Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling!

The current issue of Circuit Rider is focused entirely on the most recent Ministry Study, which addressed how United Methodism conceptualizes clergy. Among the issues that it addresses are the administration of the sacraments by licensed local pastors.

Circuit Rider is filled with alarmist, Chicken Little-style articles that suggest that the UMC is in a shattering crisis because of the sacramental authority of licensed local pastors. In fact, Jerome King Del Pino calls it an "identity crisis". Thomas Edward Frank even calls into question the legitimacy of the denomination with an article ominously titled "Is United Methodism Even A Church?" Frank writes:

We cannot afford to go on like this; a movement that is "playing church."

The most agitated Elder writing is Robert F. Kohler, who blames the UMC's numerical decline on licensed local pastors:

Although the numerical decline in elders is well documented and parallels the decline in the number of church members, these statistics do not tell the whole story. It is not the decline in numbers but the erosion of leadership and a sense of purpose that is at the heart of the decline.

Kohler misses the old days, when elders were revered and their authority unquestioned:

When I was ordained as an elder in 1967, I was welcomed into conference membership by the assistant to the bishop who said to me, "You are now a part of the greatest community of church leaders you will ever know."

Kohler laments the decline of elder privilege:

Elders do sense a loss of uniqueness, if not authority, within the annual conference. Local pastors outnumber elders in an increasing number of annual conferences. Deacons increasingly are assuming the sacramental roles of elders and licensed local pastors in the local church and in extension ministry. Increasingly elders are asking why.

Puh-leeze! Sacramental leadership by licensed local pastors is among the least of our problems. It can be credibly argued from a theological perspective that only ordained elders in full connection should administer the sacraments. But these articles aren't arguing on that basis (none of the three quote the Bible even once). These elders are lamenting a loss of prestige.

If the Order of Elders wants to have sole authority to administer the sacraments, you're welcome to it. By the way, my church has Holy Communion on the first Sunday of every month. And we're about to start a midweek Communion service on Tuesday nights. I expect you to be there, Dr. Kohler, to offer my people Holy Communion. As I wrote a while back:

If the General Conference considers legislation that restricts sacramental authority to Elders, I have no objection so as long as that same legislation also places the responsibility of providing the sacraments entirely on the Order of Elders.

Absent such explicit responsibility on Elders, we shall see more degradation of Holy Communion as Kurt relates. His experiences include having the elements blessed retroactively, having them blessed over the telephone, and having them blessed after being left on an elder's doorstep. How, I ask, is this somehow more reverent treatment of Holy Communion than Dan Trabue's experience of laypeople leading the Eucharist? How is God honored by a blessing of this sort?

I further ask the Elders who think that only they should serve the sacraments: are you willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that everyone who wants them has access? Because if not, then we should not move forward with this proposal.

UPDATE: Related thoughts from John Meunier and Brian Vinson. The latter writes:

Am I allowed to use my blog to call someone a pompous windbag?


John Wilks said...

Perhaps if the ordination process was not such a convoluted mess and if a seminary education didn't cost an arm and a leg...

UCM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary Beth said...

Oh, the good old days. Back in 1967 when clergywomen were still struggling to get a toe in the door. Five years before we finally eliminated the Central Jurisdiction. Yep, we should definitely be doing things the way they were done back then.

Jeff Lutz said...

It seems to me that focus has been lost on why people are leaving the church, or not going there to begin with. It has nothing to do with who can bless the sacraments, but the fact that the church seems stagnant, which I feel has to do with large segments of the congregation that think the one hour on Sunday is all that is required to have a relationship with Christ.

Jeff Lutz said...

Oh and I meant to add that limiting the sacraments back to only the elders, would probably lead to an even bigger hemorrhage of membership, as people would not be able to take part the one sacrament that is meant to bring the church together.

Anonymous said...

I recently read the same Circuit Rider issue and I take issue with your characterization of the articles in that issue. What I heard from several of the authors (including Kohler, who I disagree with on many points) was not a longing for the good old days of elder power, but rather a recognition by the study commission of the current lay of the land. Increasingly the UMC is utilizing local pastors in local congregations, and what Kohler, Frank, and the rest of the commission is arguing for is that these pastors be ordained rather than living in some sort of organizational limbo. Ordination would provide sacramental authority, something that already exists within specific congregations, but is more consistent with a sacramental theology that holds to the notion that ordained persons need to be involved in serving and authorizing the sacraments (a point that we can argue, but still remains part of our tradition and theology).

