I’m happy and relieved to tell everyone who will listen that I was approved this week to be an “elder in full connection” in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. This means that at Annual Conference in Athens in June, the bishop will ordain me. I will receive a stole over my robe, a sign of being fully ordained. (When I’m in a traditional service, I can wear stoles now!)
This good news was a bit confusing to my mom (who’s Baptist, God bless her), who thought that’s what happened three years ago at Annual Conference in Athens. I tried to explain to her that I was commissioned as a “probationary elder,” the first of a two-step process. I’ve been in residency since then—working as a pastor while continuing to complete work required by the Board of Ordained Ministry.
That’s all over now, as of this past Monday. This residency was a three-year period, but in reality Monday brought to a close a chapter in my life that officially began in 2002, when I was assigned a pastor mentor, Rev. John Barnes, and started the discernment process for pastoral ministry.
Eight years! Most of my thirties!
The Methodists have a two-tier pastor system. You can be a lay pastor—called a “local pastor”—and essentially do all the things ordained pastors do, albeit usually in smaller churches and on a part-time basis. (I worked as a local pastor while I was in seminary.) It gets confusing… as a local pastor, you perform pastoral duties, including the sacraments, not under your own authority but under the authority of the bishop.
Or you can follow the path I described above and be an ordained elder—in which case you perform pastoral duties under your “own” authority (an authority given by God). Something like that.
Being a pastor, whether lay or ordained, is difficult. And God knows it’s a full-time job, whether you get full-time pay or not. The work of being pastor is the same, day in and day out—and I have nothing but respect for local pastors. But getting credentialed as an ordained pastor is much, much harder, longer, and costlier (as I know from experience).
A local pastor asked me just this morning, in all seriousness, “Why bother? What’s the difference?” He asked if I believed that getting ordained does something. Do I believe, in other words, that getting ordained makes some indelible spiritual mark on me and my character?
And my answer is an emphatic “no.” I’m not Catholic. Ordination is lower-case-“s” sacramental, but it is not a Sacrament. I do not believe I’m changed by virtue of the bishop’s laying hands on me. This is a contributing factor in the Roman Catholic Church’s historical reluctance to remove abusive priests from the ministry. If you really believe that clergy receive an indelible spiritual imprint on their souls by virtue of ordination, how easily do you undo that? How readily do you confess that this ordination didn’t take?
No, I will not be changed by virtue of being ordained in June. But as I told my local pastor acquaintance this morning, the Holy Spirit has changed me—dramatically—through this long, at times very worrisome, soul-searching, and difficult, process of ordination. One question I was asked during my Board interviews on Monday was the following: “How will you respond if the Board tells you today that we don’t think you’re ready and you’ll have to wait another year and try again?”
This is sort of a cliché question that candidates are supposed to be prepared for. I suppose if you don’t know it’s coming, it could be stressful: “Are you saying I won’t be approved?!” Regardless, it’s a question that ought to be answered with a great deal of tact—diplomacy might be one word for it… There are blunter words, as you can imagine.
So I was prepared for the question and had even rehearsed an answer. I began by saying something like, “Of course I would be very disappointed, blah-blah-blah, but I would view it as an opportunity for growth as a pastor, blah-blah-blah…” But then something took hold of me. I said, with a passion that surprised myself, “But I’m not going anywhere! God has called me to do this. Nothing changes that. I’m going to do this one way or another.”
In that moment I never felt more convicted about anything.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And he said, “Here am I; send me!”†
So here I am.
† Isaiah 6:8