Obstacles and Opportunities in the Ordination Process

November 1st, 2010
This article is featured in the Calling & Career (Nov/Dec/Jan 2010-11) issue of Circuit Rider

On June 14, 2010, I was ordained an elder in full connection in the Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. As one who for many years had delayed in officially answering God’s call to ordained ministry, it was particularly humbling and illuminating to invite untold numbers of people in a process of investigating my call.

Oftentimes, the ordination process seemed more like an obstacle course, endurance test, or inquisition than a process toward being enabled to serve God and God’s people to my fullest and best capacity. There were times I felt that I was actually being dis-abled rather than empowered, that giving so many people access to my mind, spiritual journey, financial records, and personal history was downright invasive and designed to deconstruct the person God had called.

At the same time, I learned that what does not kill you makes you stronger. Like Paul, I had to learn to leave some things behind (personal feelings and opinions, for example) and press on towards the goal of the high calling that God had given me through Jesus Christ, a calling to community. As one who must pray for patience, the ordination process in the UMC offered an excellent opportunity for me to develop this fruit of the spirit and grow in grace.

The process helped me to see that calling has just as much to do with the Church as with me. God was not calling me into a vacuum. Like Paul, who was called from one way of being faithful into a way that empowered him to spread the good news of God’s love for all people throughout the known world, God called me from one way of being Christian (Baptist) into the United Methodist Church. God called me into a place where my gifts could be fully utilized, rather than being boxed into one avenue of doing ministry. My first mentor encouraged me to articulate what I knew and believed and to put into words that which I had been embodying and doing. It was a methodology of deconstruction, pulling apart the various pieces that made up my life and looking at my experiences to see the whole package and how God had been using me for the edification of the beloved community.

Opportunities for Community

In the Tennessee Conference, one of the focal points of the ordination process is to create a community of persons showing agape love for one another, enabling us to be agents for replication of that community in the church and in the world. Toward this end, each commissioned individual was placed in a residency group. Prior experience with covenant groups did not count. The goal was to have a shared experience. With the ordination process, we had to approach everything as if we knew nothing and indeed were often treated like infants with a blank slate.

The residency group consisted of persons from all over the conference. I was placed with people who on my own I may never have tried to get to know better, nor they, me. As much as the setup allowed, we became somewhat more familiar with one another. We prayed for one another in crisis and learned about our conference. We visited the ministry site of each member at least once, experiencing the diversity of the places and people served by our companions in ministry. And we had table fellowship.

This was at once enjoyable and challenging, depending on the setting. On one occasion, we ate at a restaurant that was housed in old hotel/boarding house, built in 1867 to replicate a pre-Civil War mansion. It no longer houses residents. However, as one who specializes in telling the story of the deliverance of Black people as part of the story of God’s salvation for all people, I may have been the only one who felt some discomfort. My spiritual ears could hear the footsteps of black servants dumping chamber pots. My spiritual eyes could see head-kerchiefed table servants. Another time, we ate at a small town drugstore soda fountain. I had seen no black people on the main street in this town that is maybe 30 minutes from Nashville. We (black people) always hear stories of places that the Civil Rights Movement left behind. I figured I was in one. I said nothing about my discomfort either time. I did not want to spoil the fun. The food was good.

I have learned that when I enter places like these with white people, after the initial look of annoyance/irritation/hatred from servers, I am generally treated just fine. However, my travels to the required sessions at the conference retreat center actually engendered terror. No black people live there; no black people work for miles and miles in and around, having been cleared out years ago by sundown laws and refusal to hire. There is one worker at the center who places the biscuits on my plate extra hard as her steely gray eyes glare fleetingly into mine. The last time there, I declined bread.

Opportunities for Sensitivity

How is it I can go to a church retreat center in a process of being a leader for community and be subjected to this continuing negative legacy? What does it mean that no one else notices or thinks about the impact of such a legacy on its black colleagues? In other settings, I have been accused of being super-sensitive. But as ministers of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t this be part of the purpose of an ordination process, of residency groups, retreats, conferences, and workshops—that we develop hyper-sensitivity towards our fellow human beings, so that we might mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice?

Those who have been privileged not to have to contend with racism (or whatever the ism is) are handicapped in this manner. The privileged cannot, except by the exceptional desire to love others as they love themselves, understand what the “sinned-against” live with. They have the choice not to deal with it. I do not. Should any Christian leader?

At one retreat, I did speak up. I spoke about the anxiety that grips me as I drive up that mountain and pass the “coon” hunting grounds, imaging a noose on every limb. (No, I am not crazy. In this part of the world, “n----rigging” is common slang for tying a knot.) A conversation on racial healing ensued. Knowledge of secret meetings and acts of terror was revealed, acts that occurred in our region. There were confessions on racial indifference and misbehavior that had provided a foundation for life practice. Biases were articulated and examined. We cried, we prayed, we made promises.

These experiences are proof for me that at the grassroots level, the United Methodist Church continues to ignore its participation in America’s original sin of racial injustice, with the Methodist Episcopal Church splitting over slavery in 1844, establishing the Central Jurisdiction in 1939, and from 1968 allowing congregations to close up shop or die an excruciating multi-year death when the neighborhood changes.

Opportunities for Understanding

These shared communal revelations produced a sense of community I had not heretofore experienced in my assigned group. Community occurs when hearts are truly opened so that the love of Christ can break through, erasing fear and tearing down walls of indifference and passivity.

The intentional community and deconstruction of the ordination process lends itself well to such self-analysis. Would not the process of becoming spiritual leaders be better served by having residents engage in seminars that provide more opportunities for conversation than for inquisition? Letting down one’s guard rather than creating more obstacles? A process that invites the Holy Spirit to move us toward being agents in the transformation of the world and a more perfect example of the beloved community of Jesus Christ?

The Apostle Paul was at first viewed with suspicion but finally received the affirmation through the laying on of hands of the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch. On June 14, I had further proof that God is faithful. God knows the Church and God knows me. Ordination confirmed my calling to be an agent for change through preaching, teaching, music, and sacramental ministry in the community of Jesus Christ.

About the Author

Marilyn E. Thornton

Marilyn E. Thornton is Lead Editor of African American Resources for Abingdon Press and Director of the Wesley read more…
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