The Study of Ministry: Where are we headed?


By Sheila Cumbest
Advocate Guest Columnist

The Study of Ministry Commission was charged with exploring and articulating scriptural, theological, ecclesial and practical groundings that define our distinct ministries within our Christian relationship through baptism and report back to the 2008 General Conference, including necessary legislation.

The commission has endeavored to speak with persons through a survey and posting its proposals on the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry Web site, Our chairs of the Order of Deacons and Order of Elders, Dianne Harms and George Buell, attended the convocation of the Orders and Fellowship of Local Pastors this winter. Both reported interesting conversations over the study commission’s report on proposals. I’d like to offer a summary of these proposals and lift my own concerns.

The commission has tried to begin the conversation from the point of defining ordination. Although most persons have lifted concerns about “rights,” ordination does not lend itself to “rights” language, the commission reports. Ordination as an office is a matter of authority. When a person is ordained, the church authorizes this person to take up the office of elder or deacon as the church has described it. We then have to figure out how we relate to each other in these offices. To focus on authority changes the questions:  not “What do I have the right to do?” but “What has the church authorized me to do?” 

Not everyone agrees on the meaning, but what does the commission propose as a result of its study? These are the recommendations: 

  • Ordaining many local pastors who have completed the Course of Study and associate members as local elders.
  • Clarifying the meaning of deacon further by deleting the term “service” from the elder’s office.
  • Uncoupling ordination from conference membership. Persons would be ordained as elder or deacon on the occasion of their entry into probationary membership. Once elected to full connection one is then elected to the office elder or deacon.

This raises many questions for me. First, “ordaining” local pastors so that they may serve the sacraments instead of “licensing” them and giving them authority to serve under the episcopal authority of the bishop and superintendent seems to be semantics. It does not do more to define ordination; it simply makes it more in line with other mainline denominations so that we seem more understandable, maybe more orthodox.

Second, why should deacons be the only ones “set aside” to represent the servant ministry and ordained to “service?” Elders and all baptized Christians are called to servant ministry. We can have reiteration of terms in the two offices, since they are not planning to take “word” from the office of deacon. It does little to clarify the role of the deacon.

Furthermore, no mention of the debate of sacramental authority of deacons is made in the last report on the GBHEM Web site, but it has been discussed greatly. The commission has no intention to bring legislation to give deacons this authority. This is clearly a way to keep the two orders distinct.

Finally, the separation of ordination from full connection or membership in the annual conference seems to even further diminish the meaning of ordination. Ordination should be the last step for a person who has met all the requirements, including an effective time of ministry in the order to which he or she is called. Full connection being tied to that rite is final approval by the church that it agrees the person is called, equipped and has shown the fruits of that in ministry.

Therefore, when a person decides he or she wants to withdraw or a person needs to be terminated from The United Methodist Church, ordination is surrendered along with terminating membership in the conference.

Our chairs of the orders are not in total agreement but are having conversations with elders and deacons. All clergy and laity need to educate themselves on these proposals and legislation. Whoever represents us at the General Conference in 2008 needs to be very familiar with all the ramifications of the forthcoming legislation. We need to continue to have conversations about ordination and two of the larger issues that I haven’t addressed: itinerancy and guaranteed appointments.    

I hope that you will prayerful enter into dialogue and let your understandings be made known to the general board, our conference delegates, our chairs of Orders and Fellowship and to me.

Cumbest is an ordained deacon and director of Ministerial Services for the Mississippi Conference.