The New Christians

The New Christians

Reconsider Ordination. Now.

I’ve got a bunch of people upset at me for encouraging my friend, Adam Walker-Cleaveland, to forsake the ordination process of the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination. I even went so far as to post an online petition to attempt to convince Adam to drop out of the PC(USA) process and consider himself “ordained” by the Body of Christ — that is, by all of his fellow believers.

Over the weekend, I’ve been inundated by emails and tweets. Some have been from those who, like Adam, have found the denominational system of ordination to be abusive and are wondering what to do. Others have asked me to write more abut my theology of ordination. And still others have expressed “disappointment” (a truly patronizing word) at the tone of my Friday post. They’ve said things like, “As a Christian leader, you need to be more gracious in your writing.” Well, I call bullshit on that. When a friend of mine suffers abuse, I do not plan to be gracious about it.


My long-time friend, John D’Elia has posted the most thorough and evenhanded response to my Friday rant. John is the pastor of the American Church in London, he’s ordained in the PC(USA), and I respect him deeply. I ask you to go read that, then come back here and read my response to him. You’ll find it below the fold.


Before I begin the substance of my response, let me remind you of this: I’ve written often of my understanding of the medium of blogging. It’s not academic work — not even close. It is not careful work. It is immediate work. I’ve had a couple UCC pastors write me recently to say that they’ve quit reading my blog — and one even de-friended me on Facebook because I wasn’t responding to his many emails. Why? Because I called their denomination “notoriously liberal.” They thought I should be more sophisiticated, nuanced, and frankly, academic in my characterization. So let me say this: Don’t expect too much of a blog.


1) You title your post, “An Emergent Discussion.” That is a misnomer. Virtually every emergent leader I know is ordained — most by a denomination. In my evolving opinions of denominations and ordination, I speak for myself alone. I think that the minority of people in emergent churches agree with me on this.

2) Solomon’s Porch is not a house church. We are a body of 250ish persons with 501(c)(3) status from the IRS. We rent an abandoned United Methodist Church building. And we have an “ordained” pastor. But our deal is this: We ordain everyone. If you want to be ordained to perform a wedding, or to be a lawnmower repairman, we’ll ordain you to that ministry.


This is not to vaunt everyone to a high position, but to subvert and deconstruct the very notion of ordination. It is NOT like what John Wesley did (although there are some interesting parallels — see below) or like what the fundamentalists did or the Lutherans or the Calvinists. We ordain everyone, and I started an online petition to ordain Adam, to be ironic. It’s to point up what I consider to be the arbitrariness of the bureaucratic systems, and, to be honest, the tax benefits, of ordination. In other words, this is the opposite of a YoungLife leader who writes away to some dude to get ordained for the housing allowance write-off. This is, instead, to show how that entire system leads to such ridiculousness.


3) Hey, thanks again for preaching at my ordination in 1997 (I preached at an ordination service myself a couple years ago; I’ll post my sermon on Wednesday). I remember my ordination well. But let me remind you about my ordination: It’s not from a denomination. As a Congregationalist, I was ordained by the Colonial Church of Edina, the discrete, local church body in which I was raised, full of persons who have known me and my family since my grandparents co-founded the church in 1946. Those people told me, beginning in 7th grade, that I was “called to ministry,” and they have nurtured me along that path all the way till now. I consider ordination in the Congregationalist setting very different from one ordained by a national assembly or by a bishop (that is, the presbyterian, synodical, or episcopal systems).


4) Both you and others have questioned whether Adam has been entirely forthcoming in his posting about these matters. Maybe, some have implied, there’s a back story of disobedience that Adam is hiding from the blogosphere. I can assure you that Adam is being candid about his candidacy. In fact, he runs the distinct possibility of getting dooced for his public honesty about the process’s abuses. There’s a reason that most ordinands don’t start to bitch about how they were screwed by the system until after they’re ordained — because if they do it any sooner, the system will have its retribution.


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Shawn Coons

posted May 11, 2009 at 9:54 am

Tony, I’m curious if you think denominations, like the PC(USA), are beyond redeeming?
I’m inferring from your posts that there is nothing that God can do through Adam in the PC(USA) that is worth his trials in the ordination process. And I further infer that you believe there is not enough of worth that God is doing in mainline denominations that justifies the sin and injustices of those same denominations.
I’m also curious to hear more about your personal background and intimacy with mainline denominational churches and structures. Are you speaking from your own contextual experiences, or are you mainly looking in from the outside?
I’ve noticed that most critics of emerging churches are outsiders who haven’t been part of emerging communities. And so I consider what they have to say, but realize their knowledge and experience is very limited and it’s much easier to see the bad than the good from the outside.
If you have a strong personal mainline denominational background, than forgive my questions here. But otherwise I really wonder if you are honoring your context or the context of others.

