Friday, May 27, 2005

Ministerial Issues at Synod

I left out one very important piece about what is being considered at General Synod this summer. In addition to the resolutions that I've recapped below, we will be discussing a pronouncement on ordination. This pronouncement will expand the traditional formula of 4 years college, 3 years seminary to include other paths to becoming ordained in the United Church of Christ appropriate to one's experience and economic status, among other criteria. It affirms the need for well-educated clergy and stresses that different paths will require education as well. An article describing this pronouncement is here.

I'm torn on this one. As one who followed the traditional path, I believe a seminary education is important for clergy. This is not intellectual elitism, it is calling for extensive training under an accredited faculty. Now, what truly may be elitist about my own position (which I will own) is watching another ordained who didn't have to go through what I did.

On the other hand, the debt with which one may leave after seven years of higher education can be mind-boggling. I was fortunate in this regard, but I'm close to plenty others who were not so fortunate. In addition, I can tell you a few of my own experiences where we were so financially strapped during my seminary career that it took every last penny to make payments. We were barely above the red many times. I did make it out debt-free, but not without a lot of strain on multiple areas of my life.

I need to read over the pronouncement a few more times to get a good grasp on what is being proposed, but if there must be multiple paths, I suggest the following as educational opportunities and requirements:
  • Clinical Pastoral Education. One 10-week intensive summer unit. The Association picks up half the cost. The local church does its best to help with the other half.
  • 2 years half-time in a local church or field setting appropriate to one's sense of call prior to ordination, a stipend equaling half the Conference guidelines for a full-time pastor provided. If the setting cannot account for such a stipend, the Association or Conference provides appropriate assistance. Regular reports to the local church who is sponsoring the ministerial candidate so they can see firsthand what their OCWM money is accomplishing.
  • Month-long intensive courses from visiting seminary faculty for an undetermined period of time.

These are a few things I'd like to see. In some respects it sounds like the Methodist way of doing things and in some respects it sounds like the UCC's own Licensed Ministry program, but these are elements I believe to be crucial for one's pursuit of call.

All right, back on Monday for other Synod musings. Seriously. I mean it this time.


Vitaly Kartsev said...

Frankly (and I realize how far from the mainstream my opinion is on this), I'd like to see a move away from the idea of ordained ministry altogether. The MDiv is enough of a credential for many, many churches to want to hire seminary grads with masters degrees. We don't need to confer ordination upon those graduates to increase the desirability of highly educated pastors.

But for the churches that cannot afford such pastors or do not want/need that level of education (and there are good reasons for a handful of communities), they can move in different directions without feeling the need to also pursue alternative ordination methods for their leadership.

I also think ordination keeps some people from pursuing ministries other than being parish pastors. This is much, much worse in more clerical churches like the ELCA, but it happens in the UCC, too.

Jeff Nelson said...

I know of one UCC church in St. Louis whose associate pastor is neither ordained, nor did she finish her seminary degree due to the strains on finances and family. In this church setting, she wears a stole, administers the sacraments, and if you weren't paying attention you would think that she is indeed an ordained pastor. She performs all the functions of one ordained and is quite good at it, IMO. In that church's case (a well-endowed church, I might add), neither degree nor title was a factor in her desirability. It was her experience. So I can see your point about desirability. But it takes the right church for that. I can think of examples counter to what I just mentioned.

Churches who do not want their pastor to have a seminary education are typically suspicious of that education. 'What are they teaching there nowadays?' It would take a while for the seminary grad to be able to demonstrate that s/he isn't going to step right in and tear people's faith heart out. However, if the reasons stem more from 'more credentials = higher pay' and they don't feel that they can live up to that formula (and a fresh seminary grad is up to his/her eyeballs in debt anyway), then such alternative methods would work in their favor.

Finally, the UCC recognizes a wide range of calls. I don't know if you mean that assumptions about ordination dissuade people or someone in an Association office has told someone that s/he could not be ordained, but there are many non-parish ordainable calls.

Vitaly Kartsev said...

I don't know if you mean that assumptions about ordination dissuade people or someone in an Association office has told someone that s/he could not be ordained, but there are many non-parish ordainable calls.

What I'm really getting at is that the idea of ordination to ministry makes a lot of folks think that ministers do ministry, lay folks do something else. It puts up barriers to people getting involved in Christian ministry outside the parish setting—not in the sense of choosing careers, but in the sense of every member of a congregation being ministers to those around them.

As I said, this seems to be less of a problem in the UCC—at the very least, it's less of a problem in my current (UCC) congregation than it was in my previous (ELCA) one. But I do think the idea of seminary grads being "ordained" to parish ministry keeps others from recognizing they are ordained by God to other kinds of ministry. We'd do better to describe every Christian as being ordained to ministry and parish pastors as being called to a specific kind of professional religious work.

I'm also a huge fan of allowing lay presidency at communion, but that's another issue altogether. :-)

Jeff Nelson said...

I agree that all Christians are ministers. It's hard to combat that particular understanding of ordination as 'the pastor does ministry, so we don't have to.' It's a very powerful and prevalent understanding that ordination makes difficult.

The stance that I take is that those ordained are especially called to guide others in their own ministries. No one is left off the hook when it comes to caring for others. It's just that ordained pastors are called to equip everyone else for all believers' priesthood.

'I'm also a huge fan of allowing lay presidency at communion, but that's another issue altogether.'

This is something I've always admired about the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): their laity is the most active in the sacraments that I've seen in any denomination. Such an approach to communion shows that they take the priesthood of all believers seriously.