Reflections from the National Gathering of the Orders of Elders

On February 1-3, 2011, the Rev. Karen Kilhefner (South Georgia’s Chair of Deacons) and I journeyed to Orlando, Florida for the National Gathering of the Orders of Elders, Deacons, and Local Pastors. Approximately 80 gathered to discuss three major study reports from General Conference and engage in a time of visioning. There is agreement at every level that the United Methodist Church must recapture its core mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. On the first night, we discussed three current major General Conference reports.

The Call to Action Report (www.umc.org/calltoaction) – This ambitious report calls for challenge and change at every level of the church. It includes a radical confession: we have not taken upon ourselves the yoke of obedience and we have not done all we can to make disciples. We have pursued self-interest. We allow institutional inertia to bind us. A few key recommendations of the Call to Action report are: 1) We need to focus on lay and clergy leadership development to train strong, courageous, and collaborative leaders. If the church is to be transformed, it starts with each one of us – making a difference where we are every day. 2) We must have vital congregations. What are vital congregations? The Towers Watson Report, sponsored by the commission, detailed characteristics that vital congregations all share; effective pastoral leadership, multiple small groups for all ages, mix of traditional and contemporary worship styles, a high percentage of spiritually engaged laity who assume leadership in the local church and beyond, topical preaching, and longer pastoral appointments. 3) We must have measurable goals and meet them. What should we measure? The top measurables are; growth in worship attendance and small groups (including children and youth), cultivating increases in stewardship, growing spirituality and leadership of laity, longer tenure for pastors, and more dedication to missional tasks.

The Ministry Study Commission Report (www.gbhem.org/ministrystudy) While this study looks at many aspects of ministry, the two issues that led to the most discussion at our gathering were in the areas of ordination and guaranteed appointments. 1) Ordination – The Study calls for the church to once again change our ordination process. They recommend doing away with ‘commissioning’. They want ordination as ‘elder’ to occur earlier, taking the place of what we now call ‘commissioning’. Once ordained an elder, there are still two years of evaluation. After two years, there is an interview with the Board of Ordained Ministry. If approved, the already ordained elder would then become a ‘full member’ of the conference. There were many questions and concerns about this at the national gathering. Is membership in an annual conference of greater importance than ordination? A large reason for our concern and confusion was the commission’s rationale for making the change. The commission believes our current system of ‘commissioning’ is confusing to our members and to other denominations. Many of us felt this was not a well grounded rationale to make this change; especially since their theological statement for the report is extremely sparse and gives no understanding of our Methodist understanding of ordination. We wanted to see more work on the theology of ordination, or else another group may come and recommend change again in four years! 2) Guaranteed Appointments – The Ministry Study Commission is calling for the General Church and conferences to define effectiveness and use measurable outcomes to determine if clergy should be transitioned out – basically, the church will do away with guaranteed appointments. In our discussions, we raised the issue that the Discipline currently has a process for exiting ineffective clergy – we just never use it. The commission calls it cumbersome and long. But, instead of refining the current process and keeping guaranteed appointments, the report recommendation is to create and craft a new exiting program and remove the guarantee of appointment altogether.

The Church Systems Task Force (found at www.gbophb.org)is primarily focused on how church systems affect clergy health and well-being. It lists many negative health factors in our church such as; stress of the appointive process, job satisfaction, personal finances, lack of friends, and (my favorite) poor eating habits due to work in churches. I can assure that I did not vote against pot-luck dinners or fried chicken!

Idea sharing and visioning were also a large part of our gathering. Some conferences are attempting to push for ‘renewal leaves’ in their conferences – mandated leaves in the year that a pastor moves to a new church or every six years if they are not moving. Another idea some conferences are pursuing is a 360 degree review process for ordained elders. This evaluation process would take place every five years and include: church feedback, peer feedback, supervisory feedback, psychological feedback and even a credit check (financial feedback). As conferences work to set standards for effectiveness, these types of reviews may be more common.

The South Georgia Order of Elders – I am proud to tell you that South Georgia is one of the leaders along with several other conferences in establishing new, supportive connections for elders. During the clergy session of the 2011 Annual Conference, I will update you on our S3 program and discuss several new South Georgia initiatives for clergy. Here’s a peek:

S3 – The S3 program started last year by the Order of Elders is building new groups for deep, authentic connection rooted in accountability and support. Two new groups were formed in 2010 and two more groups will be selected to begin in the summer of 2011. South Georgia currently has six S3 groups totaling 40 elders and deacons – that is about 18% of our actively serving ordained clergy!

Covenant Care for Clergy – A Covenant Care Team is being formed as I write this article. This team will be fellow clergy who give leadership and intentionality as Care Guides. They will connect and create small groups for clergy. We will also utilize retired elders as spiritual mentors/guides to support active clergy through encouragement and prayer. All this will be directed by our Covenant Care Team, a part of the Order of Elders.

Leadership Cultivation Project– We are working on a new project for elders in South Georgia that will help cultivate leadership skills for effectiveness in the local church – particularly as it relates to revitalizing mid-life, mature, and declining congregations. The focus will be on two categories of leaders – new elders (1-5 years) and elders in mid-ministry (approximately 15-20 years). This year-long group will include teaching, mentoring, and engagement in an actual learning project in their local church that the participant designs. Effective leadership can be learned!

Annual Gathering of the Order of Elders– I am also working to make the dream of an annual elders gathering a reality. In addition to special speakers, there will be time for idea-sharing, community building and Sabbath together. You will hear more about this soon.

I believe strongly that if our denomination is to become all God wants us to be, we must act. We cannot wait on General Boards, Bishops, or Superintendents to do this work for us. It is time for the clergy to lead in South Georgia and beyond. Lord, enable us to start a movement and change the world!

1 Comment

  1. I can contribute one thought, perhaps, to the question of ordination and commissioning: the normal use of non-ordained individuals in sacramental ministry is an historic aberration. (I demur entirely on non-ordained individuals performing the ordinances in Baptist traditions; I'm focusing here only on sacramental understandings. I am also setting aside questions of extraordinary circumstances, which do not seem to apply in this case.) It is confusing, and probably a hindrance to our ecumenical ties. The sad truth is that we do not have a solid understanding of ordination, trying as we are to walk a tightrope (an impossible one, perhaps) between sacramental/priestly and purely functional/pastoral understandings. Anything would be an improvement over the current language, which is the result of trying to make a candidacy system, not the result of rigorous theological reflection on the meaning of ministry. And don't even get me started on “extension” ministries (it's just ministry, period) and our confusion over the respective roles of elders and deacons. 🙂

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