A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

How Should We Discern the Call to Ordained Ministry?

Over the years I have had the great privilege of being a member of several different District Committees on Ordained Ministry as well as chairing a few. There are many things I like about the United Methodist process of discernment in the call to ministry, but I have also wondered if we haven't also hindered the call or in some cases even missed the call of others because our process is so Westernized and institutionalized.

I have said to some of my colleagues over the years that I doubt that Jesus or Paul or any other biblical character would be approved by any UM Board of Ordained Ministry, not because the members of these Boards are not spiritually discerning folks. I greatly admire many of my colleagues on the Board of Ordained Ministry. It's just my hunch that our process itself would question their readiness and even their fitness for ministry. Some may find that comment too harsh, but I have trouble seeing the parallels between the biblical call stories and how those calls are worked out, and our contemporary process for discerning that call. In the Bible when God calls, the one so commissioned immediately gets to work. When someone approaches us with a call to ministry, we immediately want them to complete a battery of tests and read books and fill out a manual.

When one considers the seismic shifts currently happening within so-called "mainline" Protestantism-- the decline in churches, the average increase in age of most congregations, the difficulty that most churches specifically and the denominations generally have in moving into the twenty-first century, while they unwittingly continue to structurally operate as if it is 1957-- it should also be pondered that perhaps a change in the ministry inquiry and discernment process is also required. We want to attract younger clergy to our denomination, but we believe that in the process that we must work to "institutionalize" them so they will be loyal United Methodists. In that process, I can't help but notice that more than a few quickly get fed up with the hoops and strings and drop out, while others don't even venture into the so-called "mainline" denominations in the first place. Like Jeremiah, they have fire in their belly and a burning in their bones, and they are not about to let an "institution" slowly extinguish the fire.

Am I suggesting that we should no longer require psychological testing? Of course not. Do I want us to take just anyone who "feels" God is calling her or him to ordained ministry? Not at all. But I do think we need to be open to, not only using the ministry discernment process to work through one's call to ministry, but we also must know when the process is an obstacle, and then be willing to move the strings and hoops out of the way, so that some dynamic "burning bush" commissions will be allowed to move forward without hindrance.

Having spent time in Cuba teaching Methodist pastors there, the Cuba Conference's approach to ministry is quite different. When a person sensing a call to ministry approaches a District Superintendent expressing such, she or he says, "Great! Go out and start a house church, and when you have ten members, come back and see me."

Is such an approach perfect? No... but there does seem to be something more biblical about it.

At least it appears to be more biblical than, "You think you are called to ordained ministry? Great! Here... take this test."


PamBG said...

Institutions are "interesting" things. I'm incredibly cynical about institutions but, to paraphrase a facetious remark my husband uses for people who frustrate him: "Institutions, you gotta love them 'cause you can't shoot them."

Institutions seem to have this horrible habit of just rolling along and accumulating more and more "thou shat nots" whilst failing to throw out their trash - the hoops or restrictions that might have been useful in the past but which are now just holding things back.

I make these remarks in total ignorance of the UMC process for ordination but also in the knowledge that the British Methodist Church is going through the same things.

In ministering to a Church full of African immigrants to the UK, I saw people filled with faith who knew the content of the bible backwards and forwards and who would have made fantastic preachers and ministers. The only problem was that, where they came from, there was never a need to learn to read. (Although the person probably spoke 2 other languages besides English).

On the other hand, I've also seen crusading individuals who were convinced that God had called them and no one was going to stand in their way. I wouldn't have wanted to get anywhere near those people and their ministry.

I know it's not in the solid evangelical tradition, but I think that the calling has to be recognized, supported and encouraged by the Christian community. It's not just about the individual and we need more of that community understanding. The question is, how to do without discouraging people from the outset? Not to mention bankrupting them with seminary fees.

Willie Deuel said...

The first mindset that has to go is that of the process being exactly the same for everyone. In our conference new candidates must take a basic reading and writing literacy test: even new candidates with multiple postgraduate degrees have to take it. That, in my opinion, takes the process into the realm of the ridiculous.

Why can't the process be altered to disciple and groom specific candidates rather than run 'em all through the meat grinder?

Chuck Tackett said...

Great post Allan and insightful comments. It seems I remember something in the Gospels about Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for their hard-hearted, rigid, "institutional" thinking toward the Mosaic law.

