Thursday, January 23, 2014

Is the UM Ordination Process Too Arbitrary?

I’m an ordained elder in the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. My path to become ordained, however, was more difficult than it should have been. When I say this, I know that I echo the sentiments of many people who have gone through the ordination process in the UMC, whether they are seeking ordination as a deacon or an elder. 

To be clear, I am not saying that ordination should be easy. Our standards for ordination should be high. I believe that the Church is the most important institution in the world, and the standards for ordained leadership in the Church should be commensurate with the importance of the Church. I am saying, however, that ordination should not be unnecessarily difficult.

When I was coming up through “the process” (please note: this was not in the West Ohio Conference) I was often told that I was “too intellectual” or some such thing.

Too intellectual? I was planning on a career as an academic.

Why, then, they would ask, do you want or need to be ordained?

This question always struck me as bizarre for two reasons. First, I was called to ordination. This sense of call was and is very clear to me. The fact that I didn’t articulate it in the same terms as the members of my District Committee, however, seemed to be problematic. Was I not emotive enough? Did I need to start crying? Did I not use the right code words? In retrospect, I realize that certain members of the committee had a set of informal and unstated criteria that they were using to assess my readiness for ordination. The problem was that the criteria were stated nowhere in the Discipline or in the candidacy materials that I had been given. The criteria were arbitrary.

Second, I could never figure out why so many of the people interviewing me saw congregational pastoral ministry as the only appropriate route for an elder. (My comments here will relate to the office of elder, since that’s where my experience lies, though this is in no way to diminish the significance of the order of deacon.) The Discipline allows for extension ministries. Ostensibly, the UMC values these ministries. I was also puzzled, however, by the idea that we would want to take actions that would reduce the number of ordained elders in our colleges, universities, and seminaries. If the sacraments are means of grace, wouldn’t it be important to make these readily available to students in our UM institutions of higher learning? Don’t we want professors who care deeply about the church, the salvation of human beings, and the cultivation of holiness? What I was proposing to do was clearly within the boundaries of UM polity, but again the people interviewing me were utilizing informal and unstated criteria to make decisions about my readiness for ordination.

 As I went before the Board of Ordained Ministry (also not in West Ohio—hey, I have to protect the innocent), I went to the committee that was to examine my theology and doctrine. One member of the interview team asked me, “You said in your paperwork that the Nicene Creed is the most important creed.” He looked at me with the suspicious glare of a detective questioning a suspect. “Who gets to decide what the most important creed is?” Another member of the committee began to nod in approval. “Yeah,” she said. “Who gets to decide that?”

Honestly, the question left me beyond puzzled. In terms of its historical importance, its formative effect upon later doctrine, its liturgical usage, its catechetical significance, the Nicene Creed is in a class by itself. So I asked—and I promise that it was an honest question—“What are the other options?”

“We’re the ones asking the questions here,” my interlocutor replied.

Oh. Ok. I get it.

Finally, I did make it through the process, and I have dedicated my vocation to serving the Church through a ministry of theological education. There were several times, though, when the process was so discouraging that I almost quit. Had it not been for a deep sense of calling, I’m sure that I would have. Make no mistake: there were very supportive people along the way. I owe a great debt to them. The process itself, though, was deeply problematic.

Since my ordination I have served on the District Committee for the Miami Valley District of the West Ohio Conference, as well as the West Ohio Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. I’ve reflected a great deal on the ordination process and the proper work of committees and boards who have oversight of the process. I have much more to say about this matter, but there is one item that I want to highlight in this post: the biggest problem with our ordination process is that it is not undergirded by a clear theology of ordination.

Begin with ¶ 301 in the Discipline. There is considerable discussion of what the ordained should do. There is little or no discussion of what ordination is. How can we have a fair process of ordination when we have no agreed upon theological understanding of what our bishops are doing when they ordain? It’s no wonder that our process is given to arbitrary criteria that can vary from conference to conference, team to team. As a church, we need to get clearer about what ordination is.

This would help us with another problem as well: clergy burnout. As a seminary professor and dean, one of the most common problems I see among my students is that they don’t know what the parameters of their jobs are. Too often, young pastors think that their job is everything. It isn’t. The primary role of a pastor is to bring people into relationship with God, to bring the Holy into the ordinary lives of women and men. Without without a clear sense of the ministry into which they are ordained, pastors will be much more prone to leave the ministry.

