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A Modest Proposal: The Minimum Standards in the Texas Conference

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.

About Josh Hale

Aren't we what we repeatedly love? My wife, being GeekDad to the 4 superkids, United Methodist pastoring, Texas, science fiction and other nerdy pursuits, words (speaking, listening, writing, reading), Britain, music, camping, tech, baseball, practicing theology. Jesus. Coffee.

Comments

  1. Billy Watson says:

    “The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines.” Proverbs 18:17

    Thanks, Josh, for providing a bit of a different perspective. This is a tough one, and certainly a byproduct of being in, as you say, “a large, complex conference.” Cases like this make me wonder about the several suggestions of the Call to Action process that few seemed to take note of, including this gem from the Operational Assessment/Apex Report: “A finding of our report is that in evaluating the ‘distance equation’, small Annual Conference and/or District sizes may provide greater organizational (mission) value for the cost tradeoff.”

    • Billy, I’d forgotten about that. I think that has become now, a few years later, an obvious challenge to our consolidation impulses. Thanks for sharing it again.

  2. Interesting points. My Conference has all but Odained people into retirement.

    Snarky is too strong. You had me until snarky.

  3. david livingston says:

    Your points are good, but better language in the proposal would be that those over 45 (actually, all candidates) should enter the discernment process aware of all of the issues and potential pitfalls involved. A person over 45 who the church discerns has a call to ordained ministry may choose not to pursue that call because of the pitfalls that you named (cost, location, etc.) but that is a choice for the individual to make. Any number of people have unique challenges in following their call – it doesn’t dissuade the Church from ordaining those who we believe God has called. We need Timothys and we need Moseses (or is it Mosi?).

    • Thanks for that thought. I would challenge, however, the prevalent concept that ordination and its decisions belong solely to the individual. Vocation is by definition ecclesiological & missional. A call I hear from God is a necessary condition—but not sufficient by itself. A call to ministry in company, as my previous blog post relates.

      • david livingston says:

        Call is definitely not just up to the individual. I said “A person over 45 who the church discerns has a call…” If a person is called to ministry they are called to ministry. We could substitute any number of people categories in place of age and the policy would sound ridiculous. When I served on BOM (different conference) we also struggled with how to handle health and pension expenses related to aging pastors without much time to serve. This, though, is not the answer. If the Board senses that a person is asking to be ordained instead of LLP because of financial issues then don’t ordain them. They aren’t called to ordained ministry. The Board needs to have the courage to say that regardless of age.

        There’s also the 45 cutoff. At 45 a pastor still will likely have 20 years to serve. At 39 I have many peers who began ministry with me and dropped out after 5-10. Even from a purely financial view I’m not sure this is good policy.

  4. Cheri Duncan says:

    Josh, thanks for your views. I’ve cross-posted on Breaking the Silence’s Facebook page. I’ll try to respond this evening.

    Can’t imagine how you had the time to write this, with all that has happened in your life over the last few days (note: your “About me” is a bit outdated — you’re now the dad of the FOUR most epic kids ever). Love and blessings to the whole Hale clan.

    Cheri Duncan

  5. Let’s not kid ourselves… soft language very easily becomes hard language. A guideline today becomes tomorrows ‘D.S’s hammer’ (even if in written language it remains soft)

    • It *can* become that. But the alternative is never offer guidance on the supposition that it will always be misused. I don’t think we can proceed based on that assumption. We need honesty and clarity, and we need to be able to say when things are hard and fast rules and when they are guidance. The Texas Conference has radically changed our candidacy process over the last 5 years. I got to have a small role in that. There is much more conversation and guidance at every level now. That context is what folks outside the conference may not be aware of, but I think it is relevant.

  6. Josh– I appreciate your comments here and know that the context behind the proposed guidelines is an attempt to help, not hurt, our potential candidates in the process. I do think, however, that should the guidelines be adopted that we will not only lose some vital candidates who will be “encouraged” not to pursue ministry, but that we will potentially open ourselves up to legal action. It is one thing to suggest that there should be a reasonable “return on investment” in our candidates; it is another to say that an arbitrary number should determine someone’s viability as such. My suggestion would be that in lieu of setting an age threshold that we establish some minimum years of service that are possible. It is reasonable in my mind to say that a candidate for ministry should be able to serve at least five, or maybe even ten, years in the connection to justify the resources required for that service. It is entirely different, however, to suggest that someone who is 45, with a potential for 27 years of such service, should be discouraged from pursuing the process. Other factors may influence that decision, of course, but a baseline age with that many years of potential service should not. Perhaps the board can consider altering its guideilne accordingly?
    Chappell Temple

    • Chap, I think your suggestion is a good one. Saying something like “5 or 10 or 25 potential years of service” might be a good way to frame it. Please make sure you send a note to Carol with that suggestion—she wants as much feedback ahead of time as possible.

