A planned report by the commission studying ministry in the United Methodist Church aims to bring clarity to issues surrounding the theology of ordination.
The commission also intends to clear up confusion about sacramental authority and conference membership.
"Hopefully, the report will help us come to agreement on issues we need to bring to the table ordination and conference membership. A theological and ecclesiological understanding of these will lead the commission in its decision making," said the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, a staff member at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and a member of the Study of Ministry Commission.
The commission expects to have a first draft of the report this summer from its consultant, the Rev. Thomas E. Frank, professor of religious leadership and administration and director of Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Atlanta. The draft will incorporate issues identified during a three-day meeting April 27-29, as well as comments continuing to come in from the focus groups and survey results.
In addition to ordination, sacramental authority and conference membership, the commission identified four other issues to address: recruitment of people in the under-35 category of non-itinerant elders who might be appointed; lifelong learning requirements and a shorter probationary period; educational requirements for conference membership; and licensing deacons for pastoral ministry.
The 2004 General Conference established the commission because of the questions and concerns regarding the two ordained clergy orders — deacons and elders — and local pastors. Both the 2000 and 2004 General Conferences received a large number of petitions related to certified lay ministers, local pastors, deacons and elders. The Study of Ministry Commission was established to "theologically discuss and clearly define the ordering of our shared life together in the United Methodist Church."
Bishop William H. Willimon, who chairs the commission, expressed concern about the increasing number of restrictions in the denomination's Book of Discipline regarding qualifications for ministry.
"I've been increasingly concerned about the tendency of General Conferences in the last few decades to intrude themselves into the examination and credentialing of our clergy. I believe that we have to leave maximum flexibility for the annual conferences to perform their historic role of forming the ministry in the light of their specific needs," said Willimon, bishop of the denomination's North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference.
Moman said the commission also created a timeline that calls for a final draft of the report to be presented to board's elected directors in March. The board will consider changes, as well as possible legislation for the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. An online survey and focus group discussions about the ordering of ministry are still under way. So far, about 1,100 people have responded to the survey, which can be accessed at www.gbhem.org.
The Rev. Grant Hagiya said the commission needs to explain the theological foundation behind current practices. He is superintendent of the Los Angeles District of the California-Pacific Annual Conference and a member of the ministry study commission.
"We think the church is confused because it's not presented to them in a way that's a practical understanding. If we can do that, we can provide a great service to the church," he said.
"We have a dual ecclesiology, Catholic in that we have bishops and elders, but Protestant in that we have deacons and local pastors," he said. "There's a healthy tension about this, but it also points to the practical ways we need to deal with polity."
*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].