Thanks to the team over at The United Methodist Reporter for the chance to offer some thoughts on vows, based in part on a recent piece that argued personal convictions trump ordination promises. If you haven’t seen it yet, the link is here.
Reflecting on a new genre of Christian literature that began to appear in the centuries after Nicaea, Robert L. Wilken notes that saints’ lives often featured a common temptation: ordination. Strange as it sounds, one of the recurrent allurements that threatened to take the saint away from the sanctified path was the gift of holy orders. As Wilken, a renowned professor of church history at UVA describes it,
“Neither are these tales of kings and generals, and seldom to they depict clergy. Most of the heroes are laymen and laywomen. Indeed one of the stock temptations is ordination, an enticement the best always resist. The lives are stories of simple and unassuming men and women who love God more ardently and serve God more zealously than their neighbors and friends, the kinds of person who are present in every Christian community, indeed in every religious community.” (Remembering the Christian Past [Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 1995,] 132, emphasis added.)
Today, many are accustomed to talking of ordination as a kind of right, a religious license for which everyone should be able to apply based purely on personal inclination. In my own United Methodist Church, much of the conversation about ordination sounds just like this: “I feel that God wants me to be ordained, and thus the church should affirm that.”
On Wilken’s description, the lives of the saints are a useful corrective. As they reveal, the most saintly among us are usually not the ordained, and granting ordination injudiciously may be a great harm to the holiest women and men our churches have to offer. Not only is ordination not for everyone, it may be that ordination is not for the best of us. After all, the apostles, whom Jesus entrusted with his own teaching and mission after his resurrection and ascension, were drawn from common occupations, not the priestly caste. The saints knew what we have forgotten: ordination may well get in the way of God drawing us to the fullest heights of sanctity. That, to me, sounds more like a burden than a right, more a temptation to be avoided than a resume builder or professional hoop through which to jump.
This is just one more reason why ordination, like marriage in the older Anglican rite, is ” therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”
There is a piece of advice I heard in seminary that is oft-repeated, and one that I have come to dislike. It originates with Spurgeon, as pointed out in a great article over at Gospel Coalition:
“Do not enter the ministry if you can help it,” was the deeply sage advice of a divine to one who sought his judgment. If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit by that for which his inmost soul pants.
1. This advice assumes that ministry requires only one skill or ability.
2. This also implies that ministry is uniquely difficult.
First, the “do anything else” advisers seem to want to drive away anyone from the pulpit that has any real skills! Of course an authentic calling – both internal and external – is greatly important. But calling does not imply a dearth of talents. There is no one “ministry gene” that someone needs to faithfully heed the call to church leadership. Instead, ministry requires a group of diverse skills, which will vary depending on the context. In my own setting – pastoring a small church – a normal week could requires skills in writing, oratory, management, long-range planning, counseling, caregiving, conflict resolution, research, coaching, and staff development. Even more specific ministry roles (for instance, youth ministry or executive pastor positions) will require a wide range of personal and professional skills. Does anyone possess them all? No, that’s why we focus on our strengths and manage our weaknesses.
But all this goes to show that someone who will excel in ministry could likely succeed in a wide variety of fields related to leadership, communication, education, etc. To say to someone discerning a call to ministry that they should only go through with it if that cannot possibly do anything else is to drive away a great deal of talent and promise from the church.
Second, pastors are good at
complaining talking about how difficult our work is. This is what the table conversation at an inordinate number of clergy gatherings might consist of, if you don’t choose your seat wisely. For me, implied within the “do anything else” advice is a warning: “This work is so arduous and frustrating that you won’t make it unless this is your last resort, unless God has made sure you ABSOLUTELY can’t do anything else!” Much of this way of thinking leans tends to this direction. One of the above advisers puts it this way:
On the whole (with exceptions) the hours are long, the people are a problem (indeed without the interaction with people the Pastorate world be great!) and the pay is poor. I am not even sure about the retirement benefits.
As one of my mentors taught me to recognize, “everyone works hard.” Especially in today’s economy, there is no work that is not difficult, that does not have unreasonable expectations, long hours, and little reward. Every company – for-profit or not – is attempting to get more out of its employees while paying less. No one makes what they are worth, with very few exceptions. Pastors would do well to remember that our people are in the same boat we are, and often (here I’m thinking of ordained UMC elders) we have more job security than they do. Our work is not uniquely hard. It would be more accurate to say our work is hard uniquely. In other words, ministry is not hard the way that a factory or office job might be, but is difficult because of the various skills needed (enumerated above) and the emotional toll that the week-in, week-out grind of church life can take – especially when funerals, sickness, conflict, and other emotionally draining parts of our vocation begin to pile up.
In closing, we should close with a word of hope. Vocational ministry is not easy, but then, no one has it easy. We would do well to remember that all of us look to the same source to sustain us. Easter reminds us that death and meaninglessness do not win, that our work, when tied to the work of God (any work done for God’s glory is ministry, after all), will finally find its consummation in that Kingdom that is to come:
Ministry is difficult. Therefore the great challenge of ministry is to be the sort of characters who can sustain the practices and virtues of ministry for a lifetime. What we require is some means of keeping at ministry – preparing and delivering sermons, visiting the sick, counseling the troubled, teaching the ignorant, rebuking the proud – even when we don’t feel like it, even when it does not personally please us to do so. Fortunately for the church, Easter will not let us give up, though we have ample reason, in the present age, to do so. We are not permitted to give up on ministry because God, if the story of Easter is as true as we believe it to be, doesn’t give up on ministry in the world. As prisoners of hope, we keep working in the expectancy that God’s kingdom will come, that God’s will is going to be done on earth as in heaven. (Will Willimon, Calling and Character, 55)
Seems like an appropriate read for the 4th of July: John Wesley’s letter to the Methodist ‘Brethren’ in America, following the conclusion of the American Revolution and the need for the American Methodists to become an independent body. Note the primary reason for Wesley’s sending of Coke and Asbury: the need for the sacraments, despite his own discomfort with breaking Church of England order. Also notice how odd he thinks it is that there is no national church. Fascinating stuff. Courtesy of The Wesley Center Online at Northwest Nazarene University.
To ‘Our Brethren in America’ 
BRISTOL, September 10, 1784.
1. By a very uncommon train of providences many of the’ Provinces of North America are totally disjoined from their Mother Country and erected into independent States. The English Government has no authority over them, either civil or ecclesiastical, any more than over the States of Holland. A civil authority is exercised over them, partly by the Congress, partly by the Provincial Assemblies. But no one either exercises or claims any ecclesiastical authority at all. In this peculiar situation some thousands of the inhabitants of these States desire my advice; and in compliance with their desire I have drawn up a little sketch.
2. Lord King’s Account of the Primitive Church [See heading to letter of Dec. 30, 1745, to Westley Hall.] convinced me many years ago that bishops and presbyters are the same order, and consequently have the same right to ordain. For many years I have been importuned from time to time to exercise this right by ordaining part of our traveling preachers. But I have still refused, not only for peace’ sake, but because I was determined as little as possible to violate the established order of the National Church to which I belonged.
3. But the case is widely different between England and North America. Here there are bishops who have a legal jurisdiction: in America there are none, neither any parish ministers. So that for some hundred miles together there is none either to baptize or to administer the Lord’s supper. Here, therefore, my scruples are at an end; and I conceive myself at full liberty, as I violate no order and invade no man’s right by appointing and sending laborers into the harvest.
4. I have accordingly appointed Dr. Coke and Mr. Francis Asbury to be Joint Superintendents over our brethren in North America; as also Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey to act as elders among them, by baptizing and administering the Lord’s Supper. And I have prepared a Liturgy little differing from that of the Church of England (I think, the best constituted National Church in the world), which I advise all the traveling preachers to use on the Lord’s Day in all the congregations, reading the Litany only on Wednesdays and Fridays and praying extempore on all other days. I also advise the elders to administer the Supper of the Lord on every Lord’s Day.
5. If any one will point out a more rational and scriptural way of feeding and guiding those poor sheep in the wilderness, I will gladly embrace it. At present I cannot see any better method than that I have taken.
6. It has, indeed, been proposed to desire the English bishops to ordain part of our preachers for America. But to this I object; (1) I desired the Bishop of London to ordain only one, but could not prevail. [See letter of Aug. 10, 1780.] (2) If they consented, we know the slowness of their proceedings; but the matter admits of no delay. (3) If they would ordain them now, they would likewise expect to govern them. And how grievously would this entangle us! (4) As our American brethren are now totally disentangled both from the State and from the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again either with the one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has so strangely made them free.
“For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”
Paul, 2 Timothy 1:6
As I went through last week’s Annual Conference (the yearly gathering of United Methodists from a particular geographic area, in my case Western North Carolina – aka the best Annual Conference), I was continually reminded of the many people, places, and experiences that were important during my journey towards ordained ministry.
I was reminded especially of:
- Karen, who invited me to Youth Disciple;
- Gloria, my youth pastor, who made sure I felt welcomed even though I didn’t know a lot of the kids in the group; she tried to tell me I was going to be a pastor years before I even began to study matters of faith and theology;
- Marc, who showed me the importance of living the faithfulness and trust that we proclaim as pastors;
- Phillip, who introduced me to “the process,” and walked with me when I stumbled;
- College professors like Warlick and Norwood and Akinade, who helped me learn that there were other ways to be Christian than being a narrow-minded fundamentalist;
- Dr. Stoneking, who was wise enough to advise me to pursue an M.Div at a place that taught me to think with the Church rather than outside of or against her;
- Seminary faculty like Smith and Campbell, who taught me to think deeply about the Christian faith while not treating their students like machines on an assembly line;
- Drew and Kirk and Mike, who taught me the day-to-day of work of ministry in its pure, unvarnished beauty. They taught me to love the local church, in/through/with/despite its failures;
- Mike, who told me I could be a pastor when I wasn’t remotely convinced;
- Dr. Phillips, a professor who played a pastor when necessary;
- My parents, who have been my cheerleaders the whole way, and told me from a young age – with no evidence to speak of – that I was a leader;
- Brittany, who has supported me more kindly than I deserve, even though she often loses out to the vocation. She has carried me through the valleys and kept me from being conceited on the mountaintops.
Most of all, I found myself continually marveling at the Triune God for his bounteous, unending, surprising grace. His strange, unmerited call is the chief reason I now find myself as an Elder in the United Methodist Church. That grace was mediated to me through various means – worship, prayer, sacrament, service – and the people and places that have graced my journey. Thanks be to God.
“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)