Saturday, January 19, 2008

Thoughts on the Ordination Process

Why is the candidacy process toward ordination in the United Methodist Church so long and involved?
Because ordained ministry is hard work, and you need a good set of tools in your belt in order to do it.

Why is seminary so hard?
Because ordained ministry requires a depth of theological understanding that ninety hours of master’s degree work can give you.

This is my personal testimony. All I can do is share from my own perspective, and say what my experience has been. I hope that, if your testimony about any of this is different, you will respectfully offer it in the comment section, or post something on your own blog. (For example, read what Brad has to say about his experience.)

I wouldn’t be who I am, nor could I do what I do without having been formed in the crucible of seminary and journeyed the candidacy process together with a group of other Residents in Ministry whom I still count as beloved sisters and brothers. I’m not good enough, smart enough, strong enough to serve Christ as I am called in the church without having had the formation, growth, and learning I was given in the candidacy process and in seminary.

I had a fantastic mentor; I had a covenant group with whom I could share my innermost self; I had relationships with professors, superintendents, and bishops that were collegial and supportive; I had peers who pushed me to excel and who encouraged me when I was sucking rocks; I had Sandy Ward at the Conference Office letting us know exactly what forms we needed to turn in and by when; I had family members and friends keeping me grounded and keeping my priorities straight.

I went into the process as a response to my calling, not in order to figure it out. The candidacy process is not the place to discern your calling; it is where you go in response to it. If you are not called to ministry and certain of that call, wait. Like my Dad said, “If there is anything else that you could do, do it.” And if you are called into a ministry that can be done without candidacy/seminary/ordination, for heaven’s sake don’t put yourself through it!

I dug more deeply into my seminary studies than I had at any other level – high school, undergrad, or master’s – I worked my ass off in seminary. It is a Master’s Degree and it is supposed to be hard; the Church of Jesus Christ/the United Methodist denomination/the souls of God’s children are at stake here, you better believe that I wanted to work hard – for their sake. If I had discerned that I could realize my calling without seminary, there is NO WAY I would have put myself and my family through it! (Although I found that walking the baby in the middle of the night is a great time to study your Greek verb paradigms.)

Instead of worrying about what “the system” required of me, I just did what I thought I needed to do in order to be equipped for my calling. Turned out, it was pretty much the same thing. For example, I found a mentor and was in a covenant group before I learned that those things are required. So I called my DS and told her, and she said “Great! If you found something that works for you, run with it.” My calling is to ordained ministry, and the things I figured I would need to accomplish my calling were there to be found in the candidacy process and in seminary. What a deal!

I am so very proud of the eight years of my life between 1999 when I realized my call into ordained ministry and 2007 when I was ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. And I’ve gotta say, it was fracking hard! Of course it was. It was work, it was struggle, it was formation. I’ve heard people complain about that length of time, but I don’t. I’m grateful to have had that time to prepare.

I’m not saying Deacons and Elders are better than anyone else. This is not an either/or deal here. I’m not saying “licensed/commissioned/ordained” implies “smarter” “stronger” “bigger” or “better” or anything like that. It is just a particular role in the ministry of Christ accomplished through his body, the church. It is a role to which God called me, and I am fulfilled in it, and (I have to confess) proud of the journey I took in order to get here.

And I’m also not saying that after my eight years of candidacy/seminary work, I have finally “arrived” and there’s no more work to be done. Far from it; one of the most astonishing things about going through the process is realizing just how much I don’t know and still need to learn.

And another thing I’m not saying is “Don’t change the process.” I think the process toward ordination can and should be transformed - always reforming, if you will. I am saying don’t make it easier and don’t make it shorter just for the sake of convenience. I don’t want my doctor to have gone through a process that was quick and easy, just so that she could become a doctor sooner and at a younger age; nor would I want my pastor to.

If the process needs to be transformed, let’s get real about doing it. But if all we’re going to do is complain about how long and difficult it is, count me out.

Cross posted here.


Allan R. Bevere said...


Great thoughts! Thanks for posting them.

I am afraid to ask, but what in the world is "fracking."

Stephanie Moore said...

