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The Skandal-ous Mission of the Board of Ordained Ministry

February 20, 2009

The Greek word skandalon is usually translated in the New Testament as “stumbling block,” but according to Fred Danker (the D in BDAG) it might be better translated as the trigger of a trap – the part that sets the trapping mechanism in motion.

There has been an awful lot of debate about the ordination process in the United Methodist Church.  Of course, some of that was due to General Conference this past year, but where two or more United Methodist pastors gather the conversation is there also.  And to a person everyone I have spoken with is frustrated with it.  The process is seen as cumbersome, ineffective, inefficient, run by the “old boy network,” and downright nightmarish.  True tales are told of disillusionment (see John the former Methodist) as well as divorce and other serious familial problems, financial burdens, as well as burnout, depression and lingering anger and resentment. Nobody gets through it without some grievances and scars.

Here’s my grievance.  I have thought and prayed long and hard about whether to go public with it, but I have decided that if the board stands by their decision they should have no problem with it being known.

I am a therapist, or at least I used to be.  My Bachelor’s degree is in Psychology, my first Master’s degree is in Rehabilitation Counseling.  I have a decade of counseling and therapy experience.  I have spent countless billable hours in session with persons who suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder, histories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, chronic and acute suicidal behaviors, learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, ADHD, complicated grief, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and more.  I have specialized training from the Albert Ellis Institute for Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy.  I’ve worked in inpatient facilities, outpatient facilities, schools and homes.  I was a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in the state of Illinois.

Then I discerned a call to the ordained ministry.  I gave all that up and entered the candidacy process.

I have incurred tremendous debt and uprooted my family to attend seminary.  In the middle of seminary my family moved again so that I could serve a student appointment.  We moved a third time when I graduated for my commissioning appointment.  I have attended the required Residence in Ministry sessions in which I have sat through lectures (some for a second or third time) that were often boring or ill-prepared.  And I have gladly accepted the itinerant system of pastoral appointment.  I attended Sexual Ethics and Boundary training twice: once on campus at Eden after being informed by the Conference that said training was acceptable, and once at IGRC headquarters after they rescinded their word without even informing us.  We were given nasty letters threatening action if we did not attend the next upcoming workshop.  I once was informed that the Board of Ordained Ministry lost my psychological evaluation.  (Yeah, all that confidential information?  Not safeguarded at all.)

Residence in Ministry, which takes precious time away from both my family and my pastoral ministry, has been a complete waste of time.  Nothing we have done truly addressed the process of ordination.  Nothing.  Mostly it has served as a platform for advertising workshops and denominational programming.  Heck, they even changed their minds at the last minute on which book of the Bible our ordination sermons and Bible Study had to cover.  We were never taught how to  fill out Charge Conference forms, annual statistical reports, or any of the stuff we get in trouble if we don’t do.  We never worked on the ordination questions, never discussed models of writing the Bible Study.  But we did sit through lectures encouraging us to attend the Upper Room’s Academy for Spiritual Formation and the Congregational Development Leadership Institute.  We did case studies and book reviews as though we hadn’t gotten enough of that in seminary.  We handled family emergencies by phone because of the threat that if we missed any of this essential stuff our ordination would be pushed back a year.

Because of my extensive experience as a professional clinician I was encouraged by a member of the board to apply for a waiver of the CPE requirement.  I did.  I was shot down twice.  To a person, every board member I have spoken to privately has agreed that my experience should qualify.  Since my clinical career I have received a quality theological education and integrated my experiences, psychology and theology into pastoral ministry.  But since my clinical experience all took place before theological education rather than afterward the board has decided that I need CPE before I can be ordained an Elder.  Seems redundant to me.

And therein lies the problem.  As I see it, the United Methodist Church is so wrapped up in maintaining the system and its procedures that we have forgotten about the people whom the system is supposed to serve.  The Board of Ordained Ministry has not created a pathway to ordination, it has created an obstacle course. A skandalon.

And when we serve systems and processes rather than people, we have a problem.

Someone once described two kinds of reformation:  cleaning out the fridge by taking out what’s gone bad, and cleaning out the fridge by taking everything out and putting back only what’s good and will be eaten.  In the United Methodist Church we have rearranged the magnets on the door and called it reform.  Probably because we’re afraid that if we open the door what we find will stink.

