Saturday, December 01, 2012

A Pastor By Any Other Name

Earlier today, I entered a status update on Facebook: "[Attending] Paducah District Part-Time Local Pastor's Breakfast — at Massac United Methodist Church." And I ask the forgiveness of all for such an update.

A friend of mine sent me a message, "Doesn't it bother you to participate in an institutional caste system, which segregates people into laity, clergy, part-time local pastors, probationers ... yada, yada, yada?.. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Jesus washed his disciples feet and said the last shall be first."

He's absolutely correct. How horrible of me to call some of the most faithful pastors in the world, "part-time, local pastors." I apologize.

The United Methodist Church has one of the strangest theologies (or lack of theology) where ordination and clergy are concerned. We have various levels/classifications of clergy that confuse everyone and confound any kind of theology of ordination. We have elders who are ordained to Word, Table, Service, and Order; and deacons, who are ordained to Word and service. But then we have provisional members who are commissioned (but not ordained). And then we have local pastors who are licensed (but not ordained). And then we have associate members who itinerate and have security of appointment (but are not ordained). And then we have supply pastors who are NOT licensed (nor are they ordained). In short - there are (at least) 26 different kinds of designations for clergy in the UMC. There isn't a denomination or communion in Christianity that comes anywhere close to that.

An Episcopalian priest, who is an acquaintance of mine, once asked me about all this. "How does someone who's not ordained preside at the sacraments and baptisms and weddings?" After I tried to explain it, I just got a stare and a "Huh?"
Amidst all these distinctions, however, I've found that the congregations they serve usually just call them "pastor." And congregations could care less about all the designations, which really have to do more with insurance, education levels, and denominational status and less about pastoral leadership, ability, and function. In fact, the church in the district I serve that has had more professions of faith than any other church in the district is a small church in a very rural area (NOT experiencing population growth). It is served by a part-time supply pastor who's been appointed there for several years and works a secular job during the week. When I asked him what he could ascribe his church's growth to, he said, "My wife and I got frustrated and wondered what God wanted us to do. So we fasted and prayed. I guess we got God's attention."


The UMC has got to get a better theology of ordination. All of the distinctions we draw for elders, local pastors, commissioned pastors, supply pastors - they have nothing to do with theology, they have to do with secular distinctions of status. Anyone who pastors a church should be ordained, and before you say, "we've never done it that way," in fact we have: we used to ordain non-itinerating pastors (the ones we presently called "local pastors") as "local elders." In my opinion, it is very poor theology to allow pastors to preside over the sacraments without the benefit of ordination, and negligence to appoint someone to a church who cannot fulfill all of the functions a congregation needs of a pastor (by the way...theologically, what is a "license?"). After being a D.S. for two years, I've found it is just logistically impossible to have an elder present at all the churches for communion at any given time, and to ask churches to come to worship at another time is unrealistic and beyond inconvenient.

God certainly wants our best. But God also blesses our faithfulness - and our ordination to ministry doesn't start with a bishop's hand on our head - it starts at our baptism, which is for lay and clergy alike. My friend is right: the ground is level at the foot of the cross.



Darcyjo said...

Thank you. As a seminarian, cautiously considering what the next few years are going to be like--between graduating, writing commissioning papers, and finding out where God and the bishop will send me--it's good to hear that there are at least a few folks who understand just how strange this system is. Looking forward to being "pastor."


Bro. Dave said...

If I remember correctly, as Methodism spread throughout the colonies (pre-Revolutionary War), Methodists were expected to go to the nearest Anglican Church to receive the sacraments from a priest. Only after the Anglicans were chased back to England did Mr. Wesley see the need to ordain Coke and Asbury. But he didn't give sacramental authority to every circuit rider or class preacher. Ordination still meant something back then.

My point is, there is a difference between those who are ordained and those who are sent out to preach. Simply ordaining everybody is not the answer.

Sky McCracken said...

I don't think we ordain everyone, either. But if they are authorized to preside at the sacraments, they should be ordained.

Bro. Dave said...

I don't think they should have sacramental authority.

Sky McCracken said...

Methodism spread at first with societies and meeting houses before churches were chartered. Quarterly conferences were when baptisms, communion, and other priestly functions could be taken care of. Do you think there would be much enthusiasm to bringing them back? Folks dread one charge conference a year the way it is.

