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United Methodist clergy shoptalk

This blog post arises from a discussion in the West District Committee on Ministry today. We've had these sorts of discussions before, about credentials and sacramental authority, and so on. And I've offered these ideas before, piecemeal, to various people. But when I came home this evening, I thought I'd sum up my thoughts relative to pastoral and sacramental ministry in our small town and rural setting.


Some Thoughts on Ministry in the Indiana Annual Conference, The United Methodist Church


THE SACRAMENTS: PRESENTING PROBLEM

I was in the very first group of unordained pastors who were allowed to offer the sacraments. I became a student pastor in 1976, the year General Conference first allowed some pastors to do that. It became effective January 1, 1977 – the start of the new quadrennium – and I was elected to Probationary Membership and ordained a Deacon in June, 1977. So, for five and a half months, I was able to do valid baptisms and eucharists without benefit of ordination.

Prior to this, the United Methodist Church required an ordained Elder (or a Deacon acting under the authority of an Elder, as for instance a Deacon serving as student pastor under a DS) to do the sacraments. That meant that all the little congregations that had unordained pastors had problems securing someone to come in and assist with sacramental ministry. It had been that way ever since the Christmas Conference in 1787 had affirmed the model of sacramental ministry current in the Church of England from which we sprang.

John Wesley’s solution was to tell his Methodist followers to seek out the sacraments from their local Anglican church. And, of course, he and his brother Charles and the few other ordained Methodists worked extra hard to bring the sacraments to the Methodist societies. America was a whole ‘nother situation, however, since Methodists in America had a much more tenuous connection to Anglicanism. Also, the Church of England simply collapsed during the American Revolution, and didn’t get itself re-organized until the appointment of Samuel Seabury as first bishop of what became the Episcopal Church in 1789 (two years after the organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church). Robert Strawbridge and others had tried to get American Methodists to opt for the more ground-up ordination and sacramental system we now see in Baptist and Restorationist Churches. But Superintendents Coke and Asbury (soon to be Bishops Coke and Asbury) insisted that we do as our mother Church had done.

The time seemed right in 1976 to bring the sacraments closer to all our people. Very rapidly, communion became a more frequent event in the life of the small churches. The success of the experiment encouraged General Conference to widen the sacramental franchise to eventually include all licensed local pastors under appointment. And so began a couple of problems that continue to trouble us.

One problem is the idea that licensed local pastors have a hard time understanding that their sacramental faculties are dependent upon their being under appointment. When they step down from the pastorate, they are no longer clergy and can no longer offer valid sacraments. This seems odd to those who point out that ordained clergy can continue to offer the sacraments, even though they are not serving an appointment or are retired. But then, the ordained have been given full authority to do this by virtue of their ordination and covenant membership with the Conference; the non-ordained are given borrowed authority only so long as they fulfill the function they signed up for.

By the same token, the licensed local pastor is not allowed to offer the sacraments except in one’s own appointment. You can stretch that and say that church camp or Scout camp (with one’s own parishioners) is an extension of one’s appointment. In many places, bishops are willing to extend that to Emmaus clergy status, though I think they are in error to do so; nevertheless, I understand that the pressure to allow this has been considerable.

The UMC lacks a consistent theology of ordination, as well as a consistent theology of sacraments. Our tendency is to deal with clergy status as a union card, rather than a theological category. So, inevitably, the creation of a whole category of sacramentally-licensed ministers with contingent credentials has been treated as a workplace justice issue (on the part of the licensed local pastors) and as a boundary issue (on the part of the ordained clergy). Licensed local pastors now have Conference membership and certain voting rights, but are still not eligible for certain high-status positions. The result is that we have the most complicated clergy system of any Christian body anywhere, one which we can’t even explain to ourselves. And we are constantly exasperated by the actions of clergy that we describe as “non-UM” or “making it up as you go,” but find ourselves unable to articulate (and enforce) the standards we say we should adhere to.

