Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sacramental Authority and UMC Licensed Local Pastors


In our recent discussion about pastoral overwork, Keith Taylor wrote:

I’ll tell you what, in my opinion, is at odds with a spiritually healthy life. A part time pastor who works a secular job, and then works as a local licensed pastor, and then is told by the UMC hierarchy that he or she is not qualified to serve holy communion, or baptize an unsaved heathen, or perform a marriage for one of his or her own members in a church other than their own, because they are only a part time local pastor, not a full time elder. It is simply, UnChristian, IMHO. We don’t have second class Christian Pastors. Not if you do the job right. I do not understand why the UMC assigns great men and women who want to serve the Lord as a part time local pastor and then ties their hands like this. It makes no sense to me at all and I find no Biblical basis for it.

The practice of the sacraments by licensed local pastors in the UMC seems to vary widely. I think that the Discipline pretty clearly states that local pastors have sacramental authority. ¶ 316.1 reads:

Probationary members approved annually by the board of ordained ministry and local pastors approved annually by the district committee on ordained ministry may be licensed by the bishop to perform all the duties of a pastor (¶ 340), including the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion as well as the service of marriage (where state laws allow),4 burial, confirmation, and membership reception, while appointed to a particular charge. For the purposes of these paragraphs the charge will be defined as "people within or related to the community being served." Those licensed for pastoral ministry may be appointed to extension ministry settings when approved by the bishop and the board of ordained ministry.

So it seems pretty clear to me that licensed local pastors have sacramental authority within their own parishes. I can't take a road trip across America and start handing out the Eucharist, but I can offer it to whoever attends my church and I can take it to homebound members. But I've heard people around the Conference tell me variously that only full-time local pastors can offer the sacraments because they have been interviewed by the Board or that no local pastor (full or part-time) can offer the sacraments without an elder being physically present.

There seems to be a wide variety of interpretations of the sacramental authority of licensed local pastors. As for me, my District Superintendent told me to offer the sacraments within my parish, and I do whatever my DS tells me to.

What do you think? Do licensed local pastors have sacramental authority? Should they?



John Meunier said...

I know there is an effort as part of the reconsideration of ministry going on at the GBHEM to take away sacramental authority from local pastors.

It is not as simple as that, but that is certainly how it is perceived by some pastors.

Anonymous said...

As your citation from the Discipline states, local pastors are licensed to administer the sacraments within their appointment. Do your best not to pay attention to elders. It's amazing how little so many know about our own polity.

Todd said...

My first appointment out of seminary I was serving as the pastor of a small church and as a campus ministry. Due to **ahem** circumstances beyond my control **ahem** I didn't pass the Board of Ordained Ministry Interview the first time. This meant I was serving under appointment as a local licensed pastor.

A young couple involved in the campus ministry asked me to marry them, which I was very happy to do. 2/3 through the counseling I was informed that I was to be appointed to a different church. Since I had passed the Board interview, I was going to be commissioned at the time of the wedding.

I asked the Bishop if I would be allowed to perform the wedding for this couple. Marriage isn't a sacrament and the state recognizes even the barest minimum of ordination as legal.

The Bishop had to call national offices to get the ruling on that. Turns out that local pastors and commissioned pastors are not authorized to even perform weddings outside of their appointment. Even though states do not recognize the boundary of appointments for wedding authority.

Commissioned ministers are technically serving under the same authority as a licensed pastor.

Lorna said...

They do, they should and IMHO it should be extended to being a minister to their flock elsewhere (e.g. a marriage in another parish)

but what Keith said about it being unbiblical - I think actually applied to the whole concept of ordained ministry from a Biblical (not tradition) point of view.

Here in Finland if you are a local pastor you are licensed by the govt - that means you can marry and bury people, as well as baptise and hold the Eucharist -but I'd like those latter to be extended right back in to the body of Christ :) ...

Keith there should not be second class pastors OR second class Christians. Our commission - all of ours - is to go out baptise and make disciples and it really is high time we got that. I think celebrating the Eucharist - in homes where it was done first - is a natural extension of that

even if it does raise eyebrows :)


Anonymous said...

If Asbury were alive today, I don't think that he'd be allowed to do what he did -- after all, who was his BOOM? Did he pass? Did he attend seminary? How DARE he preach the gospel and do priest stuff.
(Anonymously I am posting this. In trouble I do not wish to get. Hostile is local BOOMs. The path to wisdom difficult is.)

The Thief said...

Local pastors do awesome work, and it would be a huge step backwards to take away sacramental authority from them.

Here in West Ohio, we have a tremendous number of licensed local pastors, many of whom are serving churches that cannot afford an elder. To deny local pastors sacramental authority would be to deny these churches sacraments - simply because they cannot afford them. This is outrageous.

"Sorry, you can't be baptized because our (rural or inner city) church doesn't have enough money."

I, for one, am for an extension of licensed local pastors' sacramental rights outside of the local church. Didn't John Wesley say, "The world is my parish."???

And if we claim that for ourselves, what is the boundary over which we cannot step?

MethoDeist said...

Here are a few questions for everyone here. The questions are:

1) Do you believe that many of the mainstream churches, such as the UMC, have become too bureaucratic and focused regulations (such as those being discussed in this thread) rather than the missions appointed to Christians by Jesus (ie: the Great Commandments and the Great Commission)?

2) If so, do you believe that this may be one of the reasons for mainstream churches having trouble with maintenance and growth of membership?

3) Going beyond question 2, what do you feel are some the reasons why mainstream churches have been losing members in the last few decades?

4) Finally, do you believe that founders such as Wesley and Asbury would be happy with the structure of the UMC today?

Thanks in advance for anyone who would like to answer.


Jeff Lutz said...

If I remember, sometime during the last few GC's they changed it so that Local pastors can do the sacraments, but at their church. I had a pastor in Kentucky tell me a funny story of "frozen Jesus" where the elements were blessed by an elder, then frozen and shipped to the church for the local pastor to then distribute to the congregation. While there may be some wisdom in limiting who can conduct communion or other sacrements for that matter, I think that if a pastor is assigned a parish, then they should be given the right to at least administer the sacrements in their own church. Who else but that pastor knows their congregation then that pastor.

Stephen said...

I noticed the main jest of the replies was aimed at the system, Boards, structures, etc...

Maybe this conversation would be better held in the area of sacramental theology (as labeled as such on John's blog).

So a good opening question is what is your view of the sacraments and to a lesser degree what is your view of ordination? How do these views affect the consecration and service the holy communion?

TN Rambler said...

I would urge all of you to read through the final report of the Study of Ministry Commission to GC 2008. The original draft of this report, released in January and no longer available online, stirred up a hornet's nest in some of the draft conclusions.

The final document has some good ideas (along with a few clunkers) and I personally believe it to be less offensive than the original document. I especially like the idea of completely separating ordination and conference membership.

To get back to the question at hand (and in the interest of full disclosure I am a licensed local pastor): Yes, if we as a church are going to license persons for ministry in a local church then we need to grant those persons the authority to fully minister to that local church. To do anything less effectively disenfranchises those local congregations and places them into a second class status.

Tim Sisk said...

Tim Sisk says:

Keith unfortunately frames the issue very unfairly. The UMC hasn't decided that local pastors are "unqualified" to give communion. This is the same nonsense and inflammatory language that those who are fighting for the rights of deacons to administer sacraments use as well.

The UMC has decided anyone is "unqualified". The UMC has a very high view (I don't mean exalted in this sense) of ordained ministry. I'm not sure if Keith is an elder or not; actually I hope he isn't because he would have missed his coursework on sacramental theology and the ministry of the ordained.

In the UMC theology, we ordain elders (and those who are in process to become them) to among other things administer the sacraments. This is what I mean by a high view of ordination, that is we have a very rigid ordinational understanding. (When I was an ordained Baptist pastor, churches would ordain people to any type of ministry. Youth ministry, Christian Education, college professor, missionary, etc. It was conceivable that one could even be ordained as a "homemaker" if a church wanted to do so. This weak view of ordination meant there was a blurring of the understanding of ordination. Laity and clergy could be ordained, as deacons and clergy, respectively).

It is a fairly recent phenomena that local pastors were even included in the class of minister set aside for the work of communion. And that decision was largely influenced by mixture of practical necessity and the "justice" issue raised by Keith (it's not fair that some are "qualified and others are not").

If a person is called to a minister that administers the sacraments, they have the right to pursue ordination as an elder. And there is a process that the church uses to respond to the second call (the call of the church to recognize the call of the person).

This is an easy for us to understand in the local church. If someone is "called" to be a trustee, he doesn't join the PPR committee. And while the PPR committee may serve the church, we don't charge them with property issues. That's the job of trustees. And the PPR ought not say, "It's not fair that you think we aren't qualified to do it!"

The GC of 2008 is reviewing a recommendation to recall us to our vigorous and strongly developed understanding of ordination. I suspect it won't pass, because of the way people will view it will likely be like the way Keith framed the issue.

But that would be a mistake. Because it wouldn't be declined because it is bad theology (though certainly an argument could be made that it is, though I would disagree). It would be declined because of reasons to do with practicality (having to go back to a circuit riding days of the elder to be able to perform sacraments in the local church) or because people have a underdeveloped theology of ordination.

And we don't need anymore underdeveloped theology in the UMC thank you very much.

Tim Sisk said...

I want to add: And making decisions based almost wholly on practicality leads to jeff's "frozen Jesus" or the Lifeway's disposable/prepackaged styrofoam/juice Jesus packs.


John said...

Tim, Keith Taylor is a Layman.

If we removed the sacramental authority of local pastors, we would revert to the American Methodist practice of the 18th and 19th Centuries, when Methodism exploded across the country.

I can understand the arguments both for and against letting local pastors offer the sacraments. If the GC determines that I and other local pastors should not administer the sacraments, fine. But I would like for that first Sunday when I can no longer for the sacraments for a DS or Bishop to come to my congregation why I an no longer do so, as my church is used to having communion every month. It would also be incumbent upon the Conference to create a formal, organized system to ensure that elders attended every church at least once a quarter to offer the sacraments.

John said...

Correction: I would like for a DS or Bishop to explain to my congregation why I can no longer administer the sacraments.

Art said...

Licensed Local Pastors should have sacramental authority!

Keith Taylor said...


Y'all obviously know what my opinion is.

Lorna makes an excellent comment above about it being high time what our commission as Christians really means.

Pretend that the UMC ceased to exist an institution today. Or, more likely, pretend that for some reason, I decide to write the Bishop a letter and I tell him/her that I no longer wish to be a member of the UMC nor have any association with the UMC. I still believe all I believe about the Christian faith, but I simply leave the UMC.

Am I still a Christian? Of course I am. No human institution can take that away from me.

Now suppose that a pagan friend comes to me and tells me that he has carefully studied the articles of the Christian faith, he has read the Bible, he has prayed, he is solely trusting on the blood of Christ for the forgiveness of his sins, he wishes to become a Christian, he wishes to be Baptized, and he wishes for me to do it.

Do I, as a Christian, have that Biblical Authority? Of course I do. No Christian who has seriously read the words of Christ in the Bible can say that I don't. Do I have the authority to break bread and wine with him and celebrate Holy Communion? Of course I do. If you can show me in the Bible where I am wrong then please do.

As UMC members, we yield this authority in a Biblical manner, to the rules and Discipline of the church, but only because we are members of the UMC. I know a lot of UMC laymen and I thank God we don't have laymen doing this!!! However, not all Christians do, especially those who are not a member of any formal church.

Don't worry, I am a 9th generation Methodist. I'm not about to go out and start baptizing folks, serving communion, and doing weddings in my back yard. However, as I have stated, I sincerly believe our Church is wrong in the way we treat local pastors, such as yourself.

Thanks Lorna

Stephen said...

"Do I, as a Christian, have that Biblical Authority? Of course I do. No Christian who has seriously read the words of Christ in the Bible can say that I don't. Do I have the authority to break bread and wine with him and celebrate Holy Communion? Of course I do. If you can show me in the Bible where I am wrong then please do."

As Keith correctly points out this might come down to the issue of authority. How do we as Methodists order our church? This is a question that has become increasingly multi-dimensional. The Methodist Church is really the only denomination that struggles with this issue because we are the only denomination that has this classification of local pastors. What my conference has recognized is that the local pastor has authority in the local church to which they were appointed. That includes sacramental authority.

Lorna (see through faith) said...

"If we removed the sacramental authority of local pastors, we would revert to the American Methodist practice of the 18th and 19th Centuries, when Methodism exploded across the country."

Of course John if that was the inevitable consequence of only allowing elders to administer the sacraments it might be worth it.

wonder though who'd baptise, bury the dead oh and marry those couples who really don't want to live in sin....

seriously, the argument that only elders are ordained is ridiculous anyway. If someone is appointed a pastor by the bishop or DS it should be enough to be licensed as a local minister and if s/he then is able to administer the sacraments in his/her local church then why not elsewhere.

Either you are a pastor or you are not.

Is your DS not allowed to administer the Eucharist in another conference (by invitation) ... or what?

The less I read about what is really happening in the UMC over there, the crazier it all sounds.

As someone already said - what about Asbury and Wesley? But then they followed God and not some defunct system -maybe we ought to follow their example?

Keith McIlwain said...

Local pastors DO have sacramental authority within the parish to which they are appointed; that's in the Discipline.

I DO support ordination of "Local Elders", so that we can once again connect sacramental authority with ordination.

And that rude kind of clergy classism is quite prevalent in my own Conference as well, I'm saddened to say.

Stresspenguin said...

I've posted a story about my own experience with this subject at my blog.

Tim Sisk said...

Rereading my first comment, I need to correct a statement:

I wrote in the second paragraph:

"The UMC has decided anyone is "unqualified".

I hope everyone understands I meant: "The UMC hasn't decided anyone is 'unqualified'."

Local pastors currently have sacramental authority to the church/parish that they are assigned. This decision, IMHO, wasn't really born out of a deepening of our theology of ordination but rather from practical considerations and a misguided "justice" issue.

I'm not really suggesting that we should revert back to the old "circuit" system that put an elder into every church at least once a month so they can observe sacraments in the local church.

But I am urging those who feel a call to the ministry of sacraments to pursue that call within ordination track that the UMC has set up: the elder track.

Most, almost all really, of my colleagues in ministry who are local pastors are every bit as capable of serving Christ as pastors of church. But it isn't elitist to recognize that elders have undergone a more extensive review by the conference on the way to ordination as an elder in full connection.

But don't conflate with the issue of administration of sacraments. Administration of the sacraments (without restriction) isn't the reward of being ordained an elder (though it is certainly both a high honor and an humbling experience). It is the job of the elder.

Local pastors, as important as they are in the ministry of the church, have only started the beginning track of ordination. There are lots of reasons why local pastors don't continue down the track of elder ordination. But almost every reason is based on a decision the local pastor has made. I've never known a situation where the conference said: "No, we won't let you continue down the track, you must remain a local pastor."

Thank God we have local pastors. Many of our churches would be "unpastored" if we didn't. Local pastors should be honored for their work.

But don't lower the requirements for membership in full connection/elder ordination, which is what is being called for, albeit indirectly, in this discussion.

Lorna (see through faith) said...

"But don't lower the requirements for membership in full connection/elder ordination, which is what is being called for, albeit indirectly, in this discussion."

I'm not sure that that is what this discussion is all about really.

As I see it (and I could be wrong!) this is a question of whether it is only elders who can administer the sacraments - or under what conditions others - including local pastors - can do so.

I agree with Keith (and others) that this is a question of discipline. As UMC members we are obligated to follow UMC guidelines - but sometimes - it's important to put ministry before theology, and even before the BoD!

Hopefully those conflicts are few and far between.

We do have to - and I hope want to -submit to our leaders - that IS biblical.

In the UMC we have a conference system to turn things around ... but there is clearly a lot of pain surrounding this issue and if what John Meunier said as the opening post there is a thought to take away sacramental authority from local pastors - I think that's a very sad position for the global UMC indeed.

Dan Trabue said...

Late to enter this contest, but I'm with Lorna and Keith. Limiting who can "administer" communion to brothers and sisters is unbiblical.

At my church, my pastor normally does communion. But if she's gone (or even if not), then our youth minister might. Or - gasp! - others who hold no position other than "believer."

That'd be one reason, to me, to not be a methodist (who I dig in many ways, otherwise). Nothing personal.

Dr. Tony said...

I have posted a link to the latest version of the Study of Ministry Report on my own blog -

My reading of this report indicates the local pastors will probably be allowed to administer the sacraments within the boundaries of their own appointments. But my reading of the report also suggests that the days of the local pastor are probably numbered. The emphasis of the report is on the ordination of elders and the apparent lack of progress towards that goal by many individuals.

The report offers suggestions as how to improve the pathway to ordination for elders and deacons.

But, buried at the end of the report is a suggestion that many small churches need to either close, merge, or yoke with other small churches so that an elder can take the charge.

Anonymous said...

Todd, it seems to me that there ought to be a loophole which allows for pastors to perform marriages when they have an appointment change in the midst of pre-marital counseling. That only makes good common sense. After all, this is a church issue and not an issue of the state, right?

It's funny how legalistic we Methodists are about issues!!!!!!!!


crevo said...

Tim --

Despite your assertions to the contrary, I really do think that the UMC is in fact designating certain people as "unqualified".

Let's use your committee example. Let's say that there is a fight one day, and all of the trustees leave the Church. Does that mean that the Church shuts down? No, because anyone can perform the duties in their place. Sure - they aren't the default ones to do so, but that doesn't mean that in a pinch someone else can't do it.

But in the case of the sacraments, we have many churches who are in a pinch, and cannot fill the role. And the problem is _not_ that there isn't anyone willing to do it. The problem is that the UMC has decided that those who are willing to do it aren't qualified.

Anonymous said...

Ok, everyone, let's read that again, 'cause i don't think most of you caught this essential point. The Book of Discipline says:
"Probationary members approved annually by the board of ordained ministry and local pastors approved annually by the district committee on ordained ministry may be licensed by the bishop to perform all the duties of a pastor (¶ 340), including the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion as well as the service of marriage (where state laws allow),4 burial, confirmation, and membership reception, while appointed to a particular charge."

In case you didn't catch the wording: "...may be licensed by the bishop..."
Reading that "may" is essential for understanding. The Bishop makes the determination what licensed local pastors can or cannot do. The Bishop make make the determination based upon the unique individual's gifts & graces, upon the local congregations' needs, upon the full or part-time status, or any other myriad of reasons. If a licensed local pastor has not been given the authority to perform the sacraments, and he or she thinks that the authority would be beneficial for the congregation, then that licensed local pastor should talk to the Bishop. If the local congregation wants their licensed local pastor to have that authority, they should first speak to the pastor. It's a sure thing that complaining about it in an online forum isn't going to affect change.
As for whether or not it's appropriate for a Methodist who is not an elder to administer the sacraments (my Pastor just talked to me about this an hour ago!): consider first that you're a Methodist, and that's the way we do things... it's called submission, and it's Biblical. Next, consider that if you think you should, as a Methodist, be able to administer the sacraments, then, perhaps, God is calling you to a ministry position that gives you that authority.
Now, personally, having studied the subject quite well, it's necessary to say that the Scripture doesn't say specifically who is or is not allowed to administer the sacraments... although some would point out that the examples in Scripture all have the administration being done by leaders (elders, pastors, apostles, etc.)... but the Scriptures also do not state that only those people can administer the sacraments, so it also cannot be implied that it is wrong in any way as it relates to Biblical Doctrine. That said, we must remember that God judges the heart... all our motives are laid bare before Him.
It'd be very hard to imagine anyone in the UMC suggesting that someone is sinning if he or she were to consecrate and serve Communion during a family dinner. Likewise, it's hard to imagine anyone discounting a person's Baptism, simply because their parent administered it in a creek or an ocean during a vacation.
But, there's still one more thing to consider: if you want to have Communion at home, a simple visit to an elder (or any other person who has been given that authority by ordination or by the bishop), and they can consecrate the elements, and you can take them home. It's, again, very hard to imagine that elder not providing that opportunity for you to worship Christ. And that same person is able to instruct you, and authorize you, to properly serve the consecrated elements. So, is there a reason why you can't submit to the process? Well, then do what you must, as long as you are acting with a clear conscience and pure motives before God.
An old friend of the family was a Vietnam POW... and he says the most powerful Communion experience he ever had was when he was being starved, beaten, & tortured... he and two other men were nearby each other in bamboo cages... they collected water using leaves that had fallen near their cages... they found leaves or other barely edible things, and, when the guards walked away for a few moments, they quickly prayed a prayer of consecration, and ate those elements. It wasn't formal, there was no ordained elder, it wasn't clean, it tasted terrible, he said, and it wasn't even juice/wine or bread... but it moved him to tears even as he told me the story over 20 years later. If anyone dares to question the validity or efficacy of that experience, or dares to suggest that those elements were not consecrated... well... you're going to have to take that up with God, and you should prepare yourself to hear that you're wrong.
Fortunately, most of us are nowhere near those circumstances, and we have every opportunity to submit to our leaders and organization. If that's too much for you, then, perhaps, you should question if God has called you to be a Methodist.
Personally, my family will be asking our Pastor to consecrate the elements prior to us needing them at home. That's not the way we did it growing up, that's not my faith tradition, and that's not how my family would like it to be... but in my position as both a member of this denomination, the local church, and as a local church staff member, it's my duty. And, it's prompting me to pursue the proper credentialing through the UMC (even though i'm ordained through another church).
Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

Adding to my last post, right above (also anonymous):
1) You are correct, in my opinion, when you state that the UMC is indicating that some people are not qualified to perform certain duties. But, is there a problem with that? Not everyone is qualified to counsel. Not everyone is qualified to officiate weddings. It's the way things are. Each of us has a role to fill.
There will be an increasing number of Pastoral positions that will need to be filled in the UMC in the next few years (mandatory retirements of the baby boomers)... perhaps your feelings should, as mentioned in my last post, motivate you to become properly credentialed to administer those duties that you feel you're Biblically allowed or called to do.
It's important to remember that while some people are certainly going to be called and qualified for different areas of service than others, they all have the same sacred worth. Being qualified or unqualified for a certain task does not mean that someone is BETTER or WORSE than another person.

2) Regarding the situation Todd brought up (doing 2/3 of the counseling for a couple, then not being able to do the wedding)... it seems there are a couple loopholes, depending upon the situation, if the couple is willing, and your conscience is clear: If you are allowed to officiate weddings in your new appointment, the couple certainly would have the option of having the wedding at the new location, which would allow you to continue the counseling and officiate the wedding. There's another loophole, if the first isn't an option: in my situation, another organization has legally ordained me, but my process of credentialing in the UMC has only just begun... however, my circumstances bring to light the 2nd loophole. If you are legally ordained through another organization, or even just sign up for one of those online ordination deals, you'd be legal to officiate their wedding... it just wouldn't be able to be held in a UMC building. While the government recognizes the ordination, the UMC does not.
Of course, you probably shouldn't attempt or even consider either loophole, unless the couple is REALLY wanting you to officiate. And, even then, it's pretty fuzzy... it's possible the bishop would flip out about it... particularly the 2nd loophole.