In recent years, the United Church has engaged in significant reflection on the nature of its ministry, in the broadest sense of that term. The “Statement on Ministry” was drafted in 2009 and revised in 2012. Most recently, the Joint Ministry Working Group, appointed by Ministry and Employment Policies and Services and the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee, has prepared a thoughtful paper proposing a different model of vocational ministry going forward: “One Order of Ministry”.
I agree with a foundational assumption of this most recent document: change is needed—our current practices are incoherent and unfair. That said, I am not entirely satisfied with some of the particular changes proposed or the exact nature of the problem as the Joint Working Group defined it. For example, they identified as a problem the feeling of “many designated lay ministers that the current definition [of that ministry] does not represent their self-understanding” (1-2). Yet no mention is made of the fact that many ordained ministers feel the church has cut the legs out from under them by giving to others, at less cost, the very work they have been trained for and called to. Considering that the initial recommendation of the Group in this paper was to solve the problem by doing away with ordination, one could not help but detect an anti-clerical bias. Any way forward needs to find coherence in both training for, and theological understanding of, ministry within the United Church.
The Joint Working Group argued that “there should be an equivalent educational expectation for all members of the [one] order of ministry” (5). I agree. That we have hugely variant levels of training, which currently lead to virtually the same work at virtually the same pay, is nonsensical and unjust. I am concerned, however, that the Group’s evaluations of the different training streams currently in use are unrealistic. They focus far too heavily on the overall length of time it takes some students to travel through their courses of study from beginning to end (thus seeing a general equivalency in the different streams) while making little mention of the intensity of work required during that period or the rigour of the challenge involved (thus missing the massive discrepancies between the different streams). If, as the Group states, the advantages of preparing for ordination in the traditional way are “the gaining of an academic degree and…significance for further studies” (6), why then do not the other streams of training grant academic degrees and or at least allow one the opportunity to pursue further studies? The obvious answer is that no one seriously considers the different courses of ministry training, currently in use, to be remotely equivalent. Further, if our goal as a church is to seek trained ministers for our congregations (and that they will make this their life’s work!), what meaningful advantage is gained by simply having a piece of paper on the wall or the opportunity to study further for a different line of work?
There should be one basic course of study that leads to ministry in the United Church. If it is not practical to expect that our corps of ministers can be populated with M.Div.-holders as has been the case the last many decades—fine. Let’s, then, decide on a unified, minimum course of study and preparation. If the traditional training requirement for pastoral ministry is to be lowered and unified, then the United Church should once again allow candidates to use a theological degree attained at non-United Church but ATS-accredited theological college. Sadly, the reference to “developing multiple paths of educational formation to the ordained ministry” in the One Order of Ministry remit suggests to me that our current problems in this area will not be addressed. At best, they are likely to be replaced by other problems.
“One Order of Ministry” stated that the majority of ministry personnel in our denomination are Ordained Ministers and that “ordination” is the ecumenical norm within “the World Council of Churches family” (10). The final wording of the Remit from the 42nd General Council has indicated that “ordination” would be the language of recognition for the newly proposed One Order of Ministry. While this proposed language is a welcome revision to the Group’s initial proposal, and our current practice, I fear that what the church is being asked to consider is actually a shallow political compromise: use the word “ordination” to satisfy some, but redefining that word to include whatever a particular individual feels that means for her- or himself to satisfy others (and, as above, allow different amounts of study to get there). While commendable on one level, this proposed compromise demonstrates that the United Church continues to lack the cohesion that would come from a common sense of self-understanding and purpose.
Contrary to the remit question, “ordination” has a clear and historically-defined meaning in our Protestant, Reformed tradition, one that is tied to a particular set of functions carried out by certain God-called persons on behalf of the community. We set aside for a life of ministry those who have a calling from God to set aside their own lives for service to the church. We have considered, historically (following Luther, Calvin, and others), that such service should be defined primarily by the functions of preaching and teaching the Word of God as well as administering the sacraments rightly because, for the Reformers, these two activities (Word and sacrament) delineated true churches from false ones.
Vocation, education, and function are the historical pillars for our understanding of ordination. If most of our ministers are going to do the same pastoral work in congregations (which they clearly are, and will continue to do), and if the United Church wishes to bring coherence and unity to its understanding of ministry as well as to create harmony from among the divergent paths of preparation, the result should be a called and educated ministry, ordained to the work of Word and sacrament.
William Haughton is Coordinating Minister of Collier Street United Church, Barrie, ON.