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WESLEYAN WISDOM: Church history sheds light on ordination proposals Donald W. Haynes, Feb 29, 2012
By Donald W. Haynes UMR Columnist
If the Call to Action reform effort is adopted in full by General Conference, there will be a major paradigm shift in both “guaranteed appointment” and the relationship of ordination to conference membership.
Always seeming a bit awkward to persons of other communions, United Methodism has kept conference membership locked in tandem with ordination. In practice, the annual conference has voted persons into conference relationship and recommended them for “orders” in a business session, followed by ordination from the hands of the bishop, all in the same conference session.
This has meant that even a seminary graduate with a Master of Divinity degree has to serve a minimum of two years in the parish before becoming eligible for ordination. During this period, the seminary graduate is technically licensed for the practice of parish ministry, but not ordained. For second career people, ordination has seemed a very long wait.
If the new recommendation is adopted by General Conference, the graduate of the Course of Study or the recipient of the Master of Divinity degree will become immediately eligible for ordination as an Elder. If one is on the “Deacon track,” the same qualifications will apply upon completion of 24 credit hours in an approved seminary. Then, after two or three years (depending on the annual conference policy) as a Provisional Member of the conference, the Deacon or Elder may be received into Full Connection with all the rights and privileges appertaining to that conference relationship.
Historically, the “License to Preach” which evolved into the status of “Local Pastor” was clearly seen as an annual license to practice the tasks and duties of a parish minister. Over several quadrennia, the rights and privileges of Local Pastors have been enhanced and enlarged to encompass clergy status in most annual conference business, administration of the sacraments and pension participation. The future of this relationship has not been clarified.
The proposed action to separate the timing and requirements for ordination and conference membership offers a good time to reflect on the history of both.
‘Sons in the gospel’
John and Charles Wesley were ordained upon completion of their academic work at Oxford, needing only the approval of the ordaining bishop. Since John Wesley’s ordination came through his being a Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, not a geographic diocese, he could later say to Bishop Butler in Bristol, “the world is my parish.” Conference membership was a Methodist phenomenon, not an Anglican tradition.
With the paucity of Anglican clergy who supported Wesley’s post-Aldersgate ministry, he hesitantly resorted to using laity as preachers. Though Thomas Maxfield at the old Foundery in London might not have been the first lay preacher, his approval by Wesley was a watershed moment. Around 1740, in Wesley’s absence but his mother Susanna’s presence, Maxfield began to preach at the Foundery after being “insensibly led to go further than he had at first designed.” When Wesley objected, his mother retorted, “He is as surely called to preach as you are. Examine what have been the fruits of his preaching, and hear him also yourself.”
Richard Heitzenrater researched the response of one Henry Moore who recorded that Wesley “bowed before the force of truth and would only say, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seemeth him good.’” Lay preachers who agreed to work for Wesley were subsequently called “sons in the gospel.” He appointed them to territories, villages or parishes to preach. According to historian Rupert Davies, Wesley “set about training and preparing his lay preachers for the word which he now saw they would be able to do. He chose them for their personal knowledge of salvation, and at first set a period of one year for their probation.”
Much of the language still in the Book of Discipline as the bishop interrogates Deacons and Elders for full connection comes from Wesley’s 1754 “Twelve Rules of a Helper.” One of the requests no longer made is to spend five of every 24 hours reading and the rest in “the business of evangelism and personal work.”
Some of those chosen were women. And it was mostly lay preachers who organized and shepherded the bands, class meetings, and often, the societies. Wesley established a conference connectional membership, but did not ordain anyone until 46 years after Aldersgate.
In America Bishop Francis Asbury had little formal education, and his ordination as Deacon and Elder and consecration as General Superintendent all occurred in a three-day period during the Christmas Conference of 1784. Asbury added a major factor to his ordination at the hands of Thomas Coke by insisting that his ordination was contingent upon the vote of the conference. Those who fear in the new paradigm that bishops can ordain “ex cathedra” are wrong; conference approval following recommendation by the Board of Ordained Ministry will still stand.
