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Ministry study: a missed opportunity?

By the Rev. Daniel L. Garrett*
April 18, 2012

In response to the World Council of Churches document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, which outlined the broadest ecumenical theological convergence in modern church history, The United Methodist Church conducted studies on baptism and on the Eucharist. Those studies produced two documents – By Water and the Spirit and This Holy Mystery – that now guide our church both theologically and practically in our understanding and practice of the sacraments.

The first United Methodist Church Ministry Study Commissiondrew excitement across the church as many of us hoped for the same process that guided our studies of baptism and Eucharist. The theological convergence that grounds our sacramental life in the best biblical, theological and historical wisdom is also available to guide our understandings of ministry and ordination.

Yet, for two quadrenniums, we have walked away from the ministry section of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry and produced a report that offers little theological clarity on the meaning of ordination, orders and the practice of ministry. Without a coherent understanding of ordination, the proposal coming to the 2012 General Conference wants us to ordain people at the entrance to a provisional process where, if they fail to meet the requirements for full conference membership, they face the prospect of something like being “unordained.”

No guiding understanding of ordination

The study commission states that it was operating under a mandate from the 2008 General Conference to separate conference membership and ordination, and the result is a proposal in which conference membership obviously trumps ordination. Not only have we separated them; we also have demonstrated that our preference for practical solutions to ministry issues operates without any guiding understanding of ordination.

Another puzzling proposal on sacramental authority attempts to solve the ecumenical embarrassment we face in authorizing non-ordained persons to celebrate the Eucharist by clarifying that it resides in the office of ordained elder. In the same breath, it grants bishops the authority to give that Eucharistic presidency to non-ordained licensed persons as well as ordained deacons in certain missional settings. What guides our understanding of ordination, not to mention Eucharistic presidency? It is obvious we have no coherent theology of ordination and continue to justify various proposed actions out of supposed missional urgency.

You do not solve practical ministry issues such as guaranteed appointments and new forms of leadership by disregarding the theological underpinnings of ministry. Our preference for functional, organizational tinkering creates more problems than it solves. John Wesley’s practical solution to a ministry urgency problem in 1784 was to send a chalice to America and instruct us to ordain people for Eucharistic presidency.

The opportunity and necessity to clarify our ministry is at hand. The proposals before the 2012 General Conference miss that opportunity once again.

*Garrett, interim co-lead pastor at Braddock Street United Methodist Church, Winchester, Va., teaches United Methodist studies at Eastern Mennonite Theological Seminary.