This week’s post is written by Rev. Elizabeth Dilley who serves as Minister for Ministers of the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team within the UCC’s national setting.
In the summer of 2017, the MESA Ministry Team surveyed Licensed Ministers and Association/Conference staff about their understandings and practices of licensed ministry. Last fall, MESA overviewed the feedback received from Licensed Ministers in a CARD blogpost at: https://carducc.wordpress.com/2017/11/06/licensed-ministry-according-to-licensed-ministers-and-conference-staff/. This blogpost overviews the feedback received from Association/Conference staff. The survey data are rich, and a full report will be available later in 2018; MESA is grateful to Marge Royle’s work in analyzing this data for the Church.
As the first chart indicates, the most common reason for licensure given by Association/Conference staff was when an individual was identified and called into pastoral leadership by a local congregation but did not feel called to ordination; in such cases, licensure was used to provide temporary authorization and oversight. The second most common reason was to provide temporary authorization for a MID to celebrate sacraments. While the least common for licensure was when it was used in culturally specific contexts, this was more common in some conferences.
Conferences differed significantly in three uses of licensure:
- when a church hires someone outside of the search and call process whom the COM determines to be unsuitable for ordination;
- when a person is identified and called into pastoral leadership but does not feel called to ordination; and
- in culturally specific contexts.
This survey also asked Association/Conference staff to reflect on their Association’s theology of ordained ministry along continuum between “authority for Word and Sacrament, representing the Church Universal” and “lay ministry of the congregation for local preaching, teaching, and administering the Sacraments.” This question elicited a wide variety of responses along the whole continuum, and included many people who gave no response at all. That said, Association/Conference staff understood licensed ministry as a “lay ministry for a congregation” slightly more than the Licensed Ministers did. The conferences that had the highest congruity in understanding of licensed ministry (no matter what that understanding was) between Licensed Ministers and Association/Conference staff included: Connecticut, Penn Northeast, Penn West, and Montana-Northern Wyoming. The conferences with the lowest congruity in understanding of licensed ministry included: Florida (with a 73-point difference in shared understanding), Iowa (49-point difference), Pacific Northwest (43-point difference), and Penn Central (36-point difference).
These data suggest both a variety of uses for licensed ministry in the UCC and a lack of shared understanding(s) as to the theological purpose of licensed ministry. In some ways, this reflects the broader differences in theologies of other topics in the United Church of Christ and points to a denomination that lives in the midst of great theological and practical diversity. In other ways, however, this poses challenges to the use of consistent denominational practices towards authorization for lay persons serving as pastors. The work of the Habakkuk Group strove to address these challenges and diversities for the next edition of the Manual on Ministry, making room for locally appropriate practices while inviting the UCC toward more consistency in authorization.