Methodism, by 1844, had become the largest organization in America outside the federal government; but it had no seminaries until 1857. While the legendary circuit riders were for the most part “traveling preachers,” for nearly two generations none was a seminary graduate. Most claimed “Brush College” as their “alma mater.” The preponderance of Methodist preachers were “local preachers,” not “traveling preachers.” Those who were ordained came through the Conference Course of Study which was prepared by the bishops until the 1930s.
Well into the 20th century, most rural circuits were being served by “Approved Supply” preachers who lacked ordination, conference membership and guaranteed appointment.
The clergy model for me was an uncle who had two years in a Methodist college designed for second career clergy. He practically memorized Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, giving him a strong Arminian understanding of the Scriptures. He served 35 years as an “Approved Supply” with no guarantee of appointment.
During the Great Depression, my uncle was not needed for three years during which time he was a barber, and he organized a new Methodist church! In 1934, he delivered to the conference a new congregation in Greensboro, N.C., and was appointed to a six-point circuit where he served 15 years. At his retirement in 1954 the Board of Pensions, in special legislation, asked the conference to provide him a modest pension. He had literally lived out the covenant prayer of Wesley, a prayer he taught me as a child:
“I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. . . . Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee . . . I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. . . .”
His life was my understanding of what might lie in my future when I answered God’s call to preach the month I became 16. Just after my 19th birthday, in my senior year of college, I was appointed to the church from which this uncle was retiring: a small textile mill village church for which the parsonage was a former mill house. The annual salary was $2,400. I never thought to ask about the non-existent travel allowance or the pension benefits that would come with probationary membership.
The lockstep connection and timing between conference membership and ordination has evolved. I was appointed in 1954, received into probationary conference membership in 1955, ordained Deacon in 1956. Probation did not come through seminary but through the completion of a brief correspondence course provided through the Methodist Church headquarters in Nashville.
The three required books are still on my shelf as shapers of my early ministry: Understanding the Christian Faith by Georgia Harkness, The Beliefs of a Methodist Christian by Clinton Cherry, and The Preacher, His Life and Work by John Henry Jowett, a Presbyterian. I was received into Full Connection and ordained Elder in 1958, the same year I finished Duke Divinity School.
It makes sense to ordain a person upon completion of the Master of Divinity degree. Without simultaneous conference membership, however, ordained United Methodist Elders might not ever be elected to “Full Connection” and, like UMC Deacons, might not be appointed to churches with remuneration. We have a precedent for this. In our illustrious history we had many “located Elders” and ordained clergy who had chosen “Honorable Location” and rendered great service in local communities where there was no voice for Wesleyan grace theology.
We are an institutional church supported by discipled Christians; if we have failed to mentor the conversion and discipling of sufficient numbers of God’s lost children, the corollary will be an atrophying of funds. The “perks” that came with institutional strength—guaranteed appointment, pensions, housing allowances, travel allowances and medical insurance—might have to be reduced.
Perhaps the 1989 statement of Kennon Callahan is accurate: “The age of the local church is over; the age of the mission station has come,” and “The age of the local pastor is over; the age of the missionary pastor has come.”
Perhaps the personal preface to the reading of appointments for every individual “called to ordained ministry” (knowing that some are about to be “laid aside”) is Wesley’s Covenant Prayer. Those “given work” will feel blessed and will go forth like Gideon’s army to build vital congregations and see the Holy Spirit transform the structures of prejudice into communities of faith. That would have the markings of a “movement,” the kind of movement that adopted as a mission statement “to reform the continent and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.”
Meanwhile, here in a little eddy from the mainstream, mine has been a great week! Since the summer of 2011, I have been visiting and mentoring the first two families from “up north” to ever worship at the rural church I am serving in North Carolina! One family, from Pennsylvania, I am receiving by Restoration of Vows. The other, from Boston, I am marrying and baptizing. All are in their 60s. Bishop Bevel Jones was right: “Don, I wish all my preachers knew that ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’”
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He’s the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: email@example.com.