Ordination, Age, and Texas Methodism

Over the last 24 or so hours prior to this posting, there has been a conversation on the Hacking Christianity blog about the Texas Annual Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry and its thoughts on age and ministry. I am a Texas Conference Methodist and a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry and so this conversation hits very close to home. First, let me acknowledge the pain and frustration that have emerged from this conversation about age and ordination. No one wants to feel left out. No one wants to feel pushed away, unwanted, or discriminated against. Perhaps most importantly, no one wants to feel that the church has participated in any form of exclusion. I pray that Christ would appear among us speaking words of peace to our troubled hearts. I hope you will join me in that prayer.

What I seek to do in the remainder of this post, is not to enter into an argument with Jeremy Smith or others who have posted comments on his Hacking Christianity blog, but to offer a few thoughts on some of the general themes that have been taken up in the discussion. A friend and colleague of mine, Josh Hale, has written a very thoughtful response to the Hacking Christianity post on his blog which can be found here: http://wp.me/pBsrD-ov. Ordination, age, and leadership in the Texas Annual Conference will be my focus areas for the purposes of this post.

Ordination. We are studying it all the time. Tweaking our processes. Examining our own theology, ecclesiology, and, to some degree, missiology relating to ordination as well as those of other denominations. We wrestle with questions about ordination and ontology? Do we become ontologically different as if ordination was some form of sacrament? This would certainly have implications on how much our identity is caught up in ordination. (By the way, the UMC does not believe an ontological shift happens in the life of an individual in ordination.) We also talk about those being ordained being set-apart for particular tasks of ministry with particular authority, but that this ordination is not to be set above the baptism of all Christians. (This is our way of saying there is no ontological change in ordination.)  So ordination is an action of the church that confers authority to a person to work within named ministerial orders that are presided over by a bishop for the building up of the church of which we are all a part as a body of believers. Those who are eligible to be ordained are those who have discerned a call that has been confirmed by the church in accordance with the church’s needs. So calling is not only an individual matter, but a corporate one. Further, whether someone is commissioned (the provisional step towards ordination in the UMC) or not is not only about the individual and the corporate body’s view of their readiness, but also the needs of the church/mission field. We believe that all believers are called to be Christ’s witnesses in the world, but the calling to ordination will be considered according to the needs of the church and its mission field. This missiological conversation is an important one as it relates to conversations in the Texas Conference and elsewhere. People are ordained within annual conferences and so it may be the case that the needs of one mission field differ from another. A candidate who is on the journey toward ordination can always consider options of other conferences/mission fields if the needs of their current conference are different from the gifts they bring to meet those needs.

Age in the workplace has been a challenging conversation for decades now. There are people in our workforce who can remember the days when most executives in the workforce were those who were older more seasoned veterans of the work. Now, we live in a work environment where Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and co-founder of Facebook, at age 28 is the second youngest “self-made” billionaire in history, and who’s company had the biggest IPO ever. Some feel that the young are taking over and the old are being pushed aside or pushed out. Yet, I read in an article a while ago that for the first time since the 40s, those above the age of 65 represent a greater number in our workforce than those between the ages of 16 and 19. The writer of the article wondered if older people were stealing the jobs of the young. All the cultural shifting that has gone on in the workplace as it relates to generational attitudes and work patterns has left the corporate world with a host of challenges. People teach workshops on how to help each generation get along with one another. You only hold those kinds of things because there have been some offenses and challenges along the way. In the church, we need only look at the comments of one of our more edgy and recently retired UM bishops who basically suggests that the UMC has been run like a gerontocracy for some time. Studies show that something like 50% of the clergy are old than 55 and that clergy coming into the life of the church in their 20s will not be enough to keep up with retirement rates across time if we maintain our current trends. All this has unsettled many clergy and lay leaders who expect that some of the same offenses that have been experienced in the corporate world will be repeated in the church – after all, these are not two completely distinct systems as much as we might hope they were. Ageism, cuts so many ways and the decade of life you are in defines the nature of your wounds, but everyone seems to be wounded.

