Part Two of my ongoing series about getting ready for first call. Check out Part One to read about the approval essay.
If you're a seminarian getting ready for assignment, you've probably found yourself explaining the process to friends, family members, parishioners from your internship site... the list goes on. If you're a friend, family member, etc. of a seminarian, you're probably interested in what a senior in seminary goes through. Assignment is complicated, and it can be confusing. I'll do my best to give an outline of how the process works.
Assignment for First Call: "So, you could go anywhere?"
Unlike nearly any other job (although the military seems similar, from what I understand), graduating ELCA seminarians going into their first call go through an assignment process. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you're not expected to go out and find yourself a job, like most people have to when they get out of school. Instead, you are (ideally) matched with a congregation that needs your gifts and abilities. On the other hand, you don't have a lot of control over where you end up -- that decision is in the hands of the church, specifically the bishops. I'll be honest and say that it can be stressful to let go of that control.
So, how does the process work? In later posts, I'll write about the nuts and bolts, the paperwork seminarians have to fill out before they are assigned, the stages along the way. In this post, I want to lay out the broad outline of this nearly year-long process, as well as explain the geographical regions of the ELCA.
Every year, there are a group of graduating seminarians from the eight ELCA seminaries. And, throughout the church, there are congregations in need of pastors. Not all of these congregations are good contexts for first call pastors; their bishops help to decide which congregations will be open to being a first call site. The goal of assignment is to match up these soon-to-be-pastors with calls that are a good fit for their gifts and abilities. However, the church does not assign graduating seminarians directly to congregations (although it used to work that way, at least in some of the Lutheran denominations that preceded the ELCA). Instead, seminarians are assigned to a region and then a synod, and that's the process we call "Assignment".
Assignment for First Call: Regions? Synods?
A friend of mine, and spouse of a now-graduated seminarian, made a fantastic resource for anyone trying to understand the assignment process: a map of the regions of the ELCA. As you can see, the ELCA is divided into nine geographic regions. Each of these regions is broken into synods. (The size of the synods was determined by population of Lutherans, not land area. That's why you can have one synod - the Rocky Mountain Synod - that encompasses New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and the panhandle of Texas, while the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul rate two synods.) Seminarians are assigned first to one of these regions, then to a synod within that region.
So, as a seminarian, do you have any control over where you're assigned? In a limited sense, yes. Loosely speaking, there are two ways a seminarian can influence their assignment: restriction and preference. If a seminarian has a restriction, that means he or she can only accept a call in a certain area due to extenuating circumstances. For example, he might have young kids in school and a spouse with a job who can't move; or she might have an aging parent for whom she provides care. In these cases, the seminarian fills out additional paperwork explaining their restriction (e.g. within fifty miles of a certain city) and their reason. These restrictions are taken seriously by the church, but they can mean that a seminarian has to wait much longer for a call.
Even if a seminarian doesn't have a pressing reason to restrict, he or she can still state preferences for where he or she would like to be assigned. For example, you could state a preference for Region 2 first, then Region 6, and then Region 3 (three regions is the most you can preference). Preferences are no guarantee for where you'll end up, but they are taken into consideration at the regional assignment meeting.
Assignment for First Call: The Draft Pick
Every year, the bishops in each region come together and decide how many first call spots they have available. At the same time, they receive loads of paperwork (more on that in Part Three) from the graduating seminarians who have been approved for ordination. This gives them an idea of who will be available at assignment. It also allows them to see the preferences or restrictions the seminarians have stated.
In February (for seminarians who will be graduating in the spring), these bishops gather in Chicago, along with representatives from each of the seminaries. Seminarians humorously refer to this meeting as "the draft pick". To understand how it works, I recommend reading this post from a bishop who's been there. In short, the seminarians are doled out to each of the regions based on their preferences, the first call sites available, and the matches bishops have in mind. Again, bishops don't assign a first call pastor directly to a congregation - "You, go to this church" - but they often have contexts in mind that would be a good fit for a particular seminarian. Also, a bishop can't request more first call pastors than they have calls for. In theory, that helps to ensure that graduating seminarians aren't sitting around for months waiting for a church. The system is imperfect, but it's set up to be as effective as possible both for congregations and seminarians.
Well, that's about as brief as a summary could be. This is the process my classmates and I will be going through this year. There are plenty of details - and probably plenty of anxiety - to describe over the next few months. Check back here to find out more.