The mission statement of the IGRC Board of Ordained Ministry reads like this:

The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.” (Matthew 28: 19-20) The annual conference is to make disciples for Jesus Christ by equipping its local churches for ministry and by providing a connection for ministry beyond the local church; all to the glory of God. The Conference Board of Ordained Ministry is charged with coordinating much of the formation and continuing formation of the spiritual leaders who are licensed, consecrated, commissioned, or ordained for the ministry within the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.”

Shouldn’t that continuing formation take into account where I have been and how I have been formed prior to candidacy?  Do they review that mission statement when they meet?  Do they remind themselves that their job is to guide people through the process, not to impose the process onto the people?

So I submit myself to the process.  I will bite the dang bullet and do CPE regardless of the toll it will take on my ministry, my family and my wallet.  The clinician will receive another clinical education.  I will smile politely whenever someone tells me (as they do frequently when they find out I was a counselor) “your previous experience really prepared you in a unique way for ministry!”  I will bite my tongue rather than say, “Well, the Board doesn’t see it that way.”  I will do my best not to be angry and cynical and bitter.

I hope to be ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church.  And I hope to be named to the Board of Ordained Ministry and perhaps to General Conference.  I smell what’s happening in the fridge.  And I want to clean it out.

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55 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay permalink
    February 20, 2009 11:35 am

    Will!

    For your courage AND critique, I applaud you!

    Good word, friend.

  2. Chris permalink
    February 20, 2009 1:35 pm

    Whew – you have the patience of Job (but unfortunately the hardships to go along with it also…).

  3. February 20, 2009 1:45 pm

    We had Hurricane Ike down here in Texas a few months ago. I had a man in my church who wanted to go help with the recovery effort, working through the conference agencies working on the effort. They gave him so many hoops to jump through he just gave up. “Hoopish” is my word for the disease.

  4. February 20, 2009 1:57 pm

    Hoopitis?
    Hooplagia?
    Hooptococcus?

    Is the Board’s job to produce effective clergy, or to make sure every candidate is run through the same meat grinder – I mean “process.”?

  5. Julie Smith permalink
    February 20, 2009 2:06 pm

    Thank you for your courage Will. I know our IGRC BOM met either yesterday or today. I have not received any information on our request for expedited Ordination OR on your appeal.

    Will continue to pray for you AND members of the BOM who seem to have mislaid their compassion and understanding of the Spirit for the Black Letter of the Law.

    • February 20, 2009 2:13 pm

      My understanding is that options other than CPE were never entertained and my request was dead in the water. I’ll bet your request was also dismissed out-of-hand.

      That’s why I decided to go public. I think the board’s actions have been shameful and hopefully sunlight can work as a disinfectant.

  6. Joshua Williams permalink
    February 20, 2009 2:37 pm

    God bless you, Will. No wonder we have trouble filling our churches, both pew and pulpit. This characterizes this conference’s approach to ministry, and the infection is far more widespread than just the conference leadership. It exists in every church, agency, and board, and when we don’t dwell in grace, we can’t proclaim it very effectively.
    Joshua Williams, Pastor
    The United Methodist Church of Pinkstaff and Birds

  7. February 20, 2009 2:45 pm

    Hey, Will, thanks for your post.
    It’s sad to say that many (if not all) of us have horror stories

    • February 20, 2009 2:50 pm

      I know. And the horror stories have been secrets for too long. It’s time for that to stop.

  8. Nicole permalink
    February 20, 2009 3:06 pm

    Praying for you, our conference, and the Church. May we come to see Christ’s true vision for us all.

  9. February 20, 2009 3:28 pm

    Thanks Will. The experience of both my wife and me in the candidacy process was absolutely hideous and borderline abusive. Actually, things have not improved much since then. It will take more people like you to speak out and break down this facade.

  10. February 20, 2009 3:31 pm

    I hope they’re reading this in Springfield. Anonymous comments I have received include statements like “My own observation of our BOM is that it is increasingly moving toward the anal,” “heads should roll,” “A well-written argument with just the right balance of logic and passion. Thanks for your service,” and “the hierarchy of the UMC seems much like an old-boys club, resistant to letting anyone else in.”

