A Theology of Ordination

It must be time to talk about ordination.  A (former)  in-care student of mine celebrates her ordination this Sunday, a new person I met with this week is seeking discernment re: her call, and today a good friend of mine said, with goodness in his heart, “… if you wouldn’t mind, could you please write to the people who ordained you and tell them that they were wrong to do so?”. Oof. That one hurt. I have heard that I’m “not (someone’s) idea of a minister” before, so have been considering the process all day and will continue to do so.

I serve on the Committee on Ministry for the local Association (group of churches) in my denomination, so I deal with questions of ordination all the time, and I’m aware that other people bring their ideas to the table about ordination. Here’s mine.

Regarding  “writing to the people who ordained me and tell them that they were wrong to do so”, there’s already a problem.  The blues song “How blue can you get?”, has the line “I gave you seven children and you want to give them back!”. This came to mind as I contemplated. It is as impossible to give back an ordination as it is to give back children because of who gave the gift. The “people who ordained me” can’t have my ordination back because they didn’t actually give it to me. They acknowledged it, they confirmed it, they said it was suitable for parish ministry. That last part could be called back and given back to a Committee on Ministry. They could say, “this minister or that is not fit for the UCC”, or parish ministry, or some other ministry.  That part of ordination we all agree about. Sadly, we have to do that on occasion.

But there is a reality behind the ordination by a church that can’t be given back. Ordination, like every other celebration in the church, is a human manifestation celebrating what God has already done. That is, God ordains a person to ministry. People say that they can see it or not, and it is established in a certain situation by people, but God does the ordaining or God doesn’t.  A person can give up their standing, but they can not give up their ordination to Christian ministry or a Christian life. The kind of ordination I mean here is “the calling by God to a particular Christian life or occupation”. Abraham was ordained to walk, Moses to lead, Mary to give birth, Jesus to be manifest in the world.  But it didn’t end there. I don’t believe God ever stops calling. Once we’ve taken the hook, we’re in. It’s a good hook, mind you, and one I’d take again, but it is a fishing hook nonetheless.

By now you may be wondering what I’m talking about. Let me explain.Nearly every first-generation minister (I can’t speak for preacher’s kids who grow up to be ministers, or for everybody) I know has a call and it goes something like this:

The person is standing around, minding their own business, planning on a certain career — doctor, baseball player, architect, Habitat for Humanity person, secretary, pastor’s wife are among the ones I know– when something weird happens. They notice something, they hear something, someone says something and they think to themselves “That’s odd”.  Moses and the burning bush is an example of this. When he went up the mountain, he was a shepherd and expected to spend his life quietly being a shepherd. Then he saw the burning bush. Now, the burning bush could have, in theory, been there forever, because the text says “it was burning and not consumed”.  And Moses whispered to God, “Hey, over here, Moses!”.  That’s the hook.

God being a God of free will and all, Moses could have said “No” and gone down the mountain again. God would have tried again, or Moses could have gone back or what-have-you and this dance would have gone on. Or Aaron, Moses’ brother could have gone up the mountain and gotten the job, in theory.

Only God knows why this ordination thing happens. Invariably, the next step is “Who, me?”, followed almost immediately by the person’s list of why this is the wrong decision. In Moses’ case, he says, “I’m not so good at speaking. I talk like I have a mouth full of marbles”. In Abraham’s case, it was “How can this be? I’m an old man!”. In Mary’s case, it was How can this be? I’m not married and I am still a virgin”.

In the modern world, it’s “but my mother wanted me to be a doctor”, or “I’m only a woman. My husband wouldn’t understand”, or “I already have a job, thanks. I’m a stockbroker”. In my case, it was “but I’m a little kid from a fairly messed up life and I want to play baseball”.

The ordinand can chalk up this one experience to delusion as “this kind of thing just doesn’t happen” sometimes to anybody, sometimes specifically to them. And sure enough, in this secular, scientific world, it’s not supposed to happen at all. But it did and it does. And the person thinks they’re crazy for awhile.

