United Methodists examine future of ordained ministry
Jan. 27, 2004
A UMNS Feature By Linda Green*
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - United Methodists are wrestling with questions about who has the authority to administer sacraments in the church.
The denomination recognizes two sacraments: baptism and Holy Communion. Questions about who should administer those sacraments stem from differing interpretations of the meaning of ordained ministry since the 1996 General Conference. That year, the church's top assembly reordered the denomination's ministry, creating two types of clergy - elders and permanent deacons. The denomination also uses local pastors to carry out ministry.
General Conference did what it believed was appropriate at the time, said the Rev. Jerome King Del Pino, top staff executive at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville. But, he said, the conference did not address a variety of issues around the meaning of ordination.
"Even though we will always need to have ordained people, we do not yet have a clear understanding of how these orders relate to one another," said Del Pino. "One of the tensions is in who is authorized to do what." Do deacons and local pastors have authority to administer the sacraments as elders do?
"Sacramental authority is not to be construed as endowing certain persons with the ability to dispense grace," said Sarah Heaner Lancaster, a professor at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
Lancaster and Del Pino participated in a January symposium that examined the future of ordained ministry in the denomination. It was the first of a series of such events planned by the board to address the issue.
Referring to the Book of Discipline, Lancaster said the church has structured itself to give elders the specific responsibility of administering the sacraments while deacons may assist at the request of the elder.
Lancaster stressed that the roles of deacons and elders are "overlapping, distinct and complementary." They overlap because all Christians are called to proclaim and teach the gospel in some way and to perform acts of service, she said.
Deacons, she said, represent the denomination through a lifetime of service to the world. Elders do the same but with added responsibilities, including administering the sacraments.
Sacramental authority was one of many issues at the symposium. Clergy from a variety of settings discussed the characteristics of ordination, focusing on authority relating to word, service, sacrament and order. Other topics emphasized being vital for the future and faithful to the past, and on the relationship between the church's understanding of its ordered ministry and its understanding as a part of the body of Christ.
Throughout the symposium, speakers emphasized that the church has undergone a significant change over the years in its understanding of ordained ministry and who is eligible to serve as a pastor in the church.
Setting apart people for ordained ministry in American Methodism has always been controversial, said Richard Heitzenrater, a professor at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C. The debate about ordination reflects the differences in opinion about the nature of the church, he said.
The challenge faced by the church is to meet the needs of the present and future in ways that have integrity and vitality, Heitzenrater said. "We must constantly adapt to new situations while we hold fast to the basic principles that define us as a part of the body of Christ." He added that past models and methods cannot be relied upon for easy answers to today's ministerial problems.
The Rev. M. Douglas Meeks, a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, said discussions about the past, present and future of ordained ministry have been ongoing for nearly 25 years. "What we are trying to do with the symposiums and upcoming conversations is take seriously what ordination has meant in the tradition and what it means today."
The Rev. Mary Ann Moman, staff executive in the denomination's Division of Ordained Ministry, expressed optimism about the future of ordained ministry.
"I am hopeful," she said, "because the church is longing for leaders who will ask the questions of faith, who are not afraid of the ambiguity that exists in our living, who desire to live in community, who trust their colleagues to hold them accountable, and who can leave room for the spirit to blow through the church."
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn. News media can contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.