Thursday, September 14, 2006

Re-imaging a Process

Ok. I have found myself in over a handful of conversations about ordination and call to ministry over the past week and I feel it’s about time I post/talk about it. Being at a Seminary such as SFTS this topic seems to be one that is always present.

This topic is particularly interesting to me for a few reasons. First, recently I have a friend whom is disillusioned about his ordination process with the PCUSA as a denomination. This disillusionment has stemmed out of his Committee for the Preparation of Ministry (CPM). They have not realized that they have a talented, smart, Godly man on their hands and should be looking towards him to help move that denomination forward. They have not shown much support or interest in him as an inquirer or brought him along in the ordination process. They have just left him dangling on a string. If an upstanding individual such as him can slip through the cracks of a system then it needs serious reevaluation. Second, for myself, I need to buckle down and decide about my future process in terms of denominations. Disciples of Christ? American Baptist? (both official denominations of my home church, Federated Church of West Lafayette) or even the option of becoming a Presbyterian? Third is that I think this is an important topic when you talk about community and their role in our lives and ultimately your image of how to live out the way of Jesus. This third point has stemmed from my conversations with a good friend of mine and my mom based around these first two points.

First off I would like to say I am a person on this side of a formal ordination process and on the other side of an informal ordination process. So you can probably guess where my bias is, but here I offer up my opinion humbly, so that we can work toward and hope for something better.

So the question is this, how does one begin to affirm a call from God for Ministry (mostly based around it as a vocation/job)? Is ordination by a denomination or group a required step in this process? What should the process look like?

In the classically Reformed theological tradition we talk about four things that are the basis for understanding theology and this being a theological issue I feel they are appropriate here. The four are scripture, experience, tradition, and reason. These areas are the basis for forming and understanding a person/communities theology. Ideally you can use all of them as a series of checks and balances, such that you can show how a specific theology is an accurate reflection of the will of God.

My experience around this issue is that denominations as a whole are rather inaccurate in figuring out which individuals should be ordained. Let me tell you more about my own context. I was raised in a Christian family and was instilled with many wonderful values (thanks mom) and ideas about how I am loved by my family and my God, but we didn’t really go to church. I started dating my now wife, the lovely Julia, in high school (pause… for the collective awww) and I went with her to Federated Church. I went to paint a youth room and ended up almost 8 years (I think) later at a Seminary studying to become a pastor as a vocation. What a long and strange journey it has been.

Now to say this was an easy or simple process would be very reductionistic, but just the same I want to try to represent the journey I have been on and will continue to be on. I like to begin this story by saying “God dropkicked me into Ministry.” Anyways (big ups Becky Dunham), I went to Federated to paint a youth room. The youth pastor at the time, Tim, spoke with me about life, faith, etc and was convinced that Julia and I would make excellent volunteers for the newly growing youth ministry. Rather sheepishly we accepted, being scared that we didn’t really know what we were doing or how we felt about life, faith and God (looking back we really didn’t). Through my first three years of undergraduate studies I was preparing for a career as a graphic designer at Purdue University and attending youth group helping to facilitate discussion, lead a small group, chase kids around the church, etc.

Now this is kind of a long story and to not get into it all here, lets just suffice it to say that in my last semester of undergrad Tim left the church abruptly. This left the youth group of 30ish kids and a handful of volunteers in shock and horror losing their pastor, friend, and confidant. With wisdom beyond my knowledge, David the senior pastor at Federated (and now I understand God) had a new plan for me. David came to me and asked me to take the reigns of the group and like any logical individual I turned him down. He left telling me to pray and consider it. I tried to ignore this “call” on my life for a while but he kept asking and I kept saying no. It became very obvious to me that these students needed a pastor and I had many meaningful relationships to them, but I felt completely under qualified. I truly loved and still love those students and what I did know is that I didn’t want them to feel that they have been abandoned. I wanted them to understand that God loved them even in the midst of what they were going through.

One Friday night, I went to the church to sit in the balcony (a spot for me that is holy ground) and pray and talk it over with God. I was meditating and praying. From below me I heard a noise, and went to check it out. It was David; he was coming into the office to put the finishing touches on his sermon for Sunday. He asked “What are you doing here? It’s almost midnight.” I told him and he took the moment and asked “So are you going to do it?” and for whatever reason I blurted out “Yes.” Having not really logically reasoned this decision out and hardly believing the words coming out of my mouth, added “at least until we find a more permanent solution.”

Over the next three years I not only cared for these students, but God strengthened my call to ministry. David took me under his wing and taught me many skills and knowledge that continue to guide and direct me. I grew and developed in my call in such a way that God continued to draw me closer, to bring people and issues into my life and ministry to Him/Her. That left me with a clear direction; full time ministry. As Niebuhr would say the void swallowed all other gods and left me standing before God on a path to ministry.

Now to make this clear, I was never formally ordained. I faithfully served what I believe God was calling me to do within that context and place. I operated through the blessing and watch of my mentor and the congregation. I preformed baptisms (at the request of the students), served communion, counseled students, and preached/taught. My call has yet to be affirmed by the Disciples of Christ or American Baptist denominations (the two official denominations of Federated). Is what I did not valid? Do you deny that people had experiences with the risen Christ? How about those students who trusted me to guide, direct and baptize them? Are those all of sudden invalid based on a technicality?

