In 2013, upon graduation from divinity school, the words of Dr. Warren Smith’s commencement sermon rang in my ears. “Just because you now have a Masters of Divinity degree, it does not mean that you are, in any way, a master of the Divine.” The words were both a call to humility and also a caution to remember, as older rural folk might say to younger, emerging leaders “Don’t get too big for your britches.”
As I learned how to be a pastor, it was like drinking from a fire hydrant. It’s important for me to name my privilege. Even though I am a multiracial man in a 95%+ white denomination, and even though I was not raised United Methodist, I was given an immense privilege in moving through divinity school as a Rural Ministry Fellow. This Fellowship was for people who felt called to serve the rural church in North Carolina. Much of the gift paid for my tuition, as it baptized me into an ever-growing cohort of people who were bound for the same historic and unstable atmosphere as I was.
I began pastoral ministry with the next step of the ordination process right before me. If you’re not familiar with the United Methodist Church or its ordination process, I’ll put an addendum about these at the bottom.* Through divinity school, I learned not only what we believe as United Methodists, but also what many other traditions believe. I learned about orthodoxy, about what we all agree on are the most important things. Most of these things were from a European perspective, but I remained connected to friends who at the very least reminded me of indigenous spirituality, of how Christianity blossomed in Africa, and about the ways we can cooperate with Muslims and other people of other faiths.
Upon graduation, as I stepped into pastoral ministry for the first time, I went to my first meeting with the Board of Ordained Ministry at an event called “The Call Retreat,” an event where they would hear my call story, read some short pages I had written about it, and give me feedback about being in the Ordination Process.
During my interview, I celebrated what John Wesley once called “The Catholic Spirit,” the connections I had with people of other denominations. Unlike father Wesley though, I talked about them in my faith formation. Having been raised Pentecostal, formed by both Baptist and Methodist churches as a youth, and living out my calling in the United Methodist Church I joked and said that I saw myself as something of a “MethoBaptiCostal.” Immediately, the vocal response of a discernment team member came back, “We don’t ordain those. We only ordain United Methodists.” I experienced my first of five delays in the Ordination Process, one given because I did not articulate myself as fully being the thing which the Process was supposed to affirm.
On that day the Process did exactly what it was designed to do, and the members of my discernment team, together with the larger group of the Board did what was expected of them. After this particular delay, I would get upset, but it was mostly my pride that was wounded. Most of my life, growing in church leadership, I had been promoted and passed through. This blockage was frustrating to my need for affirmation.
The most important thing that I learned from my delay at the Day of Discernment is this. I am not the only one who was held back because of not appearing “United Methodist” enough. Oftentimes, people who came from other denominations would be held back, as the Process did what it was designed to do.
We are a homogenous denomination that wants more diversity. And yet, as more racial minorities come in, they often come with voices that have been formed in many ways. I call myself a messy mosaic, holding different pieces in tension that might feel like discord more than “of one accord.”
Many of the people on the Board have told me the struggle this is for them. They want to make sure that they empower people whom God has called, and also, they are concerned about allowing the wrong person to have a guaranteed job in the United Methodist Church for the rest of their life if that person is not capable of the spiritual weight that comes from leading people as a pastor.**
No easy answers exist. We are working on them. And as we work, I wonder what emotions are being held by the people who are held back in the ordination process, wondering, “What’s wrong with me, that I can’t be ordained?” I am praying that I will be able to connect with someone who is asking this same question that I asked myself so much over the past half-decade.
As I move through this story, in several different blogs, I will be revisiting each of my delays and the emotions, insecurities, and hurts that came with. My hope is that in the continued processing of this journey, others are able to feel a little less alone and I’m able to advocate for others seeing similar patterns in their own story.
*A little bit about the structure of the UMC.
The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (aka The Discipline) is essentially our church law. It is the big book that outlines all of the “methods” in United Methodism. Everything from a shortened version of our history to what our basic beliefs and doctrinal standards are 2 our social principles is outlined there. Our theological beliefs is 1 big part, but also it talks a lot about the way life health of the church should be carried out. Part of this is in the organization of a local church congregation, part of it is at the district level (groups of roughly 60-100 churches that are under the management of a person called a “District Superintendent”), the conference level (in the eastern North Carolina conference where I live, between 700 and 800 churches, under the leadership of a Bishop and some others), and the general church (made up of representatives from all of the annual conferences).
