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“Ordination is a communal rite, not an individual right.”

After reading this quote from D. Stephen Long’s Keeping Faith, I began mentally reviewing many of the conversations I have had with candidates for ordination. In my admittedly far from perfect mental scan of tweets, blog posts, and personal conversations, most (but not all) of the comments I could remember fit in the ordination as “individual right” camp. Viewing ordination as an individual right, and not a communal rite, can lead to a sense of entitlement and defensiveness, particularly if the person pursuing ordination feels like the church owes it to them.

But ordination is a communal rite and is not understood as an individual right.

And just in case the understanding of ordination as an individual right is more appealing to you than the approach of ordination as a communal rite, it may be helpful to point out that no denomination understands ordination as an individual right. Even in churches that have a congregational polity, it is the local church community that votes on whether to ordain the person. The individual is not the sole judge who claims their right, which the community is required to give.

So, what is going on? Why do so many people seem to feel entitled to be ordained, rather than viewing it as a process of communal discernment?

While I have two initial thoughts, my broader purpose with this post is to stimulate a larger conversation. I hope you will comment here. You can also connect with me and respond to this post on twitter @kevinwatson. Either way, I hope you will share your thoughts.

At this stage I will offer two thoughts. The first one is much more extended than the second. 1) People view ordination as an individual right more than a communal rite because the church has formed them to think about ordination in this way. 2) Ordination as an individual right may be a litmus test for a broader unwillingness of individuals to submit to the authority and wisdom of a broader community.

First, as I have been thinking about this quote and processing it with others, I have found myself seeing this as a basic issue of formation. Thinking back to my initial engagement with the ordination process, I don’t remember having hardly any expectations of the process beyond an initial desire to serve God and feeling that the local church was the best place to begin to work this out. I was almost completely ignorant of what the process entailed. In fact, in my first conversation with my pastor, I don’t think I knew there was a process. I was formed into a particular understanding of what ordination is and how it works.

One of the main things I initially learned was that I should expect that not only would I discern whether I felt that God was calling me to ordained ministry, but that my denomination would likewise discern whether God was calling me to ordained ministry in their midst. Where ordination is a communal rite, discernment is a two-way street.

I am concerned that many are being taught to expect that the ordination process will be, and for various reasons must be, one where the gifts one already feels one has are simply affirmed and celebrated by others. I wonder if an unintended consequence of the emphasis on being inclusive and accepting has led some people to view ordination as an entitlement. The thought process could go like this: If I feel like I want to be ordained, you must accept my sense of calling and include me in the order of ordained clergy, otherwise you are being exclusive. When this is seen in its most extreme form, even to examine someone’s calling is seen as invasive, unnecessary, and a problematic use of power by the church.

There are at least two problems with an understanding of ordination that demands that it be given as an individual right. First, people who should be ordained have room to grow and improve in the gifts and grace that have been given to them, no matter how gifted they are. Candidates for ordained ministry should be prepared to accept constructive criticism. They should expect to learn more about themselves and to grow in their sense of calling as a result of the process. Everyone, even experienced pastors, has room to grow. And discerning that one is not called to ordained ministry should actually be viewed as a successful outcome, not as a failure. Second, some people should not be ordained. And they may not always agree with the decision of the church. If ordination is the culmination of a discernment process by both the individual considering ordained ministry and the church that will ordain them, both parties must continue to affirm that they are headed in the right direction.

Before moving on to the second thought, I feel compelled to acknowledge that Boards of Ordained Ministry are not infallible. They make mistakes. And sometimes the criticism they give is not constructive, or honest. Making distinctions about when Boards of Ordained Ministry get it right and when they get it wrong gets messy quickly. And yet, as long as our polity understands ordination as a communal rite and not an individual right, we ought to try to correct mistakes and improve the process, rather than resist the authority that is rightly invested in the community.

My second main thought is that ordination as an individual right may be a litmus test for a broader unwillingness of individuals to submit to the authority and wisdom of a broader community. A few pages after the quote from D. Stephen Long that prompted this post, he wrote something that is an even more aggressive challenge to the contemporary idolatry of the individual:

We Methodists find the rites and ceremonies of our church to be so important that openly breaking them should issue in a rebuke, even if that rebuke must be given to a pastor, superintendent, or bishop. The rites and ceremonies belong to the whole church. When a pastor, superintendent, or bishop changes those rites and ceremonies because of her or his individual conscience, she or he violates the trust that the church places in her or him to guard and preserve the faith. (59)

My guess is that Long’s call for individuals to submit to the whole church, (including even their conscience!) would be contested by many. A key question, though, would be whether the disagreement is precisely an assertion of individual rights over that of the community.

What do you think? How do you think ordination is perceived by most people discerning a calling to ordained ministry? Is Long right that ordination should be understood as a communal rite and not as an individual right?