He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. – Colossians 1:15-18
I have spent the bulk of my life in and around Lutheran Schools. I attended both an LCMS elementary school and high school. After one year at a community college, I enrolled at Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Michigan so that I could earn both a bachelor’s degree as well as my Lutheran Teaching Diploma (LTD) in order to become a commissioned minister, eligible to take a call as a teacher in a Lutheran School. I served as a called worker for 14 years before earning my Master’s degree in Educational Leadership (at CUAA) which is now where I currently work as the Coordinator of Secondary Education. A big part of my job is to help prepare the next generation of middle and high school teachers for work in a variety of settings, but primarily to be commissioned ministers in Lutheran schools. I say all of this to provide a foundation to share what has been on my heart for some time regarding an issue the LCMS now faces.
A case was recently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court involving a Lutheran school and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At the heart of the suit is the question of whether a teacher in a Lutheran school who primarily teaches secular curricula can be considered a minister. Having established my background, it should surprise no one that I do believe that a teacher who completed the LTD or colloquy program is a commissioned minister. It should also come as no surprise that I am deeply concerned about this case and the potential impact that this decision will have upon not only LCMS schools, but all religious based education in America. But while this may be the most serious attack I’ve seen on this position, it is not the first.
As a Lutheran educator, I have had more than one pastor tell me in no uncertain terms that “the only true ministers within the church are those who are ordained.” Usually, this idea would be followed with more catchy clichés like: “The buck stops in the pastor’s office,” or “Go run your school and when it comes to the direction of ministry, do what you’re told.” Yes, there are differences between the offices of pastor and teacher – no argument there. But as Romans 12 reminds us, we are one body in Christ. And if we intend to strengthen and grow that body we must not allow this idea to remain. Doing so gives validity to the inferiority of commissioned teachers and adds fuel to the secular view.
Another attack I’ve seen has come from within the ranks of the teaching ministry itself. The state and federal governments have imposed incredible regulations upon the American educational system. They believe that we need to improve the quality of our schools and are spending billions of dollars to do so. As public schools have undergone these sweeping reforms in the name of educational improvements, Lutheran schools have felt the need to follow suit. We never want it to be said that our schools don’t measure up, so we’ve worked hard to meet or exceed the standards whenever possible. But in doing so, we have begun to ever so slightly shift our focus away from our primary purpose for existence; to unapologetically demonstrate that Jesus Christ is first in every facet of our lives and ministry. This shift has made it possible for the high court to look at our schools and compartmentalize our curriculum. As some claim, we teach a religion component, a math component, a science component, a social science component, a reading component and so on without any intermingling. Our teachers are content area specialists, having taken tests required by the state to earn an endorsement. We market these achievements, often leaving our Christian values to be taken for granted – after all, the sign out front says Lutheran. Isn’t that enough?
I recently had the opportunity to visit Spiritus Sanctus Academy, a Catholic elementary school located in Plymouth, Michigan. As a student teaching coordinator, I’ve been in dozens of different schools over the years, but SSA featured something different. As I walked in the door I noticed a sign placed prominently outside of the office which read…
“Be it known to all who enter here that Christ is the reason for this school. He is the unseen but ever present teacher in its classes. He is the model of its faculty, and the inspiration of its students.”
An impressive statement, but what made it all the more impressive was the way that sign permeated the school. Every student, teacher, staff member, and parent volunteer demonstrated that belief in the way the worked, talked, volunteered, worshipped and served. Now I’m not so naïve as to believe that conflict is repelled because of the sign. But as I toured the building, I didn’t doubt the truth of that statement for a moment. It serves as a reminder, a tone-setter, and measuring stick by which the school assesses itself at every level. It can also be the basis upon which we as individual Christians assess our every thought, word and deed.
A mission statement has no value if it is not indicative of the unique work and behaviors of those people who make up the organization. So if we are going to reemphasize the pre-eminence of Christ in our schools, it must first start within the hearts and minds of every individual student, parent, teacher, administrator, board member, pastor, secretary, janitor, and volunteer. We must surrender our lives to Christ, and through Him make decisions to live by His word at all times. We must share the love of God that is living in our hearts to every person we encounter in every situation throughout every day. We must support and encourage one another to best their best, offering prayers whenever possible and forgiveness whenever necessary. This isn’t to say that we don’t care about academics. I know hundreds of LCMS teachers – all of whom are highly qualified, well prepared, effective educational professionals. The quality of our academic program has never been the question. So while our small, safe and successful environment is inviting, I pray that our complete, unquestioned love and modeling of Christ in action will excite them.
This is why we exist. This is who we are. Let’s show the rest of the world!