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.