Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Board Of Ordained Ministry as a Means of Grace

In the past months, I have read quite a few blog entries remarking on the long and often arduous process of ordination in the United Methodist Church. Quite a few of those blogs were very critical of the process and of the Boards that administer the process. Prior to this year, my own opinions of the work of the Board in interviewing and approving (or denying) candidates for ministry was colored by my own experience (positive and affirming, but colored by my own anxiety over the process) and those of my friends (mostly positive and affirming but some had very difficult experiences for reasons we did not understand).

This week, however, I was able to see the work of the Board from a whole new perspective as I participated in my first interview retreat as a member of the Board. (Who would have ever dreamed I would one day be one of those scary folks asking the questions?! ) I had the pleasure of serving on the Called and Disciplined Life Committee, which meant I got to hear 12 very different stories of God’s call and how these individuals had responded to God’s call and had grown in their understanding of God and ministry and in their abilities. I also had the privilege of working on a committee with three other Board members who were insightful, Spirit-filled, fun and intelligent (and the same can be said of the folks on the larger Team C—“C” we decided for cooperative, competent, and cool!).

What I am about to say is probably pretty obvious to anyone: but I was quite honestly blown away by the realization of the nature of our sacred task in affirming, clarifying and supporting these calls to ministry! I really felt that our work was an act of worship. We heard their stories of joy, pain, faith and doubt. I heard stories and saw evidence of tremendous growth from folks whom the Board had either said “No” to before or said, “Yes, but we need you to do this . . .” And while those initial experiences had been painful and difficult, those individuals had grown so much in their faith and their ministry. It was obvious they were better Christians and pastors for the experience.

I’m not na├»ve and I’m sure there are others who don’t feel this way about our work this week. We probed and asked hard questions. There was pain and struggle with each denial. In addition, I am also well aware of the pain of those who were denied. However, I also know that no decision was taken lightly and without prayer, discussion and struggle. My prayer is that we all (candidates and Board alike) will grow from the process.

One of our candidates asked us what we had learned and experienced from our experience at the Interview Retreat. The rest of the team gave him one or two answers but I have several.

I was blessed to participate in something, which can truly make a difference for the Kingdom of God. While I do believe that the overall work of the conference makes a difference for the Kingdom (otherwise why bother!), most of my responsibilities are such that I don’t get to see the impact of what I do on the Kingdom. But hearing the stories—not only their personal stories but the stories of their ministries—reminded me that we are helping identify and equip new leaders for the church and that is a holy and sacred responsibility and it makes a real difference in the real lives of many, many people.

I was reminded of the joy, excitement and fear of hearing and responding to my own call. I was reminded of my mentors who supported and challenged me, of seminary professors who inspired and challenged me, of Board members who prayed with me and who affirmed me, and of the friends who journeyed with me. I reminded yet again what an awesome thing it is to be called by God!

I was convicted! I was challenged by candidates with much better spiritual, physical, and mental disciplines than me. I was challenged by those with fresh ideas to think outside the box when it comes to doing ministry. I was challenged to spend time within the community of my church and not just within the church walls.

I was blessed by the people I encountered. I met new people, heard new stories of God at work in the world, and I was changed by the encounter.

Finally, (and I could go on and on) I was once again reminded that as messy and as difficult as our system of calling and deploying pastors can be, I still believe it is the best system! I am thankful for a connection that allows us to work together for the sake of the Kingdom. I am grateful that God works through that system—even when (as I KNOW it does) the politics of the system gets in the way! I know this is a system that needs improvement and doesn’t always work as it should (due I believe to the pervasiveness of sin in all of us!), but I do believe it works.

Now back to the work of the local church!


Steve West said...

I agree, glad you are doing this sacred work now. I had an incredible experience serving on the board for 8 years and always felt it was so vital to our church. I never felt that the process was too cumbersome. If it were too short or easy we would not be faithful to our call to equip capable and effective leaders. I always found that even when there were hurts (such as delays or requirements that stung), in general it was best for the person's development and they became a better pastor because of it. Good luck with the new board.

Sherill said...

Funny--as I wrote this I thought "I sound like Steve West!" (only not as eloquent) ;-D I am still blown away by how moved I was by the process.

Webmaster said...

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Spencer Smith said...

Wow, these are great comments. I'm in the process currently, and it is good to hear from "the otherside" albeit a different conference. Thanks for your perspective of hope, it seems to be short supply as cynicism is much, much easier.

johnmeunier said...

Thank you for the post.

The sense I get from hearing other people's stories - some in person and some on the Internet - is that what catches them short at the BoOM stage is the process up to that point.

The system of mentoring and guiding is - in places - very inconsistent, so people get to the BoOM stage and suddenly discover at level of questioning and set of standards that they have not experienced before. They are told they are deficient in areas that no one to that point has seriously challenged them. That feels arbitrary to a person.

My own experience in discernment before becoming a licensed local pastor was nearly totally hands off. It was a process of hoop jumping through a bureaucracy not one of sustained spiritual discernment with mentors.

If I were to continue through this process toward ordination and then encounter a board with probing and challenging questions, I would find myself feeling wildly unprepared and perhaps even ambushed.

The problem with the system - it seems to me - is that the parts do not work together consistently. Not for everyone at least. Not everywhere.

Sherill said...

Spencer, I hope your experience with the process is affirming and enriching.

John, I agrre that it would be a bit disconserting to come before the board unprepared to face deep and probing questions. In theory (and I know this is theory only), they should have faced tough questions from the time they began working with a mentor to prepare them for interviews by their PPRs as well as Distict committees before they ever come before the board. It is very unfortunate that anyone should come before the board unprepared. As our conference candidacy registrar, one of the items I will suggest to mentors is that they prepare their candidates to answer the questions that are asked at each stage of the process.

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