The Call to Teach: From Professor to Bishop to Seminary President

[1] When I was first asked to consider contributing an essay to this issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, I wondered whether—as a fairly new president of an ELCA seminary—I really had much to say that would be new or different from my many colleagues in this work. But then I realized that I am one of few people in the ELCA’s brief history who has worked in both (university and seminary) aspects of Lutheran higher education and also served as a synod bishop. I do believe I have a unique and—I hope—useful perspective on theological education not only as a vocation for those engaged in it, but as a significant way we who work in it help the church shape community and build relationships.

[2] Some autobiographical background: I grew up in an unchurched Protestant family, as did both my parents—but perhaps because of that distance from church life I developed, even in childhood, an interest in Christianity as an (admittedly not always positive) human phenomenon. Growing up in the heavily evangelical environment of small-town Oklahoma gave me both my family’s skittishness about “belonging” and their prejudices about the gulf between Christian identity and the conduct of many Christian people.  In spite of that I could think of nothing more interesting than the ways Christian ideas and assumptions had shaped the culture in which I lived. It helped to have been an outsider with no “skin in the game”—I vividly remember conversations in the 70s as a schoolboy with a friend whose family was deeply conflicted over the schism in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and wondering to myself why anyone would fight so bitterly over things like that. But I also knew it was fascinating and I wanted to know more about it and all the other remarkable things Christians were willing to do, from building cathedrals and creating great art to burning heretics and defending slavery.

[3] During my years at college that interest (and especially a fascination with Luther and the Reformation) flourished, and after some soul-searching it led ultimately to my seeking baptism and membership in a Lutheran church. Crossing the threshold from being an observer to being a participant was a profound shift for me, but I have never lost my sense of being a migrant to (and not a native of) church life and denominational affiliation. But from that point my Lutheran studies and my Lutheran faith converged and strengthened each other in my life; I abandoned my original career direction and decided to work toward a Ph.D. in church history and a career teaching the subject that had become central to my life and my faith: the complex experience of Christian life in history.

[4] I also considered ordination, but as a partnered gay man that was ultimately not an option in the ELCA, so teaching became both my vocation and my form of ministry. Years later, after the Churchwide Assembly decision to clear a path for the ordination of LGBTQ+ folk in 2009, I was persuaded to re-enter a candidacy process I had abandoned twenty years earlier, and was ordained a pastor in the ELCA while still engaged in full-time teaching. Fairly shortly thereafter I was elected by my synod to be its bishop, and after seven years in that office, in 2020 I returned to the educational field as an ELCA seminary president.

[5] That’s the shorthand version, but when I look back on my thirty years of teaching about Lutheranism, most of it in ELCA institutions and much of it to Lutherans born to the tradition, I marvel at the opportunities I have had to integrate my scholarship and my faith. Being someone who was very much not one of those “cradle Lutherans” has helped me preserve a kind of detachment about the Lutheran church as I have experienced it, just as being a person of faith has allowed me to understand my research and teaching as part of my vocation as a Christian. I have always known very clearly that my personal experience of Lutheranism must not limit my sense of what is “authentically” Lutheran. The few years I spent as synod bishop were not a diversion or a tangent from my teaching, but just another way of expressing the vocation I had long felt and cultivated—but this time through the church’s direct call and not my decision alone. My choice last year to leave that call as bishop and take up one to lead a seminary instead was not an easy one, but does put me back on more familiar pedagogical ground.

[6] In my whole career, I have focused on understanding for myself, and teaching others what it means to be Christian today, in light of the ideas and experience of Christians through history, particularly in the branch of Christianity that understands itself as “Lutheran.” I have not always made this goal explicit to my students, but as a church historian, I was always able to point away from myself to the historical record, and I believe that the study of history is at least in part the cultivation of empathy for people we can only know partially, and whose life experience was profoundly different from our own.  In the academic study of religion, I saw my students not as people to be convinced of a particular reality or point of view, but to be invited into an “engagement with difference” that I thought would be useful to them in their growth as people, and as citizens and neighbors in a pluralistic world. In all this, I followed the vocational path I had—since my baptism—defined for myself largely along theological lines: to use my abilities and energies to love God and serve my neighbor in this time and place, as best I could.