  11. John Meunier permalink
    February 20, 2009 3:36 pm

    Will, I pray you are not punished for your candor.

  12. February 20, 2009 3:54 pm

    Maybe no good deed goes unpunished. Maybe sunlight is the best disinfectant. Maybe both.

  13. Lindsey Pankey permalink
    February 20, 2009 5:26 pm

    Wow! That’s all I got. I so wish I was better informed and knew more about conference and the board and that stuff, but all I got for you is to say that I’ll pray for you and the family and this situation.

    Love you Willie~ Lang

  14. Rob Bruce permalink
    February 20, 2009 5:47 pm

    Amen and Amen!

  15. tnrambler permalink
    February 20, 2009 6:02 pm

    Will,
    This is insane. It sounds as though the BOM has a checklist with no room to consider the individual circumstances of each candidate. So the only thing that matters is that the checklist is completed or the BOM will be total jerks. This whole situation reminds me of a fraternity hazing ritual… and it should be treated as such.

    As a 2nd career licensed local pastor in the course of study who turns 50 this year, I am coming to the conclusion that I will never pursue ordination. With a daughter who will enter college in 3 years it would be foolish to take on the debt load of seminary to earn an MDiv and then submit myself to this kind of idiotic abuse.

    May God bless you for speaking out.

    Wayne

  16. Laura Ralston permalink
    February 20, 2009 8:27 pm

    Will-
    I’m saddened to read what has been going down in IGRC in regards to ordination and also have witnessed it happen to many others I know and love there as well as in the New Mexico conference. Though I feel a call to ordained ministry (only probably the deacon track), I most likely won’t do it until things can change. Each conference approaches it differently and I haven’t yet found one that does it in a loving and discerning matter instead of a bureaucratic mess.

    You’re in my prayers.

  17. February 22, 2009 7:22 am

    In my own conference, there was a slide during the day long orientation to the BOMEC application process that literally said “we are trying to remove notions of ‘grace’ and ‘hope’ from this process”, meaning that they wouldn’t just pass someone through hoping that they would grow and work out their issues. Being thorough and asking tough questions is one thing, but to say that we’re removing grace and hope from this process proves that our conference only understands cheap grace. Very sad.

  18. Tom permalink
    February 23, 2009 2:30 pm

    The more I learn about the inner machinations of the UMC and the ordination process, the more thankful I am that I decided not to pursue ordination myself.

  19. randrew permalink
    February 23, 2009 3:21 pm

    There are far too many stories like this.

  20. Julie Smith permalink
    February 23, 2009 3:26 pm

    While I share in our frustrations concerning Will’s experience with the IGRC I think it is vitally important to remember that we are not called to the ministry by a individual or a board or even a church but by God. If God calls us to Ordained ministry and we decide not to pursue that call because of human error or sin; then have we answered God’s call?

  21. February 23, 2009 3:29 pm

    “If God calls us to Ordained ministry and we decide not to pursue that call because of human error or sin; then have we answered God’s call?”

    I’ve heard it said in my AC that while God calls people to ministry, God does NOT call people to be ordained in the UMC. Apparently that call is left to the discretion of the BOM.

    • Bro. Dave permalink
      February 26, 2009 2:05 pm

      I think someone got it wrong. The phrase is that while God may be calling you to ministry, God might not necessarily be calling you to ministry in the UMC.

  22. February 24, 2009 8:40 am

    Richard — as part of my process, I was told differently. Candidates were not approved for certification unless they discerned a call specifically to the UMC.

    Julie wrote:

    I think it is vitally important to remember that we are not called to the ministry by a individual or a board or even a church but by God.

    When I got thrown out of the candidacy process, I was told this a couple of times by people. Yeah, God calls us. But the Church writes our paychecks. And practically speaking, as long as bills have to be paid, we answer to the people who write our paychecks.

  23. February 25, 2009 1:22 pm

    Having served on a conference BOM myself, I suspect that a lot of BOM’s automatically think someone “would benefit from CPE.” In some conferences, it’s almost a boiler-plate prerequisite. In some cases, I am sure that a unit or two of CPE would be helpful or is even indicated for some candidates. Having said that, CPE is not the “answer” in all cases.