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posted May 11, 2009 at 10:45 am

As a UCC clergy of more than 20 years, I am quite pleased that we are known as “notoriously liberal”. Notoreity of this sort is a good thing. That means we have a distinct voice, necessary harmony in a climate of increasingly conservative monotony.
However, a couple of little twigs to add to the fire. I was ordained not by a single congregation, but an Association of churches in a fairly small geo/political area. But that means I was accountable to them, and to the Association & Conference in which I now serve. The basic concept as I understand it is this, I serve God by working for the church that has called me.
Being ordained only by a congregation allows for no accountablility by colleagues, and the news has been filled with the ways that can be abused. Being ordained by an entire denomination creates a heirarchical system that can also be corrupted and abused. Ours is not a perfect system, but as with democracy, it is the best system we have.
One other thing, several UCC conregations or pastors itch terribly when they are associated with anything notoriously liberal. We are diverse in every way and work hard at that diversity. But I still think that our distinction is significiant and worth applauding.
Liberal * loud * proud, that’s me!

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Adam Lehman

posted May 11, 2009 at 11:35 am

Sit down.
Read through the Bible.
Come up with an ordination process that is derived from scripture.
I doubt one exists
and if it does
it sure doesn’t look like the one’s that exist now.

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Kirk Moore

posted May 11, 2009 at 11:41 am

Hey Tony — I love this conversation. I also love reading you unfiltered.
I wonder if there’s another institution that we could bring into the conversation– Academia.
I remember a short conversation with you several years back where you told me that Mike Yac questioned you for getting involved with the frustrating path that leads to PhD’s
Do you see any similarities with the flawed system of ordination in denominations and the flawed system of diplomas in academia?
And if it matters — I’m a notoriously liberal UCC pastor who reads what you have to say regularly.

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posted May 11, 2009 at 12:04 pm

I agree with your frustration on the ordination process. My college roommate is a United Methodist minister who was been a very powerful witness in the 3 congregations that he has served over the past 12 years, yet he is not ordained. Every time the very liberal ordination group meets to consider him, he fails because he holds a very conservative view on the role of gays in the ministry. While I do not agree with his position, I respect that he feels it is a biblical position and one on which he is not willing to change simply to get ordained. I find the whole thing strange in that they gladly let him serve as a minister and his congregations have all loved him dearly, but they just won’t accept him as ordained until he bends to their opinions. What is the UMC so afraid of?

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traci smith

posted May 11, 2009 at 12:05 pm

I have considered making many comments about this “story,” both on Adam’s blog and here, but I haven’t had the time or energy to write out a really thoughtful comment. It is clear to me that the PC(USA) ordination process is very, very flawed. (I have come to this conclusion based on my own experience and the experience of others.) Whether it is flawed beyond redemption is, for me, still up for debate. I wonder if it is possible to reform and redeem our system. That said, there was something in this latest post from Tony that made me CERTAIN I should say something. He said:
“There’s a reason that most ordinands don’t start to bitch about how they were screwed by the system until after they’re ordained — because if they do it any sooner, the system will have its retribution.”
This is certainly true for me, and maybe one day I will tell the whole story, but right now we’re talking about Adam. I’m quite afraid he will be dooced as well.
I’m quite interested in this conversation. Thanks for your thoughtful responses, Tony.

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Mark Allen

posted May 11, 2009 at 12:08 pm

This is a bunch of garbage, don’t back down. Why does it have to be a right of passage to be crapped on in the process of ordination? What a bunch of nonsense.

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Leon Bloder

posted May 11, 2009 at 12:17 pm

I’ve been following Adam’s ordination (or lack thereof) for a bit through Twitter and the various blogs that have “emerged” as a result. I’m an ordained minister of the Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA). Despite it’s unwieldy nature at times and despite the hopelessly annoying way we plod through process, I love being a part of it. I know that I am called to it. As a recovering fundamentalist and nearly agnostic, I found a place to experience God’s grace and peace in the PC(USA), and for this I am extremely grateful. I submitted to the process of ordination most unwillingly, fighting with the committee assigned to oversee it all along the way. My ordination was delayed because of a silly mistake that I made on an ordination exam. It was delayed even further when I was forced to do Clinical Pastoral Education despite over 10 years of practical ministry experience.
Through this entire process, however, I learned that I didn’t know everything–even though I had been convinced I did. I learned that there were aspects of the process that taught me discipline and humility.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason that so many folk in the “emergent” conversation rail against the “systemic sin” of denominations in such a wholesale way are really masking what might be a very real problem with authority in general. Perhaps, all this talk of “open source” theology, ecclesiology, and the like is for many folk a knee-jerk, adolescent-esque reaction against anything or anyone that seems to impose any kind of structure or process they think is stupid.
Maybe I’m just not postmodern enough–which is probably the case.
I have long respected Tony’s work, remembering fondly the Youth Specialties conventions from ten years ago where he shared ideas that simply blew me away, and transformed my thoughts on ministry. I wonder about this, though.
My thoughts are simply this for anyone who is struggling through an ordination process within a denomination, and not seeing the end in sight.
Maybe… just maybe you aren’t being called to serve within it. Maybe these obstacles are God’s way of trying to get your attention.
Or maybe, what God is trying to teach you is patience, humility, submission to his will…
That was the lesson that I needed to (and still do) learn. In the end, though, I can really only speak of my own experience. Everyone has their own journey to make.

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stew carson

posted May 11, 2009 at 12:18 pm

To me the most humorous part of this discussion is the ad that appears on the right side of the page saying, ‘Become An Ordained Pastor, Start preparing online…’
The big business of ordination is calling you…

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Ted Seeber

posted May 11, 2009 at 12:18 pm

I thought the “tax benefits of ordination” were available, under the Nun’s Law (America’s first Catholic Saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, did this) to be available to anybody giving away more than 80% of their income, regardless of being recognized with ordination or not (after all, ordination in the RCC isn’t available to nuns, but most enjoy this tax benefit).

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posted May 11, 2009 at 12:24 pm

We routinely disqualify testimony that would plead for extenuation. That is, we are so persuaded of the rightness of our judgments as to invalidate evidence that does not confirm us in it. Nothing that deserves to be called truth could ever be arrived at by such a means. -Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam
Food for thought…

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Drew Ludwig

posted May 11, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I think the denominations are doomed. It will be a slow death, but it is on the way.
I ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA). I enjoy the minimum salary requirement, the health care, the pension, the tax break, and free parking at hospitals. I also am compensated with four weeks vacation, two weeks study leave, an expense account, mileage reimbursement, and a continuing education allowance.
My church cannot afford all of this, and I don’t need all of it right now, so much is given back. Why do PC(USA) ministers get so much? Well, half of the Presbytery is always ministers, and the Presbytery sets the guidelines. In effect, we are both the union and the management.
This is also likely why ordination is so hard to acquire. There are fewer and fewer church positions every year, because we are lousy at church planting, and congregations are closing.
But aren’t there a lot of PC(USA) congregations without pastors, you ask? Yes. The ones that cannot pay.
So yes, the system is broken. At best, I am a scavenger in the system, trying to pull out the good bits for the kingdom. At worst, I am part of the problem. I like getting paid to do what I would do anyway. Mind you, I have an M.Div and student loans and still get paid less than the average person with a B.A., but I can pay my loans, and have a house, a car, good food, and health care, so I am far from a martyr.
The next church will not have pastors like me. It will be (and should be) grassroots, indie–still accountable, but very different.

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Dan Hauge

posted May 11, 2009 at 12:38 pm

From the examples of Solomon’s Porch and your home church, it looks like it is mainly the national, denomination-wide system of ordination that you oppose. So I’m wondering, while you “ordain everyone” at Solomon’s Porch, how do you choose leaders? I assume that not everyone in the church who says “I would like to be in a central leadership role in the church” is simply given that role without a process of community discernment. How do you see community playing a role in discerning if and when a person is ready to lead the church? Or do you even see “leadership” of the church as a valid category?
My main point is that it seems to me that the role of the community in helping the individual discern his or her calling to leadership is at the core of what we now know as “ordination”. Now, hundreds of years and hundreds of bureaucratic structures later, it has morphed into the huge institutional process that you rail about. So how do we address the evils of these systems while affirming that a call to leadership is not necessarily best left as a purely individual decision? Or do you think it is?

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Drew Tatusko

posted May 11, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Was going to comment here, but it turned into another post. thanks.

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posted May 11, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Not to be nit-picky, but as one who is in the ordination discernment process with the Episcopal Church, I think you’ve seriously misunderstood how it’s done.
The very first portion of it is parish (congregation) based. Comprised almost exclusively of local parish members. The discernment process begins and rises from the congregation that ostensibly knows you, your journey, etc. etc. etc.
The rest of the process is a process of layers of accountability and discernment. Not even the Bishop can just ordain willy-nilly. The Bishop relies on the recommendation of the first discernment committee…then the parish’s vestry…then the diocesan Commission on Ministry that meets with you…then there is more discernment of your academic credentials…then there is possibly more schooling…then the Bishop refers you to another committee…then that committee discerns with you…then they refer you back to the bishop and only then does the Bishop ordain you…
I don’t see this as problematic…even if it is frustrating at times…
This is called a messy, imperfect way of collective discernment that takes seriously the possibility of our limited knowledge, ability to make decisions from wrong motives and places…and teaches us all to put into practices a wider understanding of church wide mutual submission…
This, in all its imperfections, is truly counter-cultural to the self-entitled individualism of American culture.
It’s a lesson that many of us in the conversation would do well to learn and value.

