“I give you this charge: preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” 2 Timothy 4:1b-2
With this passage from the letter to Timothy as the foundation of discussion and prayer, St. Paul Lutheran Seminary was formed early in the summer of 2011.
Why Saint Paul Lutheran Seminary?
Saint Paul Lutheran Seminary exists to provide churches with exceptional education and mission resources. Churches with a commitment to confessional Lutheran education and a passion for the Great Commission require a trusted source to reinforce their work, an institution that is responsive to their needs and accountable to their expectations. Working closely with advisors from many disciplines and across traditions, SPLS continues to develop an institution that is:
- Theologically Sound
- Educationally Credible
- Contextually Appropriate
Why Saint Paul Lutheran Seminary?
It’s about servant leaders!
At SPLS our students are trained for service in the church and the world, by leaders with contextual experience, leaders who know the value of real-life applications in the learning process. This “Paul-Timothy” model is a classic approach to preparing servant leaders for the church, recognizing the expertise and experience of those already serving in such capacities as vital to the education of the next generation of pastors, missionaries and church leaders. The goal of SPLS is to provide the church and the student with generational experience, with “field” experience and with a passion for excellence in carrying out the mission of the Gospel.
It’s about the Lutheran witness!
The good news, that sinners have been reconciled to God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is central to all that we do at SPLS. The gospel witness found in the Lutheran Confessional tradition is the Word of life and hope that our world needs to hear. A firm grounding in this vibrant theological tradition gives our students a strong foundation on which to build a life of witness and service. At SPLS we embrace the theological tradition entrusted to us, recognizing that God’s Word is a Living Word, speaking to ever-changing contexts.
It’s about the Great Commission!
The education at SPLS all drives toward preparing men and women to proclaim the Gospel clearly and effectively in a variety of contexts. At SPLS we are committed to: equipping students to speak to the cultural context in which they find themselves, preparing them to engage their communities, inspiring them to faithful witness and encouraging them to empower others.
More information regarding online or residential option programs…home/away
Below is Rev. Julie Smith’s address to the Augustana District conference in 2018 which provides a great summary of the work of the seminary as of February 2018:
Theological Conference 2018
Well, as Culynn so aptly put it this morning, “I’m here too.” Thank you so much for this opportunity to speak with you this afternoon. The task of raising up and training the next generation of preachers is one for which we need all hands on deck, in my estimation. It’s a privilege to be able to stand here with others who are engaged in this work and to speak with a group of people who consider this work to be important. This district has the capacity to be at the forefront of conversations in LCMC about what our church needs from its pastors and how to train them to become that. It has been my hope for many years that Augustana would take up that mantel for the sake of our whole association, and, more importantly, for the sake of faithful preaching in a world that desperately needs to hear it.
A couple of years ago I ran the numbers after hearing a report by Steve Lien on how many seminarians were then affiliated with LCMC. At that time, we had enough seminarians to completely turn over the roster of LCMC pastors every 40 years. That would be the perfect number if people were going straight from high school to college to seminary, got through all those programs in the minimum possible number of years, and worked continuously until retirement age. But the reality of our association is that people are not starting seminary at 22. They are not getting through programs at the fastest possible rate. And they are not working continuously for 40 years. To do nothing more than fill the pulpits we currently have in our association we need to identify many more people who may have a calling to pastoral ministry. And if we are even slightly committed to the vision of planting new churches, it will take even more.
Taking seriously the work of theological education and the schools that provide it is a crucial factor in this work of raising up preachers of the gospel.
Before I get into the questions that were provided for us, I’d like to offer a brief snapshot of what is happening at St. Paul Lutheran Seminary. We are a week into our spring semester. We currently have 25 US students enrolled in courses in our MDiv and DMin programs. This includes students who are doing their entire program with us, students who are enrolled in Kairos through our partnership with Sioux Falls Seminary, and students who take a few courses with us here and there while completing, or having completed, their primary coursework somewhere else. In addition to these 25 domestic students, there are another 31 students in the certificate program we are offering in partnership with Mission Mexico International, 10 students in a similar certificate program in partnership with LCMC – Nicaragua, and seven students enrolled in our DMin program in partnership with Leadstar College in Ethiopia. We had not anticipated this international component to our work, but we are thrilled to have found faithful teachers who can work in these programs, most notably Horacio Castillo who is here with us today. The Mexico and Nicaragua programs are entirely in Spanish, and by the time this first cohort of students is through the program in 2.5 years, we will also be prepared to offer a full MDiv in Spanish.
