Dispatches from the ordination front

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.

5 thoughts on “Dispatches from the ordination front

  1. You make some excellent observations, John. Sometimes BOOM’s make seemingly arbitrary decisions based on the number of anticipated job openings rather than the qualifications of the candidates. When a candidate is “deferred” to another year because there are not enough job openings, they need to come up with some valid sounding reasons or issues for the candidate to work on. Often these are a real stretch. It would be better if a BOOM simply said, we don’t have enough job openings this year, and perhaps give the candidate a list of conferences where there is a clear need.

    We like to think that ordination in the UMC is primarily a spiritual issue. I don’t think it really is. It is very much a business decision.

  2. I too have heard this statement time after time: ” 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.”

    Disordered is right. It is really pathological: the idea that we must conceal who we are in order to be recognized as those who have spiritual authority is downright frightening. Way too many people have commented quietly to me about my blogging, “thank you for saying what I’m too scared to say because I still need to be ordained (or still need a better appointment).” A system that promotes that kind of thinking has an integrity problem.

  3. It is correct that waiting until one us ordained to speak one’s mind is disordered, but that’s not necessarily “the system’s” fault. It could just be a prudential recognition of danger. But no one is being “forced” to hide who they are; as with so often in ministry, we must choose between giving the whole, unvarnished truth and accepting the consequences, or finding a way to function where we don’t die on every hill and still get done what needs to get done. Where the system is at fault is that it is widely known that once a UMC clergyperson is ordained, they are practically untouchable. Power corrupts.

    My own question, having very recently come through the process, is whether or not the system is broken by design. That is, perhaps there is more intent in the clunkiness and arbitrariness of the ordination process than we imagine: if someone does not possess the intestinal fortitude or organizational intelligence to navigate the (complex but not overly difficult) ordination process, why should we put them in the much more difficult environs of the local church?

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