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Erik Ullestad

posted May 11, 2009 at 1:45 pm

What if…
…denominations didn’t exist to oppress and abuse, but rather support, challenge, and provide accountability?
…a denomination empowered local congregations to identify future pastors and prepare them for a life of ministry by providing them with opportunities for leadership, service, and learning?
…local congregations were asked to surround pastoral candidates with prayer, acts of kindness, and financial support throughout the seminary process?
…candidacy committees met regularly with ordination candidates to ask about their journey through seminary and how they were continuing to hear God’s call to ordained ministry?
…larger church-bodies stayed out of way throughout this process, unless the people who have walked along side an ordination candidate expressed concerns about emotional, intellectual, theological, sexual, or other boundary issues?
…the Masters of Divinity requirement existed to equip would-be pastors with a communal network of support, encouragement, and a rock-solid set of ministry tools that prepare them for congregational life?
The above questions are not hypothetical, Pollyanna, utopian questions. They explain is how my particular denomination functions. There are exceptions where abuse / misuse of the system has occurred…more often on the part of the ordination CANDIDATE than on the DENOMINATION. There are ways that we need to adapt the ordination process to ensure that we are putting pre-ordained folks on the best track to empower them for ministry. The process has been shaped over hundreds of years to provide care for the pastors AND the congregations those people serve.
I offer this, not in the hopes of convincing you that denominations are awesome…but to offer an example of how denominations can function in a beautiful way to give life to the whole church.

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Dave H.

posted May 11, 2009 at 2:17 pm

I was very glad to read Tony’s clarification about his own ordination.
Like the Congregationalists, the Mennonites (my people) call individuals to ministry from the local church body. Though the Regional Conference participated and helped along through this process, the bottom line is that my local congregation was ordaining the first woman in the history of the New York Conference of the Mennonite Church.
We did this in the way that made the most sense for us and for her, through a process of discernment and conversation rather than examination by a separate governing board with more power to abuse. She is accountable to us, and because of this process we are now more accountable to her and to each other.
This resulted in an affirming, energizing process in which we everyone worked toward positioning our church in the best possible service to our local community.

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Richard Jones

posted May 11, 2009 at 4:09 pm

I was ordained in a local church (that’s how independent Baptists do it), not by a denomination. So, my ordination was rather simple and painless. The ordaining pastor (senior pastor of the church I was serving) convenes an ordination council (sometimes consisting of area pastors–but mine was the deacon board of my church) and the council examines you concerning doctrine, Christian experience, and fitness for ministry. In a practical way, my Master of Divinity degree was taken as partial (if not most of) the weight of my doctrinal fitness. If the council is satisfied, an ordination service is scheduled, and that’s it. I now serve in a United Methodist Church. I have friends who are trying to go through the UMC ordination process. It is brutal. So much of it seems to be an excuse to waste time and spend money. The UMC has “approved” seminaries. Why not trust them to train people for ministry? Why not attach new candidates as apprentices to experienced pastors? Instead of a lengthy, arduous ordination process, why not recommend (require) a degree from a school your denomination can approve, and then require a one year apprenticeship with an experienced pastor?

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posted May 11, 2009 at 4:19 pm

As someone who is a part of board who has the responsibility to ordain, but is a person against the practice of ordination itself, I’m glad to finally hear/read from some other church leaders that they have concerns about it all too.
Realistically in the modern day church ordination is an outdated practice which serves mainly to create a hierarchy within the body of Christ. There is no need for pastors to be ordained these days. If ordination is supposed to be the recognition of calling or recognition of a person’s leadership role, isn’t that already done effectively by calling someone a pastor? What are they up until the point they are ordained then if not a leader? Why do we feel the need to create an upper class among clergy which is already generally seen as an upper class of christianity?
I have avoided ordination to this point and plan on doing so until someone gives me a good reason not to. I for one am glad to see/hear some others questioning the practice too.

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Greg Bolt

posted May 11, 2009 at 5:38 pm

@Leon You are my hero.
I have a similar story, I am certified ready to seek a call as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA) and I don’t think my CPM (Committee on Preparation of Ministry) would mind me saying that I had some hiccups during my process.
I am not ordained yet, but hopefully soon (or in what I’ve learned in God’s time) I know that’s seems a little pollyanna but unfortunately for me the ordination process (as annoying as it is) is not about me, its about God.
God working through me, through (gasp!) a committee, through a process that has lead me to grow up, accept my responsibility in my situation and ultimately will lead me to be a better spiritual leader in the future. I know that I am much more prepared now than I would have been had I not taken my ordination exams several times or not had to take “extra” steps in the process.
Adam’s situation sucks, but maybe when he or we look back on it later (which I am sure we will be able to go given his prolific blogging and (Tony) your cross bearing for him) we will see God working through it all. I’m pretty sure that’s biblical

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Brian Merritt

posted May 11, 2009 at 6:00 pm

I am torn. I too think there has been an abuse of Adam and would dearly like to affirm his gifts as a minister. A little disclosure, I am an ordained PC(USA) minister in a post-denominational community church. Yet, you act like you are not a part of institutions that have hierarchies. You sell a lot of books for big Christian institutional publishers, and are a white man that lecture institutional churches for a paycheck on how the church should be. It sounds like (from the post you linked) you have been helped along the way because of a healthy socio-economic background to get credentials from respected educational institutions. You admit that you were called because your family was important within the structure of your local church institution. You even have your own blog on beliefnet. Yet, somehow you are part of an equality of ministries at 250 member tax exempt institution. I don’t buy it.
Again, I am not defending the denominational church or any religious institution (including yours). Yet, your comment about anyone trying to help Adam as being complicit in sin makes me pause and wonder what is really at the core of this issue for you?