Texas Methodism. I like being a Texan. I also like being a Methodist. Being a Texan from Houston means that you believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and finding solutions to problems. I like being a Methodist for many reasons one of which is because we believe in sanctification. Yet as an entrepreneurial problem solving Texas Methodist who believes we can be made perfect in this lifetime, I also know that it often takes a while to problem solve and perfect something. The document from our Board of Ordained Ministry that appeared in yesterday’s Hacking Christianity blog represents such a something that needs to be perfected. The “Proposed Minimum Standards for Entering Candidates” document is a working document. As I understand it, even if it were to be accepted as a set of guidelines by the diverse membership of the BOM, the age guidelines would be guides, but not automatic rules that would remove the Spirit driven work of discernment that all BOMs must do. The document is, however, an expression of pastoral leadership. What the “Proposed Minimum Standards” document hopes to encourage around age is a way of taking into account the needs of the individual as well as the needs of the church’s mission field. The document also hopes to remind us of the various ways that individuals can be in service to the church that have great integrity beyond ordination as a deacon or elder such as licensed ministry, certified lay ministry, etc. Helping people to navigate and discern the various pathways into ministry is a pastoral activity. Helping people to navigate and creating standards is also a function of leadership. Consideration of church/mission field needs is also a function of leadership and ordering the resources of the church. The Texas Annual Conference takes seriously  the task of raising up and training leaders as well as the task of considering the needs of the churches under its care.

I hope that you will pray for the Board of Ordained Ministry in the Texas Annual Conference as it seeks to be faithful to the task of leadership in our conference that it have been given. I hope that you will continue to pray for our bishop, Janice Huie, and other leaders within our conference. Finally, I hope that you will continue to work with us as we engage these matters and work toward solutions for the common good.

Pax et bonum,

-Justin Coleman

Justin Coleman is the Lead Pastor of the Gethsemane Campus of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas

  • Randall W. Partin

    Justin, thanks for your thoughtful response. I do (of course) have a point on which I differ with you. I think that while we *say* there is no ontological change at ordination, our behaviors and practices seem to suggest otherwise. Ask any local pastor if they feel they are treated “the same” as ordained elders. I think that (unfortunately) for all of our lip-service to the ministry of the laity and the priesthood of all believers, we (ordained) clergy still hold on to some “specialness” to our calling and our ordination. Some of the pain that folks feel who are held over for (or denied) ordination is the pain of being “left out” of something special, or who are made to feel (or who feel all on their own) that they are somehow not “good enough.” This is the dangerously thin ice the BOOM’s proposal is skating on, and I appreciate their caution. As near as I can tell, everyone is realizing that we must encourage greater discernment of vocation and calling to ministry (in all the varied forms), but we haven’t yet got our heads around what it means to encourage someone to pursue ministry outside of ordination. Just my two cents. Bless you!

    • Justin Coleman

      Thank you, Randall. I certainly hear your words of caution and appreciate your reflections.

      • Keith A. Jenkins

        Randall, I was ordained a deacon 37 years ago next month and an elder 34 years ago, and I know well the feeling of “specialness” you refer to. Nor is it altogether a bad thing, if it arises from the awareness of what it feels like to be in a covenant relationship with one’s fellow conference members. But I see it as a sense of belonging, taking on a group identity that augments (rather than replaces) our individual identity. Yes, it may also convey a sense of authority, and yes that authority can be misused to condescend toward others, but it remains an authority conferred by the Church, not a mystical transformation of our being (as held by those branches of our faith who see ontological implications to ordination).

  • Frank Coats

    Good and thoughtful comments, Justin. I think you should state your age now, and your age at ordination, because we bring who we are to whatever we write. I am 58, was ordained at 54, and am finishing my 10th year under appointment. So far I’ve had an effective ministry, at least by the records we keep of professions of faith in Christ, baptisms, new members, etc. I am grateful I have the opportunity to serve Christ and the Church as and Elder in the Texas Annual Conference.

