institutional racism.
Our institutions’ preferential option for the privileged is the biggest threat to the future of the ELCA. According to the Pew Research Center, mainline Christianity in the United States and Europe is in decline, but Christianity is growing rapidly globally. Christianity is declining in communities of wealth and growing rapidly where Christianity is of and for the poor.
But the reason our institutions’ preferential option for the privileged is a threat to the ELCA has nothing to do with membership numbers; it has everything to do with Jesus. Jesus’ first sermon is to declare that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that God “has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” On the sermon on the mount, Jesus preaches “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.” The risen Christ calls the learned Paul to proclaim the gospel, but first the God who walks to the cross calls the blue collar fishermen Peter, James, and John to lead the church. Christ loved, served, and made leaders of people on the margins of society. If we are to be Christ’s church, we must do the same.
Imagine if we looked for the church’s leadership in the same place where we look for Christ--the cross. What if for every seminary recruiter who visited a Lutheran college, we had a recruiter visit a prison and a migrant labor camp? What if we structured seminary so that it was not set in an academic fortress but a factory floor and seminarians learned to follow the carpenter while doing carpentry that off-set the cost of their education? What if instead of local congregations paying pastors directly, congregations sent their offerings to the synod who could ensure that impoverished communities had the resources to raise up the next generation of leaders from people who are not yet in the church?
These ideas are but the beginnings of conversations to reform our institutions, and these conversations are already happening throughout the ELCA. For years Theological Education for Emerging Ministries has sought to support lay-leaders who could not put their life on pause for four years to become pastors, the Lutheran seminaries in Pennsylvania are joining forces to offer free tuition to all incoming students, and there is a committee of the ELCA dedicated to asking how theological education can best serve the church. But at the moment, these conversation are overlooked, viewed as experiments, or second-tier options, instead of being lifted up and honored as core components of our never-ending quest to become to the church of Christ.
The greatest theologians of our society surround us on city streets. The most profound pastors fill our prisons. The most zealous church-planters harvest our crops. As Lutherans we have always valued having well-educated leadership; let’s design our economic structure to provide that education to the people who can make most use of it, not to cater to the people who are most able to pay for it. Let us be the church of Christ crucified, that we might rise with the risen Lord to new life. Amen.