Claiming an Authentic Lutheran Identity and Mission in Higher Education

[1] Rooted and Open: The Common Calling of the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities was adopted on January 4, 2018, as a collective statement about the vocation of Lutheran higher education for ELCA colleges and universities. It is the first statement that frames a Lutheran mission in higher education derived from the ideals of Lutheran theology and the 16th century’s reform of education as a benefit for the community’s well-being or common good.

[2] Historically, Lutheran statements about the mission of its colleges and universities have primarily described the mission in terms of higher education’s service to the church. This is true, for example, of the ELCA’s social statement Our Calling in Education, adopted in 2007. The social state does affirm a missional obligation to educate all persons in its opening theological discourse:

If we neglect our responsibilities for the education of all people in earthly matters and civil righteousness, we close our eyes to God’s continuous creating activity and fall short in loving our neighbor and serving the common good. Education in both society and Church is God-pleasing, for the God who calls us in vocation is both Creator and Preserver and Redeemer and Sanctifier.1

[3] Nonetheless, the social statement does not apply this vocation to ELCA colleges and universities. When discussing the mission of ELCA colleges and universities, the social statement focuses on educating Lutherans to fulfill their vocations in church and society, not educating all persons of good will for the sake of what the Lutheran tradition labels civil righteousness.

[4] Education focused on the needs of the church was labeled by the late theologian at Capital University, Tom Christensen, as the FUBU (For Us/By Us) understanding of Lutheran higher education. The FUBU perspective is widespread, as was noted above in reference to the Education social statement. The perspective is also understandable. All ELCA colleges and universities began as institutions created to serve certain immigrant Lutheran communities, or in Tom Christensen’s rhetoric, they were established as “for us/by us” institutions. The attitudes born of the immigrant shape of Lutheran higher education were reinforced by the larger context of American higher education, which was mostly private and highly segregated by class, religion and race when most Lutheran colleges and universities were founded. Until the second half of the 20th century, nearly all higher education in the USA was “for us/by us.”

[5] But by the late 20th century, many Lutheran higher education leaders recognized that retaining a FUBU understanding of Lutheran higher education was becoming untenable. As Lutherans in the United States entered the American social mainstream after World War II, they began to leave behind their ethnic, separatist identities (Norwegian Lutheran, Finnish Lutheran, German Lutheran, etc.). This engendered a growing lack of loyalty among college-bound Lutherans to enrollment at a Lutheran college or university. Of greater importance, the birth rate among Lutherans declined significantly as Lutheran households ceased to have the large families typical of ethnic separatist, immigrant communities. Retaining a FUBU understanding of Lutheran higher education would have required a rational plan for consolidating or closing Lutheran institutions in far greater numbers than actually occurred in the 20th century.

[6] Rooted and Open is the product of a transition from a for us/by us understanding of Lutheran higher education to an understanding based, as noted above, on Lutheran ideals for higher education, rooted in Lutheran theology and the Reformation’s establishment of education as a public good. To develop this perspective, Rooted and Open drew on the outcomes of three decades of study by leaders in Lutheran higher education interested to define an identity and mission for Lutheran higher education based on Lutheran convictions instead of the practical necessity of serving immigrant Lutheran communities.

[7] Interrogating the theology and educational practices of the Lutheran Reformation and setting aside practical arrangements for education made by Lutheran immigrants from Europe, Rooted and Open fully embraces the Lutheran theological and educational ideal of the Reformation to educate all persons of good will for the sake of civil righteousness and the common good. An authentic articulation of the missional enterprise of Lutheran higher education will understand higher education as an implication of the gospel to educate all so that all may flourish as Christ intends. Educating Lutherans for their vocations in the church and the world remains an important aspect of Lutheran higher education, but authentic Lutheran higher education will not attach the education of non-Lutherans as a gloss to a preferred work of serving Lutherans and the parochial interests of the Lutheran church.

[8] Hence, given an understanding of Lutheran higher education as an enterprise properly involving Lutherans and non-Lutherans alike, Rooted and Open identifies two primary characteristics of authentic Lutheran higher education. First, the Lutheran identity of a college or university is an institutional identity independent of the personal religious convictions of the members of a college or university community. Second, the mission of Lutheran higher education will be identified by an as-yet-unenumerated set of educational values rooted in Lutheran theology but practiced in a manner independent of that theology. At the center of these values will be a mission to educate all persons to discover their vocational commitment to the well-being of all. All persons, Lutheran or not, secular or religious, are invited to join in a common conversation about this educational enterprise—centered in an institutional identity to educate for vocation—from their own religious or ethical perspective.

[9] A primary purpose of the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities is to facilitate this conversation in and among all NECU institutions. To support this purpose, NECU recently create a Vocation of Lutheran Higher Education faculty working group. The working group is composed of persons whose positions include responsibility for the Lutheran identity and mission of their institutions, and it is to provide high-level theological reflection on the vocation of Lutheran higher education. Its members are currently overseeing the development of an edited collection of essays tentatively entitled, So That All May Flourish. A preview of a few essays from the volume are presented in this issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.

[10] The book will be organized into three sections. Essays in the first section will focus some of the core commitments of Lutheran higher education, beginning with “vocation and education.” The section will address other themes, such as the under-appreciated connection between the Lutheran intellectual tradition and the contemporary, North Atlantic community’s understanding of academic freedom. The second section will address distinctive strengths that have developed in our community of colleges and universities, such as music and the arts or approaches to pedagogy derived from Lutheran educational priorities. Finally, a third section will address new callings for Lutheran higher education in the ELCA and the challenges to fulfill those new callings, such as a calling to recognize and turn away from the complicity of ELCA colleges and universities in American institutional racism.

[11] The movement to claim a more authentic and non-parochial understanding of Lutheran higher education is young, and much work remains to be done. This new book will become an invaluable resource for advancing NECU’s conversation about Lutheran higher education.



1Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “A Social Statement on: Our Calling in Education,” 2007, page 10. (accessed July 19, 2021).


Mark Wilhelm

Rev. Dr. Mark Wilhelm is the executive director of the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities.