The Orders of Ministry in the UMC

Warning: this is a very “insider” post. If you aren’t particularly interested in issues facing the United Methodist Church, go ahead and skip this.

I wrote my Master’s thesis on some historical issues with ordained ministry in American Methodism, specifically the problem of having unordained clergy preside at Holy Communion. I won’t go into all the details (I have 70 pages on it if anyone is dying to know), but the short version is this: we have a very strange, almost nonsensical theology of ordination. It arose out of missional necessity, which is in the DNA of Methodism. But the way we do it now just really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Let me try to break it down. Here are the common categories of clergy (or people who function effectively like clergy) that we currently have in the United Methodist Church:

Ordained Elders in Full Connection
Ordained Deacons in Full Connection
Provisional Deacons
Provisional Elders
Licensed Local Pastors (I serve in this category)
Certified Lay Ministers
Supply Pastors

Ordained elders can preside at Holy Communion in all circumstances, unless they have been honorably located, in which case there are certain restrictions. Ordained deacons can preside at Holy Communion only if the bishop gives them specific permission to do so within their ministry setting. Licensed Local Pastors can preside at Holy Communion within their ministry context, which, depending on how your Conference interprets it, means your church building, the community you serve, or anytime you’re ministering to someone who might become part of your church or whom you consider your community. Provisional elders are issued a local pastor’s license when they are “commissioned,” which is a service sort of like an ordination, but not quite, so provisional elders can serve communion with the same restrictions as licensed local pastors. Provisional deacons are issued a “license for the ministry of the deacon” at their commissioning, which confers no authority and from what I can tell, most annual conferences don’t issue a paper certificate at all. Certified Lay Ministers and Supply Pastors can never preside at Holy Communion, though at times there are cases where the elements are “pre-consecrated” by an ordained elder; however, this practice is not sanctioned by our official teaching document on Holy Communion.

Confused yet? You should be – this strange tiered system of clergy and sacramental privileges is really not theologically grounded, but really about practical realities arising out of the history of our church. Originally, only traveling preachers were ordained and were the only ones with sacramental authority, and they didn’t really pastor churches, but instead went from community to community preaching and teaching and serving Communion – the quarterly conference (what morphed into today’s charge conference) was a revival more than the business meeting and found its apex around the Communion service led by the presiding elder, the predecessor office to today’s district superintendent. The local communities would be led by the laity of that community, rather than ordained clergy. Eventually, though, the traveling preachers started settling into a less strenuous life and itinerancy meant you moved every few years instead of every few weeks and morphed into the office of pastor much as we think of it today.

But we’ve never had enough ordained clergy to serve all of our churches. So, the local preacher filled that gap by serving as the pseudo-clergy leader of a local community. Each church would be visited at least four times a year by an ordained presiding elder. But some churches wanted Communion more often, and it was becoming difficult for the PE to visit each church quarterly, so local preachers were given the right to preside at Communion and baptism. The ordained deacon as we have it today arose in its present form in 1996, as did the provisional elder and deacon office – I won’t go into detail on those but they also have a complicated history.

Since the mid-1950s, the UMC has commissioned 15 studies of ministry to try to sort all this out, and in the end, we’ve been left with ministry that is, as one of John Wesley’s preachers wrote, “neither Episcopal nor Presbyterian, but a mere hodge-podge of inconsistencies.” The problem is, our theology of ordination is an odd mixture of hierarchical, episcopal orders like that of the Anglican or Catholic church, and more low-church impulses driven by an understanding of the priesthood of all believers. What we end up doing is creating confusion among laity and clergy about when one can and can’t serve the sacraments. And the problem that we end up with is that it weakens how we see the sacraments. We say sacraments are something God does, but then we say licensed local pastors can only do it in certain circumstances, in effect, saying that God can’t leave the bounds of the community where someone is appointed. And then we have very strange links between appointment by a bishop and sacramental authority. So how is sacramental authority mediated? Through the Church universal? A particular bishop? The episcopal office? Ordination? We have no meaningful way of articulating this, and that’s unfortunate since we have articulated much more robust thinking about the sacraments over the past few decades.

So what’s the solution? As I see it, we have a few options:

1) Say that there is no distinction between laity and clergy other than function, and thus sacraments can be served by anyone with appropriate training.
2) Limit sacramental authority to ordained elders in full connection, and raise the expectations for ordained elders that they will have