Cumbersome By Design? Thoughts on ‘The Process’

“My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.”

-Sirach 2:1

Taking on UMC ordination practices is all the rage.  I appreciated my pal John Meunier’s thoughts about the ordination process, and I’ve been following Jeremy Smith’s investigative blogging about young clergy falling out of the ordination track with interest.

All this has me wondering: Jim Collins has argued that great organizations are Great By Choice.  I wonder if our ordination system is Cumbersome By Design?

There was much discussion last General Conference about simplifying the ordination process for Elders and Deacons in the UMC.  Not long ago, the Book of Discipline was changed so that Annual Conferences could choose to ordain after a two-year full-time ministry “residency” rather than the previously required three years.  My own AC is one of the few that stuck with three years (though, to be fair, neighboring conferences seem to have found other ways to gum up the process that more than make up for the change).

But the infamy of ‘The Process’ (as many of us affectionately refer to the ordination gauntlet) is not only due to the time involved. Yes, a minimum 9 years of training (undergrad, seminary, ministry “residency”) before one is fully accredited is daunting.  But in the meantime, there are a plethora of smaller steps: mental health evaluations, local church and district gatekeeping, required coursework (sometimes seminary curricula and conference requirements clash), reams of paperwork, vetting, District Superintendent and SPRC evaluations, culminating in a two-stage paper-writing & (usually) interview process where one is judged on criteria that are anything but objective. Think about it: How do you define effective preaching? Which forms of Wesleyan theology are acceptable?

Needless to say, I’m glad to be (almost) done.

But does that mean all of this should be made easier streamlined to encourage more young people to enter ordained ministry?  I’m not so sure.  Pastors’ work is often ambiguous and difficult, the relational and organizational systems of our churches and communities are highly complex, and being agents for change and growth means fighting rudeness, apathy, and roadblocks at every turn.  Welcome to leadership.

In that sense, then, ‘The Process’ just might perfectly prepare ordinands for the world of the church: a world where good deeds are punished, where everything is not simple, fast, or fair, and which requires a surprising level of personal fortitude.

Does that mean everything is perfect? No.

‘The Process’ too often becomes a forum for personal vendettas and agendas.  Many people are dangerous with a little bit of power and unfortunately they know how to gain it.  Too often, as I have experienced, upper-echelon clergy in these settings are unwilling to police their own and put a stop to borderline-abuse of ordination candidates.  Stories abound; if you don’t believe me, ask around.  Ordination should not be an easy thing, but it should not be hazing either. There must be systems in place that guard against such maltreatment.

Does an extensive and laborious process guarantee the quality of those who get through it? No.

Like any other method of vetting, there are people who get through who are quite gifted and talented, and some who aren’t.  There are brilliant young clergy who are held up needlessly (and some drop out), and people who get through who should never be in any kind of leadership position.  I know PHDs in theology who have been held up by theology committees, and theological n00bs who have sailed through.  Systems are made of people, and as such no system will be perfect.  I have friends who absolutely should be on stage with me this year, and their absence makes my presence a near-farce.  That probably happens every year in every conference.

I have no illusions that everything is right in the world of ‘The Process’.  But just maybe the difficulty does us a favor.  Perhaps we are not well-prepared for church leadership by administrative pats on the back.  Perhaps the proper response to a “crisis” or “exodus” of young clergy is not to make ordination as simple as starting a Pinterest account.  ‘The Process’ as currently arranged in many parts of the denomination will prepare us well for a future that is difficult but promising, ministry settings that are often unfair but sometimes grace-filled, and systems that are complex and flawed but also full of people doing their best for God.

“Systems are designed to give you the results you are getting right now,” we are often told.  Maybe ‘The Process’, cumbersome though it is, is an excellent preparation for the church we are seeking to lead.

ImageP.S. I understand that, at its best, the ordination process is designed to be a holistic formation for effective ministry, and not merely a series of “hoops” through which to jump.  In that sense, it is not entirely satisfying to speak of the transition to set-apart ministry merely as a “process” or something to get “through.”  While I appreciate that sentiment and welcome efforts to change those tendencies, I have described it as I experienced it, and not as it exists ideally.  Please share with me places where your own experience is either similar to or divergent from my own.  May God bless his church, whom “the gates of hell will not overcome.” (Matthew 16:18)

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9 thoughts on “Cumbersome By Design? Thoughts on ‘The Process’”

  1. It was good to read your thoughts, Drew. On the whole, I found the process to be very affirming, and as you point out, good practice for our messy life as United Methodist pastors (year end reports, anyone?) Also, I think a lot of folks tend to overlook that you can and should be serving in some capacity as you go along (as a local/student pastor, field ed intern, provisional elder, etc.). Aside from some of the horror stories you mentioned, I would like to see the bulk of the required paperwork be turned in at the beginning of the process and have later interviews be more conversational and impromptu in nature. While I was happy to record a Sunday worship service and answer the questions of the different committee members, I found it difficult to be faithful in ministry full time and also prepare the 90+ pages of paperwork that was required at the full connectional level. In the end, I am honored to have been in the trenches with you throughout “the process” and come out the other side with our faith and passion for ministry still in tact! See you at Junaluska!

