My Ongoing Arguments with Christianity and Myself

The Gifts and Graces of Ordination Bureaucracies

In Uncategorized on May 19, 2009 at 3:11 am

I’m a bit behind the curve on this one, but the buzz in the emergent blogosophere is Adam Walker Cleaveland’s post “When an M.Div. from Princeton Isn’t Enough.”  The gist of it is that after three degrees in religion, one from a denominational college and two from denominational seminaries, Adam was told that he needs yet one more year of seminary in order to get ordained by that very denomination.

And to think what they would have said if he hadn’t gone to schools within the denomination!

The blogs are abuzz, and Adam helpfully linked to a lot of the blogs a-buzzing.  I took a few minutes to look through them and was astonished by some of what was being passed off as wisdom, mostly in the comments sections, directly or by implication:

1. Either you submit to the judgments of the ordination committee or you are in rebellion against God’s plan. Next thing you’ll tell me is that Jesus himself had exactly the sort of arcane bureaucratic nonsense we see in mainline ordination when he called the disciples.  If only they had listened better, we could have have high debt seminary education followed by years of subsequent hoop jumping two thousand years ago!

2. Ordination committees know best. Fifteen years of first and second hand reports tell me that ordination committees are of widely varying quality, often depending on the individual personalities of the people on a particular committee.  Designation as a denominational bureaucrat doesn’t confer any special wisdom of which I’m aware.  I became a volunteer denominational bureaucrat earlier this month, so you can imagine my disappointment.

3. It’s best to say whatever you have to say (or not say) to get ordained and bide your time until you can start telling the truth about yourself and your understanding of God. One commenter seemed to think this is what Jesus meant by “be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.”  If this is what it takes to get ordained, what further evidence of corruption and decay do you need? Ministers who advance this viewpoint should have their ordinations reevaluated if they won’t stand up loudly and proudly against a system they obviously believe to be in sin.

4. Ministers need to be tested; therefore, any hazing or abuse you suffer at the hands of an ordination committee is part of God’s plan for your ministerial formation. Yes, and daddy hits because he loves you. The worst part of bureaucratic abuse of ministerial candidates is that they usually have no recourse whatsoever, unlike abused children.

5. If you oppose mainline denominational ordination procedures, you must think there shouldn’t be ordained ministers. I’ve tutored eight-year-olds who could point out the logic flaw in that one.

6. Ordination bureaucracy keeps the bad people from getting ordained. There’s a good case to be made that giving ministerial candidates psych tests—even one as outdated as the MMPI—keep out the crazies, to cite one example.  I’m not against all bureaucracy.  But you can only wear so many helmets and knee pads and still ride a bike safely.  You can reduce risk in ministry, but you can’t eliminate it.  People still get killed when they do everything they can do to be safe, so let’s not pretend that bureaucracy is a magic protection again future clergy misbehavior.  Too much concern for safety becomes unsafe.

7. Denominations sin, so no one should play with them. But you sin, and we still play with you.

8. Denominations are value neutral systems; only the people in them can sin. Systemic sin is real. See also: racism, sexism, etc.  Systemic sin loves a good bureaucracy full of well meaning folks who’d rather not think about unpleasant things like how institutional privilege and the power of guilds hurt people, for starters. After all, they’re already through with that mess.

Kudos to Adam for putting up an evenhanded post (unlike this one) and keeping it up in spite of a lot of resistance.  I hope he keeps up the transparency, and I hope the San Francisco presbytery takes this all in the good stead in which it seems intended.

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