Ordained Ministry in the UMC - Part II

omeone asked me when I was going to write a book about my thoughts about the UMC. I told him in light of my last post, writing such a book would fall under Category Three of the Magliozzi's theory: "Reinvent Everything." Plus, if I did write a book and got it published, someone might get the idea that I was considering a run at the episcopacy. Yikes.

There are way too many good things already written that need to be heeded. Related to ordained ministry, a document that REALLY needs to be read, studied, and implemented is "Becoming a Pastor: Reflections on the Transition into Ministry." You can download it by clicking here. The Alban Institute did the work, and the Lilly Endowment funded it. That's enough authority for me.

The report looked at 800 beginning pastors in their first call or appointment in parish ministry, a collective endeavor that was named Transition into Ministry. It shows, with damning evidence, the wide disconnects between beginning pastors, seminary education, and denominational judicatories (in the UMC, that would be our Cabinets and Conference Boards of Ministry). The bottom line is that the transition into ministry is an increasingly complex and lonely process which is not just undermining clergy effectiveness, but starving churches of leadership and spiritual direction.

Seminary doesn't always help. The report quoted a book that a Lutheran pastor had written several years ago about his first church (Richard Lischer's Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey through a Country Church). Years of theological and ministerial preparation, along with a Ph.D, had not adequately prepared him for the average church in Southern Illinois (just a hop, skip, and a jump from where I presently live). He made it through, but came to a very shocking discovery. In his words:
Eight years of theological education had rendered us [Lischer and his seminary classmates] uncertain of our identity and, like our professors, unemployable in the real world. After years of grooming, we were no longer sure what it meant to be a pastor or if we wanted to be one. (Open Secrets, p. 40, and "Becoming a Pastor", p. 9)
It is quite possible that we have approached arrogance in our model of educating and training clergy. A cookie-cutter process, psychological evaluations, and theological evaluation of clergy candidates may have their place, but it is not contributing to the essentials that are evidently not being taught: being the local spiritual leader in a community, being able to work collaboratively with a parish that has a broad range of viewpoints and inviting shared vision to church ministry and mission. Seminaries tend to reward folks with self-initiative. Congregations need leaders who can work with people. Before we knock seminaries too hard, most seminary professors are folks steeped in academia, not ecclesia. And in all honesty, at least in United Methodism, our seminaries are really not seminaries - they are schools of divinity/theology.

While I don't want to knock academia, it is possible that we have made it the focus of the learning experience for those called to pastoral ministry. That seems misplaced to me, and I agree with the report: the congregation should be the focus of the learning experience for training clergy. We have probably gotten too academic for our own good. I think we should co-opt the model used for the training of medical physicians: academia AND residency. The report says it better:
Only when both domains of pastoral formation - the seminary and the congregation - recognize and resource one another can the full range of formation be accomplished. (p. 20)
We need to look at ways to approach addressing the inadequacies. And if anyone says that we don't need to do this, ask yourself: are we making disciples for Jesus Christ? So far, the United Methodist Church, since its birth in 1968 from the merger of two denominations, hasn't gained in membership - it's only lost membership. While it might not ALL be due to pastoral ineffectiveness, leadership DOES play a big part.



Joe Baseball said…
A couple of opinions, if I may:
1) Seminaries are attempting to train theologians rather than local church pastors. This is understandable, as they are staffed by theologians rather than church pastors. A noble calling, no doubt, but 97 year old Aunt Jane and her family don't give a rat's tail about your Cobb, Cone or Niebuhr as she lies, dying, in the nursing home. And that's not even mentioning Charge Conference forms and Annual Report forms and forms and forms and forms. As a kid, I dreamed of going into government work. Instead, I just got the paperwork.
2) Our process (you and I are on the same team) may have become more than anything else about protecting those responsible for admission and deployment from litigation should one of us do something bad once we are admitted or deployed. In the spectacularly litigious society, that strategy may be understandable. But how many of Jesus' disciples could have passed our current standards? And they weren't bad at this work.
Tom Pentecost said…
Look at the model that is used by the ELCA (Lutherans). The seminary experience for them is two years of course work, one year in a congregation as an intern, and one more year back at seminary.
Richard Bass said…
To get a printed copy of "Becoming a Pastor," write to tim@alban.org. Thanks for your thought on the report and the challenges.
Bro. Dave said…
How would all of this be different if we did not have guaranteed appointments for clergy, so clergy would have to find our own jobs? Or if we had a call system whereby the locals churches would have to hire their own pastors?
PamBG said…
I don't know anything about the US seminary system but I do know about being a new minister.

It's a balance of being able to think and being able to do. Granted 97 year old Aunt Jane and her family don't care much to hear your Bultmann, but I've already had a situation where the middle-aged child of the deceased came to me because someone else in the congregation had decided that the deceased was not a real Christian and the child needed to know that mother was in hell. That situation did require theology - if not 'academic' theology.

This autumn, my husband and I are moving to the States to be with my parents. As an ordained minister in full connexion (yes, we really do spell it that way) with the British Church, if I'm lucky I might get a Local Pastor appointment. (If I'm unlucky, nothing.) It will be interesting to see if all the things I've read on the 'net about being a second-class citizen are true. The wonderful freedom of being a second-career minister is that one is free from worrying about career-progression. I knew it was never part of the deal anyway.