Our focus at St. Paul Lutheran Seminary is really on faithful preaching of the gospel. To that end, we also have about 500 people enrolled in a weekly lectionary study led by Jim Nestingen. And we are about midway through a short preaching course for lay people who do occasional pulpit supply. About 35 people are participating in that course, reminding us of how common it is to have people occupying pulpits who, perhaps, have not had much preparation for that task. We also just wrapped up our second theological conference on Jekyll Island in Georgia, with about 50 people in attendance.
So, that is St. Paul by the numbers. We are about 6 and a half years old and have graduated 4 MDiv students, an indication of what I mentioned earlier, that students, who are often working full time, are not moving through programs quickly. Our first cohort of DMin students will complete their coursework this spring and then begin work on their thesis projects.
We do not currently have a president at St. Paul. Jon Jensen and I share the administrative tasks equally. Jim Nestingen serves as Provost, bringing his many years of experience in theological education to the table in helping us keep the main thing the main thing. Along with Jim, Marney Fritts teaches Systematic Theology for us. Bud Thompson and Orrey McFarland teach Bible. Dennis DiMauro teaches church history. A handful of pastors teach in the practical theology area, based on expertise and experience they have in particular areas. Some of them are also here with us, but I will let them identify themselves. The faculty has come together over these last 6 years through recommendations of teachers and pastors we trust, and we are quite happy with the core teachers we have brought together.
Our partnership with Sioux Falls Seminary and Luther House also provides our students with access to their faculty and resources if, for some reason, we are unable to offer something they need. As we grow into this partnership we are seeking out more and better ways to provide students at both schools with access to our shared resources.
St. Paul is governed by a ten person board of directors made up of people all over the country. They meet five to 7 times per year and have oversight of all financial records, provide advice and direction in our conversations with partners and assist in developing new projects. This board has final authority on everything we do at St. Paul.
Now on to the questions.
When I hear a question like, “Why is careful and faithful theology important?” I must admit that all of my theological nerdiness comes rushing to the surface. It is never buried too deeply to begin with. But my first response to a question like that is, “What could possibly be more important?!” What could be more important than speaking the truth about God and what he has accomplished in Jesus Christ? What could be more important than attentiveness to whether what we say about God is what we ought to be saying? What could be more important than a proper articulation of the life-giving Word?
But, of course, the history of the church and of the world is filled with all sorts of other things proving more important than this in the minds and actions of too many. Careful and faithful theology gets replaced by relevant and edgy theology. The call to speak the truth is ignored in favor of the desire to fill the pews by giving the people whatever we can think of to lure them in. There is constant pressure to preach some other Word than the Word of Christ and his cross. And what is at stake is nothing less than the salvation of souls. That’s what this is all about, after all. It’s not about getting it right for the sake of getting it right. It’s not about being the last seminary standing. It’s about getting it right, speaking the truth, because only the truth can set us free, free from the bondage to sin and death.
Saturday I was at a gathering with a little group of people, most of whom are about my age and un-churched. They were all raised in the church, but have dropped out, while still considering themselves Christians. The uncle of two of these people happens to be a retired Lutheran pastor, and he convinced them to read Where God Meets Man and discuss it as a group. I was invited to sit in with their group for one of their discussions. They started out by trying to explain to me what they were doing, to define the purpose of their gatherings, why they are spending Saturday mornings together once a month. They were struggling to come up with any sort of explanation, and finally their uncle blurted out, “We’re trying to get at the meaning of life.” This stopped the whole group short. While there is something kind of nagging at them about their lack of participation in church, they would have never thought it of such consequence as to be, finally, getting at the question of what this is all about.
That’s how we think about our work at St. Paul. We don’t work on our theology just because we are a bunch of theology nerds who think it’s the most interesting thing in the world, even if we are. And we don’t do it just to prove we can answer every question with the appropriate doctrine. Careful and faithful attention to theology is nothing more and nothing less than preparation to speak God’s Word and on his behalf. If we get that wrong, it doesn’t matter how many people we convince. It is simply of no benefit.
The experts, or at least the sociology of religion experts, want us to understand that we live in a post-denominational age. That people do not have any particular loyalty to a Christian brand. There are all sorts of other things that draw them into or repel them from a congregation, but the sign outside is not one of them. (Unless it’s bad graphic design, and then there is simply no hope that any visitors will ever come to your church.) This sometimes leads churches to abandon or disguise their theological heritage, dropping any denominational markers in favor of names like Grace Church or Joy Christian Center or whatever, though hardly ever, “Life Is Really Hard and You’re Not a Very Good Person Church”. But the idea is that it is more important to be Christian than Lutheran or Baptist or Presbyterian or whatever.
