In a speech in South Africa in 1966, Robert Kennedy said that there is an ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Textual evidence has thus far failed to find a Chinese source for this curse, but there is something right about it, regardless of its origin.
We live in interesting times. The church is living in interesting times. Mainline or old-line denominations have lost their social position. Some argue that this is like New Testament times, but I think that analogy breaks down quickly. There may be fewer people in our pews and we may have lost some of our social location, but Christianity, in some form, is embedded in powerful places in our culture. Hobby Lobby, which recently opened a store in Duluth, is suing the federal government arguing that providing contraceptive health coverage for female employees violates the Christian values of the store and its owner. Those same Christian values greeted a Jewish shopper, who, when asking about why Hobby Lobby would not stock any Chanukah items was told: "Because Mr. Green is the owner of the company, he's a Christian, and those are his values." We live in interesting times as a church.
It is also an interesting time to be an elder in The United Methodist Church. When I was ordained an elder in 1986, two years after I was ordained a deacon, and I still proudly display both ordination certificates, the language of our Discipline discussed ordination as “the specialized ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order.” Ordination was “fulfilled in the ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order.”
The 2012 Book of Discipline has expanded the language of ordination. Ordination is fulfilled in leadership of the people of God through ministries of Service, Word, Sacrament, Order, Compassion, and Justice (303). Deacons are no longer “ministers who have progressed sufficiently in their preparation for the ministry to be received by an Annual Conference as either probationary members or associate members.” Deacons are now “ordained by a bishop to a lifetime ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice” (328). Elders “are ordained to a lifetime ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service” (332).
In distinction from Deacons, then, the unique ministry of the Elder could be located in Sacraments and Order. What makes things even more interesting is that there are persons licensed to perform the same duties in local church settings as do those ordained Elders who are also appointed as pastors. Licensed persons are licensed “to perform all the duties of a pastor” (313). What is left of the unique ministry of the Elder?
Posing this question in this way carries with it some baggage. As The United Methodist Church has added the order of Deacons, as the prevalence and power of licensed local pastors has increased, Elders have often been seen as trying to hold on to some of their power and privilege – guaranteed appointment, voting rights, sacramental authority. How do we talk about the unique ministry of the Elder while avoiding maintenance of the status quo which has, at times, privileged Elders? Can we get at uniqueness without arguing for privileges which seem unfair and unwarranted?
I am currently serving on the denominational Study of Ministry Commission. In the Study of Ministry Commission of the previous quadrennium the group concluded: The commission observes a lack of consistency in how the orders and roles in ministry are understood and supported across the church. They suggested the following understanding as a way forward:
· The elder connects the church and the denomination, chiefly through Order.
· The deacon connects the church and the world, chiefly through Service.
· The local pastor connects the church and the individual, chiefly through Proclamation.
As an Elder, I am not necessarily jazzed up by this understanding of the unique ministries of each order, particularly in a post-denominational age. I get more excited about Word, Sacrament, Service, Compassion, and Justice. I spend a lot of time trying to connect church with persons. Yet the language that is unique to Elders is that we are “to order the life of the Church for service in mission and ministry” (332). There is something potentially important there in these confusing, interesting, and dare I say, disordered times.
Perhaps the unique ministry of the Elder in our time is by the Spirit and power and grace of God, to try and make our current disorder the creative chaos out of which a new order might be born. There is something in that for all of us – lay persons, Deacons, licensed pastors – there is enough disorder to go around. Perhaps Elders, though, need to muster the courage to enter our current disorder and make it the creative chaos out of which a new order might be born, and do this systemically. Perhaps we are uniquely positioned to try and name the challenges, adaptive and technical, that face us, and to do so marshaling our best theological and other intellectual resources. Perhaps we are uniquely called to flow from the balcony to the dance floor and back again. Perhaps we are uniquely invited to monitor the temperature as change takes place.
If we take these as our unique tasks, we do so knowing that many find in us a great deal of disorder. The Call To Action Operational Assessment tells us “a large portion of the Church’s clergy has performance effectiveness issues” (25), and we are a large portion of the Church’s clergy. Recently, a United Methodist economist, in a presentation to the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry arguing for the vital need for younger clergy, quoted an unnamed retired United Methodist bishop who told him, “We have not been recruiting the brightest and the best.” I have been around long enough to hope that this bishop was referring to a time after 1986. We live in interesting times.
Perhaps the unique ministry of the Elder is to feel some of the pain of our disorder and yet, with courage granted by the Spirit, to lead us all, making the full use of all the gifts of all God’s people, so that disorder may become the creative chaos out of which new order can be born.
With Faith and With Feathers,
With Faith and With Feathers,