A Peek at the New UCC Manual on Ministry Draft, and Two General Comments about the Streamlined Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers and the Unified Ministerial Code

So, I used to have this ministry colleague, George, who carried a stack of dog-eared 3×5 cards in his hip pocket. George had scribbled the Sermon on the Mount and assorted Bible verses on those cards, and he consulted them frequently, he said, in an effort to live a more virtuous and holy life. He kept this up for months. At the time I thought that George was odd and needed to lighten up, but then again, I probably was not as virtuous or holy as he was.

Over the past two or three years I have wondered if the United Church of Christ’s (UCC’s) Manual on Ministry (MOM), the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers, and the Ministerial Codes are like George’s 3×5 cards. Or perhaps, like the Boy Scout Law (“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent”). Nice universal imperatives, but difficult to put into practice.

Recently, MOM, the Marks, and the Codes have undergone significant revision. MOM was written (and it still serves) as a tool to help UCC Committees on Ministry, churches, authorized ministers, and Members in Discernment (MIDs) understand the different forms of authorized UCC ministry, and negotiate the various processes of search and call and ministerial authorization and standing.

Perhaps the most controversial feature in the draft of a revisioned MOM is a proposal to streamline the three current forms of authorized ministry (i.e., Commissioned, Licensed, and Ordained) into just one: Ordained ministry. A big reason for phasing out Licensed and Commissioned ministry has to do with the inherent unfairness of the current three-tier system of authorization, which effectively relegates Licensed and Commissioned Ministers to a “second-class” ministry status, and allows them to be paid much less than (and often assesses them by different measures than) their ordained colleagues.

The Marks, you may recall, are an outgrowth of the Ministry Issues Pronouncement of General Synod 25 in July, 2005. They were developed as a tool for discernment and assessment of UCC authorized ministry, and consisted of 64 skills, aptitudes, and areas of knowledge that informed and defined such ministry. The new Marks are similar but have been reworded and pared down from 64 to 48 in number.

The UCC Ministerial Codes have been around for a long time, and parallel the standards and ethical rules that guide the work and interactions of physicians, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals. In the new draft version of MOM, the Ordained, Licensed, and Commissioned Ministers’ Codes have been consolidating into one unified Code consisting of 35 “covenants.”

Although the circulating draft of MOM will undergo another revision at the end of 2017 with wider church discussion continuing into 2018, you can read the draft version, which includes the new Marks and Code, here. In addition to updating the Marks and the Code, the “reimagined” MOM reflects the changed “landscape of ministry today,” including “the shift to ‘multiple paths’ of [ministerial] formation (including but not limited to seminary),” as well as “decline[s] in traditional expressions of church” (pp. 3-4).

My reaction to the new MOM, Marks, and Code is twofold. First, this is a good time to remind ourselves that none of these documents are about achieving perfection. Thus, in Journaling the Journey, the UCC’s Ministerial Excellence, Support, and Authorization (MESA) Ministry Team has called the Marks “descriptive more than prescriptive,” and “an invitation for insight. No one is expected to reflect expertise”—let alone “final mastery”—“in all of the Marks to the same degree. We each have particular interests and strengths as well as areas for further growth and development” (Journaling the Journey: Engaging the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers in the United Church of Christ for Personal Discernment and Professional Growth [2013], pp. 2, 54). I suspect the same can be said for the Codes and all of MOM.

I hope that UCC Authorized Ministers, Members in Discernment (MIDs), and Committees on Ministry will not try to use MOM, the Marks, and the Code mechanically or legalistically, the way my ministry colleague, George, used his 3×5 cards. Our engagement with these tools is not like flicking an on-off light switch, where we either fulfill them perfectly or fail at them utterly. Rather, the Marks, the Code, and MOM work like a light dimmer, and may best be measured along a Likert Scale, which allows for many possible gradations of fulfillment.

A second and more basic reaction to the new MOM, Marks, and Code has to do with their relevance. I mean, are they at all relevant in this changing “landscape of ministry”? Are those of us who think they have continued relevance simply deluding ourselves?

In Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World (Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015), UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer argues convincingly that “postmodernity is eroding the foundations of the institutional church”—“a whole new worldview is emerging that makes much of what the church of modernity [i.e., the American church as we have known it] was built to do obsolete” (p. 14).

Dorhauer suggests that “in many of our churches, full-time, seminary-trained,ordained clergy [are] an impediment” to their congregations’ future viability. “What we have trained clergy to do and be is not what those whom we are trying to attract to church expect a pastor [to] be. As long as we invest in educating, training, and paying experts to speak on behalf of the Church and maintain an established orthodoxy, we will [lose] the postmoderns. In this changing environment, the role of clergy as trained, authorized expert[s] who spea[k] with the permission of and under the watchful eye of the mother Church” is a non-starter (pp. 15-16).

“Postmoderns aren’t buying” into the Church’s “establish[ed] lines of authority. Attaching themselves to denominational structures that have to be funded and obeyed does not have any meaning for them” (p. 25). Little wonder that “many who critique the church accuse it of being too heavily invested in hierarchy. They see power structures, and the people who occupy positions of authority, as corrupt. They see the rubrics and processes that govern authorization and oversight as hoops to jump through, in order to satisfy [the] arbitrary whim[s of] those in power. They see those with oversight as some sort of watchful eye to live in fear of, constantly watching, waiting for [ministers and congregations] to slip up so they can strip” them of their authorization (p. 80).

“We will struggle mightily with this,” sniffs Dorhauer (p. 26). These realities have powerful implications—for the “search and call” process used by UCC churches; for how Conference staff and Committees on Ministry do their work; and for how UCC churches “install” and interact with their ministers.

