Trend: A Broad Range of Calls to Ordained Ministry

This week, a new post by the Rev. Stephen Boyd, Minister for Chaplains and Ministers in Specialized Settings, and Ecclesiastical Endorser, and Rev. Malcolm Himschoot, MESA Minister for Ministerial Calls and Transitions, both team members of the Ministerial Excellence, Support, and Authorization (MESA) Ministry Team in the national setting of the UCC.

The Ministerial Excellence, Support, and Authorization (MESA) Team has for years heard questions about “an ordainable call.” Though not new, the frequency of such questions constitutes a trend nationwide for Committees on Ministry to consider.

Several different types of situations are coming before Committees on Ministry, for authorization as first-call situations for people potentially going into ordained ministry. When working with these unique, vital and viable calls to ministry, we have often experienced that the individual’s call to ordained ministry, beyond the first call, can become blurred. Committees on Ministry and Members in Discernment alike need to focus on the individual’s calling to ordained ministry, first, and what that looks like in light of both the first call and the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers. The use of a Four-Way Covenant helps the Member to present, and the Committee to envision, the complete person for who they are in light of the Marks, as well as flesh-out the ministry of the church, of which ordination is representative. 

Some examples follow:

Cliff.* Cliff has already worked until retirement in his first career, but now he is considering ministry so that he can contribute his gifts to local churches. He does not need a professional wage. He can go to be a pastor in some places others cannot go, including in more remote areas without an economic base. In fact, Cliff is prepared to look for a call on a voluntary basis. Knowing the UCC is committed to fair and just compensation for all employees (lay and ordained), can the COM ordain Cliff to volunteer ministry?

Cheryl* has a calling to the specialized work of intentional interim ministry in parish settings. She is mid-career, not yet ordained, but highly experienced with a lifetime in church as well as consulting and change management in her corporate career. Conferences can always use more intentional interim ministers, and the COM believes she would do well. But past precedent in that conference restricted ordination to settled ministers only. Can the COM ordain Cheryl to a first call as an intentional interim minister?

Carl* is presenting to the COM his desire to be essentially an independent contractor. Imagine Carl going into spiritual direction, or pastoral counseling, or workplace chaplaincy – a form of specialized practice involving representative religious leadership beyond the gathered community. Just last year the COM said no to someone heading into this type of work because in their view that individual did not have the capacity for ecclesial integrity over time, lacking a covenantal connection with a local church. But Carl does have UCC local church membership, values the faith tradition, speaks to high responsibility as one part of the Body of Christ, and displays significant capacity for ministerial competencies and responsibilities. Can the COM ordain Carl to a first call in a solo practice?

Candace.* Candace is entrepreneurial, and has a worshipping community gathered and forming even now. This community resembles the embodied church in key ways: praying and eating together, joining in rituals together. At some point in the future, they might decide to become a church in the sense of the United Church of Christ Bylaws, with membership and voting and obligations to the pastor and covenant with other churches. But for right now, their faith and Christian understandings are still being formed. Candace knows she will be more effective in this work with this community if she can lead with ordained representative authority for Word and Sacrament. Can the COM ordain her to a new ministry start?

Cooper* is clear that they are called to military chaplaincy. Since military chaplaincy, by its own rules, cannot be a first-call ordination setting, but requires someone to be already ordained, Cooper must look for other ministerial employment while still preparing to serve as a chaplain. They found in their area two hospitals that would work with them on a part-time on-call basis as a hospital chaplain at both, with expectations that they would provide leadership at times with Word and Sacrament. Cooper’s home church wrote up a very unique Four-Way Covenant with five partners to the covenant. Can the COM ordain Cooper in this situation?

Individuals who seek to serve in and on behalf of the church as ordained ministers in settings other than a Local Church need to prepare a meaningful Four-Way Covenant (MOM 2018, Section 2:5) for the Committee on Ministry, in order to address common understandings at the first-call juncture. Where there is no satisfactory Four-Way Covenant, the COM will find it hard to discern and to give an affirmative answer to a question of ordination.

With a sufficient Four-Way Covenant, COMs can – and some have – ordained ministers in all of the above scenarios, depending on the fitness and the readiness of the individual minister.

When MESA is asked to consult with COMs on these matters, we guide discernment to some key provisions in the new Manual on Ministry (MOM 2018, Section 2:5) regarding the first-call itself:

  • Is the call covenantal?
  • Does the call respond to the needs of the church?
  • Does the call involve mutuality in ministry between the minister and a community?

Additionally, we recommend consideration of the faithfulness and wholeness of the person for vows to a life in ministry, which will take many forms. The first call, which leads to ordination, is only one facet of the multifaceted, multidimensional and gifted person called to serve the needs of the church over time.

Covenant matters a great deal. By listing the examples above, we do not mean that COMs should always necessarily ordain individuals in such nontraditional scenarios. Manual on Ministry (MOM 2018, Section 1) notes that ordination is meant for the needs of the church, not the individual. The church, rather than the individual, must discern its own needs for representative ministry.

For a Committee on Ministry representing the wider United Church of Christ, in some situations “yes” is an appropriate answer, and in some situations “no” is an appropriate answer to the question of ordination. A well-grounded answer should relate to theological discernment on behalf of covenantal church life, all symbolized by a stole.

* = not their real name

One thought on “Trend: A Broad Range of Calls to Ordained Ministry

  1. Thank you for this well-written piece. I have a friend who experienced what “Cheryl” did, and the experience was very demoralizing for her. Thank you for encouraging an openness to person-by-person discernment. I appreciate the work MESA is doing to educate the church on the importance of covenant.


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