There is a faulty, or perhaps misleading, assumption in this that there is something out there that is just plain Christianity. That some people just practice Christianity, without the undo influence of doctrinal traditions. They just study the Bible and walk with Jesus. But the moment you do anything more than simply read the Bible aloud and sit down, you start to interpret. And once you start to interpret there is some sort of hermeneutic that is driving that interpretation. You may not want to call it Baptist or Lutheran or Presbyterian, but that won’t mean that’s not what it is.
It’s tempting to get a little defensive about this. To think that even if people DON’T care what sort of church they attend, they really OUGHT to care. We should convince them that it really matters. We should defend our ground. We should convince them to stick with the Lutheran Church because we’ve got it right. I, of course, think it does matter, but not because of brand loyalty to Lutheranism. Rather, because in some churches the gospel simply is not preached. That is true in every denomination out there. But when we are attentive to the heart and depth of our particular theological tradition we discover again and again a Word that gives life, a Word that sets sinners free.
So, when someone comes with the critique that our way of preaching, our theological concerns are not relevant any more, I think there are lots of possible ways to respond to that, but abandoning our theology is not one of them. Instead, we should work to get better at it. We should work to understand it more deeply and understand the people we preach to more deeply, so that we can put this theology to work in faithful proclamation. I’d like to see us double down, not on the label “Lutheran” but on this rich theological heritage that shook the world 500 years ago when Luther dusted off Paul who had been mouldering in the corner of church libraries next to the Left Behind Series.
And it’s actually in the realm of preaching the law that I think we have important learning to do. The knock on the law/gospel dialectic is that it just doesn’t work anymore. People don’t think of themselves as sinners, so preaching the forgiveness of sins is of no consequence. This is not a new criticism. And when we respond to that by thinking our job in preaching the law is to convince them that they really are sinners so that they we can set them free, well . . . that might not be the most effective and faithful approach to preaching.
The law always accuses. It’s out there and in here. At work on people. Crushing them under its weight. They just don’t know that it’s the law doing that. They experience the accusation every time they look at Facebook or look in the mirror or look at their kids or whatever. The law is doing its work. The response to that of many of those who abandon law/gospel preaching actually turns out to be more law. Christianity becomes a lifestyle and a new set of guiding principles. But we know that only Christ can silence the constant accusations of the law. Only Christ can lift this burden. And proclaiming him in the midst of the darkness in our world and in our hearts is our calling. When the law actually goes to work on sinners there is nothing irrelevant or old fashioned about the Word that is the Gospel. It becomes the Word we are most desperate to hear. The Word we rejoice in hearing.
So teaching students to distinguish law and gospel is the red thread that runs through our entire curriculum. We work on it at the somewhat abstract level of systematic theology. So that when they are confronted with situations that couldn’t possibly be have been anticipated in a case study, they have a framework for listening for how God is at work. We work on it throughout the Bible division, as students learn to read and study Scripture with an understanding that this is a Word that is doing something. It is a Word that is accusing and setting free. That is so much more fruitful and faithful, than an endless debate over the appropriate limits of historical criticism or what kind of fish could possibly swallow a whole person without killing him. And we work on it in the areas that are often referred to as practical theology. Because finally, law and gospel are not doctrines. This is about how God is speaking to us, making himself known to us.
None of this is for the sake of theology. Of course, it all goes the other direction. All of this theology is for the sake of faithful preaching, for the sake of setting sinners free.
The task of pastoral formation is a tricky one for seminaries. For one thing, seminary faculties have often been comprised of people who didn’t necessarily love being pastors themselves. This makes for a rather tricky dynamic. At St. Paul we have a number of ways that we come at the matter of pastoral formation.
The first began as a necessity, but has turned into something we value a great deal. No one works full time for St. Paul. Everyone on our faculty and staff is also working in a church in some capacity, either as a pastor or teaching theologian. This began as a financial necessity. But it quickly became apparent that having not only students, but faculty who were embedded in congregational life makes a tremendous difference in the preparation of pastors. It is difficult for the teaching to float off into space if you have to cut class short to preside at a funeral or you come into class agitated about a difficult council meeting or someone knocks on your door in the middle of class with some sort of request. Being in a parish keeps the feet of students and faculty pretty firmly on the ground, helping us not forget why it is we are doing this.
