How do we prepare clergy for their work? Where do you go to learn what you should know, to acquire the skills you should have, and to be formed by your discussion and experiences as a minister of the church?
In the late Roman Empire and in the aftermath of its fall, bishops had large “households.” That is to say, bishops were important local figures, with staff (ecclesiastical and domestic). There were other priests and deacons around him to help with things. And the local bishop was always on the lookout for a likely lad. He would “take him into his household,” as the saying went. He would be considered a junior servant. He would be educated (taught Latin, mostly). If he showed an aptitude or could testify to a call, he would be trained as a novice. He would learn to chant the mass and the other services, he would observe priests in action. Eventually, he would be ordained a deacon (minimum age, usually 21, though Bede was ordained at 19, I think), then a priest (minimum age, usually 25). Then, he would be placed wherever the bishop thought he could do the best work; either kept on staff, given a benefice, or sent on to serve the king or some other official.
At the same time, St. Benedict was re-organizing monasticism, and the new monasteries following his Rule became powerhouses for educating both clergy and laity. The monasteries took in not only adults who felt a calling, but little children (orphaned or dedicated). These would be the new monks. Rich parents would also entrust their young children to the monks, though these were not destined for church service. There was no other education to be had. A good monastic house could provide very satisfactory training for clergy.
The first universities were founded a few years either side of AD 1200. Some of the ‘colleges” or “halls” were run by and funded by the church for the training of new clergy. Any of these routes – bishop’s household, monastery, or university were considered satisfactory and served the church well in preparing future clergy. John Wesley had a university education.
Not all clergy were prepared so carefully, particularly at the height of the Viking raids and in the struggles that followed. The Northumbrian Priest’s Law issued by the Archbishop of York in the 1020s had fairly minimal expectations for clergy. In those rough-and-tumble times, a lot of good men with limited learning were employed as pastors. They were ordained because they were all that could be found even close to the standard. The Archbishop figured most of them would be married, and he allowed that; but he put his foot down and demanded that they shave regularly – and that they not serve as “ale minstrels.” (God bless ‘em. We honor them for their service.)
The early Methodist preachers were often spotty in their educational credentials. Literacy mattered, because one had to read the Bible and other Methodist study materials. The traveling preacher acted as a book seller, carrying pamphlets, devotionals, commentaries, newsletters, etc. to all the stops along his circuit. He also had to have room in his saddle bags for the Course of Study material. Still, book learning could only get one so far. Serving “on trial” was considered far more important. One learned how to preach and pastor by doing it. The supervising elder would be there to confer with, when your paths crossed. The laity had a fairly easy set of expectations; Methodism back then was good on laying out what was expected of everybody. If you could adjust yourself to the traveling preacher’s life, you could make a go of it. Then, you would be passed by the Board, and be admitted “in full connection.”
This apprenticeship + studying on your own was the standard way to prepare for the Methodist ministry for a long time. Methodists founded a lot of colleges and encouraged preachers to attend them, though, and educational standards rose. In the early 20th Century, seminaries began to carve out a place in the new educational regime of the church. Eventually, the M.Div. degree (a 90-hour professional, terminal degree) became the standard certificate needed to qualify for orders, though a period of service “on trial” was still routine.
In going over this history, I want the reader to see that there have been all kinds of different ways that the church has employed to educate and train clergy. Any of these routes will produce fine clergy. Our current system, however, has attracted a lot of complaints.
The seminary route carries a lot of problems. First, it costs too much (at least, these days). Higher education is horrendously expensive anymore, and grad school even more so. Second, it takes too long, particularly if you enter it late. (I was 21 when I went off to seminary, so that wasn’t a problem; but if you’re over 35 and you haven’t got a bachelor’s degree yet, that’s a long slog while also working. Third, it delivers too little. The complaints over the deficiencies of many seminaries – both in a perceived lack of practical use and in a perceived disinterest in teaching official doctrine – are many. Fourth, it creates a caste system, with elders on the top and LLPs on a much lower rung. Fifth, we don’t know what we want and we keep trying to fix it with new job descriptions and credentials, which is no way to organize a curriculum. Finally, we have as a body (or at least, large elements have) betrayed our trust and can no longer hold each other accountable for our doctrine and practice.
