The United Methodist Ordination Process, Part 2: Redefining Fairness

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  (Matthew 20:1-16 (New Revised Standard Version)

If the United Methodist Church is going to take reforming its ordination process seriously, we’re going to have to take the concept of fairness seriously as well.  I’ve heard it over and over: “what we do for one candidate, we have to do for everyone. It’s only fair.”  This definition and understanding of fairness is part of what has turned the UM ordination process into such a mess.  Everyone abides by the same process, everyone completes the same requirements, everyone goes through the same obstacle course if they want to be ordained.

And, in the interest of fairness, the obstacle course keeps getting bigger.  In a well-intentioned attempt to make the process comprehensive and produce complete, well-rounded ordinands, we add more and more requirements to the mix.  For example, all candidates in at least one conference have to take a basic literacy exam, whether they failed to complete high school or have a Ph.D. Every. Single. One.

Why?  Because if one candidate has to do it, they all have to do it. That’s only fair.

In our conference, a Ph.D. psychologist would have to take CPE in order to get through residency.  Why?  Because some candidates really need some clinical training, and if some have to do it, all have to do it.  That’s only fair.

Except it isn’t fair. Not at all.

In the above parable from Matthew, Jesus rips apart that concept of fairness. When some workers complain, “We worked longer hours, how are they getting paid the same as us?” the manager answers, in essence, “I made a deal with you, and I made a deal with them. What business is it of yours?”

Fairness does not mean that everybody does the same work and receives the same reward.  A better theological understanding of fairness is that everyone gets what they need.

Under the better definition of fairness the Board of Ordained Ministry would receive each candidate and work to discern their gifts, graces, skills, abilities, and needs – and address them.  Each candidate’s strengths could be built up even stronger.  Potential issues could be assessed and addressed.  Each candidate can be given what he or she needs in order to become the Elders we would all like to see ordained.

What if we were to categorize several facets of a pastor’s job and assess each candidate’s abilities?  Preaching, teaching, Sacraments, evangelism & outreach, pastoral care, time management, administrative duties, running meetings, conflict management, worship design, wedding planning, funeral planning (to name a few).  Some pastors are excellent preachers and pastoral caregivers but lousy administrators. Some are great administrators and good preachers, but need to learn skills for pastoral care.  Others may be excellent at pastoral care and administration, but their preaching needs help.  Think about the pastors you’ve had in your life: they weren’t all as well-rounded as we’d like to think our current process makes them, were they?

The Conference BoOM should absolutely have the authority to require CPE of candidates who need skill-building in pastoral care.  No question.  But they should also have the authority to require that some candidates take an additional course or shadow a mentor in preaching, time management, business & administration, or deeper study of sacramental theology instead.

This can communicate to the candidate, “We think you’re going to be a great Elder for the church, so we’re going to help you get what you need to make it so.”

The official document Services for the Ordering of Ministry in The United Methodist Church, 2013-2016 presents a theological understanding of Ordination in the United Methodist Church.  Here’s an important passage from the document:

Ordination is chiefly understood as the act of the Holy Spirit. As a liturgical act,
ordination is also understood as the public prayer of the church confirming the
Spirit’s call to individuals and asking for them gifts and power for the ministry of
deacon or elder (presbyter in some churches).

The rite of ordination is the climax of a process in which the faith community
discerns and validates the call, the gifts, and effectiveness for apostolic ministry
by agency of the Holy Spirit. Always more than a single liturgical moment,
ordination is a full process in which all of the baptized share. The process begins
with the church’s discernment of God’s call to individuals for service as ordained
leaders, continues with support and scrutiny as they prepare for this work,
culminates in electing them to the office and work of a deacon or an elder, and is
celebrated and enacted liturgically in the service of ordination.

I wish our church understood it that way, or at least understood this bit more deeply.  It’s my jaded fear that ordination is not understood in the UMC as an act of the Holy Spirit, but rather an act of the Board of Ordained Ministries based upon a candidate’s successful completion of items on a checklist while managing to not tick off anyone important or rock the boat in any significant way.  Or perhaps it is understood both ways to some degree.

Lest I come across as a cynical, far-too-jaded, bitter man with an ax to grind, let me say this:

  • My cynicism is not as deep as it seems.  I’m not a pure cynic. I’m far closer to a romantic idealist whose heart has been broken.
  • I know lots of people on our Conference BoOM, and I think they’re wonderful people, excellent Elders, and are sincerely trying to do the right thing.
  • I love the United Methodist Church, and I love being an Elder.
  • I think the UMC has ordination problems, but those problems are far from irreparable.  We can fix this.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t say anything.
  • It is my intention to be constructive.  If I don’t come across that way, remember first that I have not yet fully made my case, and second, that redemption and reconstruction often begin with a call to repentance.
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Author: pastorwillie

Husband to a beautiful wife, father to four awesome children, Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, pastor of a great church in rural southern Illinois, guitarist, songwriter, ukulelist, blogger.

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