This is a reflection I wrote in 2011 on the Spring assignment process.

A few years ago I sent a summary of the assignment process to our rostered leaders, when I experienced it for the first time as an observer. At the time I was impressed with the process. I still am. What follows is a summary of this year’s Spring assignment of seminary graduates.

In 1962, when Willie Rotter was about to graduate from seminary, President Fendt handed him an envelope. “What’s this?” he asked? “Your first call,” replied Fendt. That’s how it was done. You went where they told you. End of conversation.

Nowadays it’s a different world. Some denominations don’t place at all. You graduate. You find a call. Good luck. Getting a degree in law does not guarantee you a job. Only a degree. In the ELCA, if you graduate in May, for your first call you are assigned to a region in February, and then to a synod in March. The process is designed to funnel candidates to the places where there are openings ready to receive first call pastors.

The process is not without its challenges. If a synod has one opening, and gets assigned one candidate, and the congregation doesn’t vote to call that candidate, then the graduate needs to be offered to other synods. Human nature being what it is, congregations don’t always call the folks bishops would like them too, and, frankly, some people don’t interview as wlel as others. Still, with our assignment process, we actually have a higher placement rate of graduates within the first six months, than denominations with a completely open process.

It’s 24 degrees in Chicago and snowing. Yesterday nearly all our flights were delayed. I’d love to host this February event in Houston, but that would mean a lot more travel for the many, many synods in Lutherland (the upper Midwest where Lutherans are denser).

Of the ELCA congregations currently looking for a pastor (1200-1400 at any given time?), 203 have indicated interest in a first call candidate this Spring, as reported from the eight regions of the ELCA. There are 250 people graduating from seminaries of the ELCA this Spring. Quite a few of them have restrictions or administrative assignments. When we finished with those, we had 209 candidates available for 203 vacancies, about as close as I ever remember it being. It poses a significant challenge if we have more candidates than calls: people sitting around without calls. It also poses a significant challenge if we have more calls than candidates: lots of churches lacking leadership. It’s nice when it matches up.

But there’s another side. In the past we would get 28% of our requests for first call pastors. It was a struggle to find pastors for congregations, but graduates got placed more easily.

At this meeting are the eight regional coordinators, including Herb Palmer, our Region IV coordinator. Also present are several bishops, one or two from each region. One representative is present from each seminary (president, dean or contextual education rep), and finally, various ELCA Churchwide staff.

This process is necessary to get candidates to where congregational needs actually exist. It does no good to have 20 graduates in a synod with only one congregation in the call process. This process requires a great deal of collaboration, prayer and discernment. We began the day with introductions, a hymn and the Sufferages (Responsive Prayer).

With a big screen in the front of the room, we bent over each region’s requests and a dizzying amount of paperwork on candidates, subtracting any first call candidates that had not received calls from the last assignment. Before us we had Form A for all those graduates, including vital information, candidates’ preferences and restrictions, and remarks from both the seminary faculty and internship site.

Then we began going down the list of graduates, marking those that had been restricted or administratively assigned. For example, a candidate may have a spouse who cannot move. He or she applies for a restriction. If that restriction is approved, that person is assigned to the region they requested, and unavailable to other regions. The chair also listed those who had withdrawn from candidacy for one reason or another.

Each region then has an opportunity to request a few candidates. If a region requests a candidate and no other region requests that candidate, the candidate is immediately assigned to that region. In this method most candidates get the region they request, and most synods get the candidates they request. For example, a candidate states a preference to get placed in the following synods: 1B 1F 1C 7B 7F 7D 3I 3B 3E, and gets assigned to region 7. (For a list of Regions and Synods, see www.elca.org/regions . Some candidates get requested by several regions, and that’s where it gets interesting. For example, a candidate indicates preferences for synods 3D 3E 5H 1F, and gets requested by regions 1, 3 and 5. Some negotiation needs to take place.

Should candidates be allowed to restrict? I think so. Should they be allowed to indicate preferences? It makes sense. Should synods and regions be allowed to request candidates? You bet. So this process attempts to get the right people in the right place, rather than expecting candidates to “find” calls wherever they are. There is a very clear sense in the room that these are people’s lives we are talking about. There is also a sense that this is about the ministry of the gospel being proclaimed widely. When there are questions, the seminary reps speak to the gifts and calling of the respective individuals. These people are known. They are not just names on paper. They are known by their synods of origin, by the regional coordinators and by the seminary reps. When a name is mispronounced, someone in the room speaks up. It’s a soulful process. Imperfect, no question. But soulful. I see it as a good sign that during the first two hours of our work, nearly every candidate was requested by his or her region of origin.