The other big problem we have is that our over-complicated, now-permissive-now-restrictive system of sacramental authorization means that those in the lowest category of appointment – supply pastors – are still stuck in the situation that all local pastors were in before 1976. Bringing the sacraments to their churches requires help from those with authority that extends beyond their own appointments – viz., the Elders in Full Connection.

The most common solution to this is to have an elder “bless the elements” and let the supply pastor then offer them to the people. Now, this would not be a problem in the Roman Catholic or Anglican Churches, where they reserve the sacrament, keeping consecrated bread on hand at all times, either to take to the sick or to do what is called a “deacon’s mass” (communion service when no priest is available). Nor would it be a problem in Eastern Orthodoxy, where all Lenten services are “presanctified,” using bread that was consecrated before the beginning of Lent. But this is a problem for us as United Methodists.

For one thing, the Articles of Religion say that the sacrament is not to be reserved. Our latest statement on the eucharist, This Holy Mystery, also says that the bread and wine are to be consecrated and served within a single relational setting. A celebrant, a congregation, a place, and an occasion are all contemplated in our practice. A eucharist without a celebrant or without a congregation meeting up at a particular time and place is not proper. Now, we can “extend the table,” by taking bread and wine from our table – in this place, at this time – and bringing it to those who would like to be with us, but can’t – such as the sick, the shut-in, the imprisoned. But we can’t hold onto the bread and continue to use it. And blessing the elements in a back room in one place for use in public at another place is not contemplated at all.

In many ways, it would be helpful if we had retained the sacramental theology of Catholicism or even Anglicanism, and could say that the consecrated elements retain their holiness indefinitely, regardless of who is using them and how. But we can’t even confidently say what the nature of their holiness is; rather, we point to Charles Wesley’s communion hymn and say it is an attractive part of our theology to sing, “Who shall say how bread and wine God into man convey?” All we know is that we’re not supposed to treat the bread and wine as if they were indefinitely changed.

But what is the alternative to having elders “bless elements” as if they had, in RC lingo, “confected the eucharist” for use by others in a celebration having no other connection to the original celebrant? Well, it is to act like John Wesley and bring the sacraments to those who need an elder to do so. That means elders being concerned with other congregations besides their own, going out to assist in person. Inconvenient? No doubt. But then, what is the presbyterate about, if is not about Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service? We elders are supposed to be a gift to the whole Church, not just concerned with our little part of the vineyard.

I have, on various occasions, gone out to little churches to assist with weddings and communion services. For instance, when I was at Aurora I remember going out to Wilmington on either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve to help a supply pastor by celebrating communion. I think I did that a couple of times with them. I had no supervisory role to perform. I was not the supply pastor’s mentor or superintendent, nor on the District Committee on Ministry. I was just the closest cooperative elder in the neighborhood. If times were manageable, I would be happy to do that in my current locale. It’s what we’re supposed to do.

We sometimes hear that the problems are insurmountable for elders to assist with all the little churches. We have 118 churches in the West District and twenty-some elders! Yeah, but the issue isn’t how many churches we have; it’s how many supply pastors we have. (Remember, licensed local pastors don’t need our help with the sacraments.) Are there more supply pastors than the elders (active and retired) can assist with? And while we’d like everybody to have frequent communion, maybe we can’t provide monthly communion everywhere, but surely – if we really thought we were so obligated – we could find a way to bring the sacraments to every congregation within the West District. The alternative seems to be thundering about rules that are inviolable, even as we blithely violate other rules that seem to be just as controlling – which makes us look arbitrary and hypocritical.


THE CHORESPISKOPOI: THE MORE THINGS CHANGE . . .

The muddled state of UM clergy would seem to be a fairly recent phenomenon, but actually, the problem is very old. In fact, it was a subject of a decree at the first Council of Nicea in AD 325! That decree concerned the status and powers of a group called the chorepiskopoi, or “country-bishops.” Specifically, they were restricted from ordaining priests without the consent of another, supervising bishop. So, who were the country-bishops?