All the other things can be fixed or negotiated, but that last one is a deal-breaker. Methodist clergy do not trust each other, and too many are determined to teach and practice whatever they want, despite the official standards.
And yet, I would say that the essence of Methodist orders is mutual accountability. We are accountable toward each other, first of all, to watch over each other in love, to teach and require correct doctrine, to support each other but also correct each other. We are accountable toward the church as well, to obey those in leadership and to be faithful in our pastoral duties. Finally, the only real way I can justify what I get to do as an elder vs. what someone else gets to do as an LLP or something is this: in Methodism, the bigger your Yes, the greater your authority. The life of the itinerant elder is one where you have given your whole life to Jesus to do this work. You are willing to go where you are sent. You are willing to be obedient. You are willing to dedicate years of your life to preparing for this job, and you are willing to keep up the skills and knowledge that help you do it well. It’s an exhausting job. You will take an enormous amount of criticism. And whatever else happens, you must be the adult in the room and not descend to the level of some of those who want to hurt you, have hurt you. Saying Yes to all that earns you the widest possible authority of the clergy. On the other hand, if you want to live in your own house, if you want to serve only in certain places, if you’re not willing to acquire whatever the educational requirements are, if you can’t move very far because of X, or Y, or Z, then we’re glad to have you, but we don’t give that huge grant of authority to people who have conditions on their Yes. In other words, we give the largest share of discretion to those who make the biggest sacrifice. Now, it could be that in the future we will change that. But that’s the only way I can make sense of it now.
Finally, we are ultimately on the Catholic side rather than the Free Church side in how we understand things. This is disguised by our revivalist history, but it is so. Our understanding of how grace works, particularly in the sacraments and in ordination, is much closer to Catholic theology than it is to Baptist theology. This is further confused by our inconsistent teaching and the toleration of “my theology.” I can’t keep track of how many colleagues have said, “Well, in my theology it doesn’t work like that.” I replied once, “You mean we get our own, personal theologies in the congregation of the clergy? What door was I standing behind when those got handed out?” Silly me, I thought we were supposed to take the dogma as we received it and pass it on. The dogmatic chaos combines with our organizational mess to render us simply incoherent.
But it doesn’t have to be so.
How I would do it
I would make Local Pastor a mostly transitional stage, with no sacramental authority. At the same time, I would expect that every person whom we believe God has called and who can be of service, should be given access to full ordination and the assistance to achieve it, if they’re willing to dedicate themselves to it.
Toward that end, I would say that upon completing the COS, one should be elected to probationary membership and ordained a deacon. Alternatively, one third of seminary would stand in for COS.
Upon completion of the Advanced COS or other professional education (M.Div. for elders, other criteria for other professions), and at least two years of supervised work, one would be eligible for one of the following statuses:
Remaining a deacon but admitted to Full Membership (for non-pastoral church professions);
Being ordained an elder and admitted to full Membership.
After a period of years, those who have completed the COS and achieved deacon’s orders who are not going to go on to complete any higher level of education could remain a deacon but be given Associate Membership and continue in full-time service. Their deacon’s orders would allow them to celebrate the sacraments in their own appointment, and they could assist an elder in any other place.
In putting together a large parish, I could see an elder and two or more associates combining as a single staff to pastor a circuit of churches. Instead of a small church complaining they’re only getting half a pastor or a third of a pastor, we could offer them two or three full-time pastors on their staff. And the elder would have to be the hardest-working member of the staff to make it work. But then, that’s how you earn the top job – you show that you’ve given the biggest Yes.