    • sensenonsense says:

      The threat of legal action is moot since Hosanna-Tabor Church vs EEOC. Employment protections in secular professions do not apply to clergy.

  7. umjeremy says:

    Josh, thanks for this outline and background, as well as pointing out the points where we should be in agreement given my public statements. I appreciate it.

    The best way I can frame this document is “due diligence forced unequally. ” By that I mean that it reminds candidates of the myriad of issues surrounding second-career clergy and forces them to show they have done their due diligence.

    But I believe it is unequal because a young adult would be asked about the financial costs of seminary, but they aren’t forced to show the due diligence because it is assumed they have 20 years to pay off the loans. Nevermind that a 47yo who completes seminary at 50 would still be employed by the UMC at age 70 and could do the same thing. The other issues as well become “due diligence” for a middle-aged adult whereas they become “something to think about” for young adults. Which is defined as….well, ageism. Not in intent but in effect.

    I would also like to push back about the word “should be encouraged” because it holds the claim that the preferred role of middle-aged adults is not to enter the ordination process. While we can point to other places in the Discipline where “encouraged” is used, in this document it says “preferred” to me…how supportive is it to have a system already set out against you?

    I wrote about my many colleagues who entered ministry later in life, with full awareness of the length of the process. How can you be sure this type of document wouldn’t be used to dissuade them, even though they’ve done the due diligence? The role of the BOM is to provide guidance to the guiders, not give them ammunition to shoot down an otherwise well-prepared candidate.

    That’s my fear.

  8. It’s interesting to hear from a Conference insider on this. Clearly this was an early volley by proponents of such policy to test the waters. I don’t buy into the “soft language”vs “hard language” argument. It was provocative language and based on your shared insight it was meant to be. The other part in this is that wether or not it becomes official policy or not it is clearly going to be an unspoken concern for any candidate going forward for your AC as long as present leadership has the reins. It doesn’t seem to me to be a smart answer to the issues that predicated its development. Are finances, pension, geographic relocation concerns? Of course they have always been. Other solutions that are not on the BOM’s bailiwick can address these concerns without giving the suggestion that there is any “ism” being presented. And this is where this policy fails from its origination, it cracks open the notion that there might be institutional concerns about a candidates approval for ordained ministry that has nothing to do with the candidates gifts, legitimate call, or effectiveness for ordained ministry. It’s a silly policy to suggest and if actually makes it to a clergy session vote in present form I predict it its going to get voted down with minimal conversation.

  9. i did not like the wording of the document when I first saw it but then realized the alternative is to be dishonest. The reality is the ordination process is long and expensive. This needs to be part of all conversations.

    I think the reality is the time has come for us to look at the process and find ways to make it more manageable. this will entail looking at everything from deacon responsibilities and local pastor roles on through ordination.

  10. I think – seriously – that LLP’s should be ordained. Even if its an ordination with strings attached (still without some voting privileges at annual conf).. If you are called to word and sacrament, you should be ordained to word and sacrament – period. I don’t feel pressured by the idea (as many do) that my ordination would be threatened or my education devalued because of this in any way, shape or form. And anyone who does may need to ask themselves, “is this about me, or is this about the kingdom”? (If I had my way I’d abolish commissioning as well… and guaranteed appointments… but hey, noone has asked me to be on judicial council!!!!! Hehehehe)

  11. Frank Coats says:

    Good post, Josh. It is a complex issue. I was ordained at 54, am now 58 and finishing my 10th year of ministry under appointment. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve Christ and the Church through the Texas Annual Conference, and have had so far a successful ministry by several different means of measurement. Thank you for being willing to serve on BOM.

  12. sensenonsense says:

    As I’ve posted elsewhere, here are my concerns:
    1) It’s faster to get an MDiv and be ordained than it is to complete basic & advanced course of study. The expectation at the end of education for licensed pastors is still ordination. The licensing route insures that these candidates would be even more advanced in years. 2) It has been said that there would be exceptions for outstanding candidates. If you’re already thinking about exceptions & you can name 10 off the top of your head, the guideline is meaningless. 3) Even though it’s legal for the church, I really wish we’d stop engaging in employment practices that would get us sued in the secular world. 4) I love the young clergy we have recruited from other conferences, but it makes me wonder what we’re doing to the rest of the US. Don’t other conferences need young clergy, too? What does it say about Texas Conference connectionalism that we’re depriving other conferences of the best and brightest young clergy?

    Is it not also naive to think that some of our districts and mentors won’t take the “soft language” as absolutes? For example, our psyc evals give 1, 2 or 3 to rank candidates. Ones are no red flags, twos need extra consideration, and threes present major concerns. Most of our districts will take extra time evaluating those who receive a 2, but there is at least one district that has denied them outright. Since my ministry with Perkins involves walking with more of them longer than most anyone in our conference, I’m frequently flabbergasted. It is still true that Anglo males, regardless of age & gifts for ministry, have a much easier time getting through our process than people of color and women. The guidelines suggested are already being used, and the burden falls inordinately on marginalized populations. Perhaps it would be more helpful to develop a document for mentors and dCOMs that helps them walk through with all candidates the realities of the call. It’s just ironic that we’re counting costs in order to follow where Christ would lead.

