Ordination, Orders and Rule of Life

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship planning ordination orders and rule of life 400x299
United Church of Canada ordination. (CC 2.0)

Though the denomination and the country is different, the scene at the right may be a familiar one for many United Methodists. It is from an ordination service in the Maritime Conference of The United Church of Canada, just a few weeks ago.

Beginning in 1996, United Methodists added an element to the whole process of ordination and life as ordained persons when it created "orders" of deacon and elder through which persons in the respective offices were to relate to and support one another.

It seemed a very new idea at the time.

But for Methodists in particular, this 1996 "innovation" was really a kind of "double recovery" within both the Methodist and the larger Christian tradition.

A Methodist Recovery
The Methodist side of the recovery was that to a certain degree, the annual conference itself had originally been a kind of "order" for elders. Elders were the only ones who were full members of those earliest conferences after 1784, and so the only ones with full voice and vote. But more importantly, especially early on, these conferences were really like a gathering of a chapter of a religious order to a large degree-- times for the elders to get together to discuss with one another how it was with their souls and how they could support one another in their common ministry.

Certainly, it has been a good thing for Methodists since that time that Annual Conference is no longer an "elders only" club, that we now regularly have more laypersons present than clergy, and that we also treat both deacons and local pastors as clergy, even if the latter may not yet have the same voice and vote in the clergy session that persons in full connection may have. We didn't and don't need to go back to a less representative Annual Conference!

Yet, what that has meant is that in effect the only time all the clergy are together, much less all the clergy of a particular kind of ministry, may be the few hours of a clergy session spent largely on dealing with issues brought by the Board of Ordained Ministry, or perhaps a "pastor's school" where, once a year, those who can afford it may come for fellowship or learning. While it's good we still do these things-- we do need to!-- that the clergy session itself may have become our most regular contact with each other was not ideal, to say the least.

So we began to correct that in 1996, creating through the orders and fellowship of local pastors a structure and leadership intended to help deacons, elders, and local pastors support each other in the forms of ministry they share, thus recovering in spirit, if not exactly in form, something of what the earlier Methodist annual conferences themselves had provided for those who attended them.

A Christian Recovery
The creation of the orders was more than a Methodist recovery. It has had at least the potential for to be a more deeply historical Christian recovery in our denomination, restoring a practice of gathering and set of relationships much older than Methodism, Anglicanism, Protestantism or even the Roman Catholic Church.

Generally speaking, at least the Western Christian tradition has typically understood that persons ordained to an office were thus also ordered into a relationship with all others in their diocese or region sharing that office. Ordination was "ordering"-- not only of the life of the church, by providing Spirit-empowered leaders, but also of the life of those who would lead and their life as a community of leaders in our midst.

We see examples of this throughout Syria, North Africa (including Egypt), and Turkey, at least, in the early centuries of the church. A composite of these practices looks something like this. A bishop or presiding elder (there were a variety of titles and roles this person might have) would regularly gather all the elders in a particular region for a spiritual strengthening, study, and strategic support about how best to lead in the situations they faced in the particular contexts they had been sent to serve.

In the earlier periods, when the dioceses (regions watched over by a given leader) were smaller, and the number of presbyters involved was fewer, it may be these gatherings, while intentional, were a bit more grounded in the bonds of mutual affection each had for each than any clearly formal agenda. (I suggest this on the basis that we don't have evidence from earliest periods what sort of agenda, if any, there may have been). But as the church expanded rapidly, beginning in the fourth century and especially after becoming the legal religion of the Roman Empire in 375, so did the size of dioceses and the number of presbyters per bishop in many areas. And as that happened, we do know that the nature of these gatherings shifted from a focus on face to face relationships (which were now harder to sustain) and more on a renewal of living out the vows-- the Rule of Life-- of their office.

That practice continues in Anglican, Roman Catholic, and some Protestant bodies to this day-- at least ritually-- through annual services of renewal of ordination vows, often held on Maundy Thursday in the Roman and Anglican traditions, and through "Ember Days" in the Anglican tradition in particular-- times when all clergy and all clergy candidates (for all orders) are to check in with their bishop, in writing or in person, to discuss how they're fulfilling their vows of office and where they may need additional guidance or support to do so better. This practice is, to be sure, in many ways vestigial. And it could be much more. But at least the vestiges remain.

How "Recovered" Are Our Orders?

From my angle and experience, it seems to me United Methodists haven't quite figured out what to do with our "recovered" structure of ministry orders. We may use them for gathering folks in the orders for continuing education, or retreats. We may use them to seek to know each other better. We may use them to commiserate.

But to be honest, in talking with clergy colleagues from around the connection, many are not really sure why we're doing this, or what difference it is making in our lives or ministries. Since we're unclear about the purpose, while some time away from the parish or other settings with colleagues may be welcome, sometimes it may feel more like one more meeting we're supposed to show up for. Or worse, it may feel like a division among our body as clergy based more on status than necessarily on who we are or what we do or the life we have vowed and been empowered to live.

And so I offer this as a modest, but serious proposal.

Ordination Vows as a Rule of Life for the Ordained and Template for the Work of the Orders and Fellowship

What if we take the step many of our colleagues and spiritual ancestors in other traditions have done, and order the work of our orders (and our association of local pastors!) explicitly around the vows of office we take?

What would it look like for deacons, elders, and local pastors every year, to gather with the agenda of helping each other live out these vows, common to both orders and the fellowship of local pastors?

