Ordination in a fractured church

April 10th, 2019

This summer, I will be ordained as an elder in full connection in The United Methodist Church. Naturally, the months between receiving the recommendation for ordination and the actual event itself are a time for reflection. Much of this is a continuation of the reflections I’ve had over the last several years.

The week after I received the affirmation of my Board of Ordained Ministry, I attended General Conference, and I found myself beginning to reflect on a different set of questions than I had anticipated. In the days since General Conference, I have had to come to terms with the fact that I am being ordained into a denomination that, if it is not already embroiled in one, is on the cusp of a civil war. Our denominational anxieties are no longer just whispered between clergy at Annual Conference or limited to blogs and twitter feeds. Now, they are splayed across the frontlines of national newspapers.

The most common advice that young clergy receive when we voice frustration with our system is to stay within the denomination, become leaders in the system, and create the changes we want to see. While I am deeply committed to this denomination, that answer has quickly become trite. The traditional paths of creating change are quickly disappearing as small groups of large-church pastors and caucuses dictate the way forward on their own, with little input from the younger clergy that will bear the burden of their decisions in the decades to come.

I joined The United Methodist Church because I saw that it was a place where God’s grace prevailed, even in spite of the denominational rust. The day before I met with my charge conference to approve me for candidacy, I overheard a senior clergyperson say to another, “I would not encourage anyone to enter into ministry!” When I pressed them on that comment, they told me stories that are more apt for political dramas and soap-operas than to Christ’s church. 

Still, I knew that this was my denomination, the place where God was calling me to serve. What impressed me was not the cynicism of the institution, but rather the way I saw God acting through and with the church. I was impressed by the urgency of the Gospel.

Ordination in The United Methodist Church finds its roots in that urgency. My first experience with ordination was in a Roman Catholic monastery. The Cardinal of Vienna presided over the ordination service, and I will forever remember the candidates lying prostrate before him. Comparatively, our ordination services are economical.

John Wesley made the decision to ordain Thomas Coke, Richard Whatcoat, and Thomas Vasey because of an imperative need for clergy to spread scriptural holiness. Even now, as candidates are examined during the clergy session, the bishop asks them on two separate occasions if they will be consumed in the work of the Gospel to which they are called.

Even the structure of our episcopacy conveys this urgency. Our bishops are not princes and princesses of the church, like the Cardinal who presided over that ordination service. Our bishops are consecrated, not ordained, for the particular role of the superintendency. In our tradition, the church does not emanate from the bishops; rather the church selects them for that role because of their gifts and graces to guide us through the task to which we have been called.

How does that work continue in the midst of our splintering? In my extension ministry, I am somewhat protected from the chaos of the denomination. My position is endowed, and so it will exist so long as my college remains open. But ordination is more than simple job security.

I work with rural congregations, many of whom will be caught in the crossfire of large church battles, but who provide meaningful ministries to their communities. If we fracture and split, can we honestly say that these communities will see the Methodist movement multiply, given that many of these churches already feel forgotten by the broader institution? The conversations I have now are focused on how that work will continue, regardless of how the institution shapes itself. Truthfully, these conversations have more questions than answers.

Ordination is also about connection. Thomas Frank wrote that ordination “derives its importance not so much from its intrinsic value as from its relationship with credentials for full conference membership.”[1] At its best, that is a connection with mentors and colleagues who support you through loving accountability and encouragement. At its worst, it is a symbol of status guarded by institutional gatekeepers. Most of the time, I suspect it is likely somewhere between the two.

This raises its own questions. Chief among them: How I am to understand my membership in full connection with colleagues who very openly do not wish to be in full connection with one another? In the ordination liturgy, we are called to be in covenant with the other ordained clergy of our Annual Conference. I desperately want that to be a permanent covenant, not one that dissolves based on our institutional reorganization.

Shortly after General Conference, a friend in another denomination reached out to me. I shared all of these questions with them, after which they asked a question I had not considered: “Will you still be ordained?”

Despite all of my questions, I had not considered the possibility of not being ordained, and I still will not. The United Methodist Church is the place where I discovered God’s grace. It is the church that taught me to follow Jesus, and it is the church that called me into service.

Being ordained is more than a relationship to the denomination itself. It is about stewarding the work of the Gospel in the world, and that work will happen whether our connection survives or not.

In the conversations leading up to Wesley’s decision to ordain, necessity became the focal point. There needed to be ordained clergy to spread scriptural holiness in a rapidly changing world. Following those ordinations, the Methodist movement changed significantly. Even Wesley did not exert the control he desired over Methodists in America.

My beloved denomination is in a similar position today. Our world is rapidly changing and shifting. Our denomination, and the church itself, is obviously in need of renewal. Our institutions are met with distrust.  In that climate, centuries ago, Wesley sent out his new clergy to spark something new, something he could not predict.

At my own ordination, after the bishop has placed his hands on my head and invoked the Holy Spirit’s guidance, the bishop will tell me to take authority. Then, just as John Wesley did with his ordinands, The United Methodist Church will send me out to an unknown future.

My senior colleagues often remark that we should view this as an exciting time in the Methodist movement, as we wait to see how the Holy Spirit works. I do not disagree, though we should also acknowledge that the hardest work will be done by clergy, like the members of my ordination class, who will carry the movement forward when they have moved into retirement. It is easier to be excited about the “new thing” when you can shape the route that leads to it without being committed to the long-term chaos of it.

On the whole, though, I believe they are right. Those of us who are ordained in this moment will have a freedom my senior colleagues have not had – the freedom to start over, to let the Holy Spirit prune us for this season, and to begin again in new and creative ways.

That is where I find comfort and purpose in the uncertainty of our institution. So, when our bishop tells us to take authority, that is precisely what my colleagues and I will do: Take authority to create something new and grace-filled, so that we, too, can spread scriptural holiness across the land.

[1] Frank, Thomas Edward. Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church. Abingdon Press, 2006., 197

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