Shuck and Jive

Monday, November 03, 2008

Is It Time to Rethink Ordination?

Carol at Tribal Church provided a startling statistic a few days ago. She said that 37% of those who take the ordination exams will not pass all of them by the time they graduate from seminary. These exams are not like the exams lawyers, doctors, and accountants have to take. They are not even like the exams mail carriers have to take.

Ordination exams do not show how intelligent you are or how much information you know or how skilled you may be in ministry. With the exception of the Bible Content Exam, they are a subjective set of questions to show how well you can b.s. your way through theological niceties without sounding too smart or too harsh or too heretical.

After four years of college, three years of seminary, and through whatever other hoops they must jump, if candidates for ministry do not pass all of these exams, they do not pass go and become PCUSA ministers.

Even if candidates make it that far, if their lives do not conform to some Ozzie and Harriet view of reality (ie. NO lgbtq), they do not pass go.

Then the final squeeze. They have to stand up in front of the crowd and affirm a bunch of ordination vows that are suitable for the sixteenth century.

These ordination rituals train ministers how to engage in doublespeak. They make liars and sheep out of people. We are training sheepish liars who have learned how to shut up and play the game.

It is a sick game. It is a sick game to force upon clergy and a sick game to force upon people who want to serve the church as elders and deacons.

Carol took on the ordination exam question quite masterfully.

I am interested in taking on the vow question. We place far too much emphasis on our theological heritage
in the wrong way. Yes, there is a Bible and there are stories about a guy (or a literary character--or both) named Jesus. And there is a whole history of creeds and beliefs and philosophies. It is good to know that stuff. Clergy should have a working knowledge of the tradition. At best it is a well of spiritual insight.

The problem with the vows is that we are supposed to "believe" things about this tradition in a certain way. There are vows about the Bible, Jesus, creeds, and confessions.

You won't find anything in the vows about the importance of learning new things. There is nothing in there about "believing" in the Book of Nature for instance. You can believe and teach that Earth is 10,000 years old. That's fine, but don't dare doubt that the Bible is God's Word, whatever that means.

The point is that these vows are outdated. They are used to squelch creativity and insight. The further they are removed from the things people actually do believe, the more they will be used for punitive purposes. They need to be updated. I suggest four vows that will do the trick:

1) Do you promise to draw from the insights of the Christian traditions and from the insights of human reason?

2) Will you serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love? (One of the current vows I like).

3) Will you work within our church's polity?

4) Will you be a friend among your colleagues, treating them as you would have them treat you?

Honor the tradition. Use your gifts. Work within the rules. Respect others' freedom. What more do we need?

I leave you with two quotes.

The first is from Roy Hoover from his essay Tradition and Faith in a New Era:
Those who insist upon the unaltered retention of traditional forms of religious understanding and language and who retreat from the challenge posed by the actual world after Galileo want to direct the Christian community into the confines of a sacred grotto, an enclosed, religiously defined world that is brought completely under the control of scripture and tradition; and they want to turn the ordained clergy into antiquities dealers. This is the only course open to those who regard it as necessary for Christians to live within the world of their sacred texts and in submission to the authority of their tradition. The irony is that the Judeo-Christian tradition can be a resource for an enlightened faith in our time only if its heirs live outside of its sacred texts rather than inside them.
And the second from a book I just finished by Peter Gomes: The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's So Good About the Good News?
At no point does Jesus make the past sacred. Never does he point to an age that was superior to the age that is or is to come, and yet so many of us take pride in our fidelity to the age that is past, pledging our fealty to Nicea, Chalcedon, or Westminster, as if theirs were the last moments in which the Spirit spoke. Jesus never appealed to some past theological consensus; he claimed the future for God, and for those people of God who were prepared to regard the future as the place where God would perform his transforming wonders. p. 243


  1. Why not just re-affirm the three membership vows and add a fourth:

    Do you promise to shepherd this congregation with love, compassion, and understanding?

  2. Here is the problem with the Ords (my mantra with every post about them it seems).

    No one person taking them knows exactly how the rater will rate their exam becuase there is no rubric attached to the 1-5 scale that an examinee can consult to prepare. Second, without a rubric that transparently shows how the exam is assessed, no one knows what the objective measures are!

    It's a horridly subjective assessment without any inter-rater reliability. It's outdated and needs an overhaul. I am for the exams to hold people accountable for knowing how to do theology responsibly, but the measure by which people are assessed are simply educationally invalid.

    If I could fix it I would, but I am not sure where to start or if anyone would care.

  3. Oh... and candidates should be assessed like education students since that too is a practical professional field. they are assessed on a portfolio. The PCUSA has a quasi-portfolio governed by the PIF, but it's weak and again, has no clear objective assessment variables. It is the portfolio that should be approved by the Committee on Preparation for Ministry before the candidate goes to Presbytery trials.

    And then that portfolio would continue to group through the first three years as young ministers develop their theological and ministerial philosophies. It allows for self-assessment and reflection and can be shared in mutual support contexts (like TASTE). It would be such a better and more robust way to engage young pastors to help them avoid burnout and to be better pastors with clear variables that we can actually measure over time.

    But I bring up assessment and everyone seems to freak out as if its a pejorative kind of thing... I just think the church can learn a lot from higher education ;-)

  4. Drew,

    Right on. One of the best things I had was Early Ministry Institute by the Synod of the North East my first three years of ministry.

    I like the higher ed. model.

    Good analysis of the ords, too.

  5. I don't agree. People engage in double-speak because for whatever reason it is more important, and convenient for them to be part of an institution, than it is to actually walk in integrity.

    Personally, if I could not truly affirm the core beliefs of a particular denomination, I wouldn't feel the need to engage in double-speak, or sophistry, I simply would be completely honest, and not seek ordination in that church in the first place.

    To do otherwise, is in a real sense, both dishonest, and immoral, IMO.

    I think at heart this reflects a deeper character issue, which is also going to be reflected in other aspects of someone's life, and ministry.

  6. "Personally, if I could not truly affirm the core beliefs of a particular denomination, I wouldn't feel the need to engage in double-speak, or sophistry, I simply would be completely honest, and not seek ordination in that church in the first place."

    It must terrify some folks to consider, even for a nanosecond, that just because they disagree with someone, that person isn't engaging in double-speak or sophistry, but is actually stating what they believe.

    But then, since she is apparently psychic and can read someone else's thoughts and feelings, I guess folks like grace would know what the ordinands are thinking better than they do.

    On the other hand, grace, perhaps you're right. We've seen uncounted number of fundamentalists in the PCUSA, many who have their own blogs, many who have commented here, who say all the right words, but are clearly Pelagians and semi-Pelagians when it comes to salvation, and may as well be Catholic priests when it comes to issues of ordination. Could you please use your mind reading powers to ferret them out too? I already have a list you can take a look at. ;)


  7. Alan,

    It was John who stated in this post that these ordinands are "being trained to engage in double-speak, and made into liars," not me.

    My whole point was that this is
    unnecessary, and pure baloney. It's a justification for deceit.

    Why make solemn ordination vows in any denomination if this truly doesn't represent the thoughtful conviction of your own heart, and mind.

    No one is forced into ministry, anywhere, or to sign on to any church.

    Even in my own life, there are certain orthodox, and evangelical groups that I can't work for because of my conviction concerning same-sex marriage.Sure I could hide my true beliefs, and speak out of both sides of my mouth.

    But, why should I engage in double-speak about this, or anything else. How is the Lord honored? I want to walk in integrity. Let folks know right up front my core beliefs, and values, and then trust God.