Based on need, requests and unplaced graduates, each region is eligible for the following number of candidates:

1. Region 1 – 8

2. Region 2 – 15

3. Region 3 – 45

4. Region 4 – 11 (our region)

5. Region 5 – 43

6. Region 6 – 25

7. Region 7 – 29

8. Region 8 – 16

9. Region 9 – 14

This year’s grads come from the following eight ELCA seminaries in roughly these numbers:

1. 16 – Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) in Berkley, California

2. 18 – Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago (LSTC) in Chicago, Illinois

3. 20 – Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS) in Columbia, South Carolina

4. 20 – Trinity Lutheran Seminary (TLS) in Columbus, Ohio

5. 22 – Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

6. 28 – Wartburg Theological Seminary (WTS) in Dubuque, Iowa

7. 32 – Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (LTSG) in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

8. 50 – Luther Seminary (LS) in St. Paul, Minnesota

Others came from University of Chicago Divinity School, General Theological Seminary, LSPS, and Yale.

In our synod, none of the congregations in the all process have asked for a first call candidate this year. It makes me sad, because I love getting young, committed leaders, but things ebb and flow naturally. There are some contexts into which you really don’t want to send a first call candidate. For example, we considered a first call pastor for Gethsemane, Chalmette, but the ministerium felt that it wouldn’t be fair to send a young, inexperienced pastor into such a tough setting, which is in need of experienced leadership to rebuild infrastructure. Whether or not you agree, one thing is certain: our first call can set pastors up for a healthy, lifetime of energetic ministry, or it can disillusion them completely if they get in over their heads.

By lunch on the first day 47% of the candidates had been assigned. Our region (Texas, OK, AR, MO, KS, NE) is angling for 11 first call pastors. By lunchtime we have 6 of those 11. The work will get harder now. During the lunch break the group mingled. Seminary reps shared more about the candidates they had been assigned with bishops receiving candidates from other regions. “This candidate has medical issues and needs to be within an hour of a major medical center.” “That candidate’s husband is a top-notch organist.” “This candidate has indicated she would do best in a small town setting.” And so on. There was also considerable sharing about the candidates that had not been assigned yet. With clergy couples, if you ask for one, you need to ask for the other. It’s complex.

This work requires a level of detail at which I don’t excel. Having Herb Palmer and other colleagues around me who do, is a tremendous relief.

After lunch, we reported on conversations. Several regions made concessions, so that we ended up with about 50% of all candidates assigned as we began the afternoon’s work. We started a new round of each region requesting several more candidates. By 2:00 we had assigned 60% of the candidates.

This work takes all day Tuesday to get most of the candidates assigned. On Wednesday morning we began working on the final candidates. Assignment on Wednesday goes until we are done. There are folks who would like to return to their home synod, but there is no call available there. There is great care taken to find a synod that has needs which fit the candidates gifts. In the last wave, candidates not requested by other regions, are automatically assigned to their region or origin. This is good news/bad news. If you produce outstanding candidates you may get them back. If you let people who shouldn’t be pastors slip through the candidacy process, they will likely come back to you.

I am deeply grateful for the faithful way this church stewards leaders. There is an incredible flexibility for clergy couples, pastors with special needs children, spouses with geographical needs for vocational reasons. As I reflect on this past year on the reality Lutheranism in America, it’s hard for me to imagine this process in a body with, say, 120 congregations, only ten of which may be in the call process at any given time. It’s equally hard for me to imagine what it’s like for Roman Catholic Church which has 46,000 pastors, in comparison to our 17,000 pastors. It must make our process look easy.

I continue to wonder what pastoral and lay rostered leadership (deaconess, associate in ministry, diaconal minister) will look like in the future. With well over a thousand people in seminary, we continue to emphasize the importance of theological education, but questions constantly arise about how many seminaries we need. Eight? The landscape is being formed by distance learning, ecumenical seminaries and the TEEM program (Theological Education for Emerging Ministries) which allows students to get their theological education while serving in small, struggling contexts.

This year we are looking at intergenerational/cross-generational/children, youth and family ministries. Along with this we’re looking acutely at our leadership pipeline. How are we encouraging our students to discern a call to church vocations? A very high percentage (75%?) of pastors report they first sensed a call to ministry at camp. Camp is a vital leadership formation event. Getting our kids to camp is crucial.

I encourage you to be in prayer for the young people in your congregation, that they might find-their God-given calling, whether it’s geology, engineering or ordained ministry. Assignment is only a small piece in the church leadership pipeline. That pipeline begins in your congregation, with baptism, continues through Christian education, First Communion, Confirmation, Camp, Youth Ministry, Campus Ministry, Young Adult Ministry and beyond. Who are you mentoring, right now?