Music by LuAnn Latzanich to accompany your reading
Two weeks ago, the Board of Ordained Ministry of the North Georgia Conference conducted examination of candidates for commissioning (provisional membership) and ordination (full connection) in the orders of elder or deacon. I have been a member of the board for eight years; that’s two terms (quadrennia in Methodist terminology). Serving on the board has been a sacred responsibility: one of the hardest and most rewarding assignments I have had.
Both laity and clergy are members of the board. Some of our lay members are quick to say that clergy are best equipped to evaluate theology and doctrine, but I have found that many of them are well versed in this area, too. Together we evaluate sermons, Bible studies, call to ministry, leadership and other aspects of the called life. After all this we must say whether they pass, are deferred (which means they have to come back because of a deficiency) or are denied (discontinued). We are asked to use our best judgment and our collective discernment. Sometimes it is easy and other times really hard.
The chair of the board, Rev. Glenn Etheridge, stepped down this year as he continues to fight cancer; and Rev. Julie Boone stepped up a year early to be our chair. Usually the vice chair has a year to learn from the chair before taking over; but Julie had to assume this responsibility without a transitional year. She did a great job, but we all knew that she needed us to be especially supportive if for no other reason than the details of Robert’s Rules of Order. She asked for our grace as she learned. Our guiding principle for the entire time was intentionally that of grace.
It helped all of us accomplish our difficult tasks. Whenever we became a bit too engaged in our discussions, someone would simply shout out, “Grace!” That made us all laugh at ourselves and reengage in, let us say, a more grace-filled manner.
Grace is always a part of the process of the board as we strive to be faithful to the call placed upon the lives of the candidates and our evaluation of their readiness for commissioning and fruitfulness for ordination. It was more important than ever this year as division and strife seem to permeate so many aspects of our lives. Our ability to work together without regard to non-essential differences has been a huge blessing to me, and I think, to all the board members.
Those that we interview are a diverse group: age, gender, background, ethnicity, country of origin, etc. We need this diversity to serve all the people within the denomination. Wesley said that the world is our parish, and if we are to reach others for Christ, we need many different kinds of pastors who can relate to and converse with the diversity of people we find in our parish.
Candidates are always very nervous. Speaking for myself, it was hard not to feel like a deer in the headlights, when I came before the board. And, we know that controversies in the church and divisions in society can contribute to nerves. Candidates cannot help but wonder if the position of the board or individual members of the board in such matters will influence their decision to pass, defer or even deny/discontinue them.
We worship together before each set of interviews and our chair addresses the candidates to assure them that we have no other agenda than determining their readiness for ministry (commissioning) or fruitfulness in ministry (ordination) in the UMC. There are some things that are not part of our discernment. This year, the chair made it a point to assure the candidates that they would not be asked about the upcoming General Conference, the proposals before it or their position on these proposals.
A part of the chair of the board’s address to the candidates every year goes something like this:
We are here to engage you in conversations about theology and doctrine, and to examine you in that area as well as the areas of leadership, practice of ministry and a called and disciplined life. If you are theologically conservative, you will leave here thinking that this is the most liberal group of people you have ever conversed with; and if you are liberal, you will think that this is the most conservative group ever.
We are not here to determine if you are progressive or conservative, liberal or orthodox; or to approve you based upon these. To use an analogy, if you say something is white we will ask why it isn’t black. If you say it is black, we will ask you why it isn’t white. And, if you say it is gray, we will ask why you are so indecisive. Our purpose is to push you beyond quotes from The Book of Discipline into deeper conversations, and to see if you can think on your feet. After all most of the most important conversations you will have with people as a pastor will require you to think on your feet.
This is an application of the historical position of the Methodist movement. In the Book of Discipline of the UMC, it is stated in this way:
Beyond the essentials of vital religion, United Methodists respect the diversity of opinions held by conscientious persons of faith. Wesley followed a time-tested approach: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things charity.” (The essentials are clearly detailed in the The Book of Discipline, ¶ 104, section 3)
The spirit of charity takes into consideration the limits of human understanding. “To be ignorant of many things and to be mistaken in some,” Wesley observed, “is the necessary condition of humanity.” The crucial matter in religion is steadfast love for God and neighbor, empowered by the redeeming and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. (The Book of Discipline, ¶ 103. Section 2)
This is a counter-cultural position, and one that is not easy to hold as it seems our culture demands that every position/opinion be essential. It is hard to practice tolerance much less charity. Yet, if the church and its leadership cannot evidence this, we have missed somethings that are central to the gospel: the actual example and teachings of Christ. Jesus was a Jew who ate with sinners (non-believers, tax collectors, people of ill repute), talked to a Samaritan woman and responded to the pleas of a Roman officer.
The UMC is a denomination that has always sought to preach the gospel of grace in daily life to the ends of the earth. The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is to grow in love, and to make love of neighbor our guiding principle and visible evidence of our love of God; however we have often failed to achieve and sustain Wesley’s vision for an inclusive church.
The UMC is a denomination that has spawned many others such as Wesleyan, Nazarene, and Pentecostal over doctrinal matters and worship styles. Shamefully, the Methodist Episcopal Church split into northern and southern denominations because the southern bishops were slave holders and would not concede such was incompatible with Christian doctrine and free their slaves. The Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches came into being because of racism in the north because people of color were not allowed to sit with whites, and were required to receive communion only after the white congregants were finished. The sin of the original designation of a Central Conference to which all non-whites were segregated was not lifted until we became the United Methodist Church. This happened because the United Brethren would not agree to the merger with the Methodist Episcopal Church until that happened. We are still dealing with the harm that was done because of this segregation.
Overall, the history of the Christian church demonstrates that we have often failed to be united and allow for differing opinions of any kind, much less extend charity. Church trials, labels such as heretic, and schisms have marked our history. We have fought with each other over orthodoxy and reformation; and have had regular bouts with science as if God is not responsible for this amazing and orderly creation as well as the human brain that has been gifted to examine, and often, figure out biological and physical laws. The apostle Paul might well have accused us of being too much of the flesh (the human world) and too little of the spirit (the kingdom of God) in these matters.
Some denominations believe that they are the only ones to get it right, and will state that only their members are heaven bound. The rest of us are crispy critters in the hereafter. This fear-based theology misses a really big point: it is not our ability to get it right or even to be righteous enough that earns us a heavenly reward. That was done by Christ for us.
So, when we examine those who have answered the call to ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church we are examining them on the essentials. That is how we have what we have referred to as a big tent. That is why Methodists have claimed a position in the extreme center. We have always recognized that we could be wrong, others could be right and none of us have all the right answers … as Wesley said, we acknowledge that we are “ignorant of many things and … mistaken in some.”
It is harder than ever to remain true and faithful in these ways. Some of our brothers and sisters want us all to think alike about something that many of us think of as non-essentials, and have now come to the point that they want to separate from the UMC. This group calls their position orthodox which leaves everyone else in the heterodox (aka heretic) category. This possibility of schism is heartbreaking to many of us, as we still ask ourselves if this is the only way.
There is a story in the Acts of the Apostles about the apostles teaching in the temple after the resurrection. They are arrested, and once freed go right back to teaching in the temple, much to the aggravation of others who view them as heretics and want to put an end to this by putting an end to them. I believe this story should call us away from conflict and toward liberty and charity because of who is really in charge:
But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:34 – 39)
Something to think about.
If you have any questions about the ordination process, what deacons do, or even (deep breath), The Book of Discipline, do not hesitate to e-mail me firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find a free version of The Discipline and The Book of Resolutions on this Cokesbury site. The latter contains the documents that the General Conference passes stating our positions and actions on a wide range of subjects.