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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Luther’s enduring legacy

ELCA colleges, universities help the church cultivate a sense of vocation

Editor’s note: Section editor Elizabeth Hunter interviewed Darrell Jodock, Martin E. Marty Chair in Religion and the Academy at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. Jodock often speaks with ELCA college and university presidents about the gifts Lutherans bring to higher education—and not just seminaries. 

The Lutheran: Why is it so important for Lutherans to be involved in colleges and universities? How important was education to Martin Luther?  

Jodock: It’s primarily important because through our colleges and universities we make a contribution to larger society: we educate people with attention to the Christian faith and priorities of the kingdom of God. Colleges and universities, like congregations, operate at the intersection of faith and daily life. I think our colleges and universities can use their unique gifts and resources to help people in the church negotiate those intersections. 

For Martin Luther, the primary overarching purpose of education was to enhance wisdom so citizens could lead their communities and their households. Luther wrote an open letter to city councils urging them to open schools for young men and women. Education was front and center for Luther in the sense of building up the church and the larger society. He published the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, sermons, introductions to the Bible and treatise after treatise.

When they founded the Lutheran colleges and universities, [ELCA predecessors wanted] to provide teachers and educated clergy for immigrant groups and to educate people so they could make a meaningful contribution to the larger American society. The purpose of higher education is to enhance our ability to serve our neighbors and the community.   

How are Lutheran colleges and universities different from other schools? 

One of the standout differences is their focus on cultivating a sense of vocation — a sense that we are called to serve the larger world, humanity and our neighbor in whatever we are doing. Some have said that grace and vocation are the two pillars of the Lutheran Reformation. Vocation is something from our Lutheran heritage that we can gift to our larger society. It encompasses our work, our families, our citizenship (how we make a difference in the public arena) and how we engage with the rest of the world. Vocation gives us a deep sense of God’s sustaining activity in the world. A sense of vocation challenges us with questions such as “Who benefits from our work?” and “Who is harmed by it?”

Gustavus Adolphus (St. Peter, Minn.) graduate, an ophthalmologist, told me that every morning he wonders: “What is my vocation today? Will it be the way I talk with my staff or my patients?”

Vocation has sometimes slipped from American church life, but ELCA colleges and universities are retrieving it and holding it up for celebration. 

ELCA colleges and universities are a setting in which civil discourse can take place, trust can be built and we can find solutions to common problems. I think [this] comes from Luther’s heritage and his caution about claiming to know too much about God. On other campuses, there’s a tendency to overvalue discoveries and say we now understand genetics and other advances. But with every advance, we need to acknowledge what we don’t know or knowledge will become ideology [and] oppressive, demanding that everyone agree with it. Just because you have knowledge doesn’t mean you always know how to use it in a way that benefits society. We need wisdom with knowledge.


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