Rethinking Ordination

Part of my job is staffing the Commission for Preparation for Ministry which – as the name indicates – is about preparing people who want to be professional ministers.  A couple of things:

  • All of us are called to ministry, both inside and outside the doors of church buildings.  The person who sets up coffee on Sunday mornings is engaged in the ministry of hospitality.  The person who mows the church lawn is doing the ministry of beautification and welcome.  Bankers are about the ministry of helping people manage their financial assets and needs.  Steelworkers are about the ministry of creating safe structures.  Newborns are called to melt our hearts.  You get the picture.
  • Some of us are called to a kind of ministry that brings order to the church and makes it possible to serve 1) more effectively and 2) according to our gifts.  People with excellent bedside manner and gifts of compassion and empathy are often called to be Deacons in my denomination.  Those called to be Elders have the gifts of spiritual maturity and wisdom (although they are often asked to manage church programs.  This is not the calling of PCUSA elders but the topic is best left for another post.) 
  • We might have a sense of what God is calling us to do but actually the community informs this.  As we are growing up, certain teachers tell us we have a knack for numbers.  Friends, coaches, neighbors or random strangers notice that we are particularly good at physical things or musical things or literary things.  Parents might notice that we are blessed with certain gifts (although parents are not always reliable in terms of helping us discern our gifts.  Some parents think we can’t do anything.  Others think we can do everything.)

I’ve been reading some old and new articles and blog posts about ordination.  Tony Jones famously finds ordination unnecessary unless everyone gets ordained (or at least he did in this 3 year old post) and subsequently JoPa has created a 99 cent app (“for entertainment purposes only“) called Ordain Thyself.  It might be fun, but,  if we have to ordain ourselves, we are missing the point. 

The point is that others in our community are usually the first to notice that we are called to something different.  God might initially nudge us.  But whether your preschool teacher tells you that God is calling you to professional ministry at the age of four, or God personally calls your name in the night at the age of 52, our calling is confirmed by a community.  Maybe in the beginning it’s one or two people.  But those numbers increase as the journey continues and we find that more and more people are saying “God is calling you to this.”

Note:  the following list  of possible truths doesn’t necessarily mean you are called to professional ministry:

  • You make good grades in seminary.
  • You think it would be fun to officiate at your cousin’s wedding.
  • You need medical insurance and a pension.
  • If your name has The Rev in front of it, people will respect you.

Unlike other professional schools, it’s quite possible that a person could complete all preparatory schooling, pass all exams, and finish every random requirement and not be called to professional ministry.  This is a discernment process and the purpose of the schooling, examinations, and requirements is to confirm what you think God is telling you, while also noticing that more and more people are saying “Yes to the vest. . . ments “(sorry.)

Sometimes those who are charged with preparing seminarians are not helpful.  Among the comments I’ve heard from people commissioned to guide people preparing for professional ministry:

  • We can’t remove her from the process now.  She’d be so disappointed.
  • (Answering the question: “Why would we ordain someone to serve a ‘call’ to an interim associate pastor position that will last exactly one month?” We’re just trying to help a friend get a job.
  • But he spent all that money on seminary.  We have to ordain him now!

Often money and time were unnecessarily spent because the seminarian refused to hear the “no.”  They wanted so much to hear “yes” that they rationalized the “no” voices along the way.  Or it could be that too many people were afraid to say, “No.”  They didn’t know how to say no to someone who clearly wants this.

CPMs and other commissions/committees charged with preparing people for this ordered ministry are often accused of throwing obstacles in the way, as if preparation for ministry is like fraternity hazing.  “We want you to pray in Koine Greek while leading youth group icebreakers while doing an extra unit of CPE.” 

It’s true that some people probably bully seminarians.  But most of what I’ve witnessed has been fair and supportive.  It makes sense to require Field Education in a site that is unlike your home church.  It makes sense to require spiritual direction and mentoring.  It makes sense to take Hebrew and Greek if you are going to be a Teaching Pastor and you use a Bible.

Ordination also removes obstacles.  Just as Paul had certain credentials as a Roman citizen that allowed him to share the message of Jesus in Rome, we sometimes need such credentials ourselves.  I have a friend who couldn’t work with YWAM in a certain country without ordination papers.

Ordination opens doors, not to mention the fact that it gives us authority in connecting with people of other faiths.  Although it’s not as true as it used to be, it even might influence political leaders when we are trying to get a license to open a shelter in a particular neighborhood or pressure a landlord to upgrade the bathrooms in his low income apartment building.

Honestly, there are people who perhaps never should have been ordained.  And there are others who will never be ordained although God is clearly calling them to serve in a special way.  We don’t always get it right.

But discerning God’s will for each other is part of our task as followers of Jesus.  Weekend Assignment:  when you see that someone (a child, a neighbor, a co-worker) is particularly gifted in something, say so.  And also feel free to share with your closer friends what are clearly not among his/her gifts. 

Someone in church once asked me to take a step back – away from the mike – when I was singing in worship.  I would love to sing hymns like Aretha.  But it’s not my gift.

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5 responses to “Rethinking Ordination

  1. Another great one, Jan. Was having a conversation along these lines yesterday.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Jan. It troubles me that conversations about ordination in our denomination rarely include conversation about the sacraments. Ordination evolved in the early Church out of a need to ensure right administration of the sacraments. Even today, baptisms and consecration of the Lord’s Supper are the only things in our denomination which only “Teaching Elders” can do. Anybody can preach, but only those who have been ordained can lead the sacraments. Maybe some other questions CPMs should consider are “Is this person called to baptize others? How are their gifts connected to the celebration of the sacraments? Has their training prepared them not only to preach and interpret scripture, but to communicate truth about these mysteries?”

  3. Amen to Chris’ question and your response. I serve on a CPM that has said helped at least a couple of folks discern a “no”…not entirely were they willing to hear it, but we did the hard communal work together. Thank you for sharing these reflections.
    Wish you were in ATL….the EP job is coming vacant the end of June…

  4. Good thoughts, Jan. I heard a great deal of talk about “hazing” in my peer group. But the task of a competent and loving CPM isn’t to just affirm you. It’s to insure that your call is both genuine and robust. For instance, one member of my CPM liaison group pressed me…respectfully but firmly…on how I could theologically justify entering ministry while in an interfaith marriage. I was able to respond to his satisfaction, and that prepared me for dealing effectively with that issue when raised by congregants. That’s the whole point of the process.

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