Because very few people (even within the LCMS) understand how the call process works, especially for first calls, I thought I would try and explain how it works for those who are interested.
What it most definitely is not is a send-out-resumes, interview, get-a-job process. Some church bodies work that way. It is also not a top-down, we’ll-tell-you-where-you’re-going process–although the first call can seem that way.
As far as I know, the LCMS (that’s Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, if you are unfamiliar with it) process is unique, although perhaps the Wisconsin Synod and the ELCA are similar.
Overall, any congregation can call any rostered pastor. There are different ways of getting names, but generally, if the guy is rostered, you can call him. In that way, it’s very congregational. In the LCMS, the district presidents are, from my experience, pretty involved in the call process of congregations in their districts.
The first call (like mine) is in some ways an exception to this rule, but in some other ways not. We, as first year candidates for the Ministry, are placed or assigned. One guy, a Presbyterian, said to me, “I didn’t know Lutherans were so episcopal in their process.” But in important ways, it is not at all episcopal in that sense. We are placed, but in the LCMS the congregations delegate to the district presidents (collectively called the Council of Presidents, which, if you’ve ever been to a call service, “act as the Board of Assignments for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod”) their right to call a pastor. So a congregation chooses to be part of the process of placing new pastors by telling their district president that they would like a candidate. The seminaries gather the information on the candidates (through multiple interviews) and on the congregations who will be calling candidates. The placement director “pre-slots” candidates at congregations along with the representative of the CoP. Through that process, which takes months, finally candidates are placed in congregations. However, when the placing is done, it is the congregations who have called the pastor.
What makes the congregation’s call different than, say, a Baptist or non-denominational congregation’s, is that the congregation (ideally, at least) is not really “hiring” the pastor, and neither can the congregation “fire” the pastor. While it is a call from the congregation, it is also, and ultimately, a Divine Call from God to serve His people in that place. Thus, it is God who (through means, as always) calls His pastors from one place to another.
Some people ask how long I “have to stay there.” (They ask this more often when they find out I’m going to Northern Minnesota.) It is indefinite. Since none of us knows the mind of God, it is impossible to predict how long He will keep me there.
Another issue some people have is with the fact that the placement people at the seminary and the district presidents have control over where the candidates go. It seems cold and calculating, I suppose, that it is not only through prayer and “waiting on the Spirit.” I know that they do pray about the placement process, and I’m sure that “mistakes” are made in that sometimes the candidate does not “fit” with the congregation to which he is called. But shall we really be so bold as to suggest that God does not know what He is doing, even when there is a bad fit? Perhaps God has something to teach the congregation or the pastor, or both. I sometimes think people with this objection would be happier if the placement director would spend two hours praying over each candidate’s file, put a map on the wall, and throw a Spirit-guided dart at the map.
But Lutherans believe that God works through means. If He didn’t, what in the world would sinful men be doing in the Holy Ministry at all? For that matter, what would you be doing in the Church? And would there be fewer means if I decided where I went? As if I could discern God’s will for me better than these experienced men? In fact, I would probably be more likely to let my or my wife’s personal preferences get in the way of where God would send me. Isaiah’s “Here I am, send me” is the appropriate response, not Moses’ “what if’s.”
Is the process perfect? Not likely. We’re all sinners, right? Let’s just say that I trust the experienced men of the placement committee more than I trust myself to be impartial in my own placement. It’s either a Divine Call or a human hiring. Which would you prefer? I’ll take the former (even if it is to Northern Minnesota).