As a longtime denominational official, Dorhauer represents the institutional church, which has lost influence among postmoderns, and is declining rapidly. On that basis he challenges UCC Conferences, Committees on Ministry, and congregations from within our denomination: “Will we ordain somebody who hasn’t completed seminary? Will we accept as authentic baptisms performed by those with no authorization from the Church? Will we ordain a candidate who doesn’t believe Jesus is the son of God? Can a church elect a non-baptized, practicing Jew to serve as the President of their congregation? Will we affiliate a church whose spiritual leader is not an authorized, trained clergy person” (pp. 57-58)? Tellingly, Dorhauer doesn’t rule any of these possibilities out.

Drawing on the writings of scholars such as Diana Butler Bass, Dorhauer distinguishes between “Church 1.0” (the Church before the Reformation), “Church 2.0” (the Protestant Church after the Reformation, which is in decline today), and “Church 3.0” (whatever new manifestation of the Church is emerging now).

Dorhauer recognizes that “not everyone” is a postmodern who looks forward to Church 3.0. “There are still many for whom the Church as it is currently [structured] is exactly what they want and need. As long as that is the case, Church 2.0 will [continue to] exist, and serve those people to the best of its ability.” And indeed, “we will still need institutions that [support Church 2.0], including clergy, seminaries, and judicatory bodies” (pp. 86, 88).

This raises the difficult question of whether UCC churches, Conferences, and the national denomination—as well as Authorized Ministers, MIDs, and Committees on Ministry—will morph into Church 3.0. Some will—but many will not—because Church 3.0 rejects labels, organization, rules, and denominational clutter. But will UCC churches and institutions that don’t make it to 3.0 stick around and provide Church 2.0 to those who continue to find that expression of the church meaningful? Or will they quietly fade into oblivion?

Importantly, Dorhauer sees the growing influence of postmoderns and the ascendancy of Church 3.0 as something that is happening right now—not in fifty or a hundred years. Thus, he cites a church in San Francisco that is led by a pastor who “officiates at weddings” and other services “and no one cares that she is not ordained and did not go to seminary” (pp. 119, 122).

He writes about another church in Salt Lake City with no members or “functioning concept of membership, no interest in identifying or electing [a] President, [and] no mission statement” (p. 130).

And he describes yet another church in Phoenix, which recently held a baptismal service in a yoga studio, with these words: “So it was, in front of a bowl, watched over by a statue of the Buddha, that an untrained, unauthorized woman with no idea what she was doing held a baby in her arms, prayed over her, poured water on her head, and baptized her. Welcome to the postmodern church” (p. 140).

“It is here that Church 2.0 will have its greatest struggle with what is emerging,” Dorhauer concludes. “Clear, historic, and well-reasoned commitments to the education, authorization, and oversight of clergy ARE going to give way to what postmodern communities are already practicing. The simplicity and ease with which [participants] recogniz[e] and accep[t] the authenticity of [a] person’s spiritual gifts will transform the nature and role of ministry in the postmodern church” (p. 122).

What are we to make of all this? This discussion should add some bracing perspective–like a cold Northern wind in February–to our brooding controversy and conversations about the future of Licensed and Commissioned Ministry in the United Church of Christ. The newly drafted MOM continues to embrace authorized ministry. It does so strongly. The only question it poses–and it is an important one–is whether Licensed Ministry (and to some extent, Commissioned Ministry) will continue to be a form of authorized UCC ministry. But Dorhauer seems to ask a far different question–at least he does in Beyond Resistance.  He asks whether there will be any kind of authorized UCC ministry, and perhaps, whether there will be a United Church of Christ, in the future.

I myself remain a skeptic. I’m not at all sure that that Dorhauer is right, or that Christianity and the Church are becoming anti-authoritarian and anti-denominational. But if–just if–he is right, then the “changed landscape of ministry” which inspired the revision of MOM will pose difficult questions for us: How will the United Church of Christ respond to the advent of Church 3.0? How will Committees on Ministry remain relevant?  What will ministerial authorization mean, in the United Church of Christ of the twenty-first century? And will anyone pay attention to the Codes and the Marks, or care what the new MOM advises?

Chris XenakisRev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.

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2 thoughts on “A Peek at the New UCC Manual on Ministry Draft, and Two General Comments about the Streamlined Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers and the Unified Ministerial Code

  1. What bothers me about the new rubric and playing cards is that some people have now taken these marks to their churches and I have seen at least one comment that a church’s call and search committee wants to use the marks in their search for a new pastor. I am worried that this will lead to even more unrealistic expectations by calling bodies.
    I love the marks and I think some guidance for discernment is needed – I just am not sure just how to “engage” them in writing my papers. I don’t think the new rubrik is useful out of the box. But that may just be me.

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  2. In response to the MOM’s sense that there’s an inherent unfairness to differentiating between licensed & ordained pastors – since there are substantive differences in the process of preparation and the duties of licensed and ordained clergy, I struggle to understand why recognizing them with different titles is an act of unfairness. My licensed colleagues didn’t have to go to college, much less seminary; they’re not struggling under $50K debt loads. They didn’t have to do CPE, or even go thru multi-year MID processes. The licentiates I know didn’t have to clear ecclesiastical councils. I’m not arguing that this is better (except for saving all that money), but it is clearly different. They are licensed to serve a church, not to serve the whole church. Their ministry is local, ordained ministry is more likely to be nationwide. These days, it looks to me as though licensing clergy is the path of the future, with so many churches unable to pay full-time salaries. I don’t think forcing licensed pastors to get a seminary/seminary-equivalent education & go thru the full ordination process or give up serving in ministry is long-term helpful to local congregations in need of prepared, qualified, UCC-style leaders.

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