Institutions, despite their mission, tend to develop into self-serving organizations. Efficiency and functionality become more important effectiveness. Just look at our government if you want to see a sterling example.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Yes, Great post, Allan. I do agree with Pam that an emphasis needs to be put on the Body recognizing the gift of the person, and by Body I mean the entire church, not only the elders. But what you say goes along with that. If a person gets a work off the ground that was in their heart, that is evidence that they have a gift and calling along that line, for sure.

To leave it only to the elders is to deny what the elders ought to hold to, in my estimation, that all believers have discernment from God.

John Meunier said...

Great questions. Unfortunately, old ones, too. A sign of our institutionalization is that people keep asking the same questions with no change in the system.

My limited experience is that the system is constructed much more like a weeding out process than a nurture and development process. I think an apprenticeship model of some sort would be better.

You make a good connection between the system and the needs of the church. If the current system produces pastors who will be pretty much like the pastors we have now, how does that jibe with the observation that the church needs to make some pretty significant changes in the coming years?

I don't know how you shake this loose. In some ways, I think this is the key challenge for the UMC. The kinds of pastors it produces will be decisive in everything else that happens.

Hutch said...

I just started candidacy process, and let me tell you, if I wasn't a lifelong Methodist and completely committed to the denomination, I might already bail. And yes, I'm well aware this is only the beginning.

Don't get me wrong, I agree with you that the fact that we have an ordination process is necessary. I love that we keep our pastors accountable and 100% in check with the realities of their call. But I have to wonder, as someone with a passion for campus ministry and church planting, if this is not the start of what's making our denomination shrink.

Think about it. You're someone who's passionate about church planting. You want to start this outreaching church that breaks the rules and is dynamic in ministry. But to do so, you have to spend 3 years in seminary, 3 years out of seminary, take multiple tests, go in front of a committee, and follow rules. And the committee (no offense) is usually made up of longtime Methodists who are used to the ritual of the church. See where one might get disheartened and want to break out on their own?

The person above me nailed it on the head. What kind of pastors are we getting out of this process? Are we getting a diverse community of Christians, or pastors who love the rituals and rules of the UMC?

Betty Newman said...

Over a year ago I met with our DS and shared with him my sense of calling. It's a long story, but the short version is that I've been a member of the UMC for over 45 years, and a lay speaker for more than 30 of those.

After raising 2 boys, and caring for parents and in-laws (all the while fueling my passion of studying the scriptures) I finally heard the call to ministry.

At 55, I didn't feel like the full-blown ordained ministry was the right path, and so sought to be a Lay Minister. (You see, I only want to serve. I'm not interested in a "title" nor a "guarantee.")

Now, over a year later, I've met with the DCOM once... and heard no more - neither "yea" nor "nay".

I am waiting for God to open a door. I'll be dog-gone if I'm going to "beat on doors." I don't remember reading of a single prophet or called person having to beg to be able to serve.

If God wants me to serve, then He will provide the "door of opportunity." (Which is a very appropriate analogy as I'm currently writing a study on the Seven Churches of Revelation, and am today preparing for the Church of Philadelphia... now, they had a door!)


Unknown said...

I just finished my first set of interviews as a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry in East Ohio and my view is that our board is intentionally moving towards a much more nurturing process. In fact I can say from my perspective that the board has made great leaps in how it conducts the interviews even in the four years between the time I interviewed for full membership and this set of interviews. There is still much work that needs to be done, and the process will never perfect.

In terms of how friendly the process is to younger clergy? My view as a clergy member under the age of 35, is that it is beginning to become more friendly. Personally I like what the Methodist Church in Cuba is doing, but I am not sure that the institution of the United Methodist would be comfortable with that process. What I do think is that our young clergy should be placed in environments where they can thrive and do ministry that is authentic. Furthermore, if a particular person shows an aptitude for church planting I am all for letting them do so as soon as practical. To me that would be at the provisional member level, and we have done that with the Orchard Path Church start.

Robert said...

I'm a licensed Assembly of God minister and have considered the United Methodist Denomination several times. I earned one Master's degree, practically a second one, and an MDiv is, financially speaking, out of the question. Some of the other requirements seem a bit much too, at least for those who haven't grown up in a Methodist church. Having said that, I respect the denomination, its scholars, and its heritage a great deal.

PamBG said...

If a person gets a work off the ground that was in their heart, that is evidence that they have a gift and calling along that line, for sure.

