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Ordination Reboot for the 21st Century

March 16, 2010

It’s no secret among my readers that I have been vocally critical of both the process of ordination in the United Methodist Church and of those who oppose challenges to the status quo.  I have been greeted with both suspicion and applause, support and critique, and kudos for my bravery both publicly and privately.  But my intention in being critical is not to tear anyone or anything down.  Rather, I want to help construct ways of approaching the ordination process that will  benefit both the candidates and the church.  I hope I’ve made that clear.

In particular I’ve been critical of the Residence in Ministry program, and there seems to be a uniform dissatisfaction with it in various conferences by both those who run it and those who are required to participate.  The folks put in charge of the program scramble for exercises and activities for the candidates.  Candidates complain that those days away from their pastoral duties are a waste of precious time and resources.  The whole thing is supposed to be designed to help candidates continue in a discernment process for understanding, nurturing and developing gifts and graces for the ordained ministry and to prepare for their big day with the Board.

As I reflect on the process, I’ve come to several conclusions:

  1. Those meetings did precious little to prepare me for the written work that we are all required to submit to the Board.
  2. Those meetings did precious little to prepare me for my interview with the Board.
  3. Some of us found ourselves re-reading books we had already used in seminary.
  4. Feedback from candidates was received with a gracious ear, shared frustration and understanding yet little changed as a result.
  5. Members of the Board are often as frustrated and confounded by the process as the candidates, usually for the same reasons.
  6. While only the General Conference of the UMC has the authority to make sweeping changes to the process, individual boards have a degree of flexibility in how that process is approached and executed.

So here are my preliminary thoughts:

  1. Written work: While we turn in a short ton of stuff at the end of the process, the volume of written work is not enough to judge one’s preparation for ministry in the long-term.  Those pages are just not enough to document a candidate’s growth during the process.  Therefore I believe that candidates for ordained ministry should be required to start a blog.  It can be a private blog viewable only by members of the Board and whomever the candidate chooses to read it.  The board can give directives for content and volume: (e.g. read and review a theology book that you suspect will largely affirm your beliefs; read and review a book that you suspect will largely challenge your beliefs; discuss what salvation means – what are we saved from and why?; read a book of the Bible and discuss some implications for contemporary application of its teachings; post at least one sermon exegesis per month; read and review a book on clergy ethics, etc.)  In my opinion this gives the board and the candidates to develop meaningful discourse in the context of relationships.  Our theologies can be challenged or affirmed in real time.  This is in no way a substitute for the written work that gets turned in at the end, but it can be targeted at helping candidates develop their thoughts over time and create a pool of resources that can be drawn from at crunch time.
  2. Interviews: Just as people have different learning styles and thinking patterns, we also have different communication skills.  Some people can speak extemporaneously with great ease and others must process questions more slowly and formulate responses deliberately.  Interviews are tough for folks in the latter group.  BOM interviews don’t have to be high-stress pressure chambers.  I believe it would be quite helpful for candidates to participate in mock/practice  interviews during their RIM sessions.  We Voc Rehab people understand the value of practicing job interviews and developing interview skills, and United Methodist pastors don’t really get to practice job interviews before the big day.
  3. Bad Candidates: There are Elders in the United Methodist Church who, frankly, aren’t very United Methodist.  I think the Board needs to know that before we go ordaining them.  We have Elders in this Conference who won’t baptize babies.  Others do not support the ordination of women.  Others either don’t understand or don’t support connectional giving (paying apportionments).  The only real way to find these things out is by having some kind of relationship with them.  One can easily sidestep those issues in the written work required for ordination, and it may not come up in the interview.  Conversations about these topics, blog posts, etc. can bring about a deeper understanding of one’s fit for the UMC.
  4. Preaching: I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to get it right for my ordination sermon.  As a result it was good but not representative of my style.  My sermon ended up being  a performance for the Board rather than a sermon for the congregation.  I think that occasional sermon manuscripts or transcripts posted to the blog or, ideally, an online audio or video site (Google Video, Dailymotion, Vimeo, etc.) might give the board a more representative view of a candidate’s relationship with the congregation.   (Sidenote: we had to turn ours in on DVD this year.  Setting an inexpensive Flip camera on a tripod then transferring it to disc with Windows DVD Maker yielded GREAT results).
  5. Relationships. The best part of Residence in Ministry was building relationships with other candidates, and the best times were had outside of structured activities.  Let the candidates play.  Let ’em choose to have dinner in self-chosen groups.  Let ’em have some down time to play Scrabble or Settlers of Catan.  Unstructured time is okay as long as it is used to build relationships between colleagues.  You can’t really force it but you can provide conditions in which relationships can develop.  It really is going to feel great in June to be ordained next to this group of fine people who have become my friends.  And they became my friends over dinner, appetizers and beverages, board games and private gripe sessions.  (Don’t turn it into a youth group.  Let us have some fun together on our own.)
  6. Lively Discussion: RIM ought to be a safe environment where we can discuss what we really believe and struggle with.
  7. Fill in the Gaps: I don’t know about you, but there’s a lot of stuff I have to do that nobody taught me how to do.  Like Charge Conference, Annual Statistical Tables, maintaining membership rolls, and stuff like that.  New Pastors’ Orientation didn’t cover it.  It sure didn’t happen in seminary.  RIM is a great opportunity to help pastors get those questions asked so we know we’re doing it right.
  8. Choice. Please give the candidates a forum in which we can bring our own ideas for how the time should be structured.  Most of us know what our strengths and deficits are (I’m growing weary of the phrase “growing edges.”)  Believe it or not, we want to be good pastors and we have some idea how you can help us become better at it than we are.