    I wasn’t in on your interview, and I am not a BOM guru or expert. So I don’t know the whole story.

    However, it seems to me that in your case, somebody didn’t read a Personal Data Inventory close enough to realize that you were a trained clinical counselor with 10 years of experience. To all outward appearances, taking a unit of CPE certainly seems to be a hoop to jump through rather than a tool to enhance your ministry.

    I guess you’ll be taking the CPE unit. Bless you for being a good sport and being faithful. Maybe in a few years, you can smile about it, and if you’re ever on the BOM, you can do something about it.

    I wrote my own take on ordination in the UMC. You can click here to read it.

    Blessings,

    Sky+

    • February 25, 2009 2:12 pm

      Thank you for your kind words of encouragement and insight, Sky. Actually the denial came from a written appeal which was presented before the board, not during the course of an interview. I was not present for the meeting. The message communicated to me by the board was, “CPE provides a theological framework that is not provided by clinical work in a secular environment.”

      My argument, in a nutshell is that extensive clinical experience in addition to my theological education and pastoral work provide an equivalent experience. Even though my experience, education, and a direct appeal were presented my case was simply dismissed.

  24. Jan Dendler permalink
    February 26, 2009 2:07 pm

    Wow…..I had planned to study to become an elder and possibly become a hospital chaplain. Now I wonder if I should look elsewhere than the UMC. I grew up in the UMC and would hate to have to leave her for some other denomination.

    • February 26, 2009 2:19 pm

      I won’t discourage you from studying to become an Elder in the UMC. The UMC has a lot going for it, and I believe that the Connectional structure of the UMC has us in a unique position for effective mission and ministry worldwide. Plus I think that Wesley does Grace like no one else.

      And I might add that some Conferences are getting it right. I lift up what Bishop Willimon is doing in North Alabama as an example that I hope more Conferences follow.

      Just know that the process is long, arduous and difficult.

      • Jan Dendler permalink
        February 26, 2009 2:32 pm

        thanks for the encouragement, will. i’m already 55 and working on finishing a BA in Christian studies so i can get into seminary. i just don’t want it to take another 50 years! i’ve put off this calling long enuf and am figuring that God’s getting a little impatient with me 😉

  25. Bill (J.W.) Matthews permalink
    February 26, 2009 8:42 pm

    You have carefully articulated the details of the “heart problem” of our church. During my first candidacy interviews in 1956, we had to dodge committee members smoking outside the interview room, right after we had “pledged” to abstain from tobacco. Much later, I was revolted when the BOM and the Conference “defrocked” a colleague for acting on his ecumenical convictions by simultaneously joining another church, while asking to retain credentials. Denied. In an increasingly pluralistic society, we act as if we had the right to deny those who are motivated to serve, while Muslims and Pentecostal churches truly open their doors to seekers. We act nice, but we’re victims of deep superficiality in the name of “word and order.” God help us; we can’t help ourselves.

  26. February 26, 2009 10:08 pm

    The system is broken, and that’s precisely why so much time and energy goes into trying desperately to perpetuate it.

    Please… speak out as you must, jump through hoops as you can tolerate them, keep your focus on serving Christ, and stick with it. The United Methodist Church needs you — I can tell.

  27. David Abbott permalink
    February 27, 2009 10:20 am

    The idea of cleaning out the fridge and only putting what is essential back in works for me. As a good friend once pointed out, some of the folks who serve on BOM are some of the very folks who then go back home and kill the churches they serve. It’s a challenge to fill a board with Christ-centered individuals who truly follow the Spirit because they are too busy DOING ministry rather than BEING a Board. For a while, our conference focused solely on Theological Reflection, not how effective (and I don’t mean increasing attendance) a pastor was. We have since added some wonderful folks who seem to be moving towards transformational ministry but we still have a ways to go. I have my wounds from the Board and though my “extra” year served to strengthen my ministry, the actions of certain board members will remain with me forever. Thank you for starting the conversation. What I can’t figure out is if there are so many of us who are hurting as a result of BOM, who is left to serve on BOM who doesn’t have those memories and therefore is completely oblivious to such suffering? Maybe it’s time for us to step up and join BOM? Could that be our call?

