Mitchell Lewis reflects on the meaning of the doctrine questions posed to candidates for ordination.
I’ve been hearing lots of stories this week from clergy candidates caught in the teeth of our system of supervision and ordination. A few unorganized thoughts rise as I stew on these things.
First, a disclaimer: I know hundreds and thousands of clergy out there are doing their best to be Spirit-led stewards of the church and the gifts and graces of the candidates in the process. I am not a member of the “tear it all down” school of thought. The machine is working, or, at least, I am not in a position to judge whether it is not.
Consider these more thoughts from someone who has seen a few places where the belts are slipping the gears and hoses are shaking loose.
I see some behavior that appears to be intended to produce learned helplessness. When candidates are delayed or rejected and given cryptic reasons why — or reasons that are on their face absurd — it leaves them in a position of having no idea how to avoid failure in the future. It makes their experience of the process like one trying to appease a capricious and angry god.
I hear stories of people who are allowed to continue far into the process and then rejected or delayed for things that could have been brought up years before.
I listen as people talk about the only thing that matters is getting to the other side of the ordination process. Then they can do or say what they want. This seems disordered on many levels.
I know the General Conference has considered changes to the ordination systems for a few quadrennia now. I know these stories are not representative of universal experience. But they strike me as more than outliers.
I don’t have the knowledge, experience, or wisdom to offer solutions. I merely offer a report from the field.
My post last night about the meaning of a vow provoked a fair amount of reaction fairly quickly. I assume it his a nerve for some folks.
As I often do, I pose questions and open topics on this blog to help me think through them. So, everything I wrote in that post and write in this one is the state of my heart and mind at the moment. I welcome further conversation as it helps me see my own mistakes and misconceptions.
To me, there are two parts to questions about the meaning of ordination vows. The first is fairly simple: Is a vow binding on us for life?
The answer, to me at least, is yes. It is simple, but that does make it easy or even rational. By taking vows we are doing something we actually cannot do. We are binding our future self to the words spoken by our present self. The absurdity of doing such a thing is exactly why Wendell Berry argues that no person is ever actually prepared to get married. We can’t actually enter into such vows with, to use the medical term, informed consent. We do not know what the future will bring, and yet we vow to live in accord with words spoken at a specific time and place.
The more complicated questions have to do with what it means to actually live in fidelity to our vows — especially when the one two whom we make our vow is imperfect or even sinful. Even Jesus, depending on which gospel we read, described terms under which wedding vows were null and void.
Living in fidelity to vows is not simple at all. It is deeply fraught and often confusing. Sometimes our vows come into conflict with each other. In the end, though, I am constrained to believe that the vows I made before God and to my wife bind me in the same ways the vows I read in the Book of Worship will one day bind me. I might fail to fulfill them because I am a frail creature, but I cannot disavow them without rejecting the one to whom they were made.
These are my thoughts and convictions. Some of the comments on my previous post are really worth your attention if this conversation touches a nerve for you.
From the order for ordination of elders in The United Methodist Book of Worship:
In covenant with other elders, will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and accepting the authority of those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?
I will, with the help of God
From the order for admission into full membership of the annual conference:
Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
I have studied them.
After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
I believe that they are.
Will you preach and maintain them?
To the best of my ability, I will.
When I read these words that I one day may say before God and the church, I think of other vows I have taken. I think of my baptismal vows. Those are vows that I cannot renounce or ignore without renouncing my baptism. I think of my marriage vows. Those are vows I cannot decide no longer bind me without breaking faith with my wife.
Is it any more demanding to ask that I maintain fidelity to my marriage and my baptism than it will be one day to ask that I stay true to my ordination vows, if the Lord grants me the opportunity to make them?
I sent this message to my bishop after reading the Judicial Council decision on guaranteed appointment a couple of weeks ago.
Dear Bishop Mike,
I am not ordained. It is quite possible that the Indiana Conference, in its wisdom, will decide I should not be ordained in the future. But if I am ordained to the ministry of an elder, I wish to make one thing clear.
If ever it is the judgment of the cabinet of the Indiana Conference that I am an ineffective pastor, I pledge to work as hard as I am capable to become an effective pastor. If I fail at this, if in the opinion of the cabinet I am deemed ineffective and harmful to the mission of the United Methodist Church in Indiana, I pledge to submit my credentials and seek a different way to live out my calling.