If you don't think local pastors should have sacramental authority, then you consign a lot of congregations to no sacraments - in essence, starving folks of the chief means of grace and sustaining sacrament - if local pastors do not have sacramental authority.

Historically, we went from having local elders, to doing away with them (and equating conference membership with ordination, which should have never happened), to having congregations raise enough of an objection after years of not having pastors to do baptisms, communion, weddings, "license" local pastors (who were an extension of the superintendency) when BOM/GBHEM folks wouldn't budge on some Disciplinary language.

We could not fill very small churches/charges without local pastors. And in some places, we'd have to link 6-8 churches to make a pastoral salary for the minimum for a full-connection elder.

What do you suggest, Bro Dave?

Bro. Dave said...

As of old, church members can go to the cathedrals to receive the sacrament from an ordained elder.

When the Bishop laid hands on me, he said, "Take thou authority..." I'm trying to figure out now what exactly that means for me, because it seems now everyone has that "authority".

I'm not putting down local pastors - we need skilled preachers to go out and proclaim the Gospel. You have said yourself that our local preachers are best at this. But that doesn't mean they need sacramental authority.

Sky McCracken said...

25,000-some pastors vs 8 million laity. Clergy make up .003% of the total, or a ratio of 1:325. Very, very few have that "authority."

The UMC has already said that local pastors are to have sacramental authority - and they do. And we are a Church who has said that Word & Table should be the Sunday norm and not the exception. No longer are our churches "preaching houses" - they haven't been for a very long time - they are local congregations with charters and official hymnals that have services of Eucharist, Baptism, Marriage, Death & Resurrection. That is the norm of a local church in the United Methodist Church.

You'll need to rewrite a lot of the Discipline to adopt the Cathedral Model. And I suspect in the years to come, bi-vocational ministry will become more of the norm than the exception, as resources (I hope temporarily) dwindle.

I think clergy in general are going to have to get rid of the "caste" system we have in place if Methodism is going to be the missional, vibrant movement it was intended. Ordination and conference membership to itinerate were never meant to be synched together; ordination was to separate function, conference membership was to itineration, teaching, and covenant.

When Methodist local elders were ordained, they were similar to Episcopalian Canon IX priests - with the benefit of ordination, but with their authority limited to the parish appointed. When local elders were done away with, lay pastors (supply) were used where elders could not be appointed... and horrible sacramental abuses happened in trying to get communion and baptisms taken care of in chartered Methodist/UM churches. Hence, the licensed local pastor.

We disagree I am sure. Seminary-trained pastors would be a wonderful luxury, but these days I am even skeptical that such is always helpful for ministry in the 21st century. And what I said was that local pastors have been as effective (and in some cases more effective) in professions of faith, not preaching. You have to be able to preside at a baptism in order to receive a profession of faith...

Sky McCracken said...

Should have been .3125%. My bad.

Bro. Dave said...

Indeed, we disagree, but I think right now we are talking about two (or more) different things. I'm trying to get to the meaning of ordination; you're talking about function and the future needs of a declining denomination.

What is that "authority" I was given? Why did I go to seminary, suffer through the examinations of the Board of Ordained Ministry, and submit to my Bishop, when supply pastors are granted the same privileges? I'm not talking about a caste system, but I am arguing that there is a difference.


Sky McCracken said...

Briefly, local pastors do not (1) itinerate, or (2) have security of appointment. Itinerating elders DO have many, many more privileges - and responsibilities. There are many differences. Local pastors with sacramental privileges fill a void that our church presently cannot attend to, nor can afford to. I for one am thankful we have help to serve our congregations better and more fully. If we are "protecting" ordination out of some need to have authority that others don't have, I think our false selves are coming through.

Ordination is a gift from God. It is also a way to meet the earthly church's needs and expectations. That tension often requires we be utilitarian at times. I think that's the role local pastors play in our denomination. I just think we ought to ordain them. That doesn't mean making them members in full connection to an annual conference - a vow to be ordained to word, sacrament, and order and a vow to itinerate at the pleasure of a bishop are functionally and practically two different things. A congregation could care less about their pastor's conference affiliation.

We "suffered" through seminary to be faithful, not get a union card - and that is a major part of the problem in our denomination. Again, we equate conference membership with ordination. They are two distinctly different things.

In my opinion.