We have also built into the curriculum a 6 course series called “Being a Pastor.” These courses are just half a credit and are entirely discussion based, with a particular area of pastoral ministry being the focus each term. The courses range from ‘how to enter a community,’ to ‘maintaining healthy boundaries,’ to ‘parish administration’ and a host of other nuts and bolts matters. These courses are taught by experienced pastors who enjoy parish ministry and can speak to the joys of challenges of that work with honesty and theological depth. Through these courses, students continue to formulate their sense of what this calling is all about and how our theological commitments shape our understanding of our callings.
In addition to faculty who are working pastors, our students are expected to work with mentoring pastors in their own congregations. This works better in some cases than others, and we are still developing the tools to help mentor pastors help their students. The range of experience for us so far has included one pastor who sat in on every class with his student and students who struggle to find a pastor willing and able to serve as mentor. I think this is a responsibility the entire church needs to take seriously. The church forms its pastors much more than the seminary does. We do what we can, but as almost any of you can attest, it took a while in our first calls, or maybe our second or third calls, to really understand what we had gotten ourselves into.
The formation of a heart is another matter, and one that might just be outside our jurisdiction. In all sorts of ways that is prior to enrollment in seminary. As pastors identify and encourage those who may have a calling to pastoral ministry, one would hope that among the markers they see is someone who, ya know, doesn’t hate people. Or has as little bit of patience. Or is basically honest. Or can be trusted with information.
I am not at all convinced that a seminary curriculum can shape the character of its students. I’m not sure that’s any more effective than parents who hope you can shape their kids up through confirmation. And I’m more comfortable with talking about behavior formation than heart formation because then we remain clearly in the realm of the law in its first use. And that is work we all have to share together. A big part of it is how we function as pastors ourselves. I have no recall for statistics, but I was reading an article about why people are not going into ministry. And one of the top reasons listed was that pastors are not encouraging others to do so because so many pastors hate it so much. Just think about that.
When I was early in my first call I was talking to a pastor who became a mentor for me. And I was complaining about some aspect of parish ministry, probably something about visiting shut-ins. I was a preacher of the Gospel. How could I be expected to spend my time sitting in stuffy living rooms surrounded by doilies, eating rye bread with cheese whiz, and drinking yesterday’s warmed up coffee? I had more substantial things to be doing with my time. And this pastor said something I have never, ever forgotten. “It’s a privilege to preach the gospel. And we pay for that privilege by being pastors.” That stopped me in my tracks. It reminded me, as I now try to remind our students, that having all the theology worked out in your head and delivering it perfectly in your sermons does not automatically mean anyone will be able to hear the Word from you. These are human beings you’re dealing with. People who are not pure mind. They react to things emotionally and can’t always explain themselves and sometimes push back for reasons they couldn’t begin to explain. Something as simple as, “Your voice reminds them of a teacher they hated.” But when you become their pastor, that opens doors for the Word to work in exciting ways. That includes doing things you hate, tolerating some things you don’t like, and loving people who aren’t always even likeable. With an occasional reminder that we’re not always especially likeable either.
So if you want to be a preacher, you have to be a pastor, like it or not. Unless you want to preach to an empty room, which is, of course, an option.
Of course you can’t talk about core texts without talking about the Bible and the Book of Concord. We like those. We encourage students to own them and keep them relatively dust free. In addition to those, the work of the so-called radical Lutherans is in pretty heavy use in our courses. Students read a lot of Luther in their systematics courses, along with Forde and Paulson and others of that stripe. Our Bible courses are deeply influenced by the work of Don Juel and others who have held on to the Lutheran edge in reading scripture, even as it has fallen out of vogue in the Society for Biblical Literature. We are not seeking to cover the entire waterfront of those who identify as Lutheran. Rather, we embrace this rather thin slice of the Lutheran pie and try to do it well. We are, frankly, more interested in depth than breadth, which is why we feel pretty at home among our friends in Augustana.
We do not currently require proficiency in the biblical languages or Latin. The main reason for that is that it has proven such a barrier for entry, especially to second career students. This was not an easy decision to make. I think there is tremendous value in being able to work with the Greek and Hebrew. On the other hand, the very limited level of proficiency that comes from 2 semesters of a language can be just enough to be dangerous. Students learn just enough Greek to challenge the translation work of people who know a whole lot more than they do. So, given that the usual minimum requirements do not actually result in real proficiency we have not included that in our requirements. That said, we do ask our Bible faculty to help students learn to use some of the tools that are available to them to gain insight into biblical language.
