Friday, November 7, 2008

Speaking the Truth in Love 4: Standards

It’s time for me to finish my series on the Conference Board of Ministry, and specifically the process of evaluating candidates for ordination. Most people know the United Methodist church still has a two-step process for becoming ordained. A candidate first applies for Provisional Membership in the Annual Conference as a Commissioned Minister. Then following two years of serving under full-time appointment, the completion of the Residency Program, and the completion of any remaining educational requirements, the person may apply for Ordination and Full Membership in the Annual Conference.

The words we use to define the different stages of evaluation are “Readiness” and “Effectiveness.” At the Provisional level we try to ascertain a candidate’s “readiness” for ministry. Does the person have the skills, the knowledge and character that says they are ready to assume the tasks of ministry? At that point proficiency is not necessary.

When the Provisional Member returns to the Board seeking ordination, we are looking for “effectiveness.” What has the candidate gained in the provisional period through the regular practices of ministry and through applying the knowledge of their education (in Bible study, theology and administration)? Does their work demonstrate they can effectively fulfill the responsibilities of their calling?

While “readiness” and “effectiveness” are nebulous terms, they do reveal that the standards are set higher for the second evaluation. Once a person is ordained and made a full member of the conference, he/she in a sense has tenure. Misbehavior or disobedience to our Discipline could result in charges (that may result in an involuntary leave or removal from ministry), but excluding that, the minister is guaranteed an appointment. There are annual continuing education requirements to keep up, but essentially the pastor operates as a free agent in determining how he/she works (or doesn’t work) with other pastors, how the day to day responsibilities of ministry are handled, and where the priorities will be set for their ministry and their growth.

So the evaluation for Ordination and Full Membership is the last chance the Board of Ministry has in determining whether we can entrust the church and its members to the leadership of the person before us. Those on the Board know we are all human and except for the grace of Christ in all our lives, we are inadequate to the challenges of ministry. We have, and will, make mistakes in our evaluations. We know we must make room for the Spirit to work in and through the process and yet we also know there are times when we do not yet see signs of “effectiveness” and must speak that truth in love.

What are some ways we evaluate effectiveness? First of all, does the candidate communicate well in written and verbal forms? That assessment of course includes the use of good grammar, inclusive language, and the proper use of references and quotes, but it also has to do with whether the average person can comprehend what you are saying. I have at times asked a candidate to explain a Wesleyan understanding of grace as if they are teaching a confirmation class. In other words, can the person make sense of the human predicament, and prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace to a twelve year old?

One thing we run into on the Theology and Doctrine Committee is formulaic responses. By that we mean the person includes all the right terms, but there is no personal engagement in the answer. In fact, I have noticed in the past few years a shift from expressing one’s considered theology to giving the right answers to the questions. If we were only looking for “right answers” we could just go to a multiple choice test.

For instance, the first question asks how the practice of ministry has affected the candidates understanding of God. We often get several statements on particular attributes of God, such as God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s faithfulness, God’s sovereignty, etc. However, if you speak of God’s sovereignty, then what role do you give to God’s passion (involvement in human free will)? If you emphasize God’s mercy, how do you reconcile that with God’s justice?

This question also calls for some kind of Trinitarian statement. But rarely now do answers reveal any Trinitarian struggle - and I’ve yet to meet a person (myself included) who has the mystery of the Trinity down pat. We each tend to emphasize the work of one of the persons of the Trinity more than the others in our practical theology. I want to know how the candidate assessed herself/himself in this and what it means for her/his ministry.

I guess overall, and to bring this long post and series to a close, the big underlying question is, “Do you have something to say, and where does your voice fall in the theological understandings we share?” Has your preparation and engagement in ministry produced a proclamation that reflects your journey? Can you “rightly explain the word of truth?” (2 Tim 2:15)

Can this candidate effectively proclaim, teach, and defend the gospel? “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15)

Thanks be to God for the grace that makes possible our participation in God’s redemptive work. And thanks be to God for those who “study to show themselves approved” and offer themselves to the Church for the sake of Christ.


roadtripray said...

I may be shooting myself in the foot here, but it's disturbing that effectiveness doesn't seem to be a priority except when considering a provisional member for membership in full connection. When so many of our congregations are led by local pastors and provisional elders, I would hope effectiveness would come into play much sooner.

It may well be that this oversight is happening and I am not aware of it. It just seems like a superhuman task for a District Superintendent to oversee so many congregations I can't imagine they have a good grasp of how the pastors are really doing. Not an indictment of the DS's, just a comment on how overburdened it seems they are.

Hmmm... maybe the conference should hire retired clergy as "secret shoppers" to continually visit churches ... with a bias toward visiting the churches of "rookie" pastors. Actually a blog I read mentioned a consultant "church shopper" who would evaluate your church on various points. I can see the value in an honest third-party evaluation.


Stephen Taylor said...

I think you make a good point - we want our pastors at every level to be effective. And the amount of oversight, or supervision by a DS varies. The evaluation process is inprecise and calls for a lot of trust. BTW, you already have a secret shopper at every service. Just read Matthew 18:20.

roadtripray said...


You're definitely right -- the ultimate secret shopper is there. I feel the presence of that oversight not only at 9 & 11 on Sunday mornings, but every time I make a visit in the hospital, attend a meeting, or prepare a sermon.

And I don't want to imply that I feel like I'm being ignored, because my mentor and my DS are there when I need them. I am just concerned when I hear stories about clergy shortages, and I feel as God's Church we should be serious about equipping more workers for the harvest, so to speak.

In a book titled something like 7 Myths of the United Methodist Church there was one example where a pastor was asked by the bishop to serve as a DS. That pastor worked a deal where he would remain in a pastorate, and would superintend a smaller number of churches. I can't imagine having to do both, but I suppose with a smaller number of churches to oversee it is doable.

I was thinking about how many smaller and/or rural churches can't afford pastors who have much experience. I wonder if having a dual role such as this where an experienced pastor could serve a small 1/2 time charge plus be a DS over a small district (not 70-something churches like we have now in a district) would do wonders for helping our less advantaged churches who could benefit from the most experienced elders in our conference. It would also provide the other pastors in the shrunken district with a DS local to their pastoral community, rather than in an office in a county seat.

I also wonder if there are elders who may be particularly gifted in rural and/or small church ministry, but are compelled to "move up" to larger appointments. Although I guess this wouldn't be a long term solution since DS's are limited in their tenure per Discipline.

Just random ideas swirling around in my feeble mind.