Bro. Dave said...

Sky, you insult me and many other faithful elders of the church when you speak of ordination as a "union card". I'm not trying to protect anything but the integrity of my ordination.

So again I ask, why the training? Why the examinations? Why the laying on of hands and granting of "authority" if, at the end of the day, we simply revert back to pragmatics?

I'm not better than a local pastor - or even laity in the greater scheme of things - but I have been set apart, ordained, and authorized by The United Methodist Church to carry out the ministry of Word, Sacrament & Order in a special way (that goes beyond itineracy and security of appointment).

Sky, this is not personal. Maybe it's my mid-life crisis - trying to make sense of who I am in the midst of a changing Church and changing world. Ordination has to mean something - to the individual and to the Church.

Sky McCracken said...

No insult intended, brother. But the fact remains that for many, full connection = union card. Note that I did NOT say that ordination = union card. Again, I am making a distinction between ordination and conference membership.

How is your integrity compromised when a local pastor served the sacraments (which is, by the Book of Discipline, legal and encouraged)? The difference is that in the case of a local pastor, that authority is local, and in the case of a full connection, itinerating elder, that authority is global. Necessarily, we would want someone who will have global authority as an elder to have more training, more education, more formation than someone who is limited to local authority.

My point is that, in a tradition like ours that utilizes local pastors, to grant them local authority without the benefit of ordination is an insult to ordination, and theologically indefensible.

There was a time in the early church that priests functioned without the benefit of formal education, but the Church used local resources so that priests could be effective. I don't see how this is any different, nor do I see how this diminishes or lowers the integrity of ordination. Besides, when it comes to the sacraments, it is God who is the actor, not the priest/elder.

Certainly, such an action should be given the highest priority - and I can say that, at least in my case, I treat it as such. But I would rather utilize local pastors than have a church go without the sacraments. That's akin to spiritual starvation, at least to me.

Theresa said...

I can understand what both you Bro. Dace and Sky McCraken are saying. I wrestle with the idea of going to seminary to be ordained or Course of Study to be a local Pastor. I wonder am I going the route of Ordination for the "rights" that it affords me in our denomination? Should I go the route of COS and stay a local Pastor because it is what I love to do. I have heard that IF you can imagine yourself as anything other than a Pastor, than you are not called to be a Pastor. I can not imagine myself as anything other than a Pastor, so I feel called to MINISTRY! IF I could do this for free, I would. But unfortunately society says I can't and still survive. Is this about about jumping through man made hoops to get to what I am CALLED by GOD to do? Suffering through tests and BOOM hoops is a whole lot easier than what Christ SUFFERED through. Who gives us AUTHORITY, the Board of Ordained Ministry or God? What is that authority, isn't it to minister to the least and the lost? Making people make a "pilgriamage" to the Cathedral to get the sacraments, is that what we want? Christ didn't die on a cross so that I could make a trip to the BIG church to get my grace from him. When I become ordained after I struggle through seminary and going before the BOOM I will thank God that with His grace and mercy I am saved and I will just spread the good news of that! I will have suffered with and because of my love of Jesus Christ. I believe that Local Pastor's SHOULD be able to give that grace of Christ to their congregation. To baptize the babies in their congregation because THEY, the local Pastor, have the relationship with those people. They minister to them and they hold their hands during the bad times and good times. They are AUTHORIZED to be with them in all ways that they can. Thanks be to God for His grace and mercy in this subject!

Bro. Dave said...

Theresa, all good questions. I'll let Sky answer them for you since this is his blog. ;-)

Sky, when I was in seminary a woman at a church I was serving was holding a Bible study in her home. She happily reported one morning that she had led a person to Christ the night before and baptized her. When I looked surprised, she said she had done this before, and would do it again given the chance, claiming the right to do so by the "priesthood of all believers". Should I have 1) congratulated her for being more effective than her pastor? 2) scolded her for baptizing without proper authorization? 3) ordained her on the spot so she could continue her ministry unimpeded by seminarians trying to uphold the order of the denomination?

Sky McCracken said...


You can always respond to any comments on the blog. I moderate them to prevent spam and profanity, but opinions are welcome.
Bro Dave:

Short answers:

1. Of course not. Though you could have celebrated that someone had been led to Christ.
2. You could have gently told her that in ordinary circumstances, a duly recognized pastor baptizes. However... in an emergency, anyone can baptize (at least, in Catholic and United Methodist traditions).
3. You do not have the authority to ordain. That is the authority of the Church.