The question as it was put to us was, “Should we still train our pastors to use the languages?” And my answer is, of course we should. We should have a prep school system so that they arrive at college already knowing Latin and Greek. And then students should pick up Hebrew in the pre-seminary undergraduate courses. Along with acquiring a deep understanding of the Bible and perhaps some psychology and sociology and it would be great if they could all be English or History majors so that they have a wealth of illustrations on the tip of their tongues. Then they could arrive at seminary and we could spend 3 years reading Luther. That’s how it should work. And I would love it if that’s how it worked.
But the reality is students are twenty, maybe thirty years removed from their undergraduate degree in business administration or nursing or marketing or education. They were not groomed for this work from middle school on. But they have gifts and willingness and a calling and we have sought to create a curriculum that will build on what they have. I tutored Greek all through seminary and I watched students struggle and cry their way through it. Or simply fail over and over again. Perhaps that is an important weeding out mechanism for people who aren’t going to be able to hack it as pastors. But I am not currently convinced. So, for now, we do not have any language requirements.
We offer one course in worship, which we have found to be the most difficult course to find instructors for. Our students are about equally split between LCMC and NALC. So, there is quite a diversity of worship practice and preference in our student body. Typically, the people who are interested in teaching worship come from higher liturgical end of the spectrum. But we ask our instructors to show some regard for the variety of practices within our churches. Our MDiv is 84 credits. And we have sought to cram as much into those credits as possible. Music is one of the areas that does not receive a tremendous amount of attention, and since we have not settled on a worship instructor, I can’t even really give you a definitive answer on how it is handled in the worship course.
The two questions specifically directed to us have to do with our partnerships and the role of Jim Nestingen. I’ve already mentioned the partnership we have with Sioux Falls Seminary and, through that, with Luther House. Given our structure and our commitment to maintaining that structure not only embedded students, but embedded faculty, independent accreditation is simply not feasible at this time. But we did want to provide for our students a pathway to an accredited degree if that was important to them. That was the primary impetus behind our initial conversations with Sioux Falls Seminary and Luther House. But as those conversations have continued, we are also warming to this rather radical vision that undergirds the Kairos program. This does not come naturally to us, and we have been thinking hard about how to embrace this in our little part of the world.
Our work in Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and Mexico is all partner driven. In each case groups have come to us, asking what we might be able to offer in terms of theological education. We have worked with these partners to develop programs that make sense in their contexts, while holding fast to our central theological concerns.
While it is important to us to maintain autonomy with regard to the content of our courses, we also value partnerships that make this more effective. To that end, we are open to conversation and partnership as long as it does not require theological compromise.
The question about Jim Nestingen is an important one. Certainly when St. Paul formed Jim was the marquee name associated with us. When I mentioned to him that we needed to have an answer to this question, I think I would describe his reaction as slightly embarrassed. As with any small organization, every person plays a vital role. Jim’s role is not only that of teacher to our graduate students. And it is not only as leader of the text study. Apart from his contributions to his field of Reformation History, Jim’s great gift to the church is that he has been nothing less than the most effective catechist in this country in our lifetimes. No one has communicated the heart of the Lutheran witness to more diverse audiences over a longer period of time than Jim Nestingen. Whatever else anyone would say about him, and people would say many things about him, that fact is difficult to dispute.
So when I think about the retirement of Jim Nestingen, I don’t first wonder what that will mean for St. Paul. I wonder what that will mean for the Lutheran Church. While others have contributed more written materials, no one has taught more people than Jim. So the end of his career is not “our problem” it is “OUR problem.” And I don’t have an answer for that other than to trust Christ always provides for his church.
In terms of St. Paul, this is a conversation we have had many conversations about how we will cross that bridge when the time comes. For the past couple of years Jim has not actually taught in the MDiv program. We have two archived versions of his Confessions course that students from other schools have taken by independent study. But we are excited about the coming possibilities of the Confessions course in partnership with Luther House. During this time Jim has been teaching in our DMin program, which is focused on the Law/Gospel dialectic and how it shapes the work of pastoral ministry. As our first cohort completes this program, additional faculty are going to be joining in the teaching. So we have the faculty we need, or access to the faculty we need, even when Jim decides to put his feet up, although I don’t actually think he plans to do that until he is simply physically unable to continue.