Ordination of United Methodist elders and deacons would be faster and training of licensed local pastors more rigorous under proposals by the 2013-2016 Ministry Study Commission.
The commission’s just-released report is notable for issues it doesn’t address, namely security of appointment for ordained elders.
And the report offers observations on challenges facing The United Methodist Church, stating that the denomination must respond to a rapidly changing culture while staying grounded in Wesleyan theology and practices.
“We want to ride that tension between those two — to adapt to the new complexities of our world, while still retaining historical stances,” said Bishop Grant Hagiya, commission chair and bishop of the Greater Northwest Area.
Ministry study commissions consist of bishops, other clergy and laity, and are a creation of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body.
The 2012 General Conference challenged the current commission to tackle a range of issues, including the “nature and grounding of the elder” and education for local pastors, a growing force in the denomination.
Some of the commission’s recommendations will be introduced as legislation at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, while others are offered more generally.
Hagiya predicted that the proposal known as “early ordination” — the commission calls it “reshaping the ordination process” — would be the most controversial.
Currently, those who have met the educational requirements to be ordained as an elder or deacon must serve as a provisional member of their annual conference for at least two years. They are ordained during the annual conference session at which they are elected to full membership.
The commission proposes ordination occurring on the front end, when the candidate is elected to provisional membership.
Hagiya said he had heard from seminary students who were reluctant to pursue ministry in The United Methodist Church because of how long it takes to be ordained.
“We’re losing candidates,” Hagiya said. “We felt if we allowed for early ordination it would encourage younger people to stay in our system.”
Provisional members can administer the sacraments and officiate at weddings and funerals, but they want the status of ordination and denying it adds to confusion about what ordination really means in The United Methodist Church, he added.
“You can do everything and yet you’re not ordained,” Hagiya sad. “That’s our theological dilemma.”
But the previous ministry study commission proposed early ordination, only to see it defeated in committee at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida.
Hagiya acknowledged that annual conference boards of ordained ministry have concerns, including about what happens when someone is ordained and then doesn’t get elected to full membership.
“If a candidate is ordained and then does not make full membership, the ordination is not valid in our United Methodist understanding anymore,” Hagiya said.
He added that annual conferences would retain some leeway.
“They could make a kind of ruling locally for their annual conference that would allow them to have more time to examine candidates,” Hagiya said.
The Rev. Jan Davis, who chairs the North Texas Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and will be a 2016 General Conference delegate, has read the commission’s report and favors the ordination proposal.
“I support this legislation because it aligns our theology of ordination and the Wesleyan tradition with the practice of ministry and administration of the sacraments,” Davis said.
But she added the challenge will be for boards of ordained ministry “to get their heads around a new system and understand the implications.”
Academic credit for Course of Study
The commission’s report touches on a number of issues affecting licensed local pastors, including calling for strengthening the Course of Study that they undergo and the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry oversees.
This commission did not specify how the 20-course program should be bolstered.
“We are really saying we need an educated clergy and local pastors need to be held to a standard that is higher than it is now in terms of its requirements,” Hagiya said.
The commission does specifically propose eliminating one of the requirements for local pastors who want to apply for provisional membership and get on the track to becoming an ordained elder. They would no longer have to be at least age 40.
And the commission called for authorizing Higher Education and Ministry to partner with United Methodist-related colleges to develop an undergraduate degree program that would also meet the Course of Study requirements.
Such a program, giving academic credit for Course of Study, “would increase educational access and provide well-rounded liberal arts and theological education for local pastors” the report says. The ministry agency is putting forward legislation for this initiative.
The Rev. J. Cameron West, a United Methodist elder and president of Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, favors the idea. He said Huntingdon, a United Methodist-related school, has stressed pre-ministerial education.
“We’re already aligned in a way to help the denomination achieve this goal,” he said. “We might have to add a preaching class.”
But West noted that some United Methodist colleges are not, in their religion or religious study courses, focused on preparing students for seminary and would have a harder time.
The commission’s report calls for removing from the Book of Discipline, the denomination law book, references to Course of Study as a “five-year” program. That change would create more flexibility for those pursuing Course of Study, the commission says.
Deacons should have more flexibility to preside at the celebration of the sacraments and all clergy would get more ongoing “formation,” through mentoring and covenant groups, the commission proposes.
The last ministry commission called for ending security of appointment, often referred to as guaranteed appointment, as a way of replacing ineffective elders, and the 2012 General Conference agreed. But the denomination’s Judicial Council ruled that the legislation violated the church’s constitution.
This commission does not view security of appointment as “helpful,” Hagiya said, but chose not to make a proposal.
“As we looked at it again, their ruling did not leave a lot of leeway,” Hagiya said.
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org