Many of you are aware that the 2004 General Conference authorized a study commission to bring clarity to the ordering of lay, licensed and ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. As a member of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, I have had the opportunity to hear updates over the past several years and offer input. An initial draft of the final report is now ready and can be found on GBHEM’s web site, www.gbhem.org.
The report takes the form of questions and answers and is entitled Minutes of Several Conversations. Members of the study commission, which is chaired by Bishop William Willimon, have built on the Wesleyan model of holy conferencing and Christian conversation as a means of grace. As United Methodists, we make all of our decisions in conference; that is, through sacred listening, whereby all voices are heard and the conversation is open. You are invited to become a part of the conversation by reading the report and responding to the recommendations by filling out an online survey.
The report acknowledges the challenges faced by the United Methodist Church in relation to the ordering of ministry:
- Declining membership in the United States
- The need to focus on starting new churches
- The necessity for leadership characterized by discipline, service, community, connectionalism, covenant and calling
- A lack of clergy under the age of 35 (there are various reasons: among them, the high cost of seminary education, low pay, unrealistic expectations of clergy, an emphasis in our country on megachurches, and religious entrepreneurialism)
- United Methodism’s practice of authorizing non-ordained persons to celebrate the sacraments, which is not found elsewhere in the ecumenical church and can be a hindrance to the mutual recognition of orders
- The length of the process toward ordination, which is related to our Wesleyan emphasis upon an educated clergy, with an M.Div. or other master’s degree as the norm
- A confusion between the office of elders (ordained to Service, Word, Sacrament and Order) and deacons (ordained to Word and Service)
- Isolation in ministry and the lack of mentors or coaches for all clergy
After recounting our Wesleyan history of preaching, itineracy and lay and ordained ministry, the report offers eight recommendations to the 2008 General Conference.
- There will be three classifications of ordained elder: itinerant elders (our current elder), associate elders (they meet the current requirements for associate membership), and local elders (they have completed the five year Course of Study). This would reduce the number of clergy administering the sacraments without ordination.
- All those not ordained as itinerant, associate or local elders will be licensed lay pastors, who are not authorized to administer the sacraments.
- Every licensed lay pastor will be authorized and blessed each year at the annual or district conference.
- Itinerant elders designated as presiding elders will be assigned by the cabinet to circuits of local churches served by licensed lay pastors in order to administer the sacraments.
- The term “commissioning” will be deleted from the Book of Discipline. Deacons and itinerant elders will be ordained upon completion of the requirement of paragraph 324 in the Book of Discipline (before the probationary period). Following three full years of service, they will be evaluated for full membership in the annual conference. Yes, this will mean a huge change in how we understand ordination and conference membership!
- Elders shall be ordained to Word, Sacrament and Order (Service will no longer be included). Deacons shall be ordained to Word and Service.
- All deacons and itinerant elders shall be reviewed by a group of peers selected from within their annual conference orders in every 5th year under appointment. This is a peer review, not a performance review.
- General Conference shall authorize a study of the diaconate during the 2008-2012 quadrennium, reviewing how the office is being practiced across the connection and offering suggestions for how the diaconate can reach its full potential.
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite to download the Study of Ministry Commission document. It should be required reading for every clergy in the United Methodist Church! The report is timely, stimulating, provocative and challenging. I believe God is a partner is this holy conversation about our orders, and I pray that you will not only read the document but will respond by filling out the survey. Your observations and reactions are very important as the document continues to be refined. I’d love to hear your reactions!