General Synod to consider ‘multiple paths of preparation’ to ordination
The long-anticipated, widely-vetted “pronouncement” – a weighty statement that calls the church to its highest levels of conversation, action and implementation – makes a case that regional training and mentoring can be effective models, in some settings, for educating persons for ordination.
Like most mainline Protestant churches, the 1.3-million-member UCC has predominately adhered to a European model of educating its clergy: four years of college, followed by three years of seminary.
“The heart of this issue,” says the Rev. Richard Sparrow, “is that, as we live into our goal of becoming a multiracial, multicultural, open-and-affirming, accessible-to-all church, the one-size, 4-plus-3 educational path does not adequately address the leadership needs of the UCC in all of its settings.”
Sparrow, who leads the denomination’s parish life and leadership ministry in Cleveland, says the pronouncement underscores the church’s commitment to maintaining a highly educated clergy, but allows room for the possibility that there can be other effective ways to equip persons for ordained leadership.
“What it calls for is a deeper discernment of preparedness for ministry on behalf of our [Association-level] committees on ministry,” Sparrow says. “It calls for a renewal and study of the [candidate’s] in-care process as a time of formation and discernment. Committees on ministry are being called to a deeper understanding of their primary task, which is to concern themselves with the gifts, training, skills and abilities of those authorized for ministry.”
Already, Sparrow points out, the UCC’s Manual on Ministry outlines ordination criteria that includes the phrase “or its equivalent.” However, he says, the church has had difficulty discerning, much less embracing, the word “equivalent.”
“The grassroots of the church has been asking for this for 15-plus years,” says Sparrow, who considers himself to be an advocate of the process, not the pronouncement itself.
The proposal does not call for a restructure of the church’s three forms of authorized ministry: ordained, licensed and commissioned. More so, it opens up the possibility that licensed ministers – those who serve as pastoral leaders but often lack the formal “4-plus-3” education – could be ordained.
“We understand that for some individuals and some congregations that licensed ministry will continue to be sufficient,” Sparrow says. “But for others, ordination will not be automatically barred based on formal education alone.”
“We need leaders who understand and have a passion for the UCC,” he says, “and that’s not only a matter of ‘knowing’ but of ‘loving’ the church.”
The Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, underscores the pronouncement’s sweeping significance, saying, “While other resolutions have sparked interest because of their controversial nature, nothing the Synod does this summer will be more important than considering the ministry issues pronouncement. Nothing less than the capacity to provide leadership to many of our congregations in rural or transitional urban communities is at stake.”
In November 2004, the UCC’s Council for Theological Education, which includes the UCC’s seminary presidents, among others, released a joint letter stating: “We agree that the traditional, seven-year, college/seminary path will and should continue to be the path for many persons. Indeed, we think it will and should be that for most persons seeking ordination.”
However, the council recognized that other paths may be needed, even though deep consideration will need to be given to the specifics of these alternatives and their implementation.
“We also agree that other options must be developed to meet the needs of a changing church,” the statement continued. “We believe that, in order to be truly effective, these options will need extensive further development, review and monitoring. In particular, we believe that the equivalency the church seeks should not be located in the preparation process but in the unique qualifications of the candidate for ordination.”
Thomas agrees, saying, “Formal theological education in the seminaries of the church should, I believe, remain normative for the future of the UCC. But the diverse cultural and demographic contexts of many of our communities will require that exceptions be made.”
Thomas says, if the pronouncement passes in July, then “the real work will just begin.”
“The national setting, the seminaries, the Conferences and our church and ministry committees will need to begin developing the multiple paths to ordination called for,” Thomas says, “and we will need to begin working on ways to help persons called to ministry discern not what will be the most convenient path to ordination for them, but what will be the most appropriate.”
Thomas says the proposal will require money to support theological education in multiple settings.
“Access to theological education, in our seminaries or in yet-to-be-developed Conference-based programs is a justice issue for the church,” Thomas says. “The question must not be how can a candidate pay for his or her education, but how can the church take both the financial and the educational responsibility for equipping persons for ministry.”