Seminary-Congregation Partnerships: Luther Seminary

Occasionally I come across an article or paper that gets me thinking fresh thoughts about an old topic. The Lilly Endowment website, Resources for American Christianity (, has such an article by long-time friend and colleague John Mulder. John served for many years as president of Louisville Seminary.

In a recent paper Mulder reviews a project based at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis. The project asks “What Makes a Vibrant Congregation?” This is the subject of a Lilly-funded project aimed at creating new forms of partnership between seminaries and congregations. The project director is David Lose of the Luther faculty.

From Mulder’s report on the project: “`Dynamic, life-giving faith is believing that God is active in the world and desiring to join that activity,'” Lose states. He adds, “`It is the practiced ability to see God in the world (often hidden where one would not expect God to be) and to discern where and how one might partner with God in God’s ongoing work to love, bless, and save the world.'”

The project includes substantial changes in the seminary’s curriculum to give greater attention to congregations. The project director makes a helpful distinction between studying congregations and studying with congregations. Lose says, “We intend to walk along side our partner congregations, accompany them on their various journeys to vibrancy, and thereby learn both from them and with them how they have grown, why at times they have fallen short, how other congregations may learn from their successes and failures, and what we should know about preparing leaders for vibrant congregations.”

The Luther Seminary curriculum focuses on four principal goals: 1) biblical preaching and worship, 2) the vocation of all God’s people, 3) congregational mission and leadership, and 4) children youth and family ministry. Consultations with congregations added two more emphases for the Vibrant Congregations project: 5) biblical fluency and 6) stewardship.

Over the years Luther Seminary has pioneered in distance learning and the new project has a strong web component.

Here’s Mulder’s summary: "…web-based resources constitute a major piece of the Vibrant Congregations Project, based on Luther Seminary’s extraordinary success in this area. , which focuses on preaching and worship, was launched by Luther Seminary two years ago and now has 300,000 hits from more than 100 countries each month. Another site,, has been launched, and it focuses on biblical fluency by providing reference and study tools to individuals or groups. Other sites—dealing with congregational mission, stewardship, and vocation—are being developed. These will complement another Seminary website dealing with youth ministry. It will combine , which deals with research under the Lilly youth ministry grant, with one that deals with an annual conference on youth ministry,"

Mulder reports there is buy-in on the part of the Luther faculty:
Lose, a former Dean at Luther Seminary, is encouraged so far by the reaction of the Luther faculty. “We have three groups of faculty,” he says. “One third is strongly supportive and deeply engaged. Another third has expressed interest and gradually entered into direct participation.” He adds, somewhat drily, “A small group is lightly interested.”

“Lightly interested” seems to be a nice way of saying some faculty are letting the project happen while they do their own thing, which I suppose would be positive progress in a lot of schools!

I’m impressed by Mulder’s report and by the experiment at Luther Seminary. Theological education needs new models for seminary-congregation partnerships that are born not out of institutional desperation but out of strength. If Luther, a strong school with a solid reputation, can take on a project of this kind, others may be willing to follow.

While my own list of qualities of vibrancy would be different, I like the fact that the Luther project developed its list in collaboration with its partner congregations. The marks of vibrancy are more than simple measures of organizational strength. Too many of the current efforts aimed at congregational “revitalization” lack any evidence of theological reflection on the qualities of the “good” or “faithful” congregation.

Here’s the full report: