Is the UM Ordination Process Too Arbitrary?

I’m an ordained elder in the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. My path to become ordained, however, was more difficult than it should have been. When I say this, I know that I echo the sentiments of many people who have gone through the ordination process in the UMC, whether they are seeking ordination as a deacon or an elder. 
To be clear, I am not saying that ordination should be easy. Our standards for ordination should be high. I believe that the Church is the most important institution in the world, and the standards for ordained leadership in the Church should be commensurate with the importance of the Church. I am saying, however, that ordination should not be unnecessarily difficult.
When I was coming up through “the process” (please note: this was not in the West Ohio Conference) I was often told that I was “too intellectual” or some such thing.
Too intellectual? I was planning on a career as an academic.
Why, then, they would ask, do you want or need to be ordained?
This question always struck me as bizarre for two reasons. First, I was called to ordination. This sense of call was and is very clear to me. The fact that I didn’t articulate it in the same terms as the members of my District Committee, however, seemed to be problematic. Was I not emotive enough? Did I need to start crying? Did I not use the right code words? In retrospect, I realize that certain members of the committee had a set of informal and unstated criteria that they were using to assess my readiness for ordination. The problem was that the criteria were stated nowhere in the Discipline or in the candidacy materials that I had been given. The criteria were arbitrary.
Second, I could never figure out why so many of the people interviewing me saw congregational pastoral ministry as the only appropriate route for an elder. (My comments here will relate to the office of elder, since that’s where my experience lies, though this is in no way to diminish the significance of the order of deacon.) The Disciplineallows for extension ministries. Ostensibly, the UMC values these ministries. I was also puzzled, however, by the idea that we would want to take actions that would reduce the number of ordained elders in our colleges, universities, and seminaries. If the sacraments are means of grace, wouldn’t it be important to make these readily available to students in our UM institutions of higher learning? Don’t we want professors who care deeply about the church, the salvation of human beings, and the cultivation of holiness? What I was proposing to do was clearly within the boundaries of UM polity, but again the people interviewing me were utilizing informal and unstated criteria to make decisions about my readiness for ordination.
 As I went before the Board of Ordained Ministry (also not in West Ohio—hey, I have to protect the innocent), I went to the committee that was to examine my theology and doctrine. One member of the interview team asked me, “You said in your paperwork that the Nicene Creed is the most important creed.” He looked at me with the suspicious glare of a detective questioning a suspect. “Who gets to decide what the most important creed is?” Another member of the committee began to nod in approval. “Yeah,” she said. “Who gets to decide that?”
Honestly, the question left me beyond puzzled. In terms of its historical importance, its formative effect upon later doctrine, its liturgical usage, its catechetical significance, the Nicene Creed is in a class by itself. So I asked—and I promise that it was an honest question—“What are the other options?”
“We’re the ones asking the questions here,” my interlocutor replied.
Oh. Ok. I get it.
Finally, I did make it through the process, and I have dedicated my vocation to serving the Church through a ministry of theological education. There were several times, though, when the process was so discouraging that I almost quit. Had it not been for a deep sense of calling, I’m sure that I would have. Make no mistake: there were very supportive people along the way. I owe a great debt to them. The process itself, though, was deeply problematic.
Since my ordination I have served on the District Committee for the Miami Valley District of the West Ohio Conference, as well as the West Ohio Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. I’ve reflected a great deal on the ordination process and the proper work of committees and boards who have oversight of the process. I have much more to say about this matter, but there is one item that I want to highlight in this post: the biggest problem with our ordination process is that it is not undergirded by a clear theology of ordination.
Begin with ¶ 301 in the Discipline. There is considerable discussion of what the ordained should do. There is little or no discussion of what ordination is. How can we have a fair process of ordination when we have no agreed upon theological understanding of what our bishops are doing when they ordain? It’s no wonder that our process is given to arbitrary criteria that can vary from conference to conference, team to team. As a church, we need to get clearer about what ordination is.
This would help us with another problem as well: clergy burnout. As a seminary professor and dean, one of the most common problems I see among my students is that they don’t know what the parameters of their jobs are. Too often, young pastors think that their job is everything. It isn’t. The primary role of a pastor is to bring people into relationship with God, to bring the Holy into the ordinary lives of women and men. Without without a clear sense of the ministry into which they are ordained, pastors will be much more prone to leave the ministry.

I’m currently heading up a team for my annual conference to review our candidacy and interview process. I know many of you reading this blog will have strong opinions about the ordination process. If you do, let me know what you think is working and what isn’t. Please help me to think constructively about this matter. I consider the work of this team to be very important, and I would very much appreciate any insights you may have to offer.

44 thoughts on “Is the UM Ordination Process Too Arbitrary?

  1. I certainly hope that we don't create a scenario in which people will feel the need to be dishonest. I would encourage honesty and transparency among candidates. There is, however, a question of whether one's own theological convictions cohere with the UMC's doctrinal framework. This is actually a very important matter, and I would also hope that candidates would ask themselves this question before coming before the board.

  2. Bob, thanks for your comments. I think there should be some clear criteria that serve as gateway requirements, but I basically agree with what you're saying. Discernment is not a hard science.

  3. Another would be elders are charged with ordering the life of the whole church. That ordering role is also not limited to what happens in local congregations. It involves a commitment (and also the training and ongoing accountability) to a common good that at once transcends and makes possible the more local good a congregation, or a campus ministry, or even something as specific as a Covenant Discipleship Group may pursue.

  4. David, I too recently completed the path to Full Elder and was ordained at Annual Conference in June 2013. I often laugh at how we say we want to attract “younger clergy” when “the process” for me, took nearly ten years (and in our conference, I am not atypical). Worse, because I was serving in a student pastorate while attending seminary, nearly all of those ten years were spent in pulpit ministry. I often attribute my ability to stay the course and press on through the process to the ten years I spent in the Army Reserve. There we called it “playing the game” when we simply had to follow “the rules” from point 'A' to point 'B' so that we could accomplish what we had set out to do.

    The most distressing part was not the process, or the delays, or the assignments, or the various time requirements, but the number of quality people that I met along the way in seminary and elsewhere who were clearly called to ministry, but who, for various reasons, dropped out (or were tossed out) of the process and ended up as ordained pastors in other denominations (some of them *years* ahead of me).

    One was called to youth ministry, but knowing that Elders will quickly be “promoted” away from youth, dropped out of the process even though seminary trained and had advanced through to provisional membership. Another felt clearly called to urban ministry, but despite many urban pastorates, was repeatedly appointed to rural congregations. He left when another denomination offered him an urban apprenticeship. Still another, near retirement, spent ten years (or more) taking seminary classes one or two at a time but never applied for ordination because she knew that in her conference (not mine) an ordained pastor would be moved away from the small rural churches she felt called to serve. A close friend left because his conference (again not mine) demanded personal financial information. Because he was a family member, and thus part owner, of a family construction business, he was not at liberty to reveal all of his holdings, but was willing to have his accountant produce documents declaring that he was not in debt, etc. That wasn't good enough for someone, and so now he, and his wife, are ordained Baptist ministers. And yet another friend advanced to provisional membership, grew his church, was beloved by his congregation, his SPR committee sang his praises to the BoOM, but was discontinued. I did not hear the official reason, but the rumors (from mutual friends) were that his writings were not “sufficiently academic.” Perhaps the reverse of your problem. I know that our BoOm is filled with wonderful and faithful people, many of whom are my friends, but I fear that the process is deeply flawed in a variety of ways. I know that we must be discerning, but I fear that we are driving off many of those we so desperately want to retain.

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