Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Is there a draft in here?

Is there a draft in here? or, The Movement of the Holy Spirit in the ELCA Assignment Process

This week is Regional Assignments for ELCA seminarians. It's an interesting process full of excitement and uncertainty. It's exciting to know that you are learning about your future, but it's uncertain because you don't have all the control over what you're learning.

You see, among all the paperwork and essay writing you do in the candidacy process, your senior year you fill out some forms to let the ELCA know where you would like to end up. The ELCA is separated into 9 regions and within those regions there are 65 synods. On the paperwork, you are given the opportunity to let the ELCA know where in the midst of all of them you'd like to go.

You have a few options on how you'd like to do this. One option is to restrict. You can say that you only want to end up in a certain synod (or perhaps synods). They give you space, then, to explain why you are restricting. Perhaps you have a spouse who has a job they love, or a loved one with health concerns that you want to be near. Or any number of reasons really. The synod(s) you choose to restrict to then have the option to approve or deny your restriction.

Another option is the "go anywhere" box. There is a box on the form that you can check that let the synods and bishops know that you are open to going anywhere, without preference. There is some excitement in checking that box and leaving the future wide open. But, then you have to really be open to going anywhere. As in South Carolina, or Western North Dakota, or Kentucky, or Missouri, or Nebraska, or Wyoming, or Delaware, or New Mexico... basically anywhere. I mean, you could get upset if you ended up somewhere you didn't like, but then why'd you check the "go anywhere" box? A note about this particular option, you would think that bishops and synods would like this option. Here is someone who is open to the process and willing to go anywhere to serve the mission of the Church. But, in conversation with a handful of them my senior year of seminary, they said that they know that people have preferences. There are places you would like to end up and places you would not like to end up. So let them know where you'd like to end up.

To do that, you have the third option of checking the "open to anywhere, but with preferences" box. This option says that there are places you would prefer to end up. Then, it gives you space to write down three regions of the ELCA you would prefer. And then, within those three regions, you are allowed to choose three synods in each. This gives you the opportunity to express where you would like to end up, but it leaves you open to other possibilities, too. Most people, in my experience, choose this option. The bishops I referred to in my previous paragraph said that they try to honor one of your preferences, but that is not always the case. Sometimes people end up somewhere that wasn't on their radar. Often times it's because bishops and synod staff have ideas for that particular person. But sometimes it just happens.

Now, after all the forms are sent in, bishops and synod staff members and seminary presidents get together in what we call "The Draft." We call it that because it seems to be very similar to something like the NFL or NBA draft. You have all these candidates looking to be rostered leaders in the ELCA, the seminary presidents representing them and you have all these synods with spots they want to fill. Now I cannot write with any certainty what this process actually looks like, as I've never been to the draft. I want, with every fiber of my being, to see what happens there, to watch the interaction between the bishops and synod staff as they sort through the candidates. But somehow, at the end of the day, all of the candidates are assigned to a region.

Then, the presidents return to their schools and let the students know what region they've been assigned. Then the students wait (sometimes a couple days, sometimes a couple weeks) for a phone call from a bishop letting them know which synod they've landed in. This is a nerve wracking time for seminary students. It can be an exciting time (for those who are open to going anywhere, or receive an assignment they are happy about) and it can be an upsetting time (to someone who has their restriction denied or who gets an assignment they didn't list as a preference). I am sure that all involved in the process - ELCA, regions, synods, seminaries, students and families - would love your prayers.

Even though it's been five years now since I was in the process, I remember it vividly. As I mentioned before, there was a group of about five bishops who showed up on the campus of Wartburg Seminary my senior year. It was an annual event, a different group of bishops showed up each year to talk to the senior students and spouses, to give them some sort of idea of what the assignment process looked like. After a time of questions and answers (where I asked about checking the "go anywhere" box, which I was seriously contemplating) there was a wine and cheese reception.