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Rev'd. Joey Reed

posted May 11, 2009 at 6:31 pm

With all due respect to the previous posters, I do not believe that “calling someone a pastor” makes that person a pastor any more than I might call someone a duck and “create them a duck.” Scripture denotes a set of requirements for service as a servant-leader in the Church.
I would say that if we ordain everyone, then we ordain no one. Ordination is about ordering one’s life to the rule and discipline of the sacred. Yes, we are freed from human roles of rich and poor. But we trade one yoke for another. We become subservient to Christ and seek to live the holy life–holy as in set apart.
If everyone is “set apart,” then no one is set apart. I don’t think that Tony’s comments point us to “no ordinations.” But I also have a hard time reconciling ordaining everyone to be the leader. We aren’t talking about ordaining everyone to ministry–we’re talking about establishing the resident theologian, the shepherd of the flock, and the prophetic voice of responsible leadership.
That requires standards–biblical standards, no less. And the standards would imply a process of measurement and examination.
What I can agree with is the fact that the processes are flawed in many quarters.
I do not seek to refute the claim that ordination in the United Methodist Church can be brutal. The process is carried out, in my conference anyway, by folks who don’t always have the time (or take the time) to get to know the candidates.
The process is begun at the local church level. It is often a quick process. I was, in fact, approved in absentia because I was a couple of minutes late to the called meeting. They met me at the door with a unanimous decision to pass me to the District. I often wonder how qualified many of the folks who are doing the examination at that level. This is not to say that they are bad people, or bad Christians. I simply wonder if they are sensitive to the nature and purpose of a person’s calling and the ordination process.
‘The District level (think of a 4 or 5-county regional body) has folks who are a bit more discerning, but how well do they get to know the candidate? Many Candidates for ministry are most often “grilled” at the Conference level (regional, often state¬wide) because candidates are examined in cursory ways at the primary levels. This leads to the infliction of grief and misery at the later stages.
I like the fact that the candidate is well known to the examining body in the congregational model. But I prefer the connectional system for a variety of reasons.
I believe that whatever steps are taken to rectify the situation, the only ones that will mitigate success are those which will require a greater amount of contact hours between those responsible for examination and those who are being examined.
I don’t have any problem with requiring psychological testing or medical testing. I think that all candidates should be examined for ability and aptitude for preaching and teaching. I certainly agree that doctrinal standards should be maintained.
So what is the problem? A lack of interpersonal, networked, accountable relationship.
Most people find it easier to be crass, cold, and harsh to someone when that person is a stranger. “The process” takes over and the red rubber NO stamp comes down with impunity. That is harder to do with someone with whom we have taken the time to corne to know.
While the process can still lead to a rejection, it does not have to be so cold, clinical, and harsh.
The vast majority of problems come when the candidates are unknown to the examining body. Paperwork is shuffled, confused, and sometimes lost. People are placed in holding patterns to repair issues–and sometimes forgotten or even discontinued.
Candidates are often left to wander the maze of ordination alone. We require mentors. Some candidates have as many as five before the process is completed. Many go without mentors for weeks at a time. Some have mentors in name only.
Each of these issues lead to cursory examination and snap-judgments. And all of these issues go back to the simple fact that very few people of authority in the United Methodist Church are taking the ordination process seriously enough.
If we were, we’d have full time people monitoring candidates. We’d have healthy support systems in place instead of plans that are partially implemented due to “personnel shortages” or “financial shortfalls.”
In short, the congregational model is more successful in this light because it is contact intensive. If we can find a way to incorporate the best of both models (and I am sure that we can if we so desire), then I am sure that the ordination process in the United Methodist Church can return to health.
I look forward to your opinions. Thank you for accepting mine.
Grace and peace,
Rev’d Joey Reed, OSL
Pastor, Raleigh UMC

