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Really quickly, what is the purpose of ordination?

Let’s say you follow the call to ministry, to this life of servitude and infamy, how do you decide by whom you would be ordained (denominationally speaking) and to whom (what community)?

I know I have the tendency to speak irreverently about the office of the reverend, but I mean this as an honest question. I’m confused as to how twenty- and thirty-somethings like myself make these significant and important decisions without knowing the breadth and depth of what is out there. I have discovered that I know too little and it is a scary feeling.

Ordination is licensure to practice within a certain doctrinal/denomination background. Ordained ministers have more clout, make more money, and have better benefits. At the very least, they have more job security than those who are not ordained.The economist in me says that there is a strong incentive for institutions to preserve their interests and put money behind people who they feel will best preserve and perpetuate their agendas.  The cynic in me asks, that’s not necessarily a license from God now, is it?

But the realists around me respond, exactly how do you think people will give you the right to do any ministry at all when they don’t really know what doctrines you espouse?

The cynic retorts, the right to ministry? God called me to ministry, I don’t need people to give me a calling I already have. Does a singer require a certificate to sing? Or a marketer to advertise? As for doctrines, ordination assumes I know them, it doesn’t say that I believe them or live them.

The realist, but don’t you think some minimum proof of at least “knowing” them is required?

Cynic: I see. it’s like a driver’s license. You’ll let me drive the bus because the state of Georgia says I can. but what if God has a history of off-roading?

Realist: there are too many wolves in sheep’s clothing, we are trying to protect the community of believers with validation by other larger, governing bodies.

cynic: and you think there are no wolves there? you think that will keep the wolves out? maybe the reason why these denominations are dying is because they are trying to protect something that cannot / should not be protected. kind of like Christian radio “safe for the whole family” stuff. who said God was “safe”?

the lover in me, who couldn’t stand any more of it, shouted, Jesus laid down his life for the sheep! …if you were a shepherd of a flock, wouldn’t you do whatever requirement, however petty, to be around them?

Yes, but where do I start? I am the son of a baptist preacher gone charismatic, then gone methodist; redeemed in an ex-church of Christ church, married in a presbyterian church and now a student at a presbyterian seminary while attending an evangelical free church. Who will have this doctrinal mutt? I don’t have to be a shepherd, I’d be satisfied to be a sheep dog, but aren’t these questions about ordination too farfetched?

People ask to see if their doctors are board-certified. Even a massage therapist needs a license. Certainly forklift operators. Who am I to operate without one? Even if it is from an institution that is struggling in its growth. Even if I know that none of these things actually qualify me, wouldn’t I myself get confused at what really qualifies me to serve the people? There is no certification for love, ok, maybe marriage, but not love. there is for madness, but not love.

About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

13 responses to “In-Sub-Ordination

  1. MrPages

    Truly a beautiful post, with some difficult questions.

    We ran into a lot of these when we stepped out of our denominational church to start a small church (house church? organic church? we still don’t have a good name for the concept).

    “Who will pastor?” “How will you make sure you aren’t turning into a cult?” “Who decides who’s an elder?”

    The entire office of the pastorate is up for debate in this line of questioning. Not necessarily on a “should exist/shouldn’t exist” basis, but more on a “is the paper what makes one, or is the proof in the pudding?” basis. Which demands the question “so who do you give a chance to make pudding?” and round and round it goes.

    The paper is a great thing when you are required to have a paper to get a job, as with the larger mainline denominations. Much of our move to a home church is a step away from the over-internalized institutions, so the other requirements, the biblical ones, seem far more important. They aren’t binary (you have a paper, or you have biblical qualifications) but from our experience they certainly aren’t coincident either.

    Who do you trust to make your decisions for you about your leaders? That’s one of the questions that is near the root, I think.

  2. elderj

    Great post… too bad that the issue of ordination has moved from a confirmation of the calling of God and a recognition that the blessing and anointing of God is on them to being a licensing process akin to… well, a driver’s license

  3. Ken

    As someone who was ordained in an independent church and who has participated in ordination exams, I have a few thoughts. I agree with elderj about the original purpose of ordination. I don’t view it as something akin to a driver’s license, because I wouldn’t hire a pastor simply because he was ordained.

    Ordination should represent something significant, namely that a group of pastors has examined the candidate’s life and ministry and decided that he is clearly called by God into full-time vocational ministry. When I am asked to serve on an ordination council, it is a responsibility that I take very seriously. But ordination also represents the confirmation of calling by a local church body. I don’t know how the denominations do it, but I think that it is essential that you live and minister as part of a local church body long enough that they know you well and can confirm God’s calling and anointing on your life. I would find it bizarre and unbiblical to ordain someone outside the context of a local church body.

  4. L T ⋅

    yes! i love this post. thanks david. i think it is one of the important things that need to be revisited as we continue to do “church.”
    what makes a shepherd certifiable, qualifiable? i would love to see the day where churches would raise up their own leaders and their own pastors not merely look for the professionals out there, who may or may not be qualified whatever that means. don’t we want shepherds that know the sheep? who better then than those who we’ve seen grow up and even have had a hand in raising?
    i think there’s a interesting shift happening amongst younger pastors in their views of leadership and theological training that related to the questions you raise. what’s the role of the MDiv? what’s lacking in the MDiv?
    pastors are not finished products upon receiving their degrees and certificates of ordination. they better keep on keeping on.