The Discipline also talks at length about the roles and responsibilities of clergy, which for us are either Elders or Deacons. if you want to see all of the differences you could go to http://www.umc.org and read any number of articles about both of them and what The Discipline says about them. Crudely described “Elders” are usually in house pastors that do a lot of the administration of the life of the church including word, service, sacramenta, and order. “Deacons” can also be pastors but are usually more geared towards teaching and ministry that goes outside the walls of the institution. elders are guaranteed to have a full time salary, complete with a minimum compensation package (which in the NCCUMC is about a $45,000 salary plus benefits), and deacons have to apply at different churches or organizations for their jobs and benefits.
A Little bit about Ordination in the UMC:
First let me say that, in the United Methodist Church, ordination can be seen as kind of like marriage. When somebody gets ordained, they have historically been saying that they want to spend the rest of their professional life as a United Methodist pastor. some pastors even wear a ring on their right ring finger as a symbol of this marriage. However, not all pastors are ordained. A great many pastors see the process of ordination and feel called to live as what we call “Licensed Local Pastors.” We can point to a lot of differences between LLPs and ordained pastors. The biggest difference is job security, which comes with a now that the ordained Elders take to move wherever the Bishop wants them to go. Another big difference is power. At annual conference every pastor is marked by their ordination status. people who have full ordination wear one color and licensed local pastors where another (there’s a few other colors in there, too). This affects who can vote on what, and implicit with the right to vote is a lot of other things, like where you are able to lead worship with baptisms and Holy Communion, or we might say, where you are able to lead people to experience the grace of God. For people who are not ordained yet, the journey of being an LLP Can make a big difference.
The Ordination Process I Went Through
- This is a very short version of the ordination process that I went through. It has changed a little bit. When I was 18 years old I told my pastor that I felt called into pastoral ministry. He brought me before the “District Committee on Ordained Ministry,” (DCOM) which is responsible for overseeing all of the non-ordained people who are at a certain level in the ordination process and also all of the pastors who are not going to be ordained.
- I became an “inquiring candidate,” and remained this during my four years of bachelors degree study.
- When I graduated with a bachelor’s degree, I went on to earn a masters of divinity, which is part of the educational requirement for getting ordained.
- I had to traveled back to my home district (about two hours away from Duke Divinity School where I attended) once per year for an interview to be continued as a “certified candidate,” which I was until graduating from divinity school.
- Upon graduation I was allowed to become a licensed local pastor, meeting in a different respect, every year, with the local DCOM, to be continued. I would meet with them every year for five years, until I reached a certain stage in the ordination process.
- After the DCOM, the next level of the ordination process is at the conference level and is the Board of Ordained Ministry (BOOM). My first step before them was at the “Day of Discernment,” which has since been changed to be called “The Call Retreat.” I went through an interview and wrote between 15 and 20 pages for them, outlining my calling to be a pastor as an ordained Elder. I was held back and came back the next year.
- The next year I went through the Call Retreat and was accepted, and wrote nearly 100 pages and recorded a sermon for the commissioning process, which would have moved me from the DCOM to the BOOM. The majority of my Paperwork was accepted, but I was delayed. I was delayed two more times before being accepted into the commissioning process.
- Once I was commissioned as a “Provisional Elder” I spent two years in “Residency in Ordained Ministry” (RIOM), in which I was paired with a coach and also a small group of ordinands who were also in RIOM.
- I was delayed one time in this process for a piece of paperwork that was slightly late.
- In 2021 I was ordained as an Elder in Full Connection.
** A Thought About the Incredibly Difficult Job of the Board of Ordained Ministry:
Nearly ten years ago, when I went through licensing school, we sat as a diverse group of people wanting to be licensed as pastors in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. I drank beers after class with a Korean pastor who reminded us of the importance to pray for our time of libations and give thanks to God for the drinks. I beheld a white Southern Baptist man who had spent decades learning the strictness of Christian Doctrine from the perspective of the Southern Baptist Church – which would not have accepted God’s calling on the women in our class as pastors. I listened to the frustrations of a Lumbee pastor, talking about the prejudice of every non-Lumbee church towards him. My ears attuned to life-long Methodists politely conversing with each other over what the Book of Discipline said, where the Church was going, and what was important as pastors – hearing echoes in their voices of the General Church fight over human sexuality, over whether or not to accept the LGBTQIA+ community.
Reflecting on all of this, I find myself grateful that I am not at present responsible for holding people to give an account of their stories and of their piece of the Connection to Church polity. At present I can only imagine and listen to the stories of people on the BoOM of how difficult it is to be fair and equitatious, even while trying to live with the ecumenical spirit and while trying to foster diversity. The world is so complex, and the Church is in too much peril. To do it well by everyone in the process is an utterly impossible task. What remains is to do it with grace, charitable love, and integrity. I’ll say, even with much of my story left to tell, that I have experienced these things from the Beloved who sit in those chairs, even as I have experienced pain at their hands too.