The person also senses, as George Burns  says, in the movie, “Oh, God!”,  that “it’s like being the 1,000,000th person to cross a bridge. You get chosen”. At least, as far as I can tell because that’s what it’s felt like to me. I have never felt any better than anyone else in God’s eyes. Chosen, yes. Better, no. Special? Sort of — in the sense of “weird” and in the sense of “picked for softball”.

After a while, people get used to, then tired of, the weird things happening and they submit to God’s will/agree to the ordination. Something happens here and throughout this process.  Pastors — forced out pastors, retiring pastor, retired pastors, new pastors, continuing pastors — speak of having a pastoral part of their “identity”. It isn’t just a job, it’s who they are. This comes from relating over and over with God in this dance of ordination. It’s like becoming a husband or wife because of dating them for a while. A person can get divorced, but they can never be “un-married” and they will never be truly “single” again. Or like choosing to be baptized or confirmed. Because God did it, and we agreed, it can never be totally undone.

This doesn’t give them the right to destroy the relationship — whether pastoral or marital. But people who took their vows seriously don’t want to, anyway. In fact, because they are in love with God or spouse or the church, they want to be the best at their role that they can be.  Ordained ministers want to have a spiritual life, want to read and understand the Bible, want to help people and they go about doing that the best way they know how. In my case, and in many others, ordained (by God) people ask their denomination how to become ordained by the church.  They ask, “How did others do this?” and they set about to do it. Most of us, myself included, go to seminary and study whatever the best minds out there think.  What we consider “the best minds out there” determines where we go. A liberal Christian goes to a liberal seminary. A more conservative one goes to a conservative seminary or a Bible college.

Seminary and, I assume, Bible college is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. Seminary, like the first years of marriage, is hard work and a period of adjustment. It, too, is a dance.  Frankly, I wanted to get off the dance floor numerous times in seminary, but I couldn’t. God wouldn’t let me. People would show up from miles away with advice (Gordon) or money (Dan) or support (my field-ed group and Charlie) or some new miracle (Zelia).  My sense of call got hardened and stylized and worked until it got to where it was as I approached ordination by the church.

Crossing the finish line into ordained (by the church) ministry was difficult for me in ways that I don’t think it was for others, but it was complicated by the fact that I already had a new identity as “ordained” and I couldn’t see why it wasn’t obvious. I’m sure this came across as ego to my Committee, but it wasn’t for me. It was simply acceptance of a fact — a fact that I had fought hard against.  My recent in-care student, it seems to me, was never in any danger of not being ordained by her Committee, but I don’t think it was a “fact” to her yet as she went through the process.  She will be a great minister to any parish she serves. My other ministry person will do the same, once she figures out what exactly God has hidden within her that the world needs.  And if a parish doesn’t see that in her, she will have to do what I do —  go back to God in prayer or in whatever way she and God connect. She will know, as I do, that she is loved by God once again, and her perspective will return.

At most people’s ordination (or licensure), God doesn’t swoop down like a bird or a wind and suddenly the person is wise and holy. Sometimes, I suppose, special gifts are given, but mostly it feels like you’re home — at home in your new identity — the identity that has been forged since God ordained you years ago.  Has the ordained person become “holy”?  Yes, perhaps, but only because God lives inside them. When the Spirit leaves in The End, the ordained person is just the same as anybody else.  What makes them more holy, if that happens, is that they welcome the Spirit of God into their lives and into their Selves.  Remember, ordination is a choice and the depth of that relationship is a choice, as well.

So, to my friend who asked me to give back my ordination — I can’t. I’ve tried at various times along the way and it doesn’t work. Now I accept it so much I don’t want it to work and I refuse to give it up. Moses wasn’t always popular or understood. Abraham, Isaac, any number of prophets along the way, Mary, John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, yes, even Jesus were ordained and disliked. You can now add me to the list even though I’m not any of them and can’t hold a candle to Jesus. You can probably add every ordained or licensed pastor at one time or another. But, like them, and like Martin Luther (Protestant Reformer) “Here I stand. I can do no other”.

My ordination — to preach and teach, heal and bring good things or justice to the world — with or without the sacraments — calls me, nudges me, drives me nuts until I write, to preach, teach, care, and say something worth saying. I hate to seem block-headed to anyone, but I won’t give it up. And I hope my ordained and licensed friends won’t either.