The early Church (including the New Testament) used the words “pastor” and “bishop” almost interchangeably. By the time of Ignatius of Antioch (martyred c. 107), we refer to the “monarchical episcopate,” the idea that the local bishop has unquestioned authority over his church. But that “church” was not yet the “diocese” that it became, nor even in Ignatius’ time was the bishop primarily a supervisor of congregations. Congregations – in the parochial sense – didn’t exist yet. Until Christianity became legal under the Edict of Milan (AD 313), there were very few church buildings, and therefore no parish boundaries. All the Christians of a given town would be a single “church” or “congregation” under a single “pastor-bishop.” That pastor-bishop would have a number of elders to assist in pastoral care and administration, depending on the size of his flock.

This meant that the Bishop of Metropolis and the Bishop of Smallville were both unquestioned bishops of their respective communities. The difference would be that the Bishop of Metropolis would have a lot more elders to help with things, while the Bishop of Smallville would have only a few. The Bishop of Outer Podunk, however, might have no other elders to assist him, but he was as much a bishop as the other two. Eventually, the bishops of the largest communities began to assert a regional authority over the other bishops of their area, but all bishops were – well, bishops. Bishops ordained. They baptized. They presided over communion. It’s what the job was about. But what about the country-bishop over in Outer Podunk? Could he ordain?

By 325, the answer was, he could not – at least, not without permission. The authorities were loath to curtail any bishop’s authority; after all, they had hitched the Church’s wagon to the bishops’ star with the theory of apostolic succession. But the country-bishops just didn’t have the star power that the big guys had. Over time, the chorepiscopus (note the Latin spelling) in the West would lose the power to confect the eucharist and had to obtain his consecrated bread from the nearest parish priest. The title remained in the East for what we would call a suffragan bishop, but was eventually phased out pretty much everywhere. In the fully developed three-decker clergy system of Deacon-Presbyter-Bishop, the country-bishops had no place.

What was going on was that the bishops were redefining their place. Instead of a bishop being a presbyter consecrated to an additional, supervisory function, the presbyter was re-defined as being an almost (i.e., defective) bishop. As parish churches were slowly built (it took a thousand years to put one in every village in Europe), the bishops tried to retain control of the sacramental life of the church, but church growth made it impossible. When distributing consecrated bread from the bishop’s altar to all the diocesan priests became impossible, priests were given the ability to confect the eucharist in their own right; it became their prime function. Bishops also held onto doing all the baptisms for as long as they could, and when that became too much, retained the right of confirmation in all parish churches while on their visitation rounds. This remains Catholic practice today, except that parish priests are given the right to confirm on busy days like Palm Sunday. (Little wonder that most confirmations in the RCC occur on those days.) Eventually, the bishop became a mostly supervisory figure, except for the right to ordain.

However, we should not forget that it was not so in the beginning. Methodists, following John Wesley’s example, resurrected the idea of bishop-as-elder-plus (as opposed to elder-as-defective-bishop) and have used it ever since. But we should also remember that the “pastor-bishop” of the earliest days was functionally what we would call a “senior pastor.” The earliest parish churches were, in effect, “satellite congregations” such as we see mega-churches spinning off these days. And the country-bishops were what we now call local pastors: perhaps including supply pastors, as well as licensed local pastors – unordained but essential ministers keeping the gospel flame alight in out-of-the-way places, and the only pastor the people in those places know.

