Dreams for the Future of Methodist–Part 3

Someone shared my website in a chat discussion yesterday. That prompted me to look at the last thing I wrote. Whoops. It’s been a minute since I wrote part 2 of this series, my apologies. Since that last post, school started in our house and this series took a backseat. My oldest daughter started Kindergarten and we’re amazed at her love for learning. She gets up around 5:30 every morning, gets dressed and is ready to head to school before I’ve even begun to stretch. I also started back to school. I’m working on a Doctor of Ministry at United Theological Seminary in the Church Renewal cohort. It’s already been such a rewarding process, but busy to say the least. I just submitted for editing a paper that will later become a chapter in my dissertation. That means on a chilly Monday morning and early on election day, I have some time to catch up on this series.

So let me just refresh my thought process here. As we plan for the “next Methodism” (whatever that looks like post-covid, post-general conference, post-you-name-it), I have some general conjectures:

  1. We cannot maintain the current structure of the UMC in whatever comes next.
  2. I appreciate the tireless work by those who have gone before to prepare for a better future, but as a young leader who will inherit the structure I want to add my voice to the conversation.
  3. My thoughts right now are simply about structure and less about theology and doctrine, though our theology and doctrine certainly have a large impact on our structure:
    1. Invert the Pyramid Financially (Part 1)
    2. Invert the Pyramid Structurally and Missionaly (Part 2)
    3. Rethink Clergy Leadership Development (this post)
    4. Reimagine Itineracy and Clergy Deployment.

So here goes. Like I’ve stated in the previous two posts, the UMC is cumbersome. Our leadership development process is no different.

I probably had one of the smoothest paths to ordination of anyone I know, but it was still a unwieldy process. I began the candidacy process as a senior in high school in 2004. I was assigned a mentor to walk me through the initial process. In 2008, I was certified as a candidate for ministry and was allowed to attend licensing school as I received my first appointment. During this time I also received my bachelor’s degree and began seminary. I graduated seminary in 2013 but had to wait until 2014 to interview for provisional membership because of a miscommunication with the district committee on ministry. In 2014, I submitted pages and pages of requirements (doctrinal questions, sermons, a Bible study, biographical information, notarized statements, etc.) and was interviewed by the conference board of ordained ministry. They recommended that I be elected as a provisional member of the conference. The clergy session gave their consent and I was commissioned as a provisional Elder on June 6, 2014.

The next two years were spent serving my local church and participating in the residence in ministry program (RIM). We attended workshops that were largely aimed at preparing us for the next round of interviews for ordination. Yes, I had to interview again. Again, I submitted pages and pages of requirements (doctrinal questions, sermons, a bible study, a fruitfulness project, biographical information, more notarized statements, etc.) and was interviewed again by the conference board of ordained ministry. They recommended that I be elected as a full member of the conference and ordained as an Elder in the church. The clergy session voted in the affirmative and I was ordained as a full member Elder on June 10, 2016.

Moments after my ordination in 2016. I couldn’t believe I pulled it off!

So if you’re doing the math, it took me just over twelve years to move through the ordination process. And as I mentioned above, I had one of the smoothest processes of anyone I know (aside from the miscommunication that pushed my commissioning off by a year). The process could theoretically be done quicker, but my guess is that it takes ten years or more for most.

Now, I’m not knocking higher education. I am so grateful for my seminary experience, and now I’m seeking further education. I also think there should be a rigorous process that gives the church the opportunity to confirm the calling and giftedness of the one seeking ordination. But twelve years seems a bit much.

Especially when so much of the process is spent on being able to answer the questions the right way as opposed to showing evidence of effectiveness in ministry. Jonathan Hanover just dropped a great article for Firebrand Magazine where he addresses this from his perspective on his conference’s board of ordained ministry:

I serve on a credentialing board in my denomination. We found that candidates denied credentialing in the past who return have an overwhelming chance of approval on the second attempt and are almost guaranteed approval on the third attempt. Yet we found the difference was not in the quality of the candidate, but in the candidate’s ability to recite the necessary phrases and present the necessary theological positions for approval. Candidates are not more committed to theology; they learn how to say the necessary words. (emphasis mine)

Jonathan Hanover, Judicial Independence and the Problem of Ordination, Firebrand Magazine, November 2, 2020.

