Integral to the understanding of ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church is the annual conference’s role in examining and approving those seeking ordination. Individuals discerning a call to ministry are required to take part in a process designed to ensure that they are genuinely called and sincerely faithful, that they are educationally and psychologically prepared for the rigors of ministry, and that they are fruitful and effective in service. But how effective is this process—for the church or for the individual?
Background of the Current Provisional Process
In 1996, the General Conference approved a new probationary (fortunately renamed “provisional” in 2008) process for candidates seeking ordination. Under that legislation, candidates commissioned after meeting educational and other requirements entered a provisional period of at least three (now at least two) years with their board of ordained ministry.
The concept of a provisional period was not new in United Methodism. While a year was added to the process in 1996, a major emphasis of the legislation was that of a “new understanding” of the provisional period, going far beyond the more traditional function of approval for ordination. The new understanding included four dimensions to assist in the much needed formation for the early years of ministry: supervision, continuing theological education, mentoring, and covenant groups.
In recent years the Lewis Center for Church Leadership conducted two major surveys of persons experiencing the provisional process. One surveyed everyone ordained over a five year period. The second surveyed all clergy under age 35. The range of assessments is broad, often shaped by the nature of the program in the clergy’s particular annual conference, but in general, participants named mentoring as the most positive component of the process. The opportunity to spend time with others who are just entering ministry also is a positive aspect for many who value the collegiality and new relationships built among their peers. On the negative side, however, the length of the process topped the concerns. Some found it overly bureaucratic, confusing, with unclear expectations and a lack of communication.
Guaranteed Appointment and Clergy Effectiveness
The 1996 changes are one example of how the ordination process has gotten longer and more involved. Over many years, the church has increasingly asked more and more of boards of ordained ministry. There is a sense in which the church is asking boards to solve problems not of their making. For example, the impact of continuing membership loss and concern for ineffective clergy puts more pressure on those who screen new clergy. There is a misguided hope that examining new clergy longer and more closely will compensate for what are seen as problems caused by some current clergy.
One major factor putting pressure on the ordination process is the “guaranteed appointment” for elders. The ordination process carries so much weight since it must function as an insurance policy assuring that those ordained have the capacity to continue in guaranteed appointments.
Without guaranteed appointments, anxiety in the system would dramatically drop. As a veteran of several terms on boards of ordained ministry, I can testify that there is a subtle but powerful difference in worry about wrong decisions between elders and deacons. Boards know that if deacons, not covered by guaranteed appointments, fail to keep up in their training, are not able to work with people, and do not demonstrate effectiveness, there will be no place for them to serve because they must find their own employment. Elders, on the other hand, must be given an appointment each year unless some grievous offense has been committed. Without guaranteed appointments, there would be less pressure on conference boards to “weed out” potentially ineffective elders.
Let’s Separate Examination and Formation
The 1996 legislation was well intentioned in its effort to combine “steps toward ordination” and “formation for early years of ministry” in one process. It may be, however, that boards are being asked to do too much and may have assignments that are contradictory. Though full of hard-working, able people, it is increasingly difficult for boards to do both the approval for ordination and the formative tasks asked of them—and do them well. One possibility for addressing this dilemma is to consider separating these two critical processes.
There must be a careful examination process for ordained ministry administered by the boards of ordained ministry. It needs to include the written work, testing, and interviews now included but also other information needed by boards to fulfill their discernment function in the best ways. Relieving the boards of the responsibilities for formation would free them to spend more time with the candidates, with those in the candidate’s congregation or ministry context, and with their district superintendents. With these steps and more extensive use of on-site visits, the board may very well be able to recommend some persons for ordination within a relatively short time, thus leaving more time for those about whom there are questions. Boards could shape their work with one goal in mind—being able to make the best judgment on behalf of the annual conference.
What would happen to their responsibilities related to formation for the early years of ministry? Of the four components for which they now have responsibility, supervision (which boards share with district superintendents) can be lodged totally with the superintendents. Boards may want to involve superintendents more closely in their discernment process, a suggestion made by many survey respondents. As for mentoring, covenant groups, and continuing theological education, these may more naturally fit a separate group responsible only for a significant formation process for those new to ministry, and can continue after ordination.
A Longer and More Comprehensive Formation for Early Years of Ministry
The formation and developmental aspects of the current provisional process need to continue and go well beyond ordination. Some may feel that two or three years is too long following seminary for the ordination process, but there is much evidence that a far longer period is needed for a successful transition into full-time ministry. In many professions the “ten-year rule” refers to the time required after formal education to gain expertise in the profession.
In addition, the current plan may not be conducive to learning and formation. Despite the best efforts of many boards of ordained ministry, some in the provisional process see the meetings, workshops, and retreats as all being done for the benefit of the conference rather than for them. Any time that one process is expected to provide a judgment about the participants while at the same time helping form them for more fruitful ministry, a tension is present that makes learning less likely.
A process of formation for the early years of ministry that is not tied to ordination decisions would permit a total focus on growth in effectiveness. And this process would not be three years but longer, since the challenges faced by new clergy cannot be resolved in three years. This extended formation process would be an integral part of an overall comprehensive clergy development plan that covers the entirety of ministry. One of the unfortunate consequences of the inordinate focus on the years prior to ordination is that very little is offered for—or expected of—clergy after ordination.