SMP Program is “Mega-Death” for Lutheran Congregations

Because of comments and additional information received by email, the post has been completely revised.   I did the best research I could on the basis of published sources, but it looks like the published sources are not what is actually happening. 


version 2, Jan. 25, 2012

Of all the various legacies of the previous synodical president, the “Specific Ministry Pastor” (hereafter SMP) program is probably the most controversial, confused, and potentially dangerous for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and its congregations. The impetus and rationale for SMP was stated in the preface to Resolution 5-10B, “The mission focus ignited by the Ablaze! movement has generated the need to identify laymen already in place in a local community to serve as church planters and missionaries” (Convention Proceedings 2007, 63rd Regular Convention, The LCMS, Houston, TX, July 14-19, 2007 [St Louis: 2007], p. 133).

SMP replaced the “Distance Education Leading to Ordination” (hereafter DELTO) program, which was intended to “provide ordained pastoral service to congregations that cannot support a full-time pastor, ordained pastoral service to contexts where English is not spoken, ordained missionary personnel where finances and/or conditions do not permit calling a full- time missionary” (ibid., p. 136). SMP added to the DELTO program “such categories as church planter, staff pastor, and others as needs arise” (ibid., p. 134).

As originally construed, the DELTO program was basically about preparing “worker priests” through distance education. “Worker priests” have precedent in the Catholic and other churches and are a workable model for Lutheran ministry, though not ideal for any situation. “Worker priests” serve congregations that are unable, or unwilling, to financially support a full- time pastor.

“Worker priests” have other full-time jobs, which prevent them from doing much of the work of a full-time pastor, such as midweek services, shut-in calls, nursing home calls, hospital calls, new member calls, evangelism canvassing, catechism classes for teens or adults, Bible studies during the week, devotions and counsel for Ladies Aid and other congregational groups, marital and pre-marital counseling, crisis counseling, youth ministry, seniors ministry, administration of volunteer groups, office administration, etc.

“Worker priests” conduct the divine services on Sundays and festivals, preach at all divine services, teach Bible class on Sunday mornings, and conduct baptisms, marriages, funerals, and other “official acts.” They can’t be expected to do anything more than this, since ordination does not supply super-human abilities or energy. Such “worker priests,” if they have been properly trained and certified, should not be viewed as “second-class” pastors by anyone. Graduates of the DELTO program were given the same status in the roster of the LCMS, as published in The Lutheran Annual, as pastors with the Master of Divinity degree. The DELTO program was modified in 2004 (ibid., 136) and eliminated in 2007 with the adoption of SMP (ibid., pp. 137-138).

In discussions about SMP, people in the synod have often ignored the “Alternate Route” (hereafter AR) program. This program allowed for a reduced seminary program for men in specific categories: commissioned LCMS church-worker with 8 years of experience in LCMS congregational-or-school service and a Bachelor’s degree from a Concordia University; laymen at least 35 years old with at least 10 years significant experience in Word-functions in LCMS congregations (elder, lector, evangelism caller, Bible class teacher, etc.); or men licensed by district presidents to perform functions belonging to the pastoral office. Men in the “Alternate Route” program did not receive Master’s degrees, only certification. They too were given the same status in the roster of the LCMS as pastors with the Master of Divinity degree.

What is the difference in training between the SMP, AR, and MDiv programs? The simplest basis of comparison is credit hours. These credit hours include field education and vicarage. According to a recent academic catalog (CTS, Fort Wayne, 2008-09 Academic Catalog), MDiv students are required to complete 139 credit hours, AR students complete 101 credit hours, and SMP complete 16 courses, i.e., 48 credit hours. Thus SMP students receive about one- third the training of MDiv students; and SMP students receive less than one-half the training of AR students. Furthermore, it should be noted that SMP students do not have to be graduates of high school or college (ibid., pp. 52-53).

Although the reduced amount of training for the SMP program is certainly significant, even more significant, in my opinion, is the altered admissions process into pastoral training. The admissions process into our Lutheran seminaries has always been rigorous, because it is scriptural. The biblical qualifications for pastoral candidates, and their rationale, are stated clearly, and frequently, in the New Testament, especially in the Pastoral Epistles.

The reason Paul wrote each of the Pastoral Epistles is also clear: “command certain men not to teach false doctrine” (I Timothy 1:3); “what you have heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching” (II Timothy 1:13); “appoint elders in every town . . . an elder must be blameless . . . he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:5-6 and Titus 1:9). The biblical qualifications for pastoral candidates in the Pastoral Epistles are found, in summarized form, in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. These biblical qualifications for pastoral candidates are a direct consequence of Paul’s concern for a pastor’s blameless life and sound teaching. In other words, Paul and the Holy Spirit knew that the easiest way to prevent “wolves from slipping into the sheep fold” was to bar them at the gate.

The front “gate” into the pastoral ministry under the SMP program is the district office, not the two seminaries. This is obvious by reading the present procedures for application (ibid., pp. 52-53). All the initial screening and interviewing of candidates is done by the “District Interview Committee,” who are presumably appointed by their District President. Applications for candidates which pass the District “gate” are forwarded to the seminaries, who may in many cases be influenced, or pressured by, the District President’s “Letter of Nomination” in evaluating the “blameless life” and orthodoxy of the candidate (ibid., pp. 52-53). So, to put it simply, the real purpose of the SMP program was to reduce the training requirements for the pastoral office and to alter the “gate-keeping” function of the seminary admissions offices.