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Mike Morrell

posted May 11, 2009 at 7:10 pm

Thanks for having the guts to have this conversation, Tony. As I think you know, for the past decade I’ve been part of a stream of house churches where we emphatically believe (and on our better days practice) ‘the priesthood of every believer.’ This means that we all have the dignity, worth, responsibility and empowerment to be ministers of reconciliation, demonstrating God’s shalom here on terra firma. It also means, practically speaking, that we’re all expected to share in our gatherings, at least occasionally and hopefully more. Not like a bacchanalian Pentecostal service gone awry (though that can be fun too), but like preparing something or being open to share – you know, a psalm, hymn, a spiritual song; or perhaps a teaching, prophecy, or exhortation. : )
That said, for the past two or three years, I’ve been increasingly influenced by mainline and Catholic spirituality – liturgy, mystical theology, and commitments to justice in particular. And, like these churches would be quick to tell you, you can’t just cherry-pick the ‘spirituality’ and theology you like from them while discounting the ecclesiology it’s been shaped by and comes wrapped in. So, I haven’t. Though I remain opposed to an ordained caste of Christians that stands over and above the mere ‘laity’ (yep, I’m also an egalitarian when it comes to gender issues and I think the mutual-subordination model articulated by the Cappadocian mothers & fathers, and by the author of The Shack, makes good sense), I respect the coherence & elegance of the liturgy and the priesthood that’s evolved to support it.
Here’s where an ’emergence’ orientation has personally helped me, Tony: A decade ago, I would have had to keep on embracing house churching and slam mainline & Catholic spirituality; alternately, I could have ‘converted’ to (say) the Episcopal Church and recanted my house church ‘heresy.’ Now, I can transcend & include. I can embrace a both/and perspective on this.
My both/and happens to be what you all practice at Solomon’s Porch. I first encountered the idea from a friend of mine (I’ll protect his identity) who’s a progressive catholic type who’s flirted with the idea of being ordained as a priest in the Celtic Catholic Church (see, an independent Catholic church in the ‘ol apostolic succession. If he pursued this path, he told me, he’d pursue becoming a bishop. Once a bishop, he’d have the official authority to ordain anyone he wished – thus, he’d ordain any baptized Christian who understood the glory and duty of being a priest on earth.
I like this approach. I think that one way mainline churches can infuse new life into them would be take this subversive and experimental approach – perhaps with a few test dioceses at first, since I’m sure it would be scary. But take the Episcopalians for instance, who wish to be the best of Catholics meet Protestants. Why not take the pomp & circumstance (what Bono called the ‘glam rock of the church’) of formal priesthood and make it available even to the plebs? I know institutions rarely undertake prophetic acts, but it seems like a Jesus thing to do. And way sexier than what we dour-faced house churchers do, poo-poohing the whole ordination ‘thang.’
This need not be overly disruptive to the highest ideals of ordination. It could draw from the best of the 2nd-5th century cathecumen process, where becoming baptized happened after much study, prayer, and service, carrying with it great weight and dignity. Make the ordinations gift-specific if need be, and certainly be clear that ordination doesn’t mean you’ll be making a full-time living or drawing a full-time paycheck from this vocation. For an era, I imagine there will still be full-time priests in this setting, but perhaps their role could evolve to being coordinators of church full of priests. After awhile, inspiration or necessity might give birth to an all-volunteer driven church, volunteers who nonetheless are completely serious about their great & glorious vocation.
Enough thoughts for now…thanks again for these provocations.

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Jeff Gentry

posted May 11, 2009 at 7:59 pm

Thank you for calling bullshit on beliefnet. As I read this post I couldn’t help but think that you were illustrating “The Courage to Be Protestant.”
Thanks for going forth and provoking.

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posted May 11, 2009 at 8:04 pm

“. There’s a reason that most ordinands don’t start to bitch about how they were screwed by the system until after they’re ordained — because if they do it any sooner, the system will have its retribution.”
— This was certainly true for me.

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Mike Morrell

posted May 11, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Thank you for your thoughts & experience sharing, Rev. Joey.
“If everyone is “set apart,” then no one is set apart.”
Well, isn’t church ‘eclessia,’ that is called out ones? It seems that everyone (in ‘church’) is set apart.
“I don’t think that Tony’s comments point us to “no ordinations.”
Me neither.
“But I also have a hard time reconciling ordaining everyone to be the leader.”
Hmm. I suppose if everyone tried to be THE leader at the same time, in the same space, and in the same way, one might have confusion like there was in Corinth circa century one. But if we see a diversity of ways leadership can function and is manifested, I think it makes sense to refer to a church of leaders (which isn’t the same thing as saying a church of pastors or church of elders – though I would also assume that both of these can and perhaps should be plural in a healthy gathering; ie, more than one).
Wow. Let me just say it feels weird discussing church polity like this in an ’emerging’ context. It brings me back to house church vs. conservative Calvinist debates I was having on email listservs 11 years ago! In that spirit, I’ll close with a quotation from Holy Writ:
“You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 2:15-16, echoing Exodus 19:6, “You will be my kingdom of priests and my holy nation.’ These are the words you must speak to the Israelites.”)
These texts in their context might not mean *everything* I want ’em to mean, but they’ve gotta mean *something.*

