Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Time for a Hard Reset Regarding Ordination

What I write is nothing new for the 3-4 folks who read what I write. But today it’s been ramped up a notch as being a class and justice issue. 


United Methodist’s theology of ordination and practice of credentialing - quite frankly – sucks.


I’m not talking about conference or district boards of ministry. I’m not talking about seminaries. I’m talking about our polity, which lacking a THEOLOGY of ordination, is all we have to go by as United Methodists. It’s not biblical, it’s not historical, and the only tradition it follows is one that we’ve largely made up in the 20thcentury.


A quick history/theology lesson about ordination: until very recently, the Western notion that ordination is something you EARNED is simply heresy. Ordination is a charism, that is, a gift from God to the Church, given by the Holy Spirit to the community of faith. In a Wesleyan ethos, ordination is neither an ontological nor functional change to the one ordained, but a pneumatological empowering of an individual. It may be for life, or it may be for a season. But to be sure, it is not EARNED or DESERVED by academic attainment or by hoop-jumping a checklist from church law. Ordination is bestowed by the community of faith.


Before we made academia the final arbiter of learning, the apprentice-in-action model served Christianity. Not seen as diametrically opposed to the academy, the apprentice model often paralleled the academy, or made use of the local academy for preparing clergy for parish work. It also served the professions of law and medicine as well. Even today, there are states in the U.S. (California, Vermont, Washington, and Virginia) where a law degree (or even a bachelor degree) is not required to take the bar exam; one can undergo a four-year apprenticeship with an approved attorney.


So the fact that “it’s always been this way” is fiction, not fact. The Rev. Homer Johns, my pastor during my elementary school years, came to our church after being a district superintendent for six years. He lead the start of the first thrift store in our city. He served on the Board of Ministry in retirement, and my toughest doctrine question came from Homer, who grilled me at length about infant baptism and baptismal regeneration. Homer didn’t have an M.Div. He had gone to course of study.


As late as the 1950’s, this was a model that the former Methodist Church used. It wasn’t until the 1956 Book of Discipline that a bachelor of divinity degree (now called a master of divinity) became the standard for someone to be admitted “on trial” and later ordained as a traveling elder. As Randy Maddox of Duke elaborated at a mid-quadrennial training for Boards of Ministry in 2014: “This growing professionalization was linked to escalated class status, and fit prudential realities of majority of Methodist congregations at the time.”


The unintended consequences of such are beginning to be realized in this liminal time for American Christianity. 


1.     We’ve created a “class/caste” system of clergy in United Methodism. There are 26 different classifications for clergy in United Methodism. Scripture gives us two (deacon and bishop/presbyter) or three (if you separate bishop and presbyter). We UM’s “license” people to serve the sacraments, but only let those “vote” at annual conference who have been ordained (think about that one for a minute – better yet, try to explain it to someone NOT United Methodist). Clergy membership and ordination are technically separate, but it reality they are not. 

2.     Even when factoring in inflation and average household incomes, a seminary education costs an individual 2.5 times more than it did 30 years ago. The only way someone can reach the minimal standard for being ordained today is (1) be independently wealthy, (2) have affluent parents or a rich uncle/aunt, or (3) be in debt for 20+ years. If you’re second career or older, you have even more obstacles in front of you. This is reprehensible behavior for the Church, and I won’t even go into the class implications of such a policy and polity.

3.     We have an elitist-within-an-elitist mentality when it comes to education. A master of divinity degree isn’t enough (even from an ATS accredited school); it has to be from a United Methodist Senate APPROVED seminary. If you don’t have one of those, you will be getting ANOTHER master of divinity degree.

4.     Unlike our AME, CME, and AME Zion friends, we did not retain the “local elder” category for clergy. We now call them “licensed local pastors.” There is absolutely no theological basis for this. It’s purely bureaucratic. Ordination has become way too closely tied to itinerancy and not the mission of the Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world. Transforming our method of credentialing clergy would be a good start. Ordination doesn’t (and shouldn’t) equal insurance and benefits.


This liminal season (literally, “threshold season”) is going to require us to be more adaptive than any we have faced in the last 100 years. Church attendance and practices are not going to return “to normal” anytime soon, and our requirements for ordination are going to assure us of few clergy for the next generation. I will quote Dr. Maddox again: In most of our settings, it is not economically or culturally prudential to rely on or require leadership in ministry that carries the expenses involved in Master’s-level education. That doesn’t mean we ditch the academy. It DOES mean we rethink how we educate, apprentice, and disciple present and future pastors. This means, at the very least:


  1. We broaden the range of persons that we ordain for ministry. 
  2. We adapt greater flexibility in educational expectations for ordination. Context matters! 
  3. We separate ordination from conference membership.
  4. We have a greater openness to bi-vocational, second career, and other models of clergy leadership. 


Conference boards of ministry need much more latitude in making these decisions on a case-by-case basis, instead of a national standard that assumes one-size-fits-all, which it clearly doesn’t.


And… we better hurry. We are going to quickly find (1) we have a church polity we can no longer afford, and (2) standards for clergy which may find us in a place with no future clergy.


Few of us like change. But I suspect none of us will want the pain that’s coming when we have to endure the consequences of staying the same.