One of the problems with our ordering is the division in our system between ordination and conference membership. The study commission is not suggesting that ordination be equated with full conference membership, thereby leaving power in some ways in the hands of the itinerate group of elders.

To be fair to Bob Kohler (who I disagree with on many topics) I don't think his statement about joining the order of elders what one of longing, but rather one of surprise and regret of a tradition that was so historically separatist in nature.

Knowing Tom Frank as I do, he in no way is suggesting that the decline in UM membership statistics is in any way connected to our ordering of ministry. What he is acknowledging is something that we all need to recognize -- that we live with a legacy of an evangelism plan that leaves us with many, many very small congregations, most of whom cannot afford a full-time minister, and frankly don't want one. How we provide pastors for these "family chapels" is an important question today, and I think Frank is arguing for making sure that our system of ministerial ordering is consistent with our current deployment of pastors.

I encourage you to go back and re-read the articles again, for I really don't think the articles were as negative or fearful as you make them out to be.

Pastor Chris Roberts said...

JOhn, great post.
I would say that during my time in seminary and in my student pastorate, I questioned why I should become an elder. I could see the growing number of local pastors and I saw the number of direct hire staff that were doing as much (and making as much or more) than full elders. While I think this is an important question, liek Jeff, this is NOT a really important questoin facing our demoniation. This is just one in a number of distractions that continue to misguide our churches and leaders from focusing on real problems that are causing teh decline -- not that any of us really know what those issues are because we haven' studied or even honsestly addressed that question.

Tim Sisk said...


My reading of the Circuit Rider agrees with Jay Vorhees.

Tim Sisk

Anonymous said...

I'm with Jay here.

The idea is that ordination and admission into full connection of the annual conference be separate things. Therefore you have local pastors ordained but not in full connection and elders that are ordained and in full connection.

John said...

Jay, I have re-read the articles in question and think that I have read them correctly. If I have misquoted the authors or quoted them out of context, please explain where. Specifically.

Steve Heyduck said...

I no longer receive the Circuit Rider, don't know why, but don't miss it enough to call and ask...

Anywho; whether Jay or John's reading is fairer, I can't say. I can say, though, that there is at least one elder who is not so terribly concerned with power, control, and sacramental exclusivity.

Jonathan said...

John, my understanding is that if the proposals of the study committee are implemented that most of the people who are now local pastors would be ordained elders. So, your concern about people not being able to receive Communion is exaggerated.

TN Rambler said...

I'm with Jay and the others on this one. And this is coming from a Local Pastor who first raised questions in the Methoblogosphere about the first draft of the Study on Ministry. While I don't agree with all of the points being made in this edition of Circuit Rider, I don't see the chicken little aspect that you see here.

I would encourage everyone with an interest (and that should include most of the people who read L&H) to take the time to read the study and other documents that have been generated by it here at the GBHEM website. The commission is proposing further discussion and dialog. If that's what they want, then folks need to know what they are discussing and dialoging about.


John said...

Thanks for that correction, Jonathan. That does indeed appear in the study.

Maybe this is the voice of inexperience, but I'm not sure what problems the Study intends to correct if its recommendations are implemented.

The Thief said...

John, my impressions were similar to yours. I blogged about them last week.

Michael said...

Most of the objections I've heard from elders has more to do, in my humble opinion, with a country-club mentality that demands to know why the bus boys want to eat in the main dining hall. I see what the others on this post have said, but this is my take on some of the objections I've read.

Admittedly I've not read the Study and don't really care to. Being a local pastor, I don't really have a lot to say that would amount to much. Suffice it to say, I agree with John in that in all the objections that have been raised by elders in other writings, not one has bothered to quote Scripture as to why it is theologically questionable for local pastors to administer the Sacraments.

Still, is Chris not more accurate in that this is just one more distraction that misses any real point to be made?

My 2 cents.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps if you actually read the study, you might find the scriptures you have been looking for. Admitting to ignorance isn't shameful, but admitting that you have no interest in even examining the very document in question while at the same time characterizing elders as denigrating local pastors, is, to my mind, shameful.

You do local pastors no service with your previous comment.