I’m currently heading up a team for my annual conference to review our candidacy and interview process. I know many of you reading this blog will have strong opinions about the ordination process. If you do, let me know what you think is working and what isn’t. Please help me to think constructively about this matter. I consider the work of this team to be very important, and I would very much appreciate any insights you may have to offer.

45 comments:

  1. Thank you, Dean Watson. I have likened my experience of seeking candidacy to flying a plane solo, blindfolded, with no map, and my hands tied behind my back. Here in Kansas they are working to improve the process and help those seeking to be in ministry, and I am confident that those in charge will find a better way. However, you are correct: each conference/district experience can be different, and difficult to navigate. And we wonder why we have a shortage of young people in ministry....

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    1. Well, it certainly would make sense that, if we want to attract young clergy, we would not present them with an overly cumbersome process. I guess the question is how we manage a responsible process without making it too burdensome.

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  2. David,

    You're correct the Discipline has no clear theology of ordination. But I would suggest the Ordinal does, both in its introductory matter and the rites proper. I'd encourage you and candidates to use it as a theological resource, specifically noting how the questions and vows of ordination or consecration function as specifications of the ways deacons, elders and bishops are to luve out the baptismal covenant among us.

    Here is the current ordinal:http://www.gbod.org/lead-your-church/ordination2/resource/services-for-the-ordering-of-ministry-in-the-united-methodist-church-2013-2

    Peace,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

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    1. Thank you, Taylor! Lex orandi lex credendi.

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  3. I've changed conferences recently (and am in the process currently) and I have appreciated that in my new conference the members of the board that will be interviewing me also speak with the PPR, my senior pastor, and a few other people; my previous conference required written recommendations from people in that conference, even though I was working in a different conference - there was no conversation with the people who know me best. Just one of the thoughts along this journey...

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    1. Sounds like you've made a good move. Here's hoping it continues along the same track.

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    2. Thanks!
      It certainly wasn't the only reason I changed conferences (it makes sense to be a part of the conference where I work...) but I am very happy to be in my new conference.

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  4. I was privileged to be a part of the Ministry and Higher Ed legislative committee at GC 2012. Considering the legislation about "early ordination" (at provisional, not full membership) made me dig into the theology of ordination and ask questions that I never had before. I was shocked to realize I had made it through seminary, my own BOM process and 10 years of ministry without having answered some fundamental questions and that I needed a much clear articulation of my own ordination! In the denomination with such a vacuum we really have many, many different understandings that we act on without clear conversation.

    How about in the next post you take a crack at a United Methodist theology of ordination?

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    1. Um... I will get to that post, I promise. But I am going to have to clarify my thinking on this matter before I feel comfortable putting something out into the blogosphere.

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  5. I'm a commissioned elder and hope the BoOM is called to recommend ordination in a few years. I definitely found a lot of push back at the district level. I hope to help plant new communities of people following Jesus Christ within our denomination. My committee thought I needed to spend a lot more time cultivating the shepherding gifts seemingly unimpressed by the apostolic or evangelistic. (This isn't a pipe dream; I have a track record!) Other folks told me afterwards that none on the committee had planted a church so of course they didn't understand you. Starting new vs serving long established requires a very different mindset. The impulse of several on the committee seemed to be "we need to make him more like us."

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    1. It can be really hard to chart a new path, John. I wish you blessings in this endeavor.

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  6. At the risk of offending: one of the things that has bothered me the most about seminary professors and ordained college professors with extension ministry appointments is to discover just how many of them have no regular participation in a local UM church. I'm not talking working as an assistant pastor, but simply being a regular worshiper, active in (or even available to) an adult Sunday School class, or being available to help with the sacraments or to fill in if the pastor become ill.

    I don't think it is unreasonable to ask that all who are ordained in the UMC (unless retired and no longer physically or mentally able so to participate) have not only a charge conference relationship, but can show some level of regular or even semi-regular participation in a local UMC church.

    Particularly, I have wondered if it would be reasonable to expect that UM clergy who teach in one of the UM seminaries approved by the University Senate have to provide their Dean with a certificate from the the pastor of the local church in which they participate, attesting to their regular participation. If we expect ordained clergy to train our incoming clergy, (whom we demand have regular participation in a local church), is it not unreasonable to ask that those to do the training have the same sort of requirement.

    Perhaps I am jaded by recalling the late L. Harold DeWolf, who believed that if he could not make the Gospel relevant to children, he had no business teaching it in a seminary. For years, he was a regular teacher in the Kindergarten Sunday School class at the church which he attended. Bravo for him!

