The ‘local elder’ option

Elders and deacons are ordained in The United Methodist Church, while local pastors are licensed.

But local pastors can, within their parishes, administer the sacraments and officiate at weddings and funerals — tasks many other denominations reserve for the ordained.

Some say The United Methodist Church’s approach confuses other denominations, causing strains in ecumenical relations, and can even baffle United Methodists trying to figure out what ordination means.

“We don’t need to be putting people in churches to perform ministerial functions without the benefit of ordination,” said the Rev. Sky McCracken, superintendent of the Memphis Conference’s Purchase District.

The Rev. Ted Campbell, professor of church history at Perkins School of Theology, proposed in a 2004 article that the denomination ordain “local elders.”

Campbell noted that early American Methodism had traveling elders — committed to full-time Christian service — and local elders, many of them with secular jobs. Both traveling and local elders were ordained, and local elders could celebrate Holy Communion in their churches.

Campbell also observed that the office of local elder appeared in Methodist Books of Discipline through the 1950s and that the last church law book of the Evangelical United Brethren, which merged with The Methodist Church in 1968 to become The United Methodist Church, included the same office.

The 2013-2016 Commission for the Study of Ministry considered whether to recommend ordination of full-time local elders, but ultimately decided against, said Bishop Grant Hagiya, commission chair.

He said the practical considerations involved in ordaining a large number of local pastors — including questions of accountability and what happens when a local pastor is not re-appointed — seemed “unwieldly.”

Such a move would have implications as well for the central conferences, with their large numbers of local or lay pastors. So the commission felt the question needs to be considered along with the idea of a global Book of Discipline, said the Rev. Meg Lassiat, director of candidacy, mentoring and conference relations in the Division of Ordained Ministry of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

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