  • Mike Lindstrom

    A valid response. Hope it all works out.

  • Cynthia Kepler-Karrer

    As others have said, a thoughtful response. I appreciate it!

    You commented that as it stands currently, we are ordained to a single annual conference, by a single annual conference. Thus, each conference sets their own interviews and requirements above and beyond what the general church sets as the minimum requirements. One of the things that I believe we’re moving toward (necessarily) is coming into more fluid borders in terms of how we deploy pastors. Already my home conference (Southwest Texas, soon to become a part of the Rio Texas Conference) is experiencing what it means for pastors to flow back and forth between two conferences. In addition, every year we see clergy moving in and out of our conference. One of the conversations that people are having is about “hoarding talent”–and how we might effectively share our “good people” (sort of like sending out a group of healthy and faithful people to start a new church) with places that need an influx of talent.

    The upshot is that I believe these conversations will need to start being with the wider church as well-not because I believe that a wider and more centrally controlled governance of our ordination process is wise (yup–not really), but because it isn’t just about “I got mine, you get yours.” If we really are connectional, then this conversation will have to take into account that the Texas conference may be called upon to train and equip people who will not eventually serve there–and that other conferences may be raising and training the pastors who may eventually be needed in the Texas conference, *by design* and not just because y’all are really good at recruiting. So someday, the clergy glut that is anticipated in some places may not be as simple as “we have too many pastors for our open appointments”. And having certain groups of people that are encouraged to seek out conferences that are “friendlier” to their demographic (which is one way to look at your statement) seems to be the same thing that clergywomen, clergy couples, entrepreneurs, and others have experienced. It definitely doesn’t feel hospitable to me when people consider me as the sum of my demographics. I don’t know how we get around this issue in any streamlined way, and I was grateful to hear you say that the document was invitational rather than hard-and-fast. However, how others experience it will be *as important* as how you mean it.

    So, back to the original point, I guess I’m trying to open up the conversation for us to not just think of ourselves when we think about these processes and perfecting them. What would it look like if we were to see ourselves as in a position to potentially cross-pollinate and seed other places? I think that we would be a stronger general church for that, and I believe that it will be true both of clergy people and of highly talented lay leadership as well (cause if we think there’s a hierarchy to our clergy leadership, then we don’t even want to get into what it takes to break into the laity leadership of a conference). I am well aware of the logistical issues–that the conference that ordains someone is required to be the appointing conference, and it would be difficult to move someone through the process on the hope that they might be useful somewhere else because you don’t think they’re going to be useful in your AC. But there might indeed be some mitigating factors–I wonder what it would be like to have a jurisdiction-wide talent bank of clergy who are willing to move much more fluidly for the purposes of a more specific calling like interim pastor or turn-around pastor.

    Just another thing to add to the mix. I’m grateful that people are weighing in on this conversation, and I hope that the conversation is helpful to all of us!

  • http://haroldgardner.wordpress.com Harold Gardner

    Interesting to note that the Church of England is currently lead by a second vocation priest, Justin.

  • http://www.umcworship.org Taylor Burton-Edwards (@twbe)

    As the GBOD representative to the Ministry Study Commission for this quadrennium, I am very grateful for the conversation Jeremy, you and Josh have opened to the wider UMC connection. Issues of reconciling conference standards for ordination and conference membership to enable a more fluid deployment of ordained clergy across conference, jurisdictional and even international lines are among the issues we will be exploring in the coming years.

    Thomas Kemper (GBGM) talks regularly about “mission from everywhere to everywhere.” If appointments of clergy are indeed to be missional appointments built on the abundance of our resources connectionally rather than the scarcity of glut of resources in a particular locale, perhaps it is time to view our intinerancy in a similar light.

  • John

    This was. . . Thoughtful. . .? Sorry I just hear a sideways defense and a shrugging of shoulders that its just a conversation we need to get started.

    • Justin Coleman

      I hope there is more there than that, John. Please see my comment below.