  28. March 1, 2009 5:41 am

    Will, Thanks for sharing your story. Powerful stuff!

    I worry that the problem is not so much the system as the people maintaining it. Rather than trying to recruit, engage, equip called and qualified people, our system has too often become a group of people committed to making sure no one more capable than themselves is ever allowed in.

    I will forward your post to my bishop and our BOM Chair. Heck, I’ll even share it with my wife, who is our AC’s Chair of Deacons.

  29. Grace permalink
    March 2, 2009 10:03 am

    amen brother. change does happen… slowly. keep telling your story…

  30. March 5, 2009 10:11 am

    Not that it’s ANY consolation, Will, but things with the Board of Ordained Ministry’s workings in Indiana aren’t a bit better. In fact, I read this and as doing so, I could have SWORE I wrote it (minus all your stellar educational background).

  31. georgia permalink
    March 9, 2009 5:07 pm

    Peace be with you friend. Tomorrow is my last attempt at BOM. It makes me want to vomit. Just the thought of what I will be going through. I pray someone quickly changes things for the better.

  32. March 11, 2009 9:21 am

    Your post and the comments have been interesting to read. Thank you for being so open about your journey toward ordination.

    My concern is that we focus so much on what is stinky and/or broken with the system that we fail to recognize our own part in it all. When I said yes to God’s call, I knew full well that it meant I was saying yes to a call to ordained ministry within the United Methodist Church. You are so right about Wesley and grace!

    Knowing this is what I said yes to, I began a journey that took nearly twenty years. In that time I got married, had two children, got divorced, got my bachelors degree, moved several times, got my MDiv, picked up a heavy load of student loan debt, got remarried, moved several more times, and made it through three mentors, two district superintendents, one church conference vote, several district BOM meetings, lost confidential paperwork, confusing assignments, required meetings, required attendance at youth camp, intrusive questioning about my personal life and the circumstances around the divorce, commissioning, more papers and interviews, and finally ordination. Not everyone in my class made it through. But one thing I know for certain – everyone who did make it to ordination knew full well what they were getting in to.

    We were all aware of the gifts, graces and flaws of the United Methodist way of being church. We were all aware of the system and the graced and flawed human beings who make up that system. At times we felt like Jeremiah, young prophets pointing out where things have gone so wrong, and yet we never lost sight of the fact that we too were flawed and needed to be held accountable to our cloud of witnesses who have been living this system for years.

    So… yes, it is a difficult journey. It is expensive. It can be hard on families. My children have moved on average every year and a half their entire lives, and I haven’t lived in the same place as my husband for nearly three years. But we all know that I’m called to ministry and mission within the UMC and we keep our eyes wide open to all the implications of that responsibility and gift.

    Call it like you see it, clean out the fridge, but let us take care that in our critiques we do not deter others from taking the bold step of faith into our messy yet joyful life as UMC clergy.

    • March 11, 2009 11:27 am

      I appreciate the function that sends me copies of comments here that have followed mine (whether related to mine or not). A couple of thoughts:
      1. One of the challenges any system faces is that those who survive to make it through eventually end up on the qualifying board, and, once there, too easily can find themselves in the perilous position of thinking, “Well, I had to go through it, so, by gum, they’re going to go through it, too!” This is the mindset that brings us hazing…
      2. On the requirement that (apparently) conferences place on those in the process to “volunteer” at summer camps and the like, I fear we have done this because of the incredible dearth of clergy these events usually have. Let’s get hold of the almost-clergy and make them do it!
      Sometimes I wonder if there shouldn’t have been more hoops to jump through back-in-the-day – when I finished the process almost 20 years ago. Part of me thinks we old-timers had it easy, and look where it has gotten us…

  33. feslop permalink
    April 1, 2009 4:39 pm

    Will, clearly written and many good points. The “system” is in need of continuous improvement. The good news is a deepening awareness of where it is broken or inconsistent (losing records, contradictory guidance are examples). Insisting that a ministry candidate labor as long as Jacob did for Rachel in post-college prep, thus telling a 22 year old college grad that he/she must spend another 1/3 of their life warming up is getting the attention, and critique, it deserves.

