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Consultation takes on 'order of ministry' questions

5/29/2002 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: Photographs of the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, the Rev. Robert Neville and Bishop William Oden are available at *Green is news director in United Methodist News Service's Nashville, Tenn., office.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - Top agency executives, clerics and scholars in the United Methodist Church have taken the first step toward resolving the confusion around how the denomination orders its ministry.

Questions about the ordained ministry have been around the church since 1948, but debate about them has intensified since 1996, when General Conference created a new order of deacon independent from the order of elder. That change has spurred more questions about ordination and its processes, commissioning, conference membership and the status of local pastors.

Meeting May 22-24, people from diverse parts of the church adopted six recommendations, including a proposal for separating the processes of ordination and obtaining full membership in an annual conference. The consultation in Nashville brought together staff and directors of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, and Council of Bishops, as well as seminary professors and deans, local pastors, deacons, elders and lay people.

The participants agreed to carry the recommendations back to their respective agencies and the Council of Bishops, with the hope that the proposals will form the basis of legislation for the 2004 General Conference and later assemblies.

As the meeting began, the 30-member group focused on four questions: What is ordination and the relationship of ordination and conference membership in the United Methodist Church? What is the role of commissioning in the full ordination process? What are the standards and boundaries that guide credentialing and deployment of local pastors and the ecumenical issues related to full-time and part-time local pastors? How does the current ordination process support the need for clergy in the denomination?

The group discussed concerns about whether the denomination's system of ordering ministry is compatible with those of other communions involved in Churches Uniting in Christ, an ecumenical organization that recently replaced the Consultation on Church Union.

Before 1996 - and extending back to Methodism's founder, John Wesley, and his Anglican heritage - the order of deacon was defined by dedication to and competence in service and was regarded as preliminary to the order of elder, said the Rev. Robert Neville, dean of United Methodist-related Boston School of Theology. An elder would first become a deacon and serve three years on probation before entering full connection as an elder in the church.

The role of deacon was redefined and separated from the elder in 1996, becoming "an order final and complete in itself and not preparatory for anything else," Neville said. Probation for elders' as well as deacons' orders is done "through an unordained status of being commissioned and admitted to probationary membership in the annual conference," he said.

An elder in full connection is authorized to preach and teach, administer the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, and order the life of the church for ministry. The deacon is ordained to a ministry of word and service, but may not administer sacraments.

Once the United Methodist Book of Discipline's sections about ministry were amended to establish the new order, Neville said the "resulting language thus contained many layers of theologies, different rhetorical approaches to defining ministry; and often contrary social and ecclesiastic agendas. ... The attempt to find in the Discipline a consistent theology of ministry about deacons, or about the redefined elders or licensed local pastors, or the relation of any of these to the laity, is hopeless."

The changes in the ordering of ministry also caused problems in relation to ordination and conference membership, according to Neville. Before 1996, conference membership and ordination had been viewed as being together - an elder is a member in full connection and a deacon is ordained but under probation for conference membership. "By redefining the order of deacon to be not at all a probationary stage for ordination of elders, the 1996 General Conference posed for itself a new problem: how should probation be handled."

The result was that General Conference gave both orders conference membership in full connection, which "seemed to give equal dignity to the order of deacons," he said. "The probation for other orders was handled by an elaborate set of procedures for commissioning that allows aspiring deacons and elders to serve in their respective work for a probationary period without being ordained."

The quandary, said Bishop William Oden of Dallas, is that "ordination is a rite of the universal church, but itinerancy and conference membership are bound together for all ordained elders but not for ordained deacons."

If the denomination is to fulfill its reason for being, Oden said, it must clarify its polity and deepen its theological understanding of both lay ministry and ordained ministry.

After much discussion, the consultation participants decided that "preparation for ordination and full conference membership be understood as a movement in which the church and candidates for ordination are engaged in a relationship of discernment, spiritual formation, mentoring, education and judgment regarding the effective performance of ordinands in their ministries."

The group's six recommendations will be carried back to the Council of Bishops, the Board of Discipleship, the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

The participants suggested that ordination be separated from full conference membership and that separate certificates be issued for each act. They also recommended that the Board of Discipleship develop a liturgical celebration for granting full conference membership.

"To do this acknowledges that they are already separate and are two distinct processes," said the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, staff executive for the Board of Higher Education and Ministry's Division of Ordained Ministry in Nashville.

Before a person is ordained, a vote for conference membership is taken during the executive session of clergy at annual conference, and the bishop ordains the person at another time at the conference, Moman said. The recommendation will separate the two acts, resulting in one process for ordination and another for obtaining conference membership, she said.

The consultation participants also recommended that certified candidates for ordained ministry enter into a time of discernment, spiritual growth and mutual ministry under supervision as they prepare for ordination. They proposed that certified candidates be eligible for ordination when they complete the candidacy process, which includes the completion of theological education and other requirements outlined by the Division of Ordained Ministry.

"Our current procedures for ordaining elders and deacons, and admitting them to full conference membership, are too long, too political, too confused about the meaning of ordination as such, and counterproductive for educating ordained persons for the professorate in theological education," Neville said. Many students go to seminary in hope of being ordained, but "become frustrated with the seemingly endless track of hoops to jump, humiliated by being under constant need to prove themselves to someone, and often angered by being judged too long by people whom they have not learned to respect, or whom they have learned not to respect," he said.

The consultation participants recommended that probationary members of the annual conference be eligible for full membership when they complete the requirements of probationary membership. "We strongly affirm the value of the probationary period for mentoring, community formation and continued education and assessment of the probationary member's effectiveness as a member of the order (deacon or elder) in the annual conference," they noted.

They suggested that the Division of Ordained Ministry, in consultation with the Council of Bishops, consider developing a "sign act" (ritual or liturgy) in recognition of someone becoming a certified candidate for ordination as elder or deacon. The "intent of the sign act is to affirm the relationship of the candidate with both the seminary and the annual conference," the group said.

Finally, the participants recommended that other consultations be held to examine the relationship between ordination and authority for the administration of the sacraments, the meaning of ordination, the ordering of ministry for both lay and clergy, and itinerancy. The role of the local pastor also will be examined. Noted the participants: "Local pastors continue to be a vital part of the leadership in the United Methodist Church."

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