aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Stewards of the Mysteries of God

A friend raised the question of whether we will have too few clergy to fill pulpits if the trads and progs in The UMC split. I replied that we might have too few or too many temporarily, but in the end, there are always too few laborers for the harvest. Our problem is that we have constructed a clergy identity that is more union card than theological; we think in terms of job description and salary-paying units, not the call of God.

And it needs to be said that our unionism has called forth a counter-identity from the Licensed Local Pastors. This identity replaces ordination (which in our union identity is a mere credential) with licensure (which is just another credential, but has fewer rights and perks). The LLPs labor under a sense of injustice: they are just as much pastors as the elders -- they can even celebrate the sacraments -- but they are deprived of certain other things and made to feel "less than." But this is as skewed a view as the jobbery of the permanent clergy.

We need to recover a real theology of ordination, in order to recover a clergy identity that will actually serve us -- and serve God's purposes -- in the new Methodism that's a-coming. I think we need to take as our model Paul's statement, "This is how you should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God."

What are these mysteries we have been set apart to be stewards of?

1) We are the collective memory of the Church. We carry her identity from generation to generation, and initiate the young and the outsider into the People of God. Clergy need to know Church History deeply. The Church didn't wander off the path after the apostles died off. It didn't begin again with the Reformation, or with John Wesley. There are saints in every age with wisdom to teach us -- and all of the heresies and follies we complain of were faced by Christians of an earlier age. It follows then, that any attempt to re-do Church "straight from Scripture" will inevitably mean "straight from the ideas that seem hottest to us." Just as we should aspire to be a global church, we should also aspire to be a church of all times as well as all places.

2) We teach the Gospel from the Scriptures. We need to emphasize our mode of interpretation. As it is, we have all kinds of people just making it up to suit themselves. Even if they derive their theology from the Bible, the cacophony of competing theologies means the trumpet is giving an uncertain sound. We need sound Scriptural scholarship and sound methodological and theological training for all clergy. Just divorcing ourselves from the progs doesn't mean that we will all be together on this: the trads have as many private takes on Scripture as the progs do, even if we all agree on the definition of particular sins.

3) We restrict the right to celebrate the sacraments to those authorized by the Church -- i.e., the clergy. But you'll still see baptism and communion done all kinds of ways, with all kinds of odd things put in and/or left out. I'm not a ritualist, but there ought to be some uniformity (at least of pattern) here. One reason we restrict the sacraments to the clergy is to see that they are well done, and that abuses don't creep in.

4) Now, I was one of the first student pastors to be given the right to baptize and celebrate communion before ordination. That was following the 1976 General Conference; I was ordained a deacon in 1977. My local churches appreciated having a pastor who could do these things very much. But as it is, we really have extremely minimal training requirements before we give you a License to Preach and the bishop says you have sacramental faculties. I would go back to restricting the right to celebrate to the ordained (and I would go back to the two-step ordination of deacon to elder, which is our historic pattern). This is not encouraging a clerisy; I would ordain (as deacon) far more liberally than we have done. We need to get away from equating ordination with full membership in the conference and guaranteed appointment. I would require MORE training of LLPs to serve, but LESS to be ordained. Basically, we need to say that if you've been called to give your life to this service, then both you and we need to commit to giving that full expression. You need to commit to doing more than making a stab at the Course of Study as it now is; meanwhile, we (the elders) need to commit to ordaining those who share our call, instead of restricting ordination to those who have MDivs, etc.

5) We need to re-orient ourselves to serving the church. Every congregation is a real church, and every congregation needs the ministry that the clergy provide. That means every church needs to be under the ministry of a qualified elder, and that elder needs to see that those churches get the same attention that the big churches get -- in terms of the mysteries noted, above. That doesn't mean that every little country church is to have all the time that a full-time pastor can give lavished upon it, nor does it mean that every little country church has to pay the bill for a full-time pastor, with benefits. Some churches are never going to be much more than they are, but they serve a purpose. That's fine. But even as we begin planting new churches in areas where there are good prospects for growth, we need to still give the same quality of service to those members who belong to small churches in areas of less population. For along with our creation of a tiered, unionist clergy identity, we have created a tiered congregational identity, which not only deprives many people of the ministry they should be getting, but which muddies our denominational identity.

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