Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Pastor By Any Other Name - Revisited

I wrote a blog with the same title a couple of years ago - and after hearing from both the "Excellence in Ministry" event in Colorado and hearing Elaine Heath preach yesterday on the dearth of spirituality in the seminary/academy, I was both encouraged and provoked to reflect more on the subject.

I have often said that the United Methodist Church has no theology of ordination - and I am ready to modify that a little bit to say that the UMC is not PRACTICING a consistent or historical theology of ordination. Methodism no doubt has one of the most interesting histories of ordination, but the one developed versus what it has morphed into are at variance with each other. What we had when Methodism was birthed was an understanding of how the Holy Spirit gifted, enabled, and set apart some servants to preach and provide for the sacraments to be celebrated. What we have now is a tangled mess of clericalism and the antithesis of what Wesley feared (with thanks to Randy Maddox's reminder):
  1. What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God, and to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends: and if it answers them not, it is nothing worth. - John Wesley, Letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746. 

We currently have over twenty classifications for clergy in the United Methodist Church. What I have found is that such is nearly impossible to explain to most laity (and some clergy), as well as to explain to those of other communions and fellowships. And, when examined, is it unsupportable in a Wesleyan ethos to function so.

To complicate the matter more - and to further be at odds with Wesley's intentions - is how we have handled clergy education. One of Wesley's warnings was that in our quest to educate clergy that we exercise prudence in not "professionalizing" them as was often the case with law and medicine, thus "elevating" them from the class of those whom they would be seek to serve. (So it might behoove us to be a little careful about the doctor/medical school, pastor/divinity school comparisons!) It is also important to note that historically, a Divinity degree was not required of Methodist clergy until 1956 (and then, it was a Bachelor of Divinity, not a Master of Divinity). Before then, a course of study was the usual route Methodist pastors took, and college and seminary were alternatives.

The reason I write of this is because of several cruxes we have reached in the UMC (and, I suspect, we are not the only denomination so affected):

  • Student debt. Student debt is mounting - at steep rates. That, mixed with tuition that has gone up disproportionately with the cost of living, creates a perfect storm for both the UMC and for UM seminaries: ministerial candidates have debt that is nearly impossible to eradicate, seminaries are stuck between deferring admission to a student because of the undergraduate debt and the need to have enough enrollment to make ends meet, and Boards of Ministry have to wrestle with deferring a candidate who has too much student debt, yet accrued it getting the minimum standard of education required. Of course, some debt counseling would go a long way with students. But with scholarships and fellowships declining, students are forced to go to school part-time to stay out of debt - which delays one's entry into ministry. The unintended consequence of requiring the M.Div is the reality that, now and in the near future, only upper-middle class and upper class folks will be able to afford the education necessary to fulfill the standards of the UMC... a denomination founded on ministering to the least, the last, and the lost in society, with practical divinity at the heart of ministry. (A good resource is the Auburn Theological Seminary report on seminary student debt, found here.)
  • Flaws and holes in seminary education. To be honest, our UM seminaries (and many others) are more like schools of theology, not seminaries in the truest definition of the word. While some would argue semantics between academics and praxis, it is fair to say that until recently, our seminaries did very little, if anything, with spirituality and ministerial practice; indeed, spirituality was often a dirty word in the theological academy, not seen as a "credible" discipline worthy of time and study (thankfully, this is changing). When I asked this question once at an alumni advisory committee meeting, I was told by several, "You get that after seminary. There's too much theology, history, and biblical study to cover - you can't expect seminary to do that too. That's not our/their job." My story is not unique.
  • Discontinuity of History, Theology, and Practice of Pastoral Ministry. Contrary to popular belief, we ordained local pastors (referred to as local elders) until very recently (1968), which is at variance with our sister AME, AMEZ, and CME denominations, who still ordain their local (i.e., non-itinerating) pastors. One third of our pastors in the UMC are local pastors, who we used to ordain, but not "license" to celebrate the sacraments - with no theological defense of such a practice. I pray that we soon regain the delineation between ordination and conference membership. Ordination/ordo does not "belong" to the individual - it belongs to the Church to use in the course of mission and ministry. To quote Gordon Lathrop: 

The leadership of the liturgy is part of the liturgy. Ordination is intended to include persons in the schedule and pattern whereby the Christian assembly enacts the meaning of the Christian faith. Indeed, the order to which one is ordained is, finally, simply a list of persons who take their place and turn in the leadership of the structure of the ordo. - Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology, Fortress Press, 1993, p. 190. 

While I was not there, I am encouraged to hear the missional concerns that Prof. Randy Maddox and others raised last week at the Mid-Quadrennial training event in Colorado for Boards of Ministry regarding our present state of affairs in the UMC. I hope our own denomination's Study on Ministry takes note and heeds our own history and theology of our founding and genius of Methodism. As a district superintendent, I can attest that at present:

  • a master of divinity degree is no indicator (or insurer) of pastoral effectiveness, nor do I think it should be the "minimum" standard for ordination (and note that I do NOT equate ordination and conference membership/itineration)
  • combining churches/charges together are no longer the solution they once were to creating salary packages large enough to pay a full-time salary
  • clericalism often inhibits shared lay/clergy leadership
  • we need more, not less, flexibility in educational requirements for those seeking ordination that considers situation and context
  • seminaries need (and I believe would be willing) to work with us on these frustrations and help us find solutions for local churches and the denomination without "dumbing down" ministerial education. We must be willing to shift our thinking and be willing to ditch outmoded pedagogy

What gives me hope are things like our own Paducah and Paris District's Generative Leadership Academy, and other leadership and missional initiatives across our Connection. I've been blessed to watch leadership skills and spiritual gifts identified and discerned. I've gotten to see the "aha" moments when someone "gets it" in regarding discipleship and mission. And I believe that Methodism's best days are still before us - we just have to be willing to shift our ways to 
cultivate ordained and lay leadership. 

New wineskins for new wine.



Holly said...

I've linked this post to a discussion about Christian unity. Take a look

Holly said...

I have linked this excellent post to a discussion on Christian unity on this Catholic blog.

Check it out