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    1. Tom, I would simply say that, in my experience, the vast majority of UM elders who are professors (and the profs I know who are in other denominations) are already doing the things you suggest. Elders in extension ministries are required to relate to a charge conference and submit a report each year. What the D.S.'s and bishops do with those is another question altogether.
      Alex Tracy

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    2. I do agree that ordained professors should have a close relationship with a local congregation. I don't know how things are elsewhere, but in my context (United) it is normal and expected for our faculty to be a part of a church.

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  7. David,
    When I was looking towards doctoral studies I ran into the exact kind of conversations you name in my DCOM. It's as if anyone who feels called to be an elder is only allowed, while undertaking the Process, to say they are called to be parish pastors. Anyone who cannot or will not say they will be appointed wherever as a pastor should thus be a deacon. My friends, this should not be. My own, more general thoughts on the Process are listed below (I was just ordained in June myself). Thanks for your thoughts. http://pastormack.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/cumbersome-by-design-thoughts-on-the-process/

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    1. Really good post, Drew. Thanks for sharing it.

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  8. Your experience touches a raw nerve for me, so I'll simply say that yours is not an isolated experience. Thankfully, there are boards of ordained ministry outside the USA with broader views on what it means to be a pastor.
    Rev. Taylor Denyer
    Elder, The UMC's North Katanga Conference

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    1. Wow. Never thought about how this might work outside the USA. I am glad you've found a supportive conference that recognizes your gifts.

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  9. David,
    I've (so far) had an encouraging, meaningful journey along this process. I went from inquiring as a candidate to commissioning in the order of elder in 4 years (that included seminary), and, from what I've gathered from colleagues, that is remarkably quick. Part of why I believe I've fared so well (while being surrounded by others' horror stories about the process) is because I've been very clear about my call to local church ministry; I know that is where God has given me gifts and graces. I could tell that was what my dCOM and BOOM were looking for - an articulation of a local church ministry call, NOT to an extension ministry or to higher education. To me, that is a betrayal of Wesley's vision of the world as the parish.

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    1. Evan, not sure what you're trying to get across in your last sentence. Can you say a little more about this?

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    2. Hi David. What I mean is to try to limit ordination to those called to local church ministry ONLY and not freely extending that to those who are called to extension ministries, theological education, etc, is, in my opinion, to betray John Wesley's understanding of the world as the parish.

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    3. Thanks for clarifying, Evan. Makes a lot of sense and I certainly agree with you.

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  10. Nailed it. We really don't know - theologically - what we're doing when we ordain someone.

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    1. Well, I think that's the heart of the matter. More clarity on this issue would help a great deal.

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  11. Here's my long-form response.

    http://williedeuel.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/the-united-methodist-ordination-process-picking-at-old-wounds/

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Willie. I am sorry your experience was so difficult. That sounds really, really bad. I hope your post-ordination experience is going better.

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    2. My post-ordination experience has been much better. I would love to serve on the BoOM to help make necessary changes, but my friends on the "inside" also tell me how frustrating it is.

      Someday we will put people ahead of processes. I hope.

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  12. As a person who has served on BOOM in my conference (not Ohio), I can tell you that one of the "informal" criteria we consider is this: a bishop can appoint you ANYWHERE in his episcopal area. You might *want* to be a seminary professor. But you might end up appointed to a rural congregation. That's just the reality of itineracy in the UMC. So, one of the thoughts going on in the back of our heads is, "can this person serve effectively wherever the bishop might send him/her?" Yes, this often means well-rounded individuals with gifts in many areas: intellectual, pastoral, administrative, theological, and more. Yes, you are right there often isn't black-and-white criteria for ordination. There shouldn't be. Ordination isn't about checking off all the right boxes. In that, it is very unlike seminary where the goal is to get an 'A' in class. It is, as you state, about calling and gifting. And the process necessarily involves wisdom, prayer and discernment--a lot more grey than black-and-white. But our conference really does try hard to be clear on what we think are a candidate's gifts and growing edges and where they might need to spend some extra effort as the process moves. I do think that our conference could/ought to do more to support that "in between" the interviews.

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    1. Thank you for this response, Ulysses. You make some very good points. I'm glad to hear that your conference puts so much effort into the discernment process.

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    2. If in your Conference, "ordination isn't about checking off all the right boxes," then your Conference is the exception, not the rule.