[7] This vocational path I took is still how I see theological education working in its broadest sense: cultivating understanding of self and empathy with others, developing and using one’s abilities for good, and learning to communicate in words and actions what it means to love God and serve one’s neighbor. Every part of this can be applied more or less directly to the life of every Christian who attempts to live out her baptismal promises. Each aspect of this is part of the duty of rostered ministers in the ELCA, for whom our seminaries in particular bear responsibility for teaching and forming. Each of us who teach in such institutions live this out in some way.

[8] For what is it to study theology (or even to teach it) but to learn—to understand—better how to live as a believer in this place and in this moment? What is it to be a pastor or a deacon but to lead by serving and to serve by leading, showing in one’s life what one knows in one’s heart: that to live to self is vain and to live to God is life? What is it to be a Christian but to love God and serve others? One can explore and discuss the current (and future) material and structural situation of the ELCA with the sharpest critical and analytical tools we can bring to bear as scholars, and yet not get near to the heart of the matter: What does it mean to be part of the church today? What does it mean to be a leader in the church today? What does it mean to teach the faith today?

[9] As a bishop, I came to see the greatest challenges for my church as being rooted in weak and unconvincing answers to the question of “What is ‘church’ really for?” and “What does it mean to belong to a church?” But both our definitions and our answers are shaped by our history and context and the pressures of the present moment. As one who saw his role as a bishop of the church as being a symbol (and promoter) of unity and coherence, it was important to me to stress that “belonging” mattered: belonging to a congregation mattered, as it did congregations belonging to a synod, and together all of us belonging to the ELCA—that we were in a special way “church together” even within the wider family of Christians.

[10] This was, I came to see, an uphill battle: other markers of “belonging” are generally as strong or stronger in our society as being a member of a religious denomination is. I marvel at the emotional energy that for many people goes into supporting a sports team, and how much meaning it gives people to be fans. Perhaps part of the church’s problem is that it is (for many) more about obligation than reward—even a losing team wins now and then and provides an emotional boost—and has a hard time competing with the excitement and reward derived from other loyalties; a second part of it (by corollary) is that the church is very yielding when it comes to its expectations for its members—it does not demand much of its people in terms of self-definition, except to be respectable, understand themselves in some way as “Christian,” and to take part in collective worship and contribute to the sustenance of the congregation. We can all see how well that is going.

[11] So what is there to do? What role does theological education play in shaping our identity and our self-understanding? How do ELCA-related educational institutions help shape their students’ sense of self and their ethical commitments in ways that live out our vocation to serve by teaching? At California Lutheran University, where I taught undergraduates, that meant to try to awaken in those we taught a sense of being part of something larger than themselves, that called them to move beyond self-centeredness to a sense of individual purpose connected to an idea of the common good. The shorthand for this was to “find purpose,” and though we did not claim this as in itself a “Lutheran” goal, certainly for many of us this was a clear working-out of Luther’s claim that to love God is to serve one’s neighbor. Many of our ELCA-affiliated colleges and universities work around this theme, which is by no means exclusively theological or based in religious studies.

[12] From the standpoint of seminary education, some of the challenges for our teaching are more concrete: what does it mean to be part of—and lead—an ecclesial community that will clearly change in the years ahead, as a larger and larger percentage of the population in the United States is made up of those who are untouched by Christianity except in the cultural sense. I don’t mean to pile on to the general “death of the church” narrative one sees in much analysis, because I actually see strong signs of life and deep commitment among Christians of the rising generations, but I do think they will organize their life together differently from the way their parents and grandparents did, and the “church” that many still cherish is for others as irrelevant as their grandparents’ silverplate flatware.

[13] If one’s idea of “church” means employing a full-time professional pastor and maintaining a church building built by the efforts of a cohesive, dedicated community and shared among them for worship and social activity over a long period of time, the future may look bleak. But if gathering around proclamation of the Word and the sustenance of the sacraments for strength to live and take agency and action in an unjust world is “church” for you, there may be many places to find it even without dedicated buildings or even professional leaders. But where does that leave those of us who are professionally and vocationally committed to preparing such leaders?

