Wednesday, April 30, 2008

General Conference- April 30

I looked at some of the news wrap ups last night after I published my rather lengthy rant on the General Conference's lack of action on the ordination process. While my central argument remains the same: that more substantive action is needed now and delaying another four years will only hurt us, I want to acknowledge a couple things in the interest of fairness on the issue.

First of all, it is true that the Study on Ministry Commission asked for another four years to study the plethora of issues facing it. These are complex questions and I think a continual study on the issue is a good thing. But it's also true that the Commission made a number of recommendations that could have reasonably been acted upon by this General Conference and not put off for another four years (I'll address one of them below). With an issue as crucial to the life and identity of the church as the meaning and structure of ordination there will always be more questions to consider no matter how many years we study it. The fact that not every issue is resolved does not absolve us of the responsibility to take at least a few steps toward fixing a very broken system.

I have seen one petition that may be voted on that changes some of the language in the Discipline by renaming "Commissioned Probationary Ministers" as  "Provisional Ministers". As it currently stands, one is commissioned as a probationary Elder or Deacon, serves at least three years in said capacity, and is then fully ordained and admitted into full conference membership. I like the change from "probationary" to "provisional" because it softens the language and makes it seem, on the surface at least, less adversarial. In John Wesley's day new preachers were "on trial", so we're making progress. The language still does not show the level of care that our brothers and sisters in other denominations do, who use language like "in discernment", "postulancy", or "under care", but progress is progress.

I feel this General Conference can go one step further in making the ordination process seem much less cumbersome and adversarial. The perception of what the process is is a major problem, so one of the recommendations of the Study on Ministry Commission would achieve a change in perception and retain the oversight and accountability that supporters of the current system value.

This proposal, which was put forth in several petitions to the 2008 General Conference, but was rejected by the legislative committee, separated ordination from full conference membership. In the case of Elders, full conference membership is important because Elders itenerate and are guaranteed a full time appointment. This proposal would have Elders and Deacons be ordained at the time of what is now commissioning, while keeping the three year residency process so that the minister can demonstrate their fitness to have the tenure that comes with full conference membership. As it exists now, the tenure aspect overshadows the spiritual component of ordination. Rather than a celebration of one's gifts and graces for ministry, and an affirmation of their calling, getting ordained is more like a graduation or an initiation where the person is just glad that the hard work or hazing has come to an end. If ordination if a communal affirmation of an individual's God given gifts and a beginning point to their ministry, then ordination must, of necessity come an the inauguration of one's ministry, not three or five years into it.

I believe that this General Conference can and should move ordination to the time of commissioning, keeping the three year residency process intact before full conference membership. This would retain the structures of oversight and accountability necessary to ensure effective ministry by the ordained, and revitalizing the spiritual aspect of ordination by not muddying it up with the tenure that comes with full conference membership. This would help make ministry in the United Methodist Church much more attractive to prospective candidates because it would celebrate the spiritual aspects of ordination and make the process seem less cumbersome and adversarial. There are still a few days left and there is time for the delegates to change their minds. I pray that they do so.

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