    As to CPE. It is true that some clergy, including some who entered the conference before it was a requirement and who personally never had it, see it through an unrealistic lens. Telling someone to take CPE is not about teaching that candidate how to do counseling. It is not primarily about introducing the candidate to a clinical setting for ministry. At its intended best, it offers an intentional and real-time opportunity for the candidate to connect theology and practice in ministry, while reflecting in a supportive and informed setting on how one’s theology is playing out in the life of the pastor. When I was in the service I noticed that a lot of chaplains who had prior service as enlisted or officers and came directly into the military as chaplains after seminary typically (not always) struggled to be effective as chaplains. They knew how to wear a uniform, figure out rank, etc, but they never developed a clear pastoral identity that enabled them to function as clergy in the military; so they often acted like frustrated line officers or were professionally meek (as prior enlisted types) when in the presence of other officers. CPE can give a person with strong professional clinical credentials a superb opportunity to skip the adjustments to the newness of a clinical setting (you’ve been there, done that) and freedom to get down to serious business with how doctrines such as original sin, guidance, holiness, forgiveness and prayer flesh out in how you practice pastoral care, and why. Having a group of peers and a trained supervisor reflect with you on how you pray with patients, what you pray, WHY you pray, what is going on inside you as you pray…none of us can do that kind of deep ploughing on our own.

    I hope you do wind up on the BOOM at some point. And until that time, please do flow your concerns to that board and its leaders. Lord knows we all can use the help, and the prayer!

  34. Sam permalink
    May 22, 2009 3:40 pm

    Yea, sounds tough… Now let me let you in on a little secret from a member of a DCOM (District Committee on the Ordained Ministry…the folks you had to be past before being “handed up” to the BOOM) and who has his own story of hardship during the ordination process to tell…

    Too many candidates are seeking to enter the ministry for the wrong reasons. With your training you ought to be able to look around your candidate class and spot them… or, maybe you can’t. A rigid and cumbersome process protects congregations from people with wrong motivation and such people from themselves.

    There is no other “best test” of calling than the commitment to do whatever it takes to get through.

    Years from now, you will not be much happier with what you are going thru, but you will be even less happier with your colleagues who “slipped” thru and has caused unimaginable suffering to congregations, their families and themselves…

    just another prespective….
    grace for the journey,

    sam

  35. Mike in Colorado permalink
    May 23, 2009 12:02 pm

    I experienced no grace or trust from my District BOM, except from my first of two candidacy mentors, a retired DS from the midwest who ended up leaving the UMC he experienced here. Fortunately, my CPE experience was superb. The most innovative program in this multi-state region, it helped me swim through the current of betrayal and deceit (my second mentor and the DBOM) to another shore where I am rooted today. Although I have about 30 MDIV credits at seminary, I am content to work my day job, serve God as a lay person, and help my pastors. If it were not for the quality of leadership I see in Rev. Adam Hamilton and some others, I would leave the UMC. I am also very grateful to my pastor, my associate pastor, and my DS, who have all be gracious and caring. Peace and grace on your joureys, friends.

  36. May 26, 2009 7:48 pm

    There needs to be an immediate overhaul of the process. Detroit West is an example where a new, effective, system could be placed. The BOM will not accept certain seminaries despite the fact the nearest UM one is in Deleware, OH. People feel lied to from error and omission by the District Committee. If I was to create a new system I would create a spiritual guide position to prepare the candidates, open up the Lay Ministry school to Lay Speakers, and allow access to the Local Pastor School to seminary graduates as a preparation opportunity. Stop church closing as an investment in the future and be willing to use second career people. End the expensive processes and staffs when they a redundant. The system is not functional and needs an overhaul.

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  38. Jeff permalink
    November 4, 2009 2:26 pm

    I could not have said this better. In my experience, the board changes members so often that the theological meat that they seek from candidates, is attached to a moving target. Why do they recommend a different book for “our perusal” every time the application is put together (which is every year)? And why do we have to incorporate what we have read from those books into our theological perspective? Why is this such an “unpersonal” experience? Why doesn’t the board assign a small team to look personally at each candidate and find out who they really are as pastors instead of trying to glean it from 100 pages in an application?

Trackbacks

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