In my experience of 2.5 years of full time ministry I understand ministry (and conversely the call to it) as God calling individuals and it is their choice to answer that call. In my own experience of a call it is something that took discernment of the individual (me), the pastor/mentor (David) and the community in which the person will serve (in this case Federated). This is not to say that affirmation from the larger church community such as a denomination is not valuable because I also believe it is to some and can continue to be. I just don’t view it as a requirement for ministry. If God calls us to be a priesthood of all believers, why would God choose to make a call to one specific ministry more difficult to obtain than others? Do we really need years of institutionalized education to understand the mystery of sacraments or community of God more fully?

Now that I’ve shared with all of you my experience, I also want to share with you a few other places that I understand my experience to be re-affirmed. Within the area of tradition (I can say that my viewpoint is not the dominant point of view) I can think of a few instances where my experience is validated. For me it takes looking no further than the reformation itself. To my understanding, John Calvin’s call was not affirmed by the Catholic Church in fact the Church felt quiet the opposite. I think part of how I understand what happened in the reformation and my experience is part of recognition of apostolic leadership. Where in the current denominational ordination system is that allowed for? When it is one voice crying out against the majority about a specific issue is the single voice rejected because it’s not part of the majority. I am sure most of you would agree that does not suffice. How about how it affirms the movement of the Holy Spirit using whom ever God chooses? How are we set up to respond to the ever shifting winds of God when it takes an individual years (apart from ministry) to affirm their call?

That leads me into the next area, Scripture. “Church” leadership is a debated issue in the Old and New Testament. Paul’s conversion experience shows us an instance of a New Testament “call” that was highly contested by others. People were very weary of Paul because of his sudden 180 degree flip. Where is the formal education and passing of exams there? Wasn’t Paul’s “ordination” affirmed more by the communities over time as he was teaching? Is our best response to an individual to make them wait before working through all issues of faith? How did Paul train others in the ministry? Did he require them to leave the settings of ministry? No, they traveled with him learning and being encouraged by him. I think there is something we can all learn about the process from that of our rabbinic friends. Rob Bell says that a famous rabbinic blessing was “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.” It was a disciple’s duty to follow the rabbi so closely that by the end of the day he was covered in the dust that was kicked up by the rabbi’s sandals.

This is a point of view that I believe is not just New Testament but an Old Testament vantage point as well. Let’s examine the prophets. We learned in our Prophets class last semester that a (if not the) major tipping point about which prophets were “true” prophets and which ones were “false” ones was based on if their “prophecy” came true. Yes, some prophetic individuals had communities that gathered around them and embraced their words, but weren’t also some rejected for the very “truth” they proclaimed? We don’t just have popular prophets; we have one’s whose prophecies came true.

The last area of the four is Reason. I want to make a small disclaimer; I am a member of what I would consider the upper-middle class of white America and definitely the upper class of the world, so please take my words as trying to understand another background and the bigger perspective (maybe other readers can share more on this subject).

Isn’t using a degree system that forces an individual to go to school for 3-4 years for a master’s degree an exclusionary system? Is it fair to put a price tag on your process of ordination? Is it an accessible system for those in the working poor or 3rd world countries? I believe it is not. I look around my seminary and see a large portion of our students to be from similar backgrounds (at least economically and socially) as myself.

Where is the benefit of removing an individual from a context in which they come and wish to do ministry and placing them in an isolated intellectual community for 4 years? If a person wished to become a carpenter or a fisherman what would the best method be? Sitting them into a classroom and teaching them what a saw looks like and what types of woods are the strongest? No, we would send them to a master in their profession and have them learn by using the machines and handling the wood.

Do I believe that a formal educational system has benefits? Sure I do, and I’m choosing to participate in one. Do I believe that what I learn in Seminary will make me a better pastor, of course! Do I believe that it makes me different than others who devote their lives to following the way of Christ, no I don’t. Do I think that if an individual feels God’s presence in their lives demanding of them to take up a specific ministry, it is required to be affirmed by the church, no I don’t.

I understand that ordination from a denomination IS meaningful for some people, Bruce my pastor and mentor at Mission Bay Community Church is one of them (and thank God for him). It is not my intention to demean these people in anyway and I want to say again, I recognize that I stand before an event/ritual that I am somewhat passing judgment upon (and I as always reserve the right to with draw this statement in a few years) but just the same, I make these comments striving for faithfulness in Christ.

** so yeah, I apologize for the long post. But I wanted to write out my point of view. Please, please comment and work on this with me.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A little help people?

My new intership Church has just launched a
NEW WEBSITE and we are hoping to get some feedback. In this latest version of the online "Face" of Mission Bay Community Church we have tried to capture the faithful, yet quirky nature of our community, blending conviction, humor, authenticity and relevance.

We would appreciate getting your feedback about the site. I think it will take about 10-15 minutes to get through the site. After you do so we would love to get your comments via this post or you can fill out our brief 10 Question Survey.

While we would appreciate everyone's input we are most interested in getting feedback from folks who fit the following characteristics.

* are not attending any church, but might be open to the possibilities;
* live in the san francisco bay area or at least live in an urban/metro context;

We would also be interested in the same kinds of folks who are . . .

* Church Professionals
* Seminary Students
* Current Church Goer's

So for all you folk, lets get to work.