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