  2. Paul, thanks as always for stopping by. I think you are right; something has to give to do all of that paperwork and preparation, and we have to educate our folks on what we are going through so that they can extend us some grace. I’m not so sure about having the bulk of the paperwork due on the front end, however. I would want to know that on the other end of the process, after seminary and some time in ministry, the candidate is still a fully-orbed Wesleyan Christian. I also find it odd that some conferences don’t do extensive interviewing, because some people can be great on paper but inarticulate on their feet.

    Congrats to you as well and I look forward to seeing you on the hill!

  3. Mack, I am an elder in the North Georgia Conference and serve as one of the younger members of our Board of Ministry. I was tasked recently with trying to shorten “the process” as much as possible in our Annual Conference. At every turn, I was met with roadblocks and quickly found that my task wasn’t really desired by those who gave it to me. Our conference, too, has a three year required residency and discussions of changing it to two years were quickly dismissed. Outside of what is optional for Boards of Ministry to decide about their process, the Book of Discipline leaves little to no wiggle room in what takes at least nine years to complete. Here’s my hunch: as long as clergy who have “paid their dues” are making the decisions about changing the process – or the Discipline that mandates the process – our ordination process will remain the same or only get more difficult – i.e. – The Effectiveness in Ministry Project that the Book of Discipline now requires. I’m not sure where to begin in order to change the process. My greatest hope is that when I get to Heaven, Jesus won’t ask me: “where are you in the process?”

    1. Brian, it is funny how organizations at every level can both encourage and stifle change at the same time. I guess this is why we are told that systems will naturally gravitate towards homeostasis. I think one of the weakest areas, at least in my experience, is between certified candidate and provisional. Between exiting seminary and sitting for provisional interviews – not being a PK or really knowing much about the inner workings of the church – I felt very much on my own in the wilderness during that time. After I got provisional, it was the complete opposite: much affirmation and guidance.

      I agree with you about heaven! Of course, as good Methodists, by that point we should have arrived at perfection!

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. I’m here via Teer’s post at Tamed Cynic. I used to believe there might be some use to a “cumbersome by design” look at candidacy, but the further I get the less appealing that outlook is (Maybe that’s just the design working to weed me out).

    I want to believe what you write, but I increasingly see inefficiency and failure of communication at all levels (conference and district) that give me little confidence in “the system.” Stanley Hauerwas’ Protestant/Catholic argument is that he’ll be Protestant as long as the church stands in need of reform (reformation ongoing). Given our (Methodist) roots, I wonder if we can still claim to be reforming the Church of England, or have we gotten beyond the point of usefulness?

    1. I really appreciate the frustration, Josh. I can only say that many of our local churches are as dysfunctional and cumbersome as our larger system, such that a pastor needs to have both the patience of Job and the skin of an alligator to navigate them. Hauerwas and Wainwright were both my teachers, and I’ve found Wainwright’s “Is the Reformation Over?” a helpful read. I think we stopped reforming the C of E a long time ago, and most of our problems are present in spades in the Anglican Communion.

  5. Thank you Drew for this great article. Like some, I am very nervous about “the process” especially having English as a second language. It seems sometimes the message I want to convey does not come out in the way they want to hear it, things get lost in translation. However, my biggest concern is that, I was told that “charismatic people like me will not pass BOOM” because BOOM is looking for theologians. I will be going through BOOM for Commissioning in March and even though this was said to me last year, it still hunts me. I know that judgement was passed by someone that did not knew me closely but it does concern me that if what people see in me at first is “charismatic” I am afraid that even before they could hear or read my papers they would already make up their minds. I also wish that as we have meetings with our mentors about papers and our personal journey, there would be group of Clergy that could help those of us with a language barrier, concerns, etc., to talk to…maybe a support group would be nice to put in place…

  6. Somewhere in between, “Wow, you can read and talk. Welcome to the ordained ministry” and the nine year gauntlet we must run (slowly slog) through now is where we might be able to find a sweet spot. Drew, you said, “Maybe ‘The Process’, cumbersome though it is, is an excellent preparation for the church we are seeking to lead.” I hope you’re right, but I’m not sure that’s true given our 50 consecutive years of declining membership as a denomination.

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