Five Things I Think I Think about Committees on Ministry (COMs)

After serving for nine non-consecutive years and counting on the Susquehanna Associations (New York Conference’s) Committee on Authorized Ministry, I have arrived at some speculative conclusions and definitive conjectures about the work that we and other Committees on Ministry (CoMs) do, on behalf of the United Church of Christ (UCC).

You know about CoMs. They are the “workhorses” of UCC Associations; as such, they are as busy and important as (if not moreso than) any other Association or Conference board or committee. CoMs support the authorized ministers of their Associations. They license lay ministers for sacramental ministry; they direct the training and preparation of ministerial candidates (known as Members in Discernment, or MIDs);  and they recommend qualified candidates for ordination. CoMs organize ecclesiastical councils and ordination services. They look after ministers’ continuing education, required training, and “standing.”  CoMs meet with non-UCC ministers who seek UCC affiliation;  they interview authorized ministers who are newly arrived in an Association, and/or newly-called by Association churches;  they install ministers; and they assist ministers when they become embroiled in conflict with their parishioners. Indeed, many a Conference Minister has remarked that while there are no bishops in our denominational polity, if any UCC persons or entities do the work of bishops, it’s the CoMs—because they guide, facilitate, and “authorize” ministry and ministers’ careers.

So here are five things I think I think about CoMs:

1.  I think that CoMs (and Mainline Protestant denominations) do too many things. Read that paragraph again (above) that describes all the things that CoMs do. It’s an exhausting list—and we can well wonder if CoMs can do all those things thoroughly and well! Even so, we would be hard pressed to say which of these traditional tasks can or should be eliminated.  Overwork—and perhaps over-functioning—are significant dilemmas for the Mainline Church.  Many denominations today have all the earmarks of overgrown, aged bull moose, lumbering along as best they can. Their racks are so awkward and heavy that they would break their necks if they had to change course or respond nimbly to a threat.  Meanwhile, agile, energetic, and young, postmodern congregations (“Church 3.0” gatherings, in UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer’s parlance) and Millennial ministers are like carefree field mice, scampering and zig-zagging beneath and in between the legs of the giant ossified creatures.

2.  I think that American Mainline Protestant denominations are rapidly decentralizing. We are living during a time of accelerated change—and the future is moving past unwieldy denominational structures and rigid rules, requirements, and traditions about ministerial authorization, church polity, and doctrinal faithfulness.  As that happens, the influence of seminaries and religious organizations is diminishing; meanwhile, individuals, small groups, and local congregations are being empowered.

Denominational leaders don’t quite know what to make of this decentralizing phenomenon. Thus, United Methodist Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., and L. Gregory Jones and Susan Pendleton Jones of Duke Divinity School argue that we Protestants, of all people, “should embrace the loss of control” that has accompanied the advent of the postmodern church;  after all, “Protestants are committed to decentralized decision-making, rooted in our convictions about ‘the priesthood of all believers’ and the high calling of daily life” (Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., L. Gregory Jones, and Susan Pendleton Jones, “Disrupting Mainline Protestantism through the Digital Revolution,” Faith & Leadership, May 19, 2014).

Indeed. Instead of sending their young minister candidates to seminary, some large churches have created apprenticeship programs for them. Some of these churches function as “teaching congregations. Other[s] are looking to their laity for leadership in business, education and community development” (Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., L. Gregory Jones, and Susan Pendleton Jones, “Disruption and Leadership Development in Mainline Protestantism,” Faith & Leadership, March 24, 2014).

Of course, many churches do not have the ability or resources to train their own leaders. So it is an open question whether individual congregations can completely replace seminaries.

3.  I think that CoMs—and UCC Conferences—need to become more intentional in their support of churches.  All CoMs engage in periodic support conversations with their authorized ministers, but most do not have the time to provide similar support to congregations. But churches would benefit greatly from intentionally-scheduled periodic support conversations. Perhaps such dialogue can be facilitated through the creation of Committees on the Church that operate like CoMs, and run on a parallel track to, and in cooperation with, CoMs.  These new committees may provide conflict mediation services, and may additionally:

(a.) Offer boundary awareness training for churches.  As my pastor colleague, Joanne Ferguson, notes, there are many situations in which congregations are not aware of their ministers’—or their own—boundaries.  And what they don’t know (as well as the inappropriate behaviors that can result from this ignorance) can damage the church.

(b.) Begin educating and coaching some aging and struggling UCC churches about ending their ministries and dying well.  As the Rev. David Schoen and the Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata have noted on this blog, it is vitally important that we help church leaders and their congregants think clearly, rather than romantically, about their futures.

4.  I think that our understanding of authorization for ministry is evolving.  In Church 3.0, self-authorization—that is, a strong belief in one’s self and one’s ministry, that may or may not be accompanied by a sense of having a call from God—may be more important than the authorization of an Association or denomination. Consider Jim—a seminary student who served actively in a UCC church on the West Coast, and had an ongoing MID relationship with his Association’s CoM.

A gifted and charismatic layperson, Jim had some years earlier acquired an online ordination—the “pay-$25-and-impress-your-friends-by-performing-weddings” kind.  And throughout his tenure as a MID, Jim would—on the basis of this novelty credential—wear clerical garb at church and social functions, identify himself in the community as an ordained minister, and seek to perform sacramental ministry. Jim’s CoM did not recognize his online ordination, and had many stern conversations with him about his behavior. But Jim resisted his CoM’s advice, and eventually the CoM terminated his MID status and severed its relationship with him. After that, things got interesting.

If anyone expected Jim to fade quietly into the night and never be heard from again, that did not happen. Instead, Jim continued to attend (and helped lead) services, preach, and provide pastoral counseling at various UCC churches in his Association!  And there was not much that Jim’s former CoM could do to dissuade him from these practices—other than to inform Association churches that he had no ministerial authorization, and to ask them to please not use him for pulpit supply.

Admittedly, Jim’s behavior was extreme, and I am no fan of diploma mills, or of people who purchase fake college degrees and online ordinations. But I wonder if any of this will matter in the postmodern Church.  Diploma-mill degrees, online ordinations, and self-authorization may be perfectly acceptable in Church 3.0.

5.  I think that traditional ministers—Baby Boomer pastors who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s—don’t have the time and may not have the inclination to hone their marketing and entrepreneurial skills, become skillful grant writers, develop financial and real estate expertise, and do all the other things that church consultants and denominational officials want them to do.

Indeed, as Lutheran pastor and author John A. Berntsen suggests, such expectations ignore the fact that “every day we [pastors] have to do things we’re no[t] good at. Our prospects for improvement are slim,” yet we try to do them. We talk “about our spiritual gifts working harmoniously within the context of a suitably matched ministry,” and about “‘growing edges,’ continuing-education plans, and covenants that might overcome our ministry deficits”—but none of these solutions is entirely satisfactory (John A. Berntsen, “Downward Mobility,” Alban at Duke Divinity School, February 12, 2010).

Perhaps a better way to think about pastoral leadership is to acknowledge that indeed, the church has a vital need for leaders with extraordinary marketing skills, entrepreneurial expertise, and financial and real estate acumen, but the authorized minister cannot be all these people and do all these things, like a one-woman band, or a jack of all trades. Rather, the minister needs to focus on those things that only she can do: lead worship, administer the sacraments, bring a word of comfort to the sick, and teach confirmation classes and Bible studies. Dedicated lay people will need to do the rest!  As J. K. Boodley, a pastor colleague put it, pastors should never do for their congregations what the people can do for themselves. Letting congregants fill these roles gives them needed “ownership” of their church’s ministry.

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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