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.