I ask that if it ever should come to this that the Conference will help me transition out of the order of the elders in a way that does the least possible harm to my family. I know there are limits to what the Conference can do.
I am seeking to be ordained an elder to bring glory to Jesus Christ and fulfill his mission for the church. If I fail to do this, I would rather leave the order of elders than do damage to the kingdom through my fear or reluctance to find another way to earn a living.
When your days as bishop in Indiana come to a close, please pass this note along to your successor in the episcopal office. And God bless you in your ministry.
Grace and peace.
The conversation on my recent post about the sin of adultery stirred a thought about ordination. (I realize this is not the leap that many people would make, but there is a little peek inside my brain for you.)
On the adultery post, we had some conversation about covenants and covenant keeping.
So, this question occurs: If ordination is a covenant who is it a covenant with?
Is it with the church?
Is it with God?
I often hear people speak of their calling from God, but isn’t our ordination through the church? And aren’t the vows taken at ordination similar to marriage vows?
In the adultery post, Taylor Burton-Edwards argued that people in a marriage cannot change the terms of the covenant once it is sealed. If that is true, then should it not be the same for ordained clergy?
Just for readers who may not be used to writing on the Internet: All those question marks in this post are actual question marks, not arguments or assertions masquerading as questions. I’m interested in your thoughts, especially those who — unlike me — have taken the vows of ordination.
United Theological Seminary professor Jason Vickers, who has written a wonderful little book on church renewal called Minding the Good Ground, sent me the following guest blog post about what is on his mind on the eve of General Conference.
Here it is:
O For a Thousand Dollars to Save: A Lament on the Eve of General Conference
I have no illusions. I get that the United Methodist Church has money problems. Moreover, I get that money problems need money solutions. Nor am I reluctant to talk openly with friends and strangers about money. If anything, I am convinced that we have a money problem in America and in United Methodism in part because, along with sex, we have made money a taboo topic for polite conversation. So let’s talk about money. And let’s talk about sex. I’m game.
I am more troubled by what United Methodists will not be talking about at General Conference. For example, what are the odds that United Methodists at General Conference will have a lively conversation about the Holy Trinity or about the need to recover a more prominent role for Mary in United Methodist beliefs and practices? And what are the chances that we will have an animated conversation about the nature of holiness or about whether two sacraments are really sufficient?
What troubles me most, however, is that we don’t seem to realize that these things are related to one another – that our money problems and even our sex problems are largely a function of the utter staleness of our theological life together. Just now, the world around us is awakening from its dogmatic slumbers, which is to say, from the long sleep of Enlightenment. People everywhere are increasingly curious about God. Even Hollywood is once again making movies with plots driven by theological questions (see the Oscar-nominated Tree of Life). At such a time as this, I have yet to hear one good theological question set for debate at General Conference.
So what questions would I set before General Conference? Before taking up (again) the matter of whether two people of the same sex can be married, I would like to see us (just once) take up the more theologically profound question of whether we should add marriage to the list of sacraments. Similarly, before taking up (again) the matter of whether gays and lesbians can be ordained, I would like to see us (just once) entertain the theologically tantalizing questions of whether ordination itself is a sacrament and whether Mary might be a better model for the ordained life than Peter. And before we decide whether to downsize or to restructure, I would love to see us tackle the question of what it would mean to think about church polity and organization in a decidedly Trinitarian way.
The video below has been going around for a while. The word is that it is a funny and provocative look at the process of ordination in the United Methodist Church. I, frankly, don’t see the funny. It strikes me as angry, cynical, bitter, and more than a little self-absorbed.
It also is insulting to rural churches. (Just a fact check, btw, there are young people in rural areas.)
Being middle-aged, I am not the target audience, so maybe I just don’t get the jokes. It comes across to me about as funny as a stick in the eye.
From Will Willimon’s Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry:
Ordination is a gift of God, to be sure, but a gift of God through the church, for the church, that the church might be the church of God. One of our greatest challenges in seminary is to take people — many of whom may have been rather poorly formed by their home congregations, many of whom have had little experience in actual congregations — and form them into leaders of congregations, officials of the church, bearers of the church’s faith rather than merely their own. (p. 18)