Andy~ I appreciate your comments and am proud to be United Methodist because we require our pastors to be educated. However, being young and on my own with two boys most of my career as a local pastor (they are now 11 and 8), I have found myself unable to make it through the system. I am still trying, but most days I feel like I'm swimming upstream. There are those who make it and should be commended. There are many days I'm not sure I will. While I cannot fathom doing anything else with my life (trust me, I'd have already gone there if I could), I'm beginning to wonder if I belong here. I hear the bishop saying he wants more young clergy, but I don't believe that's what the system wants. The system wants us to be seasoned with education, experience, and life. That's why it takes ten years to get through (including undergraduate requirements). I started when I was 25. I will be at least 35 before I will be eligible for ordination. In the meantime I will have spent a decade of my children's lives putting them on the backburner so I can get through the system. I'm not convinced this is a life I won't someday regret. It is useless for me to complain because I don't have a solution and I don't have a voice as a local pastor to offer one. I also wonder why we don't trust our seminaries to do the bulk of the assessment for us. Why do we need an additional three years of assessment from others who have never known or worked with us like our professors have? Although it is always a struggle, it seems to work for those who can float straight through college and seminary on student loans, and it seems to work for those who have been able to first establish themselves and are now on their second careers. I just have this gut feeling that something is not right, like I don't belong. I am caught somewhere in the middle without the years to establish myself and a family who needs me now.

Adam Caldwell said...

"Fracking" Battlestar Galactica Baby!

Gotta Frackin' Love It!

Anonymous said...

I’m with Andy on this one (gasp!) Though Brad makes some good points, I actually appreciate that the process is so rigorous and has so many checks and balances. I grew up in a tradition whose ordination process is nothing but a workbook and prayer; no seminary, no boards, no guidance outside of a mentor…just a calling. I’m convinced the calling they hear is legit, but there are far too many clergy in that denomination without a clue. That’s a judgment from my own experience. Still, I think it takes more than sincerity to lead God’s people. So I’m not cynical about seminary or having “hoops” to jump through, for me they have been helpful and formative, (yes, the hoops too.) I suppose I’ve changed so dramatically over the last four years of the process that I’ve grown to be grateful for it in hindsight. Maybe I’m showing my age.


Andy B. said...

Stephanie - Thank you for your comment. I have so much respect for you as a mom, a colleague in ministry, and as an all-around generally cool person!

I hear the tension between your "I cannot fathom doing anything else" and your "swimming upstream"/putting your family "on the back burner." Now see, if I was your candidacy mentor, I would say, "Hey Stephanie, whatever you do, do not put your family (or your personal health) on the back burner for the candidacy process." Invest yourself there first, and then in the candidacy requirements. And you have a voice, regardless of what the system says, and your idea of having the bulk of candidacy assessment assumend by the seminary assesment is good. Maybe we've been running two parallel tracks too long, and the Conference BOOMs could yield some of their authority (power) to the seminaries. Trouble there is convincing the people on the BOOM to yield their power, and you know how easy it is to convince powerful people to give it up!

Tell you what, when you and I are sitting on the BOOM, let's propose the idea together!

Andy B. said...

Mitch - And why, pray tell, must you gasp in astonishment upon realizing we agree about something? ;)

The Thief said...

This is a well-written and well-thought article - I enjoyed reading your personal testimony. I was going to formulate a comment here, but instead, I think I'm going to link here and write out my comments on my blog.

Blessings on your continuing journey.

Pastor Amanda said...

You know I love you and think the world of your dad, but I've got to disagree with "can you picture yourself doing anything else." Of course I can! I'm a process theologian. We don't close the door on possibilities. There is at least one day a week where I would be completely content (for awhile) working at a bookstore. Everyday there are moments where I contemplate being a stay at home mom. PhD? Maybe. Half of the journey companions I respect have taken leaves from parish ministry. They've come back stronger clergy because of it.

And is Brad in the Missouri conference? I'd say more in a less public forum. Do you miss Claudia?

I think the system works differently in different places. In Minnesota our young clergy are being appointed to new church starts, as associates at large urban/suburban/exurban churches, or a handful are being sent to rural areas that want pastors not hospice chaplains-- because that is what the clergy want.

And I agree. I'm glad I went to a four year seminary (ok, 6 for me, but I did 120 hours, a credo and a thesis. . .)