  • Wayne Cook

    As a UM Elder, I am saddened that this conversation is even occurring. Like my brother who replied earlier, I am 52 and was ordained 9 years ago. I believe God called me later in life because I was still being shaped and honed at an earlier age to become a better minister. The church I serve in a small Florida town is doing well and is reaching the community in many ways with the grace of God. I have always felt that the required retirement are was a spot on the UMC but this is far worse than a spot it is a cancer in my humble opinion. It feels like we as very fallible humans are deciding who God can and cannot call to ordained ministry. I know this is just a guideline but I believe if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that it will become a concrete absolute guideline. I know of another conference and possibly all that are not considering Body Mass Index as a consideration for Ordination, apparently so that we can lower insurance costs. Are we saying the obese cannot be called by God?

    My heart breaks each time we add human statistical categories, ie. age, weight, height or any other to deciding who is called and who is not. Where will it end? We we decided that those called have only certain bodily characteristics.


  • Justin Coleman

    Thank you for your responses. I do think, as do many of my fellow board members and other clergy in the conference that I’ve spoken with over the last 48 hours, that this is a conversation.

    Creating standards and requirements (2nd preaching course, CPE, Wesleyan doctrinal standards) has always been a part of the work. So there are concepts that I mention above that I hope add to that conversation. I do believe that mission field/church needs are an important conversation.

    Also, the board in no way says that we will not consider second career candidates in ministry. We are saying that we are looking at the needs of our conference today and over the next quarter century and are seeking to be thoughtful about leadership development all the while praying and seeking God’s guidance.

  • Justin Coleman

    I am also in agreement that more fluid boarders between conferences is something we need to work towards.

    The document in question is mostly meant for district committees, and, if approved by the BOM, will mostly be used there.

    Also, in most DCOMs and BOMs there are candidates of every age range that are removed from the process for various reasons. These are issues of discernment that every DCOM and BOM have to deal with. The journey towards ordination means that the church, humans seeking wisdom from God, is the body that affirms (or not) that call. If this were not so, everyone who wanted to be ordained would be without any conversation. I do not know of any ecclesial body that takes that stance.

  • John Palmer

    Justin, I’ve been trying to sift through my feelings about this proposed policy and trying to hear the logic that yourself and expat are defending in this conversation. What I hear is that “this is reasonable”, “that it doesn’t prohibit ordination of someone over 45″, “it’s just a guideline”. What I don’t hear is that those that have made this proposal were short sited in choosing to place an exact age “45″ on a developing policy document that is to “guide” a district BOM as it is inerviewing candidates for ordained ministry. What I hear is representatives of policy making Boards within the institutional structure as we have it now who are embracing the institutions tired old ways and using the language of today to make an appeal to consider the statistics. As a person who has sat on a district and conference BOM and who has mentored a number of candidates for ministry and had to cut through the multitude of concerns that a DBOM is tasked with considering when interviewing candidates for ministry all that this suggested policy represents is another layer of countless hours of conversation and process trying to decide what it means and how we should apply it to individual candidates, and serves more as a distraction for getting to know the candidate to begin with. It will be interpreted by individuals serving on these DBOM’s in a multitude of ways from being a strong resistance or strong embrace to being used as an easy out explanation for a DBOM that is struggling to discern the viability of a candidate for ministry who is in the approximate age. In my opinion this isn’t a good or helpful policy or even conversation. Nor does it really help us address the greater issues of denominational decline, but reflects one of the central problems of our decline which is top heavy bureaucracy who spends time trying to manage from the top down. I’m not unsympathetic toward the thoughtfulness or work that your executive committee has put into this I just push back vigorously at your conclusions. I do pray for our church and for your and hope to hear rather than a defense that maybe we got this one wrong, how might we think about it differently? Or what, if anything should the BOM of a conference consider faced with some of the glaring statistics we have?

    • Justin Coleman

      Thank you, John. Good thoughts and questions here. I am hopeful that God will direct us.

  • Justin Coleman

    There has been a UM News service article written on this theme that is worth the read, I think.