  5. thanks for the feedback and the thoughts…i’m really challenged by this topic and perhaps may need to let this flesh out a little bit more as i invest myself more in the various communities of which i am a part. to be honest, i feel a little dysfunctional compared to my denominationally well-adjusted colleagues. for many, ordination seems to be a given, but perhaps it’s because their road has come through the local church and denomination itself. mine was a bit more roundabout and less dependent on any denomination. i realize now that it colors me with the colors of anti-establishment, but it’s very challenging now to see that many communities live with the notion that institution and community are synonymous. or at least that one cannot really live without the other.

  6. daniel so

    David — Have you been reading my journal again? For real, you have given voice (wonderfully) to many of the exact same issues I’ve been struggling with for awhile. Having graduated from the most Presbyterian of seminaries among colleagues and friends who seemed to know from day one the particular denominational path set before them and still not being ordained (long, long story) almost eight years out of seminary but in full-time vocational church ministry, I totally hear what you’re asking.

    I wonder if my struggle doesn’t tie into your recent series about the different Asian religious traditions and how they influence how we understand and do church. After all, many of these traditional values (shaman, Buddhist, Confucian) play right into a pretty unhealthy understanding of the identity and role of a pastor. For example, the last thing I want to do is perpetuate the “pastor as shaman” system. I don’t want to be a part of that kind of church, let alone *lead* one…

    After becoming a dad, I realized how important the practical, put food on the table and your kid through college aspect of ordination can be. I don’t know if that’s cynical, realistic, or what but it’s a significant issue. Thanks for putting that out there….

    Let me know what you come up with!

  7. Robert Shih ⋅

    Disclaimer: I’m an outsider in terms of Christianity and religion.

    There are those who would use the church for profit and then there’s also scholarly issues involved with being a minister. Saying that you want to serve God in this manner without putting forth the effort to study and understand that which makes up what needs to be taught to the congregations would be an empty bluff.

    If you are a “doctrinal mutt” you have full well the tools to study as much as necessary to get a grasp of your roots and determine what you personally believe in as of now. You can off-road all you want, but of course you have to make sure you can navigate the road, because for the most part that’s what the majority of your herd will follow you down.

    However, as your faith would have it…you can leave it all in the hands of God because if your faith and willingness to serve shows there will be a path that will open up before you. If they don’t accept you for your background regardless of how you present yourself then they weren’t right for you. If they want you for your background but expect a presentation you aren’t comfortable with then they aren’t right for you either. You have your beliefs; simply stay firm in them. You can’t change the system easily, but by standing firm in your own path you make headway into making a difference.

  8. Well said for an outsider, Robert. I hope that I have the strength to do what you say. It is not only hard to change the system sometimes it hard merely to subscribe to it.

    Daniel, i was hoping you would be able to settle this issue for me…you’ve had 8 years! I don’t know which route to go, puritan or separatist? my wife thinks that to have my way, i’m going to have to play by all the rules first, build credibility, repair bridges, and then implement change…i’m not sure if i can do that without tiring or conforming myself. but who am i to say that i can start from here with nothing? ugh…what do you plan to do?

    I think one of the things that I’ve realized after getting into the heavier things, I may not be Presbyterian, which makes going to a presbyterian seminary a little bit harder. but who knows, maybe i wouldn’t be completely satisfied with any denomination…where are you on this?

  9. Robert Shih ⋅

    There are “non-denominational” churches. The first church I really attended and had youth services in was a non-denominational church in Chicago’s Chinatown called Chinese Christian Union Church. Of course, from my experience, even those who consider themselves outside of the concept of denominations tend to have some leanings. I guess it comes down to you doing the necessary research to find that which best suits you in your faith.

  10. elderj

    Here is the link to an essay about the relevance to ministry of seminary education:

    Happy reading

  11. thanks for the article elderj! i haven’t finished reading it yet, but it looks like great stuff!

  12. Daniel Im ⋅

    I’m a bit late in on the conversation, but I am finding it fascinating.
    Myself, growing up in a Korean Presbyterian Church, and then serving in a Mennonite Brethern Church, and now at a Evangelical Missionary Church, I have often found problems with denominations and which one I should be a part of.

    The way I heard it described was the fact that denominations are basically church families where you are able to receive support. Within our denomination (Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada), I love the fact that we have Regional Ministers who will go around and coach, network, and resource each pastor to do the work of ministy themselves. The Regional ministers won’t go around and govern the practices of each church.

    That being said, I love the way that the denomination embraces what John Wesley says – Unity in the essentials, freedom in the non-essentials, and charity in all things.

    In terms of the M.Div, I’m also completing that at the same time as serving as a Youth Pastor, and many times wonder whether it will be useful or not…or whether or not another degree would be better.

    Any suggestions?

  13. Looks like we’re in the same boat Daniel. I think it’s rare that people air out this conversation and critique denominations honestly about these rather esoteric practices of ordination and related requirements. There are so many things that seem to be negotiable, but the tighter one begins to rise in the ranks of the institution, the more closely they have to adhere to the theologies espoused by that institution. while i can in some sense understand the need to clarify theological differences, in a post-Christendom world, does that attention to minutia really matter? for instance, if two Christians quibble over baptism or ordination, what does that convey to the Hindu or Buddhist? When is it that our differences become an obstacle to faith as opposed to a more clear lens in which to view faith? Why is it that we find it so hard to work towards unity, freedom, and charity? to the point, where among denominations, it’s not really a priority. We would rather insult another denomination than reach out to non-believers.

    As for the M.Div, I’ve posted about that before, and am still on the fence about it. It seems, in Asian circles, to not have some credentials is rather foolish, because it is your only mark of credibility. In absolute terms, I don’t think scholarship should be the definitive mark of a laborer in Christ, but as people have mentioned in other issues, we cannot operate with a sense of community lest we face the abuse by a charismatic, but not-so-well-meaning individual.

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