It was at this reception that I happened to have a long conversation with one of the bishops. He was representing a synod out in Pennsylvania, which at that time was nowhere on my radar. But we hit it off famously and had a wonderful conversation. At the end of the evening he asked if he could take my name so that, when it came time for regional assignments, he could make sure to request me for his synod. Excited at this prospect, I gave him my name.

Then, as I filled out my assignment paperwork, I would often e-mail him asking his advice on how to fill parts of it out so that I would end up in his synod. I picked Region 7 as my first choice, since that's the region where his synod was. I put his synod as my first choice, followed by Metro New York and Upstate New York. I then picked Region 5, which is Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, and chose three synods in Wisconsin as my preferences in that region. Then, as my third choice I picked Region 3, which is North and South Dakota and Minnesota. At that time, I really only wanted to end up in Northeast Minnesota, as some of my best friends were in that synod at that time. But I was afraid if I only chose one synod and left the other two options blank, that it might leave me open to ending up somewhere else in that region. So I put the Minneapolis and St Paul Area Synods in those two open spots because I knew there really was no reason I would end up in either. The "word on the street" was that there are waiting lists for both synods of seminary graduates looking for calls in these synods. No way a Wartburg grad would end up there.

I met with my seminary's president and showed him my paperwork. He said that if I put that particular synod as my first choice, and that the bishop there was asking for me, it was pretty certain that I would end up there. He also said that I could scratch the Minneapolis and St Paul synods off of my list because Wartburg grads never ended up there. I told him that was pretty much why they were on the list.

Finally, it was Assignment Day. My class gathered with our families in one of the rooms on campus. Staff and faculty showed up to support us. Our Academic Dean shared a few words and then sealed envelopes were passed out. Inside those envelopes was our future. Some quickly opened them, some were more tentative. I think I was a quick one. I pulled out the letter, knowing I was going to see Region 7 printed on that paper. But, lo and behold, there was Region 3. I was a little taken aback, perhaps a bit upset. But I knew that it was a preference I had listed and so I couldn't be angry about it.

I figured, then, that I was going to end up in Northeast Minnesota. That made the most sense to me, but I also knew that it wasn't written in stone. I could still end up in Southeast MN or Western North Dakota or anywhere in between. So I learned the names of the different bishops and prepared myself to sound excited regardless which voice was on the other end of the phone.

Well, a few days later I was doing my work study job down in the youth room of the seminary. There were kids running all over. Some were watching a show on TV, a few were playing a game on the computer, and little Erica was smacking the daylights out of a large, bouncy ball with a wiffle ball bat. And that's when my cellphone vibrated. And that's when I found out that I had been assigned to the Minneapolis Area Synod. I was the first Wartburg Seminary grad "in memorable history" to get assigned to that synod. And it had been my second synod preference in my third regional preference, and had been put there simply to hold a spot not because I actually thought I'd end up there.

But that was five years ago now. I have been in my current congregation since then (well, about six months after that) and have been greatly blessed by the people I serve and the ministry I do. It was not what I was expecting, and not really the place I had been hoping to end up in, but the Holy Spirit is funny that way. God can take our best laid plans and mix them all up until they don't look anything like what we imagined, but if we are faithful and trust that God knows what God is doing, and we open ourselves to the work of the Spirit in our lives, the result can be amazing. This might not have been where I was expecting to end up, but I wouldn't have had it any other way.

So my prayers go out to you, my brothers and sisters who will find out tomorrow (Wednesday) what your Regional Assignment will be. Enter in this process with excitement and trust and faith that even if you don't end up where you've been planning, that God has amazing things in store for you.


  1. It's amazing isn't it? They all think waiting for tomorrow is the hardest. Little do they know waiting to hear from a bishop is even worse!:)

  2. And wait until they have to sweat over hearing back from a call committee...

  3. Thanks for the rundown - I'll be going through the "draft" next year!

  4. Thanks for the pastoral words of wisdom, Mark.

  5. That's very interesting Mark. I've often wondered how you found your way here. Like you said, I've always heard that there is a huge pool of people trying to get into the MPLS area. Funny, maybe they would have a better chance if they requested someplace else!