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  13. Thanks for this article. I've been discerning my entry into the process, and have often been told that there are a certain answers I have to give to be accepted into/to be successful in the process. In other words, I may find myself stretching the truth in order to live out God's call for my life. I personally feel one usually doesn't have to do something wrong (i.e., fib) to do God's will. I understand a need for uniformity of belief, in a way, but this seems to eliminate the space for free thought and progress and newness. If the UMC keeps squelching its powerful thinkers, it will lose in the long run.

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    1. I certainly hope that we don't create a scenario in which people will feel the need to be dishonest. I would encourage honesty and transparency among candidates. There is, however, a question of whether one's own theological convictions cohere with the UMC's doctrinal framework. This is actually a very important matter, and I would also hope that candidates would ask themselves this question before coming before the board.

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  14. I enjoyed your comments and learned quite a bit. I came up through a different route as a Local Licensed Pastor. After completing Course of Study I chose NOT to pursue ordination, as it would have required 4 or 5 years of Advanced Course of Study and 2 to 3 years as provisional elder. Instead, I chose to apply to be an Associate Member of the Conference (Minnesota). I serve as an itinerant pastor, am guaranteed appointments, and receive the same salary and benefits as elders with some minor restrictions that don't mean much to me, like not being able to be a delegate to General Conference. I did most of the work provisional elders did without too much oversight by BOOM and one day of interviews by them. The entire process took 9 months from the time I applied to the Annual Conference that made me an AM. Perhaps the ordination process should be more like my Associate Membership process. Just my thought.

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    1. Thanks for your insights, Pastor Gary. I'm really glad you've found a path in ministry that is a good fit for you.

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  15. I am not a member of the clergy but I am an engineer and land surveyor. I did serve as the district lay leader for 7 years and served on the DCOM for 7 years. I also preach at a small church on the 1st and 3rd Sundays each month. I have taught engineering and surveying course at the local university. One of the main problems with the clergy, as well as the engineering and surveying professions, is trying to determine is someone is qualified by educational requirements, testing, and interviews. Just because someone has the courses required, can pass the tests, and can answer the right questions does not mean they will be a good pastor, engineer, surveyor, doctor, lawyer, etc. I have seen many local pastors who do a much better job than some ordained elders. Sometimes I wonder if some of our professional requirements are to protect the public or to protect ourselves. BTW David, my grandfather was a pastor in the West Ohio Conference.

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    1. Bob, thanks for your comments. I think there should be some clear criteria that serve as gateway requirements, but I basically agree with what you're saying. Discernment is not a hard science.

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  16. If you are called to teach and not lead a congregation, why not be ordained a deacon?

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    1. Well, one reason would be that a local congregation is not the only place in which we need sacramental authority.

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  17. Another would be elders are charged with ordering the life of the whole church. That ordering role is also not limited to what happens in local congregations. It involves a commitment (and also the training and ongoing accountability) to a common good that at once transcends and makes possible the more local good a congregation, or a campus ministry, or even something as specific as a Covenant Discipleship Group may pursue.

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  18. David, I too recently completed the path to Full Elder and was ordained at Annual Conference in June 2013. I often laugh at how we say we want to attract "younger clergy" when "the process" for me, took nearly ten years (and in our conference, I am not atypical). Worse, because I was serving in a student pastorate while attending seminary, nearly all of those ten years were spent in pulpit ministry. I often attribute my ability to stay the course and press on through the process to the ten years I spent in the Army Reserve. There we called it "playing the game" when we simply had to follow "the rules" from point 'A' to point 'B' so that we could accomplish what we had set out to do.

    The most distressing part was not the process, or the delays, or the assignments, or the various time requirements, but the number of quality people that I met along the way in seminary and elsewhere who were clearly called to ministry, but who, for various reasons, dropped out (or were tossed out) of the process and ended up as ordained pastors in other denominations (some of them *years* ahead of me).

    One was called to youth ministry, but knowing that Elders will quickly be "promoted" away from youth, dropped out of the process even though seminary trained and had advanced through to provisional membership. Another felt clearly called to urban ministry, but despite many urban pastorates, was repeatedly appointed to rural congregations. He left when another denomination offered him an urban apprenticeship. Still another, near retirement, spent ten years (or more) taking seminary classes one or two at a time but never applied for ordination because she knew that in her conference (not mine) an ordained pastor would be moved away from the small rural churches she felt called to serve. A close friend left because his conference (again not mine) demanded personal financial information. Because he was a family member, and thus part owner, of a family construction business, he was not at liberty to reveal all of his holdings, but was willing to have his accountant produce documents declaring that he was not in debt, etc. That wasn't good enough for someone, and so now he, and his wife, are ordained Baptist ministers. And yet another friend advanced to provisional membership, grew his church, was beloved by his congregation, his SPR committee sang his praises to the BoOM, but was discontinued. I did not hear the official reason, but the rumors (from mutual friends) were that his writings were not "sufficiently academic." Perhaps the reverse of your problem. I know that our BoOm is filled with wonderful and faithful people, many of whom are my friends, but I fear that the process is deeply flawed in a variety of ways. I know that we must be discerning, but I fear that we are driving off many of those we so desperately want to retain.

