(Today is Credo Friday. The Credo entries are meant to give a glimpse into or an explanation of the things I believe. The things that shape me. The thoughts that lead to practices that form who and how I am.)
It has been more than a week but I’m finally back for part two – my thoughts on the process of ordination. (Part One is HERE.) In the gap between then and now, I’ve been made to realize just how wide the gap is between my own thoughts about this and the group of churches of which I am a part. That means something but I haven’t been able to figure out what.
But it does lead me to stating a part of my credo: I have come to a sacramental view of pastoral ministry. It is a sacred trust. It doesn’t make someone better than, it confers no inherent authority or powers other than those that are conferred on anyone who lives out their vocation for the glory of God and the well being of souls. I am not arguing for a priestly class anymore than I would argue for a plumberly class but I do know I’m grateful for plumbers and nurses and teachers and mechanics and I defer to their authority and I accede to them power over me in the healthy function of their vocation.
There’s malpractice in every vocation. The remedy for malpractice isn’t pretending there is no special call for pastoral ministry, that pastors hold no special place in the life of the church. The remedy is accountability and healthy church systems. Wolves will rise, we’re called to be on guard against them – that requires action – that’s what shepherds do. And here’s the thing, you can say, “Everyone gets to play” or “The priesthood of all believers” and you will still have individuals who will get double honor (to borrow a biblical phrase) for the work they do in the body of Christ. And you will still have individuals who will attempt and often succeed because of their personal presence or charisma, to tell all the other everyones how to play, when to play and what to play. Healthy systems can help us avoid, as much as possible, unhealthy actors.
Moving on before this bunny trail becomes a whole post…
Here’s the system I would put in place if it were up to me to put such things into place.
This system would be administrated by the local church or through the local church as empowered by their denomination or movement. It would be an exercise of discernment and community.
A small group of people would be recruited who demonstrate a level of maturity in faith, spiritual formation and relationship. This would be the “discernment team.” They would be equipped with information and questions. The information would be in the form of a spiritual biography prepared by the candidate and shared with the pastors/elders of the local church and the discernment team. This would be submitted at least 3 weeks prior to the first meeting with the candidate so that the church leadership team and the discernment team could read and pray and listen and make notes from the spiritual biography for the upcoming conversation.
The leadership team of the local church, with some direction from their denomination or movement would create a document that provides the answer to these questions: What is our story? What do we believe pastoral ministry looks like? What are the essential elements of pastoral formation? What story elements should we look for in the life of a candidate that would indicate a calling to pastoral ministry in our particularity? What skills does a pastor need (along with their calling and gifts) to prepare them for pastoral ministry? What education/training does a pastor need (along with their calling and gifts) to prepare them for pastoral ministry?
There would be three mandatory meetings with the candidate and the discernment team before a decision would be announced. These would take place several weeks apart and cover three seasons of a year. During this 9 month period, the candidate would be meeting at least monthly with a spiritual director approved by the church.
The first meeting would be all about relational connection. Conversation and clarifying questions from the discernment team about the spiritual biography, would be the agenda. The team and the candidate would spend time together in listening prayer.
The second meeting would be mostly about asking story questions. First, the team would ask the candidate if they wanted to continue the ordination process and then they would ask what the candidate felt God had been speaking to them. Then the discernment team would ask the candidate questions like:
Tell us about the circumstances and story about how you became of a follower of Jesus…
How have you seen God working over the course of your life to prepare you for pastoral ministry?
Who are the most important influences in your life and in what way have they influence your sense of vocation?
Please tell us what a pastoral vocation means to you. As a pastor, what would your life look like?
Please give us five reasons whey you want to be engaged in pastoral ministry.
Tell us about a time when you have felt discouraged or depressed. How often do you feel that way and what do you do or how do you react when those feelings are strong?
Tell us about your current experiences and efforts in pastoral ministry in the local church…
What’s the worst situation you’ve ever been a part of in a local church?
What role does education play in the vocation of pastoral ministry?
This is not an exhaustive list. The flavor and direction of these questions does indicate the direction this conversation should go and the type of content that it should have. It needs to be the longest of all of the meetings. After this conversation, both the discernment team and the candidate should enter a time of very intentional discernment and journal what they sense God is saying to them.
The third and final meeting (unless more are needed for some reason) should be the briefest of the three. This is an opportunity for a final round of clarifying questions and for a relational conversation. The candidate should be asked about their own journaling and discernment practices and what they feel God is saying to them. They should be asked about the successes and failures in pastoral ministry over the preceding three seasons and how both were handled by the candidate. At the end of this final meeting or very soon thereafter the discernment team should meet and discuss:
Do we collectively see some or all the elements of a pastoral vocation in the life of the candidate?
How would we feel about the candidate being our pastor?
What are our specific concerns about this individual?
What are the specific reasons we feel confident about this candidate’s call to pastoral ministry OR what are the specific reasons we would discourage this candidate from pursuing pastoral ministry as vocation?
Again, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, this is simply an indication of direction and flavor.
This discernment team would write up their unanimous recommendation and present it to their local church leadership team. The elders or leadership team would take time to read it before meeting with the team in person to discuss their conclusions. Collectively they should spend time in listening prayer together in this meeting. Unless the work of the eldership or leadership team has found sufficient reason based on their own examination of the candidate and prayerful discernment, they would accept the recommendation of the discernment team.
During the preceding three seasons of this discernment process, the eldership (let’s just assume I also mean leadership team if you don’t have elders) would also be examining the candidate:
To identify their spiritual giftedness,
And their leadership gifts and aptitude,
their educational preparation,
their mental health issues (everyone has them),
their strengths and weaknesses,
where they fall on the APEST survey,
know their Life Language assessment,
know their Myers/Briggs Temperament Analysis,
know their Enneagram profile,
understand their family system profile,
and share an evaluation by pastoral staff of their observations of the candidate – concerns and kudos – during their internship.
Again, this is not meant to be exhaustive, simply an indication of the direction and flavor this process should take.
Elements that I have come to believe are essential that might otherwise not be considered:
Demonstrations of empathy.
A measurable record of spiritual formation.
Travel experiences outside their country of origin.
Situations designed for the candidate to fail (without their knowledge) and an evaluation of their response to things going differently than planned.
Reading across a spectrum of authors on topics related to pastoral ministry and a demonstrated ability to synthesize the material.
Learning how to have difficult conversations and demonstrating the ability to willfully engage in them.
Training in basic aspects of mental health and a commitment to make referrals to those with professional training.
Doing the 12 steps of recovery.
Again, not an exhaustive list – even if it exhausted you reading it – but an indication of what I have come to believe about pastoral ministry in our day and in our way. Ultimately, I would argue that this should be a slow process and we should not rush to “lay hands” on anybody. I realize how inconvenient this is. I realize how much more work this creates for the local body. I realize that this does not prevent wolves from rising. However, I have come to believe that a process like this will help us identify the right people AND the wrong people in a way that will mitigate the incidents of malpractice and impostors within pastoral ministry.
I have come to believe that ordination is sacramental and should not be something that happens between three people who bump into each other in a hallway at a national conference. It should involve the whole church and be a process of discernment through relationship that gives both the candidate and the congregation a sense of “it seemed right to us and to the Holy Spirit” verified by the shared story of the one called and those who will be led.
I’d love to have your comments on the problems or positives that you see about the model that I’ve described here.