Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ordained Ministry in the United Methodist Church

Can you say, "What a mess?"

Twenty-some years ago, I went thru the "process" to become ordained in the UMC. I have since served as a supervising elder (which later was renamed "clergy mentor") for those who were exploring candidates for ministry, those who were certified candidates, those ordained deacons and then on probation (but now we don't ordain folks deacons before becoming elders, and they aren't on probation anymore, they are considered "provisional"). Folks who wanted to be ordained were at first ordained deacons 1/2 way thru seminary, then could be ordained and elder after two years of completing seminary, then it was three years, but now you aren't ordained a deacon (unless you want to be a Permanent Deacon), and then it became two years, and now it can be two or three years depending on your annual conference. In the past few years, I've been on the district and conference board of ministry, and just last week got "re-certified" as a clergy mentor. We have ANOTHER new book. And new procedures and policies. The wheel has been re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-reinvented. And it still looks square.

In the UMC, only the ordained can preside over Word and Sacrament. Unless you are a local pastor. Or a provisional pastor. But then your authority to baptize or preside at Eucharist is limited to the parish that you are appointed to. And if you've been a local pastor in the past but aren't currently serving a church, then you are just a lay person. So when your visiting Baptist or Catholic friend asks you, "I heard your pastor wasn't ordained. How does s/he do their job, then?" you can say, "Well, they are appointed, just not ordained." And then you'll get a blank look.

The mess isn't confined to local pastors. The Book of Discipline covers extensively the rules and regulations of ordained ministry, and you find very quickly that the UMC covers the authority of ordained ministry very well. But there is one thing that is greatly lacking: theology. We have no theology of ordination. None. Nada. Zippo. It goes against the basic understanding of ministry and discipleship in general: we have to know WHY we do what we do. It seems like when it comes to the ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church, we will try and do just about anything.

The problem is, when we ordain someone, we have no idea what we're doing.

During the recent ice storm, i had some time in the evenings to catch up on "light" reading. One treasure of a book was a book by Tom & Ray Magliozzi (yes, Click and Clack of NPR's "Car Talk"), entitled In Our Humble Opinion. Being a shade-tree mechanic, I loved reading it. But these guys aren't just car greasers - they are geniuses about life.

One chapter was entitled, "Blatant Ergonomic Blunders." They talked about how cars have gone from being simple and functional to being so technologically advanced as to be useless. Tom noted that his 1963 Dodge Dart took three knobs to work and adjust the heater control; since one is driving a car, one doesn't need to be taking their eyes off the road to adjust such things as heat and air. He recently drove a car that had 14 buttons to adjust the car's heat and air - with all of the buttons the same in size and shape, indistinguishable by touch, which meant you had to squint and read the miniature icons on each button to determine its function.

It led Tom to believe that as "advanced" as we have gotten, we are making more blunders than we are advances. After driving 100's of cars, he categorized all of these blunders into these seven (7) categories:
1. Use a technology not because it's appropriate, but because it's there.
2. Be different at any cost.
3. Reinvent everything.
4. Copy nothing; not even great ideas. It's embarrassing to admit that you didn't think of it yourself.
5. Just plain stupidity (noting that baseball great Ted Williams once told a teammate, "If you don't think too good, try not to think too much.")
6. Too many cooks.
7. Oops! Where the hell are we gonna put this?
After reading those, I thought: MAN. THESE GUYS HAVE THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH PEGGED. Not just where ordained ministry is concerned, but in general!

More thoughts coming...



Anonymous said...

Oh man you are onto something here.
I remember Dale Wilson back at Interfaith trying to explain the difference between being an Episcopalian and a Methodist. His view was that Episcopalians don't have any hard-fast rules that way they can be flexible. (This distinction is in addition to yours about the Volvo requirement). From what you have written it sounds like Methodist have a lot of things written down but it isn't very useful, maybe it was written down for the sake of writing it down?

Lutherans have the same problem with the office of bishop - they were once described to me as "ecclesiastical transvestites" - all robe and no function.

Peace - Tom P.

"CAPTAIN DAVE" said...

You forgot to mention that now Deacons can serve communion if her/his bishop grants permission. Hmmmm.

But then again, most of the world doesn't really care. Sigh.

Cynthia Astle said...

Br. Sky, you are right on the money! As a certified lay speaker, I substituted for my pastor this past Sunday and preached. After the service several people asked me why I didn't become a pastor. I joked with most of them that I was too old and too broke to go to seminary (which are true). Aside from having discerned that I'm called to lay ministry, my next biggest reason is that I'm not about to jump through all the hoops that the UMC has placed in the way of ordained ministry. My heart goes out to all my clergy kindred who are caught in this mess.
Sr. Cynthia, OSL