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    1. Wow, John. Thanks for posting this. I hate to hear of all these good people leaving the UMC. We really need an overhaul of our process.

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  19. There are almost as many experiences as there are candidates (or conferences). As one who works at the conference level overseeing candidacy, it's a daunting responsibility. Anyone can claim to be "called". Our task is to determine if the call they've experienced is in line with who we are as United Methodists. And therein lies the problem. We are not "united" in what we believe, or how we interpret Scripture and doctrine.

    As for the meaning of "ordination", a primary piece of that for me is accountability. I intentionally placed myself in a position where my call is no longer just between "me and God",but includes being held accountable by the leadership and peers of the denomination, structure, institution, etc. wherein I have chosen to live out my call. For me, it is the United Methodist Church.

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    1. Thanks for your reply, Sandy. I agree with you: once you are ordained, it is no longer just between you and God.

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  20. THE PASTOR BY STEVE FINNELL
    Was there ever and office of, The Pastor, approved of or mentioned in New Testament Scripture? No, there was not. There was no single pastor appointed as the authority over any local church congregation.

    The word pastor is mention one time. (Ephesians 4:11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, (NKJV)
    Ephesians 4:11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, (ESV)

    Pastors were shepherds. Bishops, elders, and overseers are one and the same; and they were the pastors or shepherds.

    1 Timothy 3:2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; (NKJV)
    1 Timothy 3:2 So an elder must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. (New Living Bible)
    1 Timothy 3:2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, (New International Version)

    Titus 1:5-7....appoint elders in every city....7 For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, (NKJV)
    Titus 1:7 Since an overseer manages God's households, he must be blameless--not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.(NIV)
    Titus 1:7 An elder is a manager of God's household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money. (NLT)

    Acts 20:17,28 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. 28 "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. (NKJV)
    Acts 20:28 Pay attention to yourselves and to the entire flock in which the Holy Spirit has placed you as bishops to be shepherdsfor God's church which he acquired with his own blood. (God's Word-Translation)

    Notice that the apostle Paul called for the elders (plural), he did call for The Pastor (singular).


    Acts 14:23 So when they had appointed elders in every church,and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

    The apostle Paul and Barnabas appointed elders (plural) in every church congregation. They did not appoint a pastor (singular) in every church congregation.

    Elders, bishops, and overseers are the same office and their responsibilities were to pastor or shepherd the individual church congregations.

    THERE WAS NO SINGLE PASTOR WHO HAD AUTHORITY OVER A INDIVIDUAL CHURCH CONGREGATION.

    Men today like to called Reverend Pastor.
    Reverend means awesome. So they want you to refer to them as Awesome Pastor.

    Psalms 111:9 He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name. (KJV)

    The Lord has earned the right to be called reverend (awesome).
    Is there any man that has earned the right to be called Reverend (awesome) Pastor?

    THE NEW TESTAMENT SCRIPTURES ONLY MENTION A PLURALITY OF ELDERS IN CHURCH CONGREGATIONS.

    MEN HAVE INVENTED THE REVEREND PASTOR (SINGULAR) AND HAVE PLACE HIM IN AUTHORITY IN LOCAL CHURCH CONGREGATIONS.



    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY BLOG. http//:steve-finnell.blogspot.com

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  21. Hi!

    I'm currently in the candidacy process (elder track) and am attempting to navigate a system that seems skeptical of my call to academic ministry (currently NT PhD student, Emory). Most conversations I have had with the powers that be have either a) attempted to convince me to be a deacon or b) argued that I need to be in full time parish ministry for several years in order to be taken seriously (currently, I'm trying to balance part-time church work with my academic work. Most days it works. But full-time would clearly be impossible).

    I really appreciated your thoughts here as they have helped me to better articulate some of my frustrations and gave me some alternative ways to describe the importance of sacramental authority in extension ministries. Do you have any other advice for a young academic trying to follow her call within the United Methodist Church?

    Thanks!

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