It’s pastoral ministry Tuesday where I share a little bit of the journey, a little glimpse behind the curtain, and share some observations about this pastor’s life.
I’m part of a denomination/church movement that has a low view of ordination until it’s expedient to have a high view of ordination.
On one hand, we have no liturgy or common practice for ordaining someone to be a pastor or anything else for that matter. I’ve known other pastors in our movement/denom who have literally been “ordained” in a hallway at our national conference by two other pastors who stopped with them in a hallway, said a prayer and “poof!” they were ordained. This is a fairly low view of ordination.
On the other hand, if one of our churches ordains someone who is in a same sex relationship, you get kicked out of our movement – one of the few things that can get you in trouble with the home office (right up there with not sending in your monthly tribute of 3%). I would argue this potential consequence of “doing it wrong” indicates a fairly high view of ordination.
Ordination is what’s on my mind on this pastoral ministry Tuesday because a friend of mine is getting ordained today in an Anglican church in Canada.
In the movement/denomination I was formerly a part of, ordination was a somewhat serious business. It walked that fine line between “biblical pattern” which was of high importance in the group I was a part of – in which I was ordained – and one of the high church/denominational practices we largely shunned (along with Lent, the church calendar in general and titles like ‘pastor’). We could find some biblical precedence for it with the elders laying on hands and setting people apart for things, so we kept it.
Ordination was a useful way of determining who was in and who was out, who was ‘official’ and ‘legit’ and who were just wannabees. The majors versus the minors. In both movements/denominations we are adamant that there is no clergy/laity divide and yet…well…there is. And ordination proves it.
For some, ordination is a sacramental act that sets a person apart for their vocation in church leadership and/or ministry. For some, it is the moment in which authority is conferred on an individual by the Holy Spirit (and sometimes the church of God) to fulfill their vocation as a pastor or one of the other many titles and roles in church leadership. For some, it is a mere formality that means very little to them or (in their opinion) to God. It functions to indicate those who can now legally perform weddings, funerals, burials and baptisms. In North America the “legal” part of that is largely gone as nearly everyone can marry people or perform any of the other rites previously associated with a clergy class.
If you were to ask me what my view was on ordination, after a lot of reading and conversations and about 35 years of experience in pastoral ministry, I would tell you that it’s complicated. Despite the “non-traditional” movement that I am a part of and the extremely anti-denominational movement I was a part of, I see ordination as a sacramental act that involves a trinitarian formula: the Spirit, the candidate and the Church. I do not, however, believe this is a point in time or the means by which God confers a particular authority upon an individual, even if the Church does.*
I would go on to describe my view of ordination as “narrative.” It comes from asking these questions of a candidate, “What story does your life tell? In what way does your life tell the story of pastoral formation? Over the story of your life, how do you see God forming you, in big and/or small ways, into your vocation? What stories from your life make you think that pastoral formation is the story you are in?”
I would ask the Church of which the candidate is a part these questions, “What story do you see and experience God telling with the candidates life? In what ways do you see the gift evident in their life, tell stories or give instances? What are the gifts of the Spirit you see in the candidates life that make them suited for pastoral ministry? Tell stories about the times you’ve seen through the moment you were in with the candidate and you observed God forming them and working through them in pastoral vocation? How has their life with you indicated they were on a trajectory towards a pastoral vocation?”
I would gather the candidate and the Church to discern together the Holy Spirit’s voice together and listen for answers to questions like, “What is the clear evidence of God’s spiritual formation in the life of this candidate? Collectively, where do we see the Holy Spirit, in big and small ways, forming this person into a pastor? What is the evidence of the Holy Spirit that is obvious in this candidates life? How has God confirmed this narrative formation for pastoral ministry through signs, wonders and effective ministry up until this moment? How do we collectively experience Jesus through this person in love, words and way of living?”
These are important questions. And it’s important for the individual and the Church to have confidence in the answers because there are few things tested the way a call to pastoral vocation will be tested. Most pastors I have known, myself included, have been tested a lot longer than just 40 days in the desert. A lot of pastors fire themselves every Monday. And it’s usually well meaning people who want to “help” who create the biggest doubts in us about our vocation by the little things they say and “constructive criticisms” they offer.
A person in pastoral ministry needs some external confirmation that this is indeed the story that God has called them to at least 364 days a year. “Did God really say…” is a tape that runs through our hearts and heads every time attendance is down, the offering is down, someone we’ve pastored makes a terrible “let me return to my own vomit” choice. When we get the anonymous note, the passive aggressive comment about church growth, the backhanded compliment, the comparison to “other church” and how they’re really thriving over there. We need ordination as part of our memory to remind ourselves and the devil and maybe even the current flock of God of which we are a part – yes, God has called me to this, prepared me for this, told my story to form me into this pastor’s life.
In the denomination/movement I was originally a part, we would not ordain women. It was a sin for a woman to be ordained. We didn’t call it a “sin” usually but it was prohibited and non-biblical – which meant “sin.” We didn’t ask any of these questions about their story to them, the Church or to God because we had the Bible and we knew the Bible was clear that this was something women were not made to do. I’ve disavowed that way of thinking, even though I have friends still there – even some who may be reading this. I see it as the entirely wrong approach to this story we are in.
When the Spirit fell on the Gentiles, the only question that mattered was whether or not they possessed (or were possessed by) the same Holy Spirit that fell on Pentecost. What gifts can we see? What fruit is evident? Story questions. Not gender questions. Not questions pertaining to the Jews original ideas about what constituted clean and unclean.
What story is God telling right now with these people in front of me? What is the evidence that makes me believe that story is true and truly Jesus?
So on this pastoral ministry Tuesday, I’m thinking of my friend Rob, in whose story I am sure I can see God forming a pastor. He will be tested and tried and gutted and he will need the ordination service tonight on some ratty Thursday afternoon when he’s just finished plunging a toilet in one of the children’s ministry bathrooms for the fifth time after getting off the phone with a church member who offered an in depth critique of his last homily and he wonders if this is really what he’s meant to be. He needs this punctuation point that will be an anchor to be reminded once again, yes, Rob, God has called you to this, embrace the journey, all is well.
*for those interested, I believe that authority in the Church rests solely on the presence of loving relationship.