So maybe it’s our approach to leadership development amongst the ordained that is all wrong. We often approach ordination as something to be earned through academia and jumping through hoops. However, ordination is ultimately a gift that the Holy Spirit has given to the church for the empowerment of those set aside for ordained ministry. It is quite possible to EARN ordination and membership without demonstrating EFFECTIVENESS in ministry. And when one is groomed to regurgitate the right answers in the ordination process, it conditions them to be gatekeepers of the institution over against the impulse to follow the wild leading of the Holy Spirit.

The professionalization of clergy has done very little to lead the Church into greater effectiveness, but has rather perpetuated a form of classism. This classism is obvious in the ways that we credential. I write from the perspective of an Elder in full connection, but there are 26 different classifications of clergy in the United Methodist Church. There is no theological or biblical case that can be made for this. It’s indefensible and is terribly difficult to explain to non-United Methodists. Further, it has created a class system where local pastors are looked down upon because they aren’t ordained. I served as a local pastor for 6 years before I was commissioned and routinely felt that my opinion, ministry and effectiveness were called into question because of my status. One elder even told me that as a local pastor I was “almost clergy.” Granted, this is all from the perspective I’ve experienced and says nothing of the experiences of those in other categories such as deacons.

So what do we do about it? In the next Methodism, there are a few things I think we could do to help us out with leadership development.

  1. Adopt an apprenticeship style of learning. I can’t tell you how much I have benefited through the years by wise and effective pastors mentoring me. What if our early emphasis on preparation for ministry was less about academia and checklists and more about preparing for effective ministry? I’ve always loved the model given by the Ferguson brothers in their book Exponential: 1) I do. You watch. We talk. 2) I do. You help. We talk. 3) You do. I help. We talk. 4)You do. I watch. We talk. (64). By apprenticing emerging pastors by matching them up with highly effective leaders, the church will better be able to evaluate their effectiveness and potential in ministry apart from their ability to say the right things. Theological and academic training is a part of this, for sure, but apprenticeship needs to be more of a priority.
  2. Stop the classism. Ordain local pastors who have completed course of study. Then eliminate the category. There are better options like local elder. We can and probably should separate conference membership from ordination.
  3. Become more flexible in educational requirements for ordination. I love my education and think theologically educated clergy are vital, but this should not be the starting line (see apprenticeship above). Mountains of debt and a masters degree do not equal effectiveness in ministry. Again, hear me, I’m all for great theological education, but it is over valued in our current system. There are supply pastors who are every bit as effective, and sometimes moreso, as those with advanced degrees. And, unfortunately, there are some who have earned their ordination and are now guaranteed an appointment who don’t show one bit of effectiveness. We have to do better.
  4. Embrace other models of clergy leadership. Bi-vocational, second career, pioneering, etc.
  5. Stop Domesticating the APEs. This one has been a recent revelation for me in the past few years. In Ephesians 4, Paul writes that Christ has given gifts to the church “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). Those roles are identified as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers (APEST). Our current system of leadership development heavily favors those with shepherd/teacher tendencies. APEs (apostles, prophets and evangelists) are often run out of the room or thoroughly domesticated. I’m personally a weird mix of APEST. In order I’m apostle, evangelist, teacher, shepherd, prophet. So I have tendencies both ways, but I totally get how the APE side of me gets pushed down or domesticated in favor of the shepherd/teacher. The body of Christ needs all the gifts. We can’t have all APEs or all STs. Every local church needs the full APEST in order to be healthy and built up. We must stop focusing on if a person will be a good “company” man or woman and instead find ways for them to embrace the giftedness God has given to them.

As in previous posts, I don’t claim to be an expert or even know how to go about proposing these kind of changes. These are just my observations as someone doing ministry in the field. It’s obvious to me that we have standards for clergy that are no longer tenable. I also know that highly gifted, called, high potential leaders are seeking ordination elsewhere because of our current process. It’s passed time to take a long hard look at our theology and practice of ordination and posture ourselves for developing more effective clergy and leaders that build up and strengthen the entire Body of Christ.

One thought on “Dreams for the Future of Methodist–Part 3

  1. Great Stuff! You touch on so many important issues, and yet in most UM circles when you raise these points you immediately get labeled as “angry”, “unrealistic” “crazy” and myriad of other things. I also concur on the education, and can tell you as one who did both Course of Study and Seminary, as a denomination we tend to make way more of this “great educational divide” than we should. Denominationally speaking do very little training in the areas that a pastor will face in every appointment and ultimately help them be “effective leaders”, such as Financial skills, conflict resolution, and 3-5 year visioning and planning skills.
    Glad to be journeying with you!

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