There were two marathons going on in Illinois this past week. Yesterday was the conventional marathon in Champaign-Urbana: that's when the finish line is 26 miles (plus 385 yards) away and you have to run (sort of ) to get there by the end of the day. I lived in the midst of that marathon for several years and witnessed it first-hand, usually while frantically driving around...trying to find an open street in order to get to an appointment. But since I now live in Mattoon, I had no trouble at all driving from my house to the church yesterday...I only got sidetracked by a couple of women blocking the intersection collecting money for charity. In other words, I didn't see the Champaign-Urbana marathon this year.
The marathon I
did witness is of a different sort. It is the protracted pursuit of an individual seeking to become an ordained elder or deacon in the United Methodist Church. In our conference (of about 850 churches) we had 11 individuals complete their marathon this spring. My letter this morning is a salute to those 11 individuals. I've watched them close up for several years now since I chair the "Ministerial Effectiveness Review Team" in our annual conference. Mine team sets the standards for all new pastors, examines their written work, cajoles them to excellence, and supervises their oral exams.
Most people have little idea what is required for the "ordination marathon." So, what follows is a brief orientation.
Once you decide to become a pastor, there are two immediate hurdles to jump: 1) getting your own congregation to endorse you and 2) getting an education.
Most congregations are happy to endorse someone for the ministry. But we have to be careful. Back when I was in high school, we had a neighbor who threw his hat in the ring to become a state legislator. My friends and I worked mightily for him...mostly because we didn't like him much...and it was our best opportunity to get him out of town. Sadly for us, our guy lost and we experienced no end to his pestering ways. But as you can tell from the condition of the State of Illinois, our idea caught on throughout the state and has become a very popular practice in recent years.
What's to keep a congregation from doing the same thing? Might a church be tempted to "promote" someone into the ministry for just such a nefarious reason? To be on the safe side, we have instituted "district" and "conference" committees to ensure that the system is not abused.
But endorsement alone isn't enough. We also require our pastors to be highly educated. In my case, I felt God tugging me into the ministry back when I was a child. So the first thing I had to do was finish the fourth grade. But wouldn't you know it, the Methodists wanted more. So, eventually I also completed high school (in Sterling, Illinois,) a bachelor's degree (at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville,) and a master's degree (from Wesley Seminary in Washington D.C.)
We will not make a person wait until the end of seminary, however, to start serving as a pastor of churches. This can be done once one has 1) graduated from high school and 2) earned a "License to Preach." You can earn a license to preach from the United Methodist Church by participating in a school we offer each summer. In my case, by the time I got out of seminary I already had over seven years of experience in the profession. We like our pastors to have as much experience as possible when they present themselves for ordination.
From the beginning (when you begin to serve your first church) we require an extensive battery of psychological exams. No one "aces" the psychological. But it lets you (and us) know what kinds of strengths and weakness you will bring to pastoral work. We also require sex offender background checks, criminal background checks, and financial background checks. We also require a careful medical exam and conversation about how one might need to adjust for the physical rigors of ministry.
Once you have completed your minimum 7 years of post-high-school education, then the Board of Ministry starts to work as you enter
Transcripts are carefully checked. Detailed recommendation forms must be filled out by half a dozen people who work with you. We require you to submit a sermon for our examination: biblically grounded, demonstrating gravitas, showing relevance, and exhibiting intelligence and respect for the congregation. The sermon and the worship must be video taped. We require you to develop a Bible study, lead it, and report on it. And we require you to answer 16 theological questions (ranging from questions about God to sacraments to salvation.) Then you enter four hours of oral exams in front of 16 church leaders. If everything is approved, then you are made a "provisional" or "probationary" pastor, and we watch you even more closely for at least two years.
During your provisional period, you are required to attend five retreats, submit additional recommendation letters, write a lengthy paper on Christian doctrine, prepare and teach another Bible study, prepare and preach another sermon, and perform a "fruitfulness project," (an extensive experiment showing us that you can work well with people, solve problems, think strategically, and lead the church in something that is significant.)
At the end of this two year "provisional period," and after the retreats, and after the written work is completed, then you are ready to come before us again for four more hours of interviews. Your written work is critiqued very carefully and you are observed very closely in the four hours of oral interviews. Most years, about half the people we interview are required to do re-writes or re-interviews to perfect their work. No one likes that...but we think it makes for stronger pastors.
I spend about 200 hours a year working with candidates, especially as they approach the deadlines for their written work or interviews: critiquing and encouraging. It is one of the most rewarding things I do in ministry.
The marathon is completed when a candidate has satisfied the Board of Ministry with all the written work and oral interviews. At that point, you may finally become ordained and made a "full member" of the annual conference.
(**see below for definitions of our peculiar United Methodist terminology.)
Everyone who applied this year made it through. And not a one had it easy. Having watched them all so carefully these past several years, I find myself excited about the gifts and graces these women and men are going to bestow on the church in the years to come (and on the gifts and graces they are already sharing.) As my generation passes the torch to these younger folk, I'm hopeful.
So here's my thanksgiving to God for some great and wonderful people: Todd Krost, Jeremy Lafary, Rebecca Butterfield, Ethan Carnes, Michael Wooten, Rebecca Klemm, Adam Penn, Zoila and Pablo Marty, Matt Stump, and Margaret Ann Jessup. Note their names. The weight of God's work is shifting to their shoulders. You'll be hearing from them. Mike
** United Methodists have two types of pastors or ministers: deacons and elders. Unlike some churches, where an elder is a lay leader, in the UMC an "elder" is a pastoral leader. Elders are generalists who give oversight to churches and congregations. Bishops and superintendents are selected from "elders." Elders are required to go wherever the bishop appoints them.
A "deacon" is a
specialized pastor, usually focusing on an area such as music, Christian Education, Youth, Administration, or Spiritual Formation. Deacons are appointed by bishops to their areas of service, but they are not obligated to move whenever the bishop demands.
A "full member of the conference" is an elder or deacon who has been ordained and met all the requirements of the Board of Ministry. The "full members" are in a special covenant with each other and together take the lead responsibility for ministry in a designated region (such as central and southern Illinois.