What Makes for a Theological Vocation in the ELCA?

[1] As a theologian who teaches religious studies at a public university, I hesitated to contribute to a question about the role of women’s leadership in the Lutheran academy in the U.S. I comfortably identify as a Lutheran theologian who works alongside two wonderful religious studies colleagues, both women, one specializing in Asian religions and the other in religious ethics (writing as a secular scholar). I could describe how working in a public university affords me opportunity to interact with students from both the ELCA and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, as one specifically Lutheran expression of seeking to create a learning environment in which diverse theological (as well as anti-religious) perspectives can come to expression while being challenged to encounter one another. I could discuss how a Lutheran theologian teaching in the secular academy contributes to the life of the larger church through the historical and reflective space of a religious studies classroom, as well as through mentoring relationships and long-term friendships formed with those students drawn to conversing outside of class about their own lives of faith. But somehow all of these seem a tangential or episodic expression of an academic vocation, when put in terms of a relationship to the Lutheran academy itself. So what I would like to reflect on below is more about the limits and possibilities of having a theological vocation that serves the church, when that vocation is not embodied in an ELCA teaching institution.

[2] When he was Dean at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Clark Gilpin once told a group of us with dissertation fellowships that he had discovered something from his conversations with alumni across the country: that the nature of our scholarly vocation will inevitably be shaped by the type of institution in which we find ourselves. I have thought about that statement on and off over the years as a Lutheran theologian who teaches at a regional public university, and it rings true. On one hand, I am free to do whatever sort of scholarship and scholarly service I like, from writing about pedagogy in a religious studies classroom, to crafting Lutheran theological scholarship, to contributing to the Lutherans Restoring Creation lectionary commentary series. There is a lot of intellectual freedom at a regional public university. On the other hand, when I participate in an ELCA Teaching Theologians Conference or a Lutheran Women in Theology and Religious Studies gathering, I am something of an outsider precisely because, unlike the vast majority of participants, I am not ensconced in an ELCA institution of higher education. This isn’t per se an unpleasant experience; it’s just, as Clark Gilpin suggests, an expression of the fact that I am not enmeshed in the micro-cultural conversations that flow across ELCA institutions, so I am less familiar with all the references to particular people or events. (Granted, ELCA micro-cultures differ according to whether one’s teaching setting is a four-year institution or a seminary.) Likewise, most teaching at an ELCA institution may be less involved in the kinds of conversations I inhabit as my university’s representative to the Illinois Board of Higher Education Faculty Advisory Council, for which I have drafted position papers on faculty concerns about dual credit courses taught by high school teachers, or on promoting a public policy that supports rather than dismantles small liberal arts programs at state universities. Clark Gilpin was right: our vocations as religion (or religious) scholars is always marked by our institutional space, by the communal environment in which we professionally dwell.

[3] More than gender, at least in this decade in our denomination, I think it is this institutional conditioning that shapes my experience as a theologian who works gladly within the Lutheran tradition (if also just as gladly with historical and ecumenical conversation partners that go back to the patristic era, as befits the University of Chicago training I had in the 1990s—and to which I was drawn). Institutional setting may also tend to determine whether one is perceived as having a public ecclesial vocation at all. To a significant degree, a perception of whether or not one is a Lutheran theologian who is serving the church is shaped by whether or not one teaches at a Lutheran institution. ELCA lay theologians at secular institutions are rarely invited to write for The Lutheran, or to speak at synod assemblies, or even to be part of a synod’s informal or formal theological programs for clergy or laity (even when we make ourselves known to a bishop), or to contribute to denominational work that involves theologians.  Perhaps if I were a male teaching at a public university, or if I or even my spouse were an ELCA clergyperson, I would be invited to do or contribute more at the synod level; that I do not know. On the other hand, let me be clear: my own institutional commitments of teaching, service, and scholarship are significant already, so I would have to stretch against the grain of (or intentionally redirect) the flow of my current commitments to be involved at a synod or denominational level for direct theological service to the church (beyond my current scholarly contributions, collaborations, and friendships). I have hesitated to take the initiative—say, to foster an academic theological study circle in my synod—precisely because I have a full plate already.