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Neal Locke

posted May 11, 2009 at 10:07 pm

Hi Tony,
I’ll give up my sinful attachment to the institution of my denomination (and dependency on health benefits) when you give up your sinful attachment to the institution of Christian Publishing Houses (and dependency on royalties).
Both are kind of outdated bureaucracies, aren’t they? But it sure is easy to criticize the one you’re not in bed with…

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John D'Elia

posted May 12, 2009 at 5:31 am

“As iron sharpens iron, so one friend sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)
Over the weekend I entered into a public dialogue with Tony over his treatment of denominations in his blogging and published work. In my post I think I strayed away from addressing Tony’s ideas, and into attacking him personally.
I want to say here that I’m sorry that I did that.
The church of Jesus Christ is made up of broken people who are being pieced back together by a loving God. Obviously—obviously—I’m one of those cracked pots. And so in the only real currency we trade as Christian people, I’m asking for a little grace as I learn some new skills. The discussion Tony and I are having—along with many of you—is a very important one, and I don’t want my indiscretion to get in the way of that.
I remain a fan of Tony’s thought and work—even when we don’t agree, and even more so since he modeled it in his gracious response to my complaint. My hope is to continue this multi-part conversation not just to increase our understanding of the different viewpoints, but more to see how we can work together to accomplish the real task before us:
How do we demonstrate the love of Jesus to a desperate world?
How do we act as the Body of Christ—through teaching, service, proclamation, sacraments, work, play, intellectual life and the arts—how do we work together to be the tangible presence of Christ in a world that rejects him…often because of us? In this discussion of who and how we ordain for ministry, let’s not lose focus on the bigger questions at hand.
In future posts I want to explore how this complex of issues—how churches are organized and managed, how we set aside people for special ministries within the Body, and even how we compensate ministers—how all of that helps/hinders/annoys the community of faith as it lives out its calling.
One last thought: The handling of these topics in a blog format has some inherent dangers to it. In the not-too-distant-past the discussion between myself and Tony would have taken place over a longer period of time, and it also would have benefited from the review and comment of our peers before publishing. Tony rightfully points out that blogging is different, but I wonder if a few self-imposed boundaries might serve all of us better. N.T. Wright thinks so, and Blake Huggins has (of course) blogged about it at the link below.

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Bill Samuel

posted May 12, 2009 at 8:08 am

Although I am now a member of an unaffiliated church, my approach to this subject of ordination remains largely that of the tradition of the Religious Society of Friends in which I spend most of my life:
1. Only God can ordain someone to the work of the gospel ministry. No human or human institution can do this. Friends may acknowledge this and record it in their minutes, but in doing so they are only recognizing what God has done, and that the minister seems faithful to this call.
2. While certain people have been given by God special gifts in Gospel ministry, God at any time may work through anyone in the ministry of proclaiming the gospel or any other ministry. There is no responsibility which is given exclusively to a special class of ministers.
3. To be a faithful minister of the gospel does not require any particular program of formal education, or anything else designed by humans. While a gospel minister can be expected to be steeped in the scriptures and knowledgeable about how Christ works among His people, a formalized program on that neither qualifies one or is necessary.
This rings to me much truer than the ordination approach of most denominations and nondenominational churches.
BTW, Friends have at times acknowledged other gifts and calls of people as seemed right.

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Mike Morrell

posted May 12, 2009 at 3:16 pm

I totally agree, Bill. By my lights Friends are light years ahead of the rest of us when it comes to ‘ordination.’
Mr. Locke, the difference between regularly-paid ministry/denominational apparati and Christian publishing is significant: If Tony’s a compelling writer, people will buy his books and in effect choose to be ministered unto by him on a per-book basis. Any monetary compensation he receives from this is per book sold, unless he & the publisher negotiate an advance royalty – which still isn’t the same as a salary with benefits. A paid denominational minister, on the other hand, can and often does coast for years on mediocre material at best, continuing to draw salary and benefits. Even when local congregations oust the so-so minister, they can go from church to church and build a career out of it. I’m not suggesting that most have this outlook; I am suggesting, though, that publishing is way more merit-based than most bureaucratic ministry. Two mediocre books and you’re finished in publishing – if that. Bureaucratic ministry procedures hurt the ‘clergy’ as well as the ‘laity;’ the whoredom of Christian publishing produces Christian best-sellers, which are their own form of calumny. But that’s another conversation…

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Rev. Chris Johnson

posted May 12, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Tony, are you willing to forgo your book contract and the income stream that comes from it allowing you to provide health insurance, a home, food, vehicles, and put money away for retirement? Your contract with the book publishers amounts to the same thing you insist ordained pastor are looking for in ordination. Ordination has nothing to do with health insurance or retirement. (they are by products of the system taking care of the hungry and sick aren’t we told to do this someplace?) I am very sorry about Adam and all he has had to deal with. My candidacy went very smoothly. Along the way however I did see some people treated unfairly but I also some some people with real psychological issues pushed out of the ordination system. It is not an easy process and it is definitely in need of repair but to throw it all out is not the answer either. Come on Tony help us reform the church. Help us throw out the bureaucrats. But don’t throw the bay out with the bathwater.

