Clearing Hurdles

Over the weekend, I attended two denominational gatherings. The first was a statewide meeting to approve our new Associate Conference Minister. Because of our Congregational polity, it is not enough that the Senior Conference Minister and/or the Search Committee or even the Coordinating Council approved the candidate. A quorum of churches from around the state, representing all 10 Associations (our grouping at the more local level), had to be present to make the meeting possible, and in the hands of our clergy and lay delegates lay her fate. It’s a Town Meeting model, or perhaps I should say the New England Town Meeting came from this Congregational model for meetings. In this case, we happily accepted the candidate after hearing her speak and then answer questions about her sense of call, her vision for her new ministry and her theology. (More the first two than the third.)

On Sunday, a student I have advised for almost three years stood before an Ecclesiastical Council, a gathering of the local Association which required representation from a dozen churches as well as a dozen clergy. Unlike the denominations of some of my RevGal friends, we don’t have ordination exams. But after three years of seminary, field education, CPE, working in her seminary’s chapel, developing a practice of prayer after living and working at Iona, successfully navigating psychological evaluations and interviews with the Church and Ministry Committee, working with me along the way, providing all the required paperwork–there was still a hurdle to clear. She gave a presentation based on her ordination paper, a combination of
her spiritual journey, her theology and her understanding of our
denomination’s history and polity. After the presentation, she took questions, more theological than those the day before, and really exactly the ones I expected based on her paper.

I remember standing in the chapel of Large Church, knowing my future in ministry lay in the hands of the gathered body, laypeople and clergy, many of them familiar faces, some complete strangers. I must admit there was an edge of fear, but I mostly felt respect for the process and trust that the Holy Spirit would guide all of us to an authentic and appropriate conclusion.

I must admit I am puzzled by the journey into ministry of others, a journey where there seems to be little oversight or accountability. Discernment in the Congregational tradition is communal. A candidate starts the process in the local church and is affirmed, or not, by those who know him or her best. The church asks the Association to consider the candidate, and over a period of years, a process of assessment and growth takes place, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There are certainly frustrations along the way. How can a Committee be kind but honest when a candidate is not suited to ministry? How can a Committee not be honest when the life and health of a church may be harmed by passing someone along who is not ready, or never will be?

As Chair of one of those committees, I am grateful to the laypeople and clergy who serve, who take each candidate and situation seriously and prayerfully, who err on the side of kindness along the way but must bond deeply enough to carry through on hard decisions when required. It’s easy to paint these committees as big, bad meanies. In fact I hear this often.

Our denomination is working on new standards for measuring the readiness of candidates for ministry. I think they will actually give more discretion, not less, to the committees, to determine when the moment has come. I imagine the new system will have its imperfections, just as the current system does. But I wonder what those who vilify Committees on Ministry would propose as an alternative?

My student did well. In fact, it was probably the shortest discussion session I have ever seen at an Ecclesiastical Council. A person with gifts and talents, who discerned a call and moved through a further process of discernment, will now go out to serve God on behalf of the United Church of Christ. I’m proud of her, and proud of the church for recognizing her calling and affirming it.

11 thoughts on “Clearing Hurdles”

  1. In my home presbytery, after you did your thing and answered your questions, you went outside while they debated. Then if you passed, they began singing Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow….I don’t know what they did if you didn’t pass, but I remember the singing of Old 100th with great joy.

  2. My student used “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” as a framing device for her paper, and when she came back in, the gathered body was singing it. Quite, quite lovely.

  3. Congratulations to your mentoree, and welcome to this ministry to her! For me, the preparation process has to be communal–I mean, your call to serve is mediated through the community in the first place.

  4. Congratulations to your student! As someone at the beginning of the discernment process, I have to say, I couldn’t imagine if it weren’t a communal preparation process–for exactly the reason Brett pointed out, and dozens of others I just won’t get into here!

  5. My New Testament prof. used to say that it takes longer for a Methodist to get ordained than for a nun to profess life orders. I’m so glad I’m in the UCC!
    Last Sunday I played for the EC and ordination of a woman who is in hospice care. Because of her health, she wasn’t able to finish her ordination paper. But the association decided that was fine, her life was still a ministry. So a brief EC, and a brief ordination, and a brief installation (she’d be called to be a hospice chaplain) for a woman about to die.
    Very poignant, and I love that in the UCC there is wiggle room for the Spirit in the “rules” that we do have…

  6. Oh, and I forget that best part of my prof’s joke:
    “…longer…than for a nun to profess life orders…and they’re giving up sex!”

  7. WooHoo! And welcome your mentoree to the ministry in the UCC! Will be praying for her new chapter! Love the process. Loathe the process. Wouldn’t really have it any other way. That spoken from the spouse of a (hopeful) seminary candidate to be… He just got a call today from one of the conf. ministers that a nearby church is in need of stated supply. Conf. rev needed permission to pass DH’s info along, that he felt he’d be a good fit. DH completed the IA LEARN program for licensed ministry a couple of years ago and has been doing pulpit supply since.

  8. Congratulations for your mentoree, and for you. I completely agree with your concern about other denominations that offer no accountability or process. It is so important. I too know of COM’s being called meanies, often. We have quite a complex process for ordination in my denom and in my diocese. And yes, it can err. But usually the Holy Spirit continues and those who are called continue to learn and grow and (eventually) be ordained. We too are trying to bring forth more integrity to the process, meaning the ability to say no earlier than later…

  9. I do think a calling does need to be confirmed by a local church – but as one who has been rejected- in about as nasty a way as possible – by hers; I do wonder how it can be that a wider group in the denomination can be affirmative and a local church leadership (not the congregation itself) can differ so much – unless it’s a power struggle, or protecting one’s own position or something.
    I am still struggling to understand this – and our system has woefully lacked a decent mentor for me or my friend – He incidentally was confirmed by the denomination as a local pastor last Sunday and a day of great joy. Our church (nationally) is so blessed to have him. 🙂
    thanks for showing me a better side of this process Songbird, I appreciate it.

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