Sky McCracken said...


The Board of Ministry DOES act under (a) the authority of God, and (b) to the people called United Methodists - it could act no other way. Such authority is not taken lightly - indeed, having once been on the BOM myself, it is often gut-wrenching and difficult work. All of us, by our baptisms, are ordained to ministry in Jesus' name. To examine whether someone has the gifts and grace to serve as a pastor is a sacred trust, and those on the Board do so to protect the Church from heresy and harm.

I agree that churches that wear the United Methodist label, both big and small, should be churches in every sense of the word.

John Meunier said...

Fabulous conversation.

The county I serve has a dozen United Methodist congregations and one United Methodist elder.

Does our theology and practice of ordination and sacrament need work? Yes. But I personally try to avoid any talk that sounds like I treat any of this as something that belongs to me. It does not.

Anonymous said...

I agree whole heartedly the UMC needs to get get a handle on its ordination theology. I like the idea of a local elder except that ordination should be to the world not just to a specific area. This probably gets back to separating ordination and conference membership.

Just as a point of clarification, licensed pastors have to go through a lot of hoops and interviews as well. In fact they may have to go through more as they have to be interviewed every year by the DCOM. Many conferences require a CBOOM interview for FLP. This last one may be a disciplinary requirement, but I do not have a Discipline in front of me to check.

As Sky mentioned the authority an ordained minister has is to the world. An LLP is confined to one area. There is also the authority of voting on clergy matters.

Some questions about ordination and ordination issues that we, the UMC, needs to wrestle with:
1. Is ordination primarily a gift to the Church, to the individual, or to both? I know our polity says to the Church, but is that a way to keep control over the ordinand?

2. Should all be ordained to Word, Order, & Sacrament and to the world?

3. Have we lifted seminary education up to idol status and thus preventing/blocking talented and called people to elder's status? I am not anti-education.

4. How do DCOMs & CBOOMs handle those who are called but different from them? My observation is that both groups are much more comfortable with those who have the same socio-economic background, personality types, theological viewpoints.

Theresa said...

Thank you for your answers to my questions, Sky. But I don't know that I was really asking them to REALLY get answers or if I was asking it to make people think.

I feel called to Ordained Ministry because it is what feels comfortable. I am at peace when I think of being an Elder. However, I have many friends, including my father, who are Local Pastors. They are mostly second career pastors, as well as I am. I also work a part time job while going to school. So I serve half time with the Church Appointments, thirty hours at a residential facility with those who are mentally and physically handicapped. Plus I am a full time student. While I am busy, I am at peace with all that I do! It is what I am called to do.

The idea that Local Pastor's should not be able to have Sacramental priviledges seems horrible to me. These people do Course of Study. While it may not be exactly what Seminary is, they still have to do things to maintain their license. The local Pastor can not do this stuff outside of their local church, unless given approval by their District Superintendent and the Bishop. IF we are "ordaining" these Local Pastor's to be Elders in their local Church what is the harm? Why shouldn't a local Pastor go through a process of having a stole around their neck that the Bishop tells us "yolks" us to Christ? Are they any less "yolked" than an Elder is? I am not saying give a local Pastor ALL the same rights, such as voting privildeges or being able to give Holy Communion anywhere or marrying people anywhere.

Please, don't get me wrong, I do believe that there should be differnces between Elders and local Pastors. I do agree that ordination comes from God and The BOOM. But I did see a comment that asked basically why should local Pastors be able to do the same things an Elder does because Elders go to Seminary and take tests and do all the paperwork designated by the BOOM. Local Pastor's do things as well. Like I said, they have to have their licenses renewed yearly by going before the DCOM. They have an Elder mentor who helps them along the way.

