My friend Jeremy Smith, whose blog Hacking Christianity I’ve followed for years, posted yesterday about my conference’s Proposed Minimum Standards for Entering Candidates. As I have a little bit of knowledge about this, I thought I would offer some clarifications and challenges to what he has written. If you are new to my blog, welcome! and let me tell you a little bit about myself. I think I still count as a young clergyperson, being now 33 and finishing my 8th year as an elder under episcopal appointment. I’ve been a member of the Executive Committee of the Texas Conference BOM since 2009, first as the Dean of the College of Mentors, and now as the Conference Relations Chair. I didn’t author the Proposed Minimum Standards document, but I have watched it along the way for the last year or so.
I think Jeremy has some extremely good points in his post, but there are some places where I disagree with both the presentation and the interpretation of the proposed minimum standards. Let’s start with where I think he gets it right.
Ageism and age discrimination has no place in The United Methodist Church, or the entire Body of Christ. There is no place for discrimination, period. I am not so naive as to think it doesn’t happen, and I think it is entirely possible for it to be officially endorsed or for it to flourish under the benighted gaze of an institution. In every case, it shoul be addressed swiftly and justly on behalf of individual clergy, congregations, conferences, and the church.
Moreover, aging is an area where United Methodism can incarnate God’s love for our communities and world. I love Jeremy’s broad insights about our unique position to care for the people of our society. Exclusively age-segmented ministry will hopefully become a thing of the past. And aging is indeed a defining feature of the human experience for which the Gospel of Jesus Christ has good news!
But there are places where I disagree as well.
First, this is a proposed document—it is not currently the position of the Texas Annual Conference. To characterize it as “Texas doesn’t want you if you are over 45″ is not only sensationalist but wrong. In the interest of having the widest possible discussion, this is a draft out for comments and conversation before any Annual Conference clergy session discussion. Moreover, the standards do not exclude people over 45 from beginning the process towards Elders and Deacons Orders, and certainly don’t require that you be under 45 to be commissioned or ordained. A basic reading of the document supports this.
You Shall Not Pass…?
That’s how the post reads, if you are over 45. But you’ll notice if you read the text of the proposed minimum standards that no one is excluded from pursuing ordination at any age. United Methodists know that exclusionary language in our grammar is “shall not,” and mandatory language is “shall.” Nowhere is that language used in the document. “Should be encouraged” is soft language, folks. Technical, yes. But not mandatory. It’s guidance. It’s discernment, not Gandalf-Against-the-Balrog.
And Guidance Is Needed
Without some idea about standards, district committees on ordained ministry, district superintendents, mentors, and many others will act on their own instincts and send a veritable cornucopia of messages to many different kinds of candidates. Some have been in the past told “you’re too old.” Others have not. Bewildering. And just as psychological, medical, educational, theological, and vocational differences necessitate instruction about how Boards of Ordained Ministry approach specific issues, age does play a role. Rising pension and health care costs play a role. Rising costs in university and seminary education plays a role. Geographic relocation plays a role—in my conference, candidates can’t complete an MDiv at an University Senate-approved theological school inside its bounds.* If you think these issues don’t play a role, or they shouldn’t, then you live in a fantasy land. We have real-world constraints on the way we do ministry and church that require real-world solutions. This isn’t a gate through which everyone must pass, but a concern that does need a conversation and maybe, yes, even encouragement to consider a different route.
Vocation and Church
Theologically speaking, God calls, absolutely—but so does the church. The inward and outward calls must both happen in order to be ordained in the UMC. Why? Because we’re connectional and covenantal. Discernment is the ongoing process of being called in the midst of community. And what Jeremy does in Oregon affects what I do in Texas, and we both affect what happens in Côte d’Ivoire. Hacking Christianity has championed that connectionalism repeatedly, and I am glad of it! But that means that the wider church has a stake in how I exercise my ministry. Otherwise, let’s not have a Discipline and BOMs and bishops. Let’s be a loose association of congregations. Don’t you think United Methodism is more than that?
Costly Cookie Cutters
People over 45 may certainly be admitted to the process for elder and deacon—but they should do so with the full knowledge of what that means. Maybe it doesn’t happen everywhere, but long in my experience it was just assumed that many folks would become elders without any real discernment work. Becoming an elder or deacon is a lengthy and expensive process, no matter how you slice it. It isn’t for everyone and we shouldn’t pretend it is. By using that as our baseline assumption we force folks to be relocated, take on educational debt, and then shrug our shoulders and say it’s not our problem. I value my colleagues who change career in mid-life, whose family support them by moving numerous times, who take pay cuts and delay gratification in order to serve Jesus Christ. We will continue to have people who make those hard decision—thank God!—but they should know ahead of time what they are getting into.
Local pastors and lay ministry are vital to Methodism
We have hundreds of churches that rely on local pastors and certified lay ministers. I have had candidates from those churches, I have supervised CLMs and part-time LPs in those churches, and they are an important, vital part of the UMC. They need the very best pastors we can provide, too. We don’t do ourselves any favors by acting like the only valid place someone can do ministry is at a full-time elder or deacon appointment. Yes, those places don’t come with an appointment guarantee, or all the health & pension benefits they should. We will need to continue to act justly towards our congregations and fellow servants in ministry. But our ordering of ministry is variegated, and all forms are of equal validity. Pensions and benefits are important, but so is exercising our call in every form.
One More Thing
There’s a process issue here too. Hard conversations are going to be the bread and butter of United Methodism over the next few years. Hacking Christianity has been at the forefront of those conversations, as a proponent of transparency and inclusiveness. I want to highlight again that these are proposed standards, released ahead of Texas Annual Conference 2013 to be discussed before anyone is asked to adopt them. (And yes, we do need policies and standards on many things—I don’t apologize for being in a large, complex conference.) But being snarky and dismissive of the real concerns which prompted this proposal doesn’t serve anyone well. We need substantive debate on this and many other issues, differences of thought that take seriously what is being proposed. Otherwise it gets harder to be an advocate of including as many voices as possible and being as transparent as needed. Being provocative grabs attention, but it also fails to serve the conversation well.
So, I want to hear what you think. Leave a comment below and I’ll respond!
*My original statement was “my conference has no university Senate approved theological schools in the bounds of the conference. None.” I apolologize for this error. Thanks to Rev. Susan Buchanan, director of Perkins’ Houston-Galveston program, for bringing this to my attention.