It seems to me that if we were to try to place our work in the stream of the whole history of the Church and of the theological discussion of ministry that has been going on throughout that history, we might be able to come to some more helpful conclusions than those we come up with when we limit ourselves to the jargon of the Discipline and GBHEM. First, since we view the bishop as an elder with additional responsibilities, we should double down on seeing the presbyterate as the main model for pastoral ministry. Let us remember also our own, specifically Methodist, history in which most elders were prepared for ministry through individual study and apprenticeship in the field (seminary education being a very recent standard). This is what leads me to conclude that we are wrong to create a permanent class of full-time, but unordained, pastors. Someone who has been accepted for full-time service should be ordained, one way or another. If they are not willing to do what it takes to be ordained, they are at fault (and shouldn’t be full-time), but if we are not willing to do what it takes to help them achieve that, then we are at fault.

This would bring the number of unordained pastors down to a much smaller number of supply pastors, part-time local pastors, and student local pastors. If we’re only talking about these part-time pastorates, then it would be easier to make consistent rules governing clergy and their sacramental faculties. Extending sacramental ministry to all congregations would remain a stretch, but it could be thought about more clearly by emphasizing the link between ordination and sacramental function and by ordaining the bulk of full-time pastors.


GROUP MINISTRY: A PROPOSAL

When I graduated from ISU with my PhD, I told my then Superintendent that if he gave me six churches and two part-time associates, I’d show him a new way to do ministry. He was nonplussed. I have told other church leaders my idea at various times, but nobody has known what to do with it. “We’ve never done it that way before.” Oh, we’ve done “group ministry” before, but that’s been little more than a pastor for every charge, with the various charges under only nominal direction by the pastor of the largest charge; which is little more than what “clusters” do now.

But let us suppose a charge consisting of six local churches of various sizes. For preaching purposes, we can group them into three pairs on the basis of geography. To cover all three mini-circuits, we will require three ministers.

The Senior Pastor is an experienced elder. He or she is the senior pastor of all six churches. He particularly leads on those things the presbyterate exists for: the sacraments, especially, but also administration. He supervises the other pastors just like a senior pastor of a large station charge does. He is in every pair of churches every third week. He celebrates communion every week, wherever he happens to be, which means that all the churches have communion every third week (except for vacations).

The Associate Pastor is a licensed local pastor (full-time or part-time). He or she follows the Senior Pastor in preaching in every pair of churches in rotation. He assists with many pastoral tasks, including visitation. He may also have a particular specialty, which he offers to all six congregations.

The Assistant Pastor is a part-time supply pastor or certified lay servant. He or she takes his turn in the preaching rotation. He may also help with other tasks, but his primary purpose is to preach.

All three pastors are paid by all six churches. Instead of a congregation complaining that they only have half a pastor to themselves (or in this case, a third of one), it should be emphasized that every church on the charge has THREE PASTORS serving in their congregation. In addition, there should be at least a half-time Charge Secretary, also paid by all six churches, to deal with communications, bulletins, newsletter, etc.

While the Senior Pastor leads the staff in planning and staffing special services and programs, the preaching rotation is absolute: when someone is on vacation, an additional speaker (not one of the three pastors) is recruited to fill in. It is essential that no church get possessive of one of the staff as “their” pastor, and no pastor spend more time in any one church than its size and needs dictate. This means that if the Senior Pastor winds up preaching Easter Sunday morning in the smallest church, while the Assistant Pastor winds up in the biggest, that’s just the way it works out. It’s not about egos and status (pastors’ or churches’), but about all the pastoral staff ministering to all the people of all the churches “to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”

The Senior Pastor would lead weekly staff meetings to keep up with visitations and meetings. In addition, he would lead regular day retreats six times a year with the other pastors to rough out worship leadership. Each pastor would be free to preach whatever he felt inspired to, within the overall approach to the season planned in common.

It would take a great deal of labor and talent to make this work, but I remain convinced that it would enhance ministry in rural areas in many ways. Having said that, it’s been a long time since I’ve brought it up to the powers that be, since at my age I doubt my stamina to lead such a concatenation; still, it remains something that I think would be valuable. And it would certainly be a way to bring an elder’s sacramental ministry to more congregations than merely the one to which we normally appoint him or her.


Arthur Collins
October, 2015
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