Since the SMP program claimed to be offering to the LCMS “church planters and missionaries,” one might wonder whether it is living up to its original claims. Recent enrollment statistics for 2010-11 indicate that SMP students were working-while-studying as: sole pastor (1), staff pastors (23), specialized (Hispanic, youth, chaplain—4); vacancy (2); satellite (3). Saint Louis- only enrollment statistics for 2011-12 indicate: sole pastor (1); staff pastors (15); specialized (1); vacancy (1); DCE (1); music community outreach (1). Other sources indicate there are at least two “church planters” so far.

Most frequent, by far, is the use of SMP students as “staff pastors,” i.e., assistant pastors of large congregations. One cannot help but feel that the synod has been lied to by the original proponents of SMP, but they might argue that their intentions have not been fulfilled. In that case, it is time to review and reform the SMP program. The latest news indicates it is past time to reform the program.

Last week, an SMP student was in the news (see People who think that his rock band “Megadeth” is just another band, like the Beach Boys, should read up on what we are really dealing with here (see WIKI Megadeth; WIKI Trash Metal; and WIKI Dave Ellefson). If you don’t want to read all of this, just read the sections titled “Lyrical Themes” and “Controversy” on this web-page (WIKI Megadeth).

I have no problem with rock music as entertainment. This particular case is not about using rock music in the church, which is a debatable practice, in any event. The problem that I have with accepting this candidate into the ministry is that he is continuing to work as a rock- musician-on-tour, of the “heavy metal” or “thrash metal” sort, while he is training to be a pastor in the LCMS. His Christian witness is compromised by his participation in a group with this sort of history. He should be required by the SMP admissions officers to renounce participation in a group which continues to perform this sort of music and lyrics. Why has his pastor not quoted to him the applicable Bible verse, with apt musical imagery: “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?” (II Corinthians 6:15).

There is simply no way that this man’s full-time job as rock musician–for this band–passes the qualifications of: “above reproach, . . . temperate, self-controlled, respectable, . . . not violent but gentle . . . He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” (I Timothy 3:2-7).

Having said this, people should not criticize this student for availing himself of the opportunity provided by the SMP program. He would hardly be expected to know the internal workings of the LCMS, much less the many biblical teachings about the pastoral office! I am certainly glad that he has come back to the church and is participating in the worship life of his congregation. I wish him and his family well, and that our Lord would continue to bless his growth in the faith.

The criticism should be leveled primarily at the front “gate” that let him in—the Pacific Southwest District President, Larry Stoterau and his “District Interview Committee.” The Saint Louis seminary admissions office also bears blame for approving this man. They should have simply said “No!” to the Pacific Southwest District President, but perhaps the admissions officer feels that his job is at stake here. I don’t know, but I think most synodical staff would find it hard to say “No” to Rev. Stoterau, who also happens to be the chairman of the Council of Presidents.

Let’s lay off pressure on the SMP student and bring it to bear where it belongs. The responsibility lies with the Pacific Southwest District President, his District Interview Committee, and the Saint Louis seminary admissions office. If the defense is, “We are too busy to really check out the SMP candidates in detail,” or “We thought the other guy checked that part out,” well, then that just proves that SMP admissions should return to being under the unhindered control of the seminaries. This case proves that if the SMP admissions process is not returned to the seminaries, and carefully regulated by them, then the SMP program will mean “mega-death” for LCMS congregations.

Here is a suggested resolution to help the LCMS return to a well-ordered ministry. You are encouraged to submit this to your congregation, your Circuit Forum, your District Convention, and the 2013 Synodical Convention. Other similar resolutions are also encouraged—the more the better!


This resolution is duplicated under our list of Overtures proposed for your church, circuit, district, or synod levels.



Whereas, the “Specific Ministry Pastor” (hereafter SMP) program was adopted in 2007 with the claim that it would produce “church planters and missionaries” (2007 Convention Proceedings, p. 133); and

Whereas, the SMP program to-date has produced few “church planters” or “missionaries,” but rather 70% of the students in the program are identified as “staff pastors” of large congregations (2010-11 enrollment statistics); and

Whereas, the SMP program altered the pastoral training admissions process, so that the district offices are heavily involved in the admissions process with the seminaries, and this inhibits the seminary admissions offices from
fulfilling their vocation of ensuring that candidates for seminary
admission meet the biblical requirements for admission to the pastoral ministry in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9; and

Whereas, there continues to be concern about the fact that SMP students receive about one- third the amount of training as M.Div. students, and also do not have to be graduates of a college or high school; therefore, be it

Resolved, that the admissions process for the SMP program be immediately turned over to the sole authority of the seminaries, so that all students received for the pastoral ministry, in any program, have the same process and same rigorous examination of fitness for ministry; and be it further

Resolved, that any duties held by district offices in the pastoral training admissions process be reduced to whatever they presently have in the M.Div. program; and be it finally

Resolved, that the President of the Synod appoint a Task Force from faculty members of both seminaries and members of the Council of Presidents, to review the SMP program, assess its graduates, and to report its findings and recommendations to the 2016 synodical convention.

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