[14] Seminaries and other theological education providers face a radical shift away from a system in which we offer organized and universally-recognized academic credentialing for a venerable form of public religious leadership, to one in which there is much less predictability and in which the boundaries are less clear-cut between academics and practice, profession and vocation, and even between clerical and lay. We already get fewer students clearly shaped by decades of church life; what it is like to be part of a church congregation is increasingly—and commonly—learned in contextual education and on internship. Younger students are more likely to come to us through campus ministry or camp experiences than by the encouragement of their own pastors. It is the older and second-career students who are likelier to have congregational life as one of the experiences they bring to seminary and candidacy for ministry. But we need them all, as new forms of church life develop without a clear break with the old ones.

[15] The demographic shifts will challenge seminaries, in particular, very deeply. We are adept at assessing and addressing deficiencies within systems very familiar to us; we are much less able to adapt in significant ways to changing external expectations. Of the two forms of institutional system we inhabit as theological educators, I think the academic system will ultimately find it harder to adapt to change than the ecclesial one will. This challenges the place of degree programs, clearly-expressed curricula, and cadres of tenured professors. But again, the new will not replace, but come alongside the old, and change—barring the catastrophic collapse of institutions—will always be incremental.

[16] Yet change—and adapt—we must. The questions we are being asked are not new, and we have what we need to help our students find answers that are meaningful and useful and theologically responsible. How can we be church today? What does it mean to be in Christian leadership in a post-Christian era? What can we part with, and what must we retain, to be the church? Seminaries have a special role to play, as we shape those who in their pastoral and diaconal leadership will be the “influencers” of their communities and will shape those communities. In my perspective both as a teacher and a church overseer, I am convinced that those students we prepare for challenge, complexity, ambiguity, and open-endedness will be better leaders of changing communities than those who are rigid and anxious, however expert they may be or how much they may love the traditions they cherish.

[17] I don’t think it is the subject matter that needs to change (we still need exegetes and good preachers, and people with a sense of context in history) as much as it is the sense that every Christian community will need to struggle in unique ways with the question of how best to answer God’s call to faith and service in their own context, and that those who will lead them in this work as their pastors and deacons will need to be able to do this themselves. They will need to be mature, self-aware and self-differentiated, flexible, and non-reactive. They will need the resources of compassion, empathy, and deep faith. And they will need to know how and where to find help: through spiritual direction, life coaching, therapy, continuing education, and being in healthy intimate relationships. I believe we can help our students know themselves better at the same time we teach them about the biblical canon, or systematic theology, or church history, or preaching and pastoral care—and that, ideally, such holistic work on shaping and forming the whole person should begin (with the church’s help) even before a student arrives at seminary.

[18] I envision a new look at theological education that goes deep into the question of what it means to speak of (and for) God, as the people we are now, to the people God has given us to serve. I envision theological education that takes seriously our reality in the United States as a damaged country still wrestling with its guilt for the shameless taking of land simply because it was not “owned” by individuals, and for the deep and enduring blight that slavery casts upon our economy, our institutions, and our people. I don’t see such education as needing to leave out much of what we teach now, but I see it as being organized differently and toward different outcomes: toward producing spiritually mature and relationally-skilled religious leaders, calm and strong, constructive and self-aware. Those are the rising new pastors and deacons I longed for as a bishop; I hope those are the kind we are preparing ourselves to produce for the church of the future.

[19] An ideal of theological education that has as its goal the creation of strong, empathic, and healthy leaders is, I believe, as Lutheran as it gets. For our theology is hollow if it is not embodied physically, in people and their actions. For Lutherans, to do is to believe and to believe is to do—acting in realistic consciousness of one’s own agency and in awareness of the implications of one’s actions—but acting nonetheless. We need religious leadership like this to help us face the pain of the world, the systemic evil that divides and threatens us, and the cynicism that undermines our hope.

[20] To get there, and to face what the future brings, we who are bound together in this holy work must examine our own hearts, explore our own vocations, and seek strength in knowing that Christ’s church does not require us to rescue it, only to help ourselves and others live faithfully within it in whatever form it takes. History teaches us realism; the gospel teaches us trust in God; no one is better placed than our theological educators to hold these realities together.



Guy Erwin

Dr. R. Guy Erwin is the president of United Lutheran Seminary in Pennsylvania and before that was elected twice as bishop of the Southwest California Synod of the ELCA. Earlier, he held the Gerhard and Olga Belgum Chair in Lutheran Confessional Theology at California Lutheran University. He is an enrolled member of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, is married to Rob Flynn, and lives in Philadelphia and Gettysburg.