I guess I am saying that I agree there is a "caste" system. I went to a clergy gathering in my Conference. When it was time to "split" up the Elders and the local Pastor's, the Elders were kept in a large room with pleanty of seating and in comfort. The local Pastor's however, were taken to a room in the basement with only 10-12 chairs. It was a small room to boot. I know MANY local Pastor's who are very effective! Their churches are growing while others aren't. I have only been doing this, being a Pastor, for 3 years. I started a quarter time in a SMALL church that was averging 5-9 people on a Sunday morning. They could hardly pay their bills and weren't paying ministry shares. They had NO money in their account. 3 years later, we have 30 people on a Sunday morning, we pay our bills and our Ministry Shares IN FULL and have a nest egg in our checking account. While I am on the "Elder" track, I am currently a local Pastor. Oh, yeah, we have 2 YOUNG families in our congregation as well. I don't think it should matter if you are an Elder or a local Pastor as long as you are EFFECTIVE at "Making disciples of all the nations BAPTIZING them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Just my opinion!

Bro. Dave said...

In the spirit of John Wesley and the Methodist Church, I ordained the woman. But I told her she could only carry out the sacraments at her home and among those who came to her Bible study. After all, why should they be denied the grace of God?

Seriously, though, I scolded her (not gently... I used to be a Pharisee!) and told her she couldn't do that anymore. She said she would anyway. I have no doubt she has, and I am still concerned about those she baptized.

With regard to ordination of Local Pastors, there is no Provisional Ordination. You can't ordain someone, then limit his/her ministry to a local congregation; and when they're through, you can't ask for it back!

Through this discussion, I am getting closer to the answer I have been searching for in recent years. Thanks to all!

Sky McCracken said...

No one's ordination can be rescinded - but the exercise of their ministry certainly is. An elder on location can only preside at the sacraments in the local church where their charge conference is designated, as is the case of those on various types of leave. In the Catholic Church a priest's have his priestly faculties removed through loss of the clerical state (by request or judicial process); once validly ordained, a priest's ordination never becomes invalid.

And in the earlier days, local elders in the Methodist WERE ordained, their ministry WAS limited to their local congregation by Discipline, and when they were no longer appointed, they could no longer perform ministerial functions.

Again, there is a separation between ordination and conference membership and status - at least, in traditions and communions that are not made up of autonomous churches.

Anonymous said...

I am from a Presbyterian background. Each church has elders, the pastor and several lay elders. Each can anoint the sick with oil and where does it say in the Bible that only elders can do the sacraments? I haven't found that one yet either. On the other hand, I don't care what the Episcopalians, Baptists, Catholics or others do. What is the Bible's guideline for elders? It is certainly not an MDiv. I don't read that in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1.

danielhixon said...

As an ordained elder in the UMC, I think our church is almost completely incoherent on our theology of ordination. And I'm shocked we haven't yet fixed this since virtually everyone seems unhappy with the status quo.

According to some writers in the Greek Orthodox tradition (going back to the early fathers - especially Ignatius and Irenaeus) one of the main reasons for restricting sacramental authority to the ordained was for the unity of the church. Only the bishop/"episcopos" (or presbyters ordained by him) could baptize or preside at Table, so the whole community by necessity had to gather around the bishop in order to receive the sacramental grace and be the church (and though we in the UMC are a bit shy about our own sacramental theology as expressed in our liturgy and official documents, it is clear that sharing in the sacraments constitutes the church community). Individuals could not willy-nilly set up their own competing ministries apart from the bishop, who was the "focus of unity".

In the Bible and the ancient church, ordination was simply the setting apart of an individual for the work of ministry through prayer and the laying on of hands. It was an "official authorizing" for sacramental and teaching ministry. We UMCs have come up with all this business about distinctions between orders and offices and authorizing people (via licenses etc.) without ordaining them - yet I'm convinced that in the Biblical and Early Church understanding there is no distinction: to ordain is to authorize/to authorize is to ordain.

Our whole problem in the UMC seems to have more to do with the questions "who will itinerate?" (owing to our eccentric polity) or (even worse) "who will receive health benefits?" But these questions have nothing to do with a classic theology of ordination. I think benefits and moving can be yoked together in different ways to create incentive to move, but both of these should be separated from ordination which should be given to every person who will be *regularly* celebrating sacraments as part of his/her ministry. I sought ordination for no other reason: I felt God's call to lead the church in sacramental celebration. As everyone knows one can be a teacher of the word, and administrator, a visionary leader, and so on without that sacramental ministry.

Katie Dawson said...

We did try to separate ordination and conference membership at GC this past year with the move to ordain and not commission those we now refer to as 'provisional elders' - unfortunately, it didn't pass. Had it, we might be having a very different conversation today.