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posted May 12, 2009 at 9:43 pm

Can we all please be clear that within the Reformation tradition the “priesthood of all believers” and the “ministry” are differentiated. Everyone is a priest, but not everyone should be a minister. And while ordination is primarily about God’s action, we also have to affirm that God left us with some work to do. Who will steward the mysteries of God? Yes this is the job of every Christian, but do we as Christians take this duty seriously enough that we will designate certain of our especially gifted and called brothers and sisters to this task?

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posted May 13, 2009 at 2:50 pm

First, I have enjoyed your ideas and writing. I do believe you have a needed vision for today’s emerging culture. However, and with that said in the most gentle way, I find it problematic that you seem to know better than Adam the message God is sending to Adam. How Adam responds is as much about God’s voice, if not more, than how anyone else perceives that God is speaking through circumstances.

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Neal Locke

posted May 14, 2009 at 11:54 am

@Mike Morrell — I don’t disagree with you that there is some semblance of meritocracy in publishing (really, there is in ministry, too–churches with great preachers are usually bigger). My main point is the one that is parallel with the ordination issue: You still have to get past the bureaucracy of “gatekeepers” in both industries.
I’ve been harping on Tony for quite awhile about this primarily because he likes to apply open source methodology to the church (which is good), but is unwilling to apply the same lens to the publishing industry, and his own publishing practices (which is a bit hypocritical).
Come to think of it, as much as he preaches open source methodology, I wonder if he uses Linux? I certainly hope that someone who writes a blog post calling for us to “open source” the ordination process didn’t actually write those words on a Mac — the most closed, institutional, and proprietary of all operating systems.

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Drew Tatusko

posted May 14, 2009 at 8:17 pm

@Mike Morrell
“A paid denominational minister, on the other hand, can and often does coast for years on mediocre material at best, continuing to draw salary and benefits.”
This totally depends on how the corporation that hires the minister to a given position measures “coasting” and “mediocre material.” It also ignores the immense amount of marketing and naively assumes that people know what they are buying when they buy it. I might buy a book that tells me exactly what I want to hear. That might be Tony’s book. If this is the case, am I coasting along and is Tony’s material helping that?
Most marketing is designed around one simple principle: get someone to buy something by making them believe they need it, and do it by getting them to make that choice irrationally. Books like the Shack are very different, and very very rare. The point is that most books sell because people believe more hype than substance. It’s how our consumer economy works. If people made rational choices when they buy stuff, you might have a solid point. But very little in how goods are marketed supports that assumption. To Neal Locke’s point, if Tony went independent and self-published we would have a better case that buying a book is more equitable than hiring a pastor.
We seem to have this idea that traditions are bad because they are “out-dated.” I know of many golden agers who deeply rely on these traditions at a point in their lives when they are the most meaningful. To a younger parishioner, respecting these traditions and spending lots of time at women’s groups eating lousy casseroles is “coasting.” To that shut-in or that cranky “old guy” that kind of structure is exactly where they meet God every Sunday, and every Wednesday at 7 am.
In short, I think this seems like an intuitive assumption Mike, but I do not see it as a valid one without evidence by which to measure coasting and mediocrity. The art of being a good pastor is to feed people who sit next to each other and all require a different flavor of the Scriptures to feed their soul. One person’s mediocrity is another person’s source of life.

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The Charismanglican

posted May 16, 2009 at 1:46 am

“When a friend of mine suffers abuse, I do not plan to be gracious about it.”
Um…I have no idea what to make of a statement like that.
Surely you meant “I have a right to speak up” or “An obligation to be angry”?
But, as your brother in Christ, I kind of expect you to be gracious. Luke chapter 6 and all.

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posted May 18, 2009 at 10:07 am

Dear brother, the problem isn’t “systems”, “beauracracies”, or “church governments”. These are only as good as the people within them. It always comes down to people, not systems, groups, etc.. If one soccer team is corrupt, does it mean that all soccer teams are? If one local church body is corrupt or even just mistaken on something, does it mean that all church bodies should be mistrusted and abandoned?
Also, too, scripture clearly teaches that God works for our good through the authorities in our lives, even if they are corrupt or evil. The infancy narratives clearly demonstrate how God fulfilled prophecies concerning the Messiah through the evil plans of King Herod. Mother Teresa received a call from Christ to go to the “poorest of the poor”, but her superiors refused to let her go, due to dangers they perceived. For three years, she submitted to their request, trusting the Lord to make the way. Finally, she asked again and they said yes. Later in her life, she testified that she learned things during those three years that gave her ministry greater impact and wisdom. Perhaps, Adam should prayerfully submit and trust the Lord to work for his good and the good of others in this milieu.

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posted June 9, 2009 at 10:55 pm

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