Those are just what I could come up with off the top of my head.  I know I have frustrations with the way things are.  I know that I can be a boat-rocker and a thorn in the flesh.  But I have always believed that the moment you are satisfied with the status quo is the moment you’re in real trouble.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2010 9:16 pm

    I’m just entering this stage now. I’m completely ignorant of what goes on after commissioning in the Missouri AC, but I I like your plan.

  2. John Meunier permalink
    March 16, 2010 9:32 pm

    Great thoughts. Keep up the critique. I’m no longer in the process, but want to see it improved for those who are or will be.

  3. Nicole permalink
    March 18, 2010 8:51 am

    Will,

    I love this. An honest critique of the process, but, even better, solid, fun ideas to change the process. I really hope that you will be able to serve on the BoOM one day and suggest some of these ideas.

  4. Becca Clark permalink
    March 18, 2010 2:05 pm

    Amen and Amen and Amen on you suggestion #4. That was exactly the trouble and the critique I got on my sermon. I was trying to make sure I was theologically sound and stuff, and all they kept saying to me was “wow, is your preaching always so boring?”

    As a part of an experiment and case study, I participated in an online discussion group with a handful of members of the BOM in the months leading up to my ordination interview. This group was actually a study that a DMin candidate was working on to strengthen the BOM’s understanding of the postmodern world, but I saw the application right away: what if we read a book or something (like “Everything Must Change” or “Irresistible Revolution” or something the candidate wanted to read), or picked a topic of some value to the candidate (I don’t know, “what people need from church” or “how our eschatology influences our approach to mission”) and then each candidate participated in a series of web discussions (we used adobe connect with webcams but no sound, and then typed chat feature) for 8 weeks or something, discussing the topics with one another? I felt like the BOM members with whom I chatted knew me and my theology and my approach to church and my struggles and my authentic self a whole lot better. And I felt a lot less intimidated by them. In fact, I now consider the chairman of the BOM, who previously scared the living daylights out of me, to be one of my dearest colleagues and mentors. I even felt comfortable enough telling him he had scared the living daylights out of me, and we had a nice long chat about how he could be intense and passionate without maybe being quite so intimidating. It was an honor to have him hear and respond to my experience like that. And I’m not going to lie; although all three candidates who came forward this year were approved, I felt like I had a substantial advantage because in addition to my interview team (only one of whom had “chatted” with me), there were another half dozen members of the BOM at least with whom I felt comfortable and who had participated in a long study with me and knew me as a colleague and fellow thinker of deep thoughts.

    Peace, Becca

  5. Barbara Doan permalink
    March 21, 2010 8:25 pm

    I like what you had to say. I have been turned down once in the process because I was going through some heavy conflict in my church which I found out tended to come out in my paper work. If the BOOM had had an ongoing relationship with me through the the ‘four’ years as a RIM, things might have turned out differently because they could have seen that indeed I did grow during that period.

  6. April 20, 2010 12:04 pm

    Amen. Keep at it. Consider your rant to be shared with our district board next time we meet. You make several excellent points. Thank you for your honesty. Blessings!

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