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.