    The guidelines are symptomatic of a larger issue: that we operate from a mindset of scarcity that fosters fear and shame. Are we not called to operate from a mindset of God’s abundance that fosters courage and generosity?

    If a driving issue is pension and health insurance should we not focus there rather than on discouraging the servants whom God would call? We’re just flipping to the other side of the coin from neglecting young pastors to ostracizing the old. Can we not foster a system that recognizes the value of all?

  13. A point which needs to be brought to light in this conversation is; Is it only ageism at work here? Isn’t it true that there are more female second career Elders than male? I can certainly attest to the fact that at the time I (a 45 year old female) was making a decision about my first career there was no one at my junior college or high school telling young women to go into ministry. I can also tell you that in my experiences as a young woman in the seventies and eighties I did not see any female clergy in the churches I attended.
    I have been an active lay person for ten years in the United Methodist Church and I know that I am in a part of the country where there are even more female clergy members than the average national figures will show, but even now, well more than over a decade into the 21st century, I was told that in my conference I will most likely be the very first female clergy-person at every church I serve. That statement referred to my entire career, and the churches that I will serve will never be anywhere near the average UMC in Texas Annual Conference.
    So, if the conferences where the United Methodist Church is the largest are saying that they really would prefer anyone born prior to 1968 to “pursue other expressions of lay ministry” and the only conferences that are actually acknowledging that each individual is uniquely gifted are the more progressive thinking liberal conferences, then just exactly what is the message of the GBOD and the GBHEM going to be? I happen to come from a conference that is home to a very, very long line of trail blazing women in the history of the United Methodist Church and the Methodist Church, and for civil rights in general, and I can’t imagine that a woman born in Texas in 1968 would have been more likely than myself to have had more female role models at the time you would have liked her to begin her service to the UMC. Please let me know if I am incorrect on this since I have only visited once.
    I think that the Texas Annual Conference may need to take a closer look in the mirror and be very careful in its discernment on this proposal. Just exactly how many isms are really at work here ?

  14. A missing piece in this discussion is that the UMC has not done a good job for many years in having conversations about vocation. The result is that people have put off answering a call because they are doing discernment on their own and the only visible option is elder. Vocations in the UMC also include deacons and a wide range of mission service – community nurses, legal assistance offices, teachers, chaplains. The problem should be addressed much earlier than conference BOM level. Discussion about vocational options within the church should begin when people start thinking about a career, not when someone walks into a pastor’s office after years of wondering all on their own.

    Another piece in this discussion is that the UMC seems to forget that there are middle-aged clergy who answered their calls when they were young, but the process was long, confusing, and discouraging. The length of my own journey is an example. It’s assumed I’m second career because of my age, but it was the process, not my career. I was 23 when I began the process, 42 upon ordination. In the anxiety driven rush to change the face of UMC elders, there’s a group of middle-aged clergy who are already serving and being shuffled to the edges. It is in part a generational issue because GenX is a smaller cohort than Baby Boomers and Millennials. However, we as a denomination should be careful in prioritizing any one age group over another. Honor those who have put in entire careers as ordained elders and deacons, make thoughtful appointments and committee/board service for those who are middle aged, continue to welcome the fresh perspective of younger clergy, and do a much better job of discussing the multitude of vocational opportunities available in the church.

  15. Capri Grimes says:

    Go for it Josh – at least we can debate here. Yes, we do know it is ageism, let’s at least b honest. I do have a LOT of questions which I will email. @ the top is: why aren’t we applying guidelines across the board? Shouldn’t we model Jesus? His followers were various ages & most were second career. He himself lasted only a few yrs in active ministry. He told us all to count the cost, not just the over 45 crowd. As someone who eats a LOT of txumc medical cost & entered ministry in my late 30’s, I can assure you that young clergy get old too. & frankly I’m insulted that the BOM now considers me a burden. Yes, I believe this proposal is about saving health care cost -it has been said on the conf floor for the last few years.

    So, while I love the young clergy – “age & cunning will always triumph over youth & superstition.”

Trackbacks

  1. [...] And today, my good friend Josh Hale, who sits on their BOM’s executive committee, posted a clarification of the reasoning. It is a good read, check it out and it helps us give more context to the policy so that we can now [...]

  2. [...] Supporters for the policy change say that it is not about age but it’s about looking at what the mission of the church is and how much investment the church wants to make in an ordained minister. If candidates for ordained clergy only have a couple years of service before retiring, the church needs to be concerned that candidates are being directed and discerned for a path that may serve better to that particular group. They want to make sure that candidates seek all opportunities before picking which path and age may be a variable they need to consider as well as the cost for seminary and time for the process. [...]

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