Peace,

John

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10 thoughts on “A Theology of Ordination

  1. “My ordination — to preach and teach, heal and bring good things or justice to the world — with or without the sacraments — calls me, nudges me, drives me nuts until I write, to preach, teach, care, and say something worth saying. I hate to seem block-headed to anyone, but I won’t give it up. And I hope my ordained and licensed friends won’t either.”

    *deep, shaky breath* Ohhh, yeah. Thee speaks to my condition.

    • Stasa: I have friends who are Quaker, friends who are Pagan, friends who are both. All of them are –as I said, friends (and really cool, spiritual people). While the Pagan thing isn’t my cup of tea, the Quaker part calls to me frequently in my spiritual life. I am curious, though, since you wrote. What does a Pagan ordination service look like and is you “ordination” process like the one I described? I’d love to hear. Thanks for reading — and writing!

      Peace,

      John

      • Hi, John!

        I am working on a blog post prompted by yours, and I hope to explore some of the questions you ask more fully, talking about some of my experience. (Actually, I should be writing a talk I’m supposed to give next weekend about Feminist Witchcraft, instead of thinking about a blog post, but… this is being much more insistent! Sounds familiar, I bet.)

        “What does a Pagan ordination service look like and is you “ordination” process like the one I described?”

        Gosh, how to answer that. And how to answer that in a comment!

        What does a Pagan ordination service “look” like? It depends on the Tradition. “Pagan” is a hugely broad umbrella term, much broader than “Christian.” I can speak most intelligently about initiation rituals within Witchcraft and Wicca, which then have many further Traditions under their umbrellas. Kind of like “Abrahamic” is a really big umbrella, and “Christian” is a smaller big umbrella.

        A lot of us would say that there’s not a complete distinction between laity and clergy; that while some of us are called to certain kinds of ministry or to certain kinds of work, all of us are responsible for group worship — our rituals are not spectator events. Much like Quaker Meeting for Worship, in that way.

        So in many traditions, there will be an initiation of some sort when someone becomes a member of a Coven, Circle, whatever the group is called in that particular Tradition. Some Traditions will consider that one’s initiation as clergy; some will have a separate initiation as clergy, or for different levels of clergy as the initiate completes different levels of study.

        These almost always have the same basic framework as any other ritual in the Tradition, but the part in the middle will be different. In many, that part will be formally bringing the person to the attention of the Goddess and/or God, or the Goddesses and the Gods, and/or Powers, and might also include promises, vows, agreements to abide by codes of ethics, acknowledgment of spiritual gifts, some sort of test of knowledge of the person being presented. There might be some symbolic transformation of the person, some kind of rebirth, some kind of challenge to overcome. In many, the initiation includes affirmation by those present of the person’s new… status isn’t quite the right word, because it’s not an outward thing. Using Quaker words, it’s an inward grace, so there’s an outward recognition, affirmation, and celebration by one’s spiritual sisters and brothers of that inward grace.

        And it’s well-understood in the Craft that we can describe what things look like all day and all night long, but still not convey the truth of the experience, because we can’t convey the inward experience. *wry smile*

        Also, a lot of Pagans are pretty private about this, both because we’ve been persecuted and belittled, and also because these are very personal and tender.

        For me, my “ordination” as such was the work of no human being, although confirmed by humans. 🙂 It definitely took a while to grow into it. Maybe I still am.

        It has also been confirmed over the years by the Goddess, by the Goddess embodied by other people, by the Divine Spirit working through other people, by my experience of co-Priestessing with other people… It’s interesting to me that it’s been re-affirmed in both my Quaker and Pagan experience — and in my Pagan experience, both my experience in Feminist Witchcraft, and my experience in Pagan interfaith ministry.

        So while some of what you wrote does not echo my experience — our theaologies, our experiences of the Divine, are very different; seminary for me is not an entry into ministry, but something that’s happening along the way (after 20-odd years of ministry!) and in conjunction with ongoing ministry, and is also being transformative — some of what you wrote, particularly about the absurdity of the idea of giving back my ordination, struck home quite strongly.