I think I pretty much agree with this; but I'd also say that if someone gets something off the ground it's probably a de facto acknowledgment by the community that this person is called.

And I love the idea that the system should be there to nurture rather than to exclude.

By the way, this doesn't just apply to candidates for ordination. Having arrived in the US in an 'unofficial' way - I came here primarily to be near my parents and didn't do a formal ministry exchange - many people are wary of me. I certainly didn't expect an appointment. I did expect to have my offers to volunteer at things taken up instead of being politely ignored. And I don't think this is a personal statement about me or about others; as people get to know me, my offers are being taken up more. But I think the whole fact that I "dropped out of thin air" into an institution that has no slot for me is a big factor. Like the other poster, I'll knock on a door, but I'm not going to try to break it down.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I love your husband's quote! Yes, the dilemma in what I'm proposing is that you can open the up to some strange things, but I have to confess that I haven't noticed that our system really does a great job of preventing most of those "crusaders" from getting in. I am bewildered by your experience since you have been back in the USA. If you ever move down our way, our congregation will immediately plug you into ministry and "let you loose."

Will, the cookie cutter process is a real problem. Some would say that there is no other way to do it, but I disagree. I think with some serious thought and work, the process can be tailored.

Chuck, absolutely institutions tend to be self-serving. This does not mean those those involved in them up to their armpits are necessarily self-serving, but it is easy to get co-opted by the system.

Ted, yes, I agree with you and Pam that we must have the discernment of the Body. I am not suggesting a Lone Ranger approach to call discernment, but I actually wonder if the cumbersome institutionalized process actually hinders the Church's discernment because we do not necesssarily have to do th ehard work of discernment. We just make them follow the process.

Yes, John, these are the same old questions and you rightly point out the problem of an institution when we keep asking the same questions because we know something is not right, but we continue to do it anyway.

Amy and Betty, I am truly sorry to hear of your situation and I am not sure what to say other than to hang in there. God has great ministry in mind for you.

Jared, I am glad your experience has been good. I know I am biased, but I think our East Ohio BOM is one of the best around, and the good folks who are members of it are working to make the process better. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Robert, I, too, love the scholarship and the heritage of the UMC. It's one of the things that made me a UM and keeps me as one. I think we can still foster scholarship and do something about the ordination discernment process at the same time.

PamBG said...

Allen, I think that the British system - because we actually "weed in" people before they even start seminary - is good at "weeding OUT" the real nut cases. (And I can think of two individuals in particular who I'm glad the church said "no" to.) What we're not so good at doing is weeding out the people who are clearly mediocre (by "clearly" mean everyone knows it and no one wants to say it).

In the process I went through (which has changed a bit), there were three "hoops" to jump through: before being accepted for training, after training and before starting Probation, before ordination. Between those "hoop jumping events", the process itself was not adversarial, but supportive. Although not everyone felt that way all the time.

Why is the UMC process so adversarial?

Allan R. Bevere said...


In my experience I do not see the process as adversarial, but then again I have been sitting on the other side of the process for many years.

And, yes, weeding out the mediocre is a great problem, but I see that as a problem every profession-- teaching, etc.

larry said...

I had the joy of meeting over lunch this week with a college freshman from my congregation who is thinking about entering the ministry. She has not yet "experienced" a call, but is starting to discern if that is the direction she thinks God has for her. Anyways, more to the point, as much joy as I took in that conversation, I definitely had to bite my tongue multiple times so as not to unduly disparage our UM approach to ordination - I don't want to suck the excitement right out of her . . .

In my honest opinion, if I am going to try to help her find her gifts in ministry in a timely manner, in good conscience I would steer her away from her own denomination for her own best interest. As much as I would love to have her in the UMC if she discerns God is calling her, I doubt I would advise her to go that route unless things change in the process.

Country Parson said...

Late to the conversation and from the wrong denomination, but that's never stopped me before. Our Episcopalian process used to be hoops and hurdles that appeared mostly pointless. My own discernment period lasted for two years and involved two days of psychological testing. Of course I do have a signed paper asserting that I am not pathologically insane, which, at the time, I occasionally paraded in front of our teenage children. But I digress. At least in our diocese we now have lay led discernment committees go through their own period of discernment before they ever begin working with a candidate for ordination. The result is no less demanding but is more deeply rooted in prayer and active listening. On the whole, it's an enormous improvement.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your belated comments.

Where do you get one of those papers to sign? I want to have one to wave in front of my children!