[4] Of course, in saying this, I reflect from a place of institutional privilege: I am a tenured full professor, albeit one who may be laid off at some point (as some of my colleagues have been) because of two decades of plummeting state investment in higher education, amplified now by the pandemic. But I have spoken with other Lutheran theologians with doctorates, but no academic jobs, who would welcome being tapped for synodical or denominational work, but feel invisible and underutilized. And this is not because anyone with an episcopal or teaching position is intentionally leaving them out. It is because they are not institutionally visible in the ELCA’s denominational structures.

[5] This may be especially so for Lutheran theologians who have never attended an ELCA institution as a student. A sociological study might need to bear this out, but it doesn’t seem farfetched to hypothesize that the more ELCA social capital one has built up over the years, the easier it is to be visible as a Lutheran theologian. If one has attended an ELCA college or seminary, or been ordained, or had a partner who is ordained ELCA—all of these weave one more visibly into an ELCA institutional landscape more prominently than merely participating as an active lay person in one’s local congregation.

[6] In my case, as an undergraduate, I chose to attend Carleton, not St. Olaf—in part, perhaps, because of an admissions mistake. I visited both schools on the same day, but St. Olaf’s staff had forgotten I was coming, so the only person they had available to talk with me was an assistant football coach. He was happy to hear I was from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and wanted to talk college hockey (which I readily did, since most everyone plays at least street hockey in the UP, and my family had season tickets to Michigan Tech University college hockey games). But when I visited Carleton, I was given a full tour, introduced to a classics professor (because Latin was the only foreign language at my high school, I had studied it), and interviewed by the dean of students, who said that I was just the kind of student they were seeking—and, he added, Carleton would be a more “cosmopolitan” experience than St. Olaf because it drew more nationally for its student population. Growing up in a small town of mostly Catholics and many sorts of Lutherans (Apostolic Finns included), I was indeed eager for a larger, less parochial world. Perhaps an ELCA institution seemed too much an echo of the familiar immigrant-rooted Lutheran landscape of my childhood (even as, in Northfield, Minnesota, I picked up on sharp cultural differences between the wealthier Swedish background there and the poorer, rural, more Finnish background in the UP). Perhaps I would have been lured to St. Olaf if I’d spoken with someone at the Honors College.

[7] In any event, Carleton set in motion an ecumenical direction, as I majored in religion and worked as a chaplain’s associate with a chaplain, Jewelnel Davis, who was ordained in the Progressive National Baptist Tradition, but tasked with supporting all the diverse religious groups on campus.  The only distinctly Lutheran institutional organization in which I worked full-time was the Lutheran Volunteer Corps (which recruited at Carleton only because it already was recruiting at St. Olaf), where my placement was with the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Central America (now on Latin America) in a year when we brought the Lutheran bishop of El Salvador, Medardo Gomez, out of hiding amid death threats to speak in Chicago. It made sense to me to attend Vanderbilt Divinity School, because I wanted the ministry training of an M.Div. program but expected I would want to pursue a Ph.D. instead of immediately seeking ordination, and the university-based divinity schools seemed a better fit for someone not decidedly on a pastoral track. So while I have participated in Lutheran congregations for most of my life, and have preached or led services fairly often as a lay person (including all of one summer in Upper Michigan, after graduating from Vanderbilt and my doctoral training at the University of Chicago), I have never been immersed as student or professor in an ELCA institution of higher education (except on the margins, like learning to swim from  students at Suomi—now Finlandia—College, or studying at the LSTC library and attending LSTC public lectures).

[8] It might be interesting to know how many other Lutheran theologians or scholars of religion have had a similar journey—one that has wound its way through other sorts of public or private institutions, while participating actively in Lutheran congregational life. It might be interesting to know how their ideas and experiences might be tapped in order to do the new constructive Lutheran thinking that the ELCA wants and needs. There are likely more pained narratives from scholars who did journey as students through ELCA institutions, but failed to secure one of the shrinking teaching positions in an ELCA school—or to secure a tenured position anywhere else. That might be an archival task for someone interested in capturing a fuller picture of thwarted academic vocations: to collect the narratives of ELCA members with Ph.D.’s in theology and religious studies who sought an academic position, and failed to get one (perhaps especially if they are not clergy, which may provide another kind of institutional ELCA space for a theological vocation). How many continue to contribute as scholars? How many are invited to write, to speak, to function as teaching theologians of the ELCA? What is the church losing in not hearing their voices or inviting their scholarly insights into our ecclesial conversation? How has social location—including dynamics of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental health—been a factor (perhaps in unexpected ways) in their sense of what is possible for them in the church as scholars?

[9] It is crucial, indeed urgent, for us to attend to the way institutional embodiment of vocation works, and to take responsibility for imagining how to embody institutionally a more inclusive way of making spaces for the theologically-oriented academic vocations of ELCA members. In a time when we are attentive to systemic, unconsciously-replicated patterns of racism, we might be primed to judge institutions for all manner of limitations and failures to be inclusive. But for all their inertia when confronted with a demand for structural change, institutions are finite and fragile, dependent on the imagination, labor, and resources that we organize in relationship to them.[1] It is no accident that those who seek deeper social transformation speak of a failure of imagination, because the momentum of institutional structures is toward self-sustaining configurations that involve familiar patterns to which we acclimate. We cannot change those patterns acting only as individuals, so it’s easier as individuals to put our energy to wherever we can fit and thrive in the institution—or to put them elsewhere. Institutions are called corporate bodies for a reason; they gather many people together, but they also function with a quasi-individual autonomy akin to that of an individual who is set in their ways.

[10] To be sure, ELCA institutions of higher education are only one facet of the fuller life of a denomination whose center is multiple—in worshipping congregations primarily, but also in the often informal social networks conjured up by clergy and laity, and among both groups, scholars. Those networks in turn often spread to crisscross denominational and religious (and religious-secular) divides, so there is often nourishing food for clergy, lay, and scholarly conversations and contributions in spaces outside a formal ELCA setting. But institutionally-speaking in relationship to the ELCA, those of us without academic positions in ELCA institutions are often quasi-embodied theologians or religious scholars. To varying degrees (to be sure), we have a liminal status with regard to an academic vocation of service to the church—at least insofar as that vocation is a publicly recognized and activated one within ELCA institutional or social circles.

[11] If we want to be intentional about fostering an academic vocation within the ELCA as that denominational body in which we are mutually accountable to one another, we need not only to think beyond the institutional setting of ELCA institutions of higher education (while never leaving them out). We need also to find ways to generate new institutionalized spaces for those with doctorates in theology, biblical studies, or other areas of religious scholarship to converse, contribute, collaborate, and speak to the church as working theologians and scholars of religion. We could create models for including independent (and retired) scholars in an ongoing intellectual life of the church, inasmuch as those contributing have the time and energy to do so. The ELCA Teaching Theologians convocations allow collegial connections to form or be sustained for those who participate, but expanding that space may be impractical (indeed, one participant rightly pointed out that I might attend as a representative of a non-ELCA institution more often than any particular person at an ELCA institution may be permitted to attend). In-person spaces allow us to meet one another and notice each other’s particular gifts, but beyond sharing presentations at occasional ELCA conferences (be they of the Teaching Theologians or the Lutheran Women in Theology and Religious Studies), what are some ways that we can begin to seed a sustainable, widely-inclusive space for expressing an academic vocation in the church? How can we invite a more fully-embodied participation by our religious scholars with doctorates—with or without academic positions—in the ongoing life and direction of our denomination? The additional resources to rally might range from video conferencing in both small and large groups, to new kinds of denominational forums for peer-reviewed individual and co-authored publications (beyond questions of theological ethics) and/or more active utilization of the Lutheran journals that exist now, to intentionally create and maintain pathways of connecting our scholarship to the ongoing deliberations and life of the church.

[12] Enabling more ELCA scholars with religious studies doctorates (or doctorates in the making) to move from quasi-embodied to more fully-embodied academic vocations to the church does not—and cannot—mean providing each of us with full-time jobs with benefits. Having a more fully-embodied academic vocation to the church might involve this particular blessing, or it might involve pursuing some other kind of paid or unpaid labor while also investing regular or periodic time in researching, writing, speaking, and collaborating with theological or religious studies peers in and for the church. Indeed, it might make a difference for doctoral students to know that whether or not they secure paid academic positions, there will be a meaningful place for them, a mentored and supported and inviting space, in the theological life of the church. As job opportunities of all sorts in the humanities shrink, we have an opportunity (if not an obligation) as a denomination to fashion together new institutionalized ways of enabling academic vocations in the church to flourish—for the sake of the individual persons called by the Spirit to a theological vocation and for the well-being of the corporate body of Christ itself.




[1] “Do not speak of ‘our institutions’ unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side,” Timothy Snyder, Against Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017), 22.

Amy Carr

Amy Carr is Professor of Religious Studies at Western Illinois University.