        I’ve sometimes had to deal with Friends (in the unprogrammed tradition) who were very, very offended that I hadn’t “given back” being a Priestess. As if I could. It’s not a title I can give back; it’s a state of being. It’s a grace. It’s a verb.

        I think another area of difference that might confuse some folks is that there’s no difference for me between the “ordination” of the Goddess and the “ordination” of the community. While technically there can be for Christian priests — hence remaining a priest in God’s eyes while stripped of credentials — for me as a Priestess & Witch, there’s no split between two kinds of “ordination.”

        So… I don’t know if this helps answer your questions or not. 🙂

      • Stasa:

        Thanks for the post. In many ways, it’s familiar. In many ways, it’s different. If “initiation” is like “baptism”, then it sort of follows that it’s like membership in Christianity — a choice to be a member/a Christian. That’s different (though we believe in the “priesthood of all believers”) than ordination/a call to leadership of some sort. Even unprogrammed Quakers, who don’t believe in a differentiation know that some people are “weighty Quakers” — there is a charisma\spirituality\holiness\quality to them that others don’t quite have. What that means, or implies, about people’s value to what I call God I’m not sure. (Is there a hierarchy? Levels of holiness? If so, what does it mean other than “more responsibility”? Are clergy “set aside”? What does that even mean? I struggle with how to express this sense all the time without being self-serving.) Anyway, thanks for writing…

        Peace,

        John

  2. Ah, but membership in Christianity is still creedal. Membership in many Pagan traditions often is not — Paganism is usually much more experience-based than belief-based. So while initiation might be somewhat similar to baptism, it’s not quite analogous. Interestingly, this is related to how it’s possible to be a non-theist Jew or an atheist Jew; you don’t have to believe in (or have any relationship with, one way or another) Yhwh to be a Jew.

    Oh, “weighty Friends” is a whole ‘nother can of worms…

    And “weighty Friend” is not always synonymous with “minister.” Sometimes, the Friends with the most experience with Quaker process are the weightiest; or the Friends with the most patience or insight in Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business.

    Different unprogrammed Meetings deal with calls to ministry in very different ways. Some deal with it differently at different times in the life of a Meeting. And it can depend on what kind of ministry — short-term, for a specific time-limited concern (travel for a specific event), long-term, broad concern, etc. I’ve been deeply involved in three different Monthly Meetings in three different Yearly Meetings, and each handled it very differently when it came up during the time I was there — and not always consistently. We Friends can argue endlessly over whether empowering a minister to be faithful to a call is establishing elevated or hireling clergy or not. Sometimes we can be horribly hurtful; sometimes we can be deeply supportive and help each other do amazing things. And everywhere in between.

    When my ministry did come to be under the care of my Meeting, it was such an amazing and blessed experience. Somewhat unusually, that happened before I was led to seek membership in my Meeting. It’s been far from perfect, but it has enabled me to do things I could not have otherwise done — has helped me be faithful in ways I could not have otherwise. It’s powerful, frustrating sometimes, and deeply transformative. For both me and the Meeting.

    Also, the process for recognizing and recording ministers in other Quaker traditions is very different than in the unprogrammed Quaker tradition. At the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference this summer, I went to a talk that described a process that sounds much more similar to the process for grooming ministers in most evangelical traditions than it does to that in most Quaker Meetings.

    I, too, struggle to write about this ministry stuff, and about classism and financial support of it, without sounding self-serving or… struggling for another word here…

    Thanks, John!

    Blessings,
    Stasa

    • Stasa:

      Once again, my knowledge/understanding of Quakerism (unprogrammed) almost sort of gets it right! I don’t get the whole “Jewish without belief” thing at all. And pagan “experiences” without creed prior to membership, how do you know what you’re joining? How does the “church” (is that the right word?) know what it’s getting? Is safety an issue?

      I’m glad to know I’m not the only one struggling with words! Sometimes there just aren’t any yet.

      Also, while I like it, I never expected this particular blog to become an interfaith discussion, but the last few theology ones seem to be. Who knew?

      Peace,

      John

  3. I really loved reading your blog. It was very well authored and easy to undertand. Unlike additional blogs I have read which are really not tht good. I also found your entries very interesting. In fact after reading, I had to go show it to my friend and he ejoyed it as well!

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