With students from at least 14 countries, its influence is international.
With a 200-acre campus at 6600 N. Clinton St. designed by the architect of the famed St. Louis arch, its tranquil beauty is inspiring.
With a history dating back to 1846, its legacy is undeniable.
And yet Concordia Theological Seminary – one of just two U.S. institutions preparing ministers for the 2.5 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod – remains one of Fort Wayne's hidden treasures.
The Rev. Larry Rast, who succeeded the Rev. Dean Wenthe as president last year, would like to change that – even though earthly notoriety is hardly his top priority.
“This is an incredible resource for the community at large. It's an architectural gem, tucked away but one-of-a-kind. Its biblical knowledge, philosophical capacity and historical depth are world-class,” said Rast, whose main job is to lead – and solicit financial support for – an institution determined to remain faithful to Scripture even when the world disagrees.
While many mainline Protestant denominations are hemorrhaging membership – a trend Rast attributes to their willingness to trade doctrine for acceptance – he acknowledges that the LCMS is struggling to maintain its membership, too, if to a lesser degree.
“We're in for significant changes. Mainline churches will decline or merge,” Rast predicted, adding that churches confessing consistent beliefs will appeal to people seeking stability in an ever-changing world.
One of the LCMS' beliefs – shared by the Roman Catholic Church and some other denominations – is that the Bible limits the ministry to men only. Even so, Rast said, women are welcome on campus – and represent an important part of the seminary's student body.
In addition to this year's incoming class of 35 pastoral candidates – a smaller-than-normal anomaly he attributes in part to the economy – Concordia for the past decade has also trained female deaconess students who Rast describes as “workers of mercy.” Add students in master's-level, doctoral programs and others and the seminary has a total full-time enrollment of about 300. “That places us in the 80th (largest) percentile among seminaries in the U.S. and Canada,” Rast said. The LCMS seminary in St. Louis — the synod's headquarters – -- has about 550 students.
Although the 2013 freshman class is already expected to be larger than this year's, Rast said his expertise with computers and social media should boost the seminary's efforts at recruitment, fundraising and distance learning.
And Concordia's international reach extends in both directions. In addition to training foreign students in Fort Wayne, the seminary has also been active overseas, helping to train pastors in Africa, the former Soviet Union, South America and elsewhere.
In fact, the seminary is itself the product of international outreach. When word reached Germany that Lutherans in America's Midwestern wilderness were lacking trained pastors, a Bavarian pastor named Wilhelm Lohe organized an effort that led to the creation of a seminary in St. Paul Lutheran Church pastor Wilhelm Sihler's parsonage in 1846. In 1849, the seminary moved to a location east of downtown that today is home to Indiana Tech.
Its current campus remains much as it was when the seminary moved there in 1976 – except for one major addition.
That would be the new library, which was designed to match Finnish architect Eero Saarinen's original vision and will expand the current facility's capacity from 15,000 square feet to about 60,000 square feet. Although the digital age has dramatically changed the need for and use of printed materials – and the facility will be equipped with the latest technology – Rast is confident that “books aren't going away,” especially at research libraries such as his.
Just one problem: Although the shell is ready, the project can't be completed until the seminary raises another $3 million toward the total $9 million cost. And so Rast spends much of his time on the road, promoting the seminary's work and soliciting the money needed to continue that work.
Even so, he said, “The Lord has been very good to us. People have been incredibly generous,” with an endowment fund that by the time Wenthe left had grown from $4 million to $20 million. As an historian as well as a theologian, Rast said his understanding of where Lutheranism is and has been in the broader Christian context will help the seminary meet whatever challenges the future may bring.