Imagine, if you will, a two-day quarterly gathering of all clergy leaders in a conference. The first day might involve conversations and equipping for all present around these vows, common to both orders and, in effect, to the fellowship as well:

As ordained ministers,
you are to be coworkers with the laity, bishops,
deacons, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, home missioners,
commissioned ministers, local pastors and elders.

Remember that you are called
to serve rather than to be served,
to proclaim the faith of the church and no other,
to look after the concerns of God above all.

So that we may know that you believe yourselves
to be called by God
and that you profess the Christian faith,
we ask you:

Do you believe that God has called you
to the life and work of ordained ministry?

I do so believe.

Do you believe in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
and confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

I do so believe and confess.

Are you persuaded
that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments
contain all things necessary for salvation
through faith in Jesus Christ
and are the unique and authoritative standard
for the church’s faith and life?

I am so persuaded, by God’s grace.

Will you be faithful in prayer,
in the study of the Holy Scriptures,
and with the help of the Holy Spirit
continually rekindle the gift of God that is in you?

I will, with the help of God.

Will you do your best to pattern your life
in accordance with the teachings of Christ?

I will, with the help of God.

Will you, in the exercise of your ministry,
lead the people of God
to faith in Jesus Christ,
to participate in the life and work of the community, and
to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people?

I will, with the help of God.

Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church,
accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline,
defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word,
and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you,
and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?

Now, for Day 2 of the quarterly meeting, the orders and fellowship divide into their separate groups to report, support, and learn better how to live out the vows of their particular order.

For the deacons in their particular gatherings, this:

A deacon
is called to share in Christ’s ministry of servanthood,
to relate the life of the community to its service in the world,
to lead others into Christian discipleship,
to nurture disciples for witness and service,

Here a large Bible may be lifted by an assistant.

to lead in worship,
to teach and proclaim God’s Word,
to assist elders at Holy Baptism and Holy Communion,

Here a towel and basin with pitcher may be lifted by an assistant.

to interpret to the church the world’s hurts and hopes,
to serve all people, particularly the poor, the sick, and the oppressed,
and to lead Christ’s people in ministries of compassion and justice,
liberation and reconciliation,
even in the face of hardship and personal sacrifice.

These are the duties of a deacon.

Do you believe that God has called you
to the life and work of a deacon?

I do so believe.

The bishop asks all candidates for ordination or recognition as deacon:

Will you, for the sake of the church’s life and mission
covenant to participate in the order of deacons?
Will you give yourself to God through the order of deacons
in order to sustain and build each other up
in prayer, study, worship, and service?

I will, with the help of God,
and with the help of my sisters and brothers in the order of deacons.

And then what is it like to help each other live out the prayer over them as the Spirit makes them deacons:

We thank you, Living God,
that in your great love
you sent Jesus Christ
to take the form of a servant,
becoming obedient even to death on the cross,
and now resurrected and exalted in the heavens.
You have taught us, by his word and example,
that whoever would be great among us must be servant of all.

Give these servants grace to be faithful to their promises,
constant in their discipleship,
and always ready for works of loving service.
Make them modest and humble, gentle and strong,
rooted and grounded in love.
Give them a share in the ministry of Jesus Christ,
who came not to be served but to serve.

Likewise for elders and the fellowship, what is it like to help each other live out these vows:

An elder
is called to share in the ministry of Christ
and of the whole church:
to preach and teach the Word of God

Here a large Bible may be lifted by an assistant.

and faithfully administer
the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion;

Here a paten and chalice may be lifted.

to lead the people of God in worship and prayer;
to lead persons to faith in Jesus Christ;
to exercise pastoral supervision,
order the life of the congregation,
counsel the troubled,
and declare the forgiveness of sin;
to lead the people of God
in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world;
to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people;
and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church
and in service in and to the community.

These are the duties of an elder.

Do you believe that God has called you
to the life and work of an elder?

I do so believe.

Will you, for the sake of the church’s life and mission,
covenant to participate in the order of elders?
Will you give yourself to God through the order of elders
in order to sustain and build each other up
in prayer, study, worship, and service?

I will, with the help of God,
and the help of my sisters and brothers in the order of elders.

And what it is like for elders and the fellowship to help each other be a living Yes to this prayer:

We praise you, eternal God,
because you have called us to be a priestly people,
offering to you acceptable worship through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
Apostle and High Priest, Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.
We thank you that, by dying, Christ has overcome death
and, having ascended into heaven,
has poured forth gifts abundantly on your people,
making some apostles, some prophets,
some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
to equip the saints for the work of ministry,
to build up Christ’s body,
and to fulfill your gracious purpose in the world.

Give to these your servants the grace and power they need
to serve you in this ministry.
Make them faithful pastors, patient teachers, and wise counselors.
Enable them to serve without reproach,
to proclaim the gospel of salvation,
to administer the sacraments of the new covenant,
and to offer with all your people
spiritual sacrifices acceptable to you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Might an agenda for quarterly gatherings built around concrete ways we can help each other, in our orders or fellowship, live the life we vowed to live be a source of wisdom, courage and strength, as well as accountability, now and for the foreseeable future?

Not that I have any particular authority to ask this, but as a member of the Order of Elders in this church, and as the Convener of the Ordinal Task Force, I do have a genuine passion and interest for this:

Perhaps it's time for a few of our orders or fellowships to order their orders and fellowship around our actual vows-- for at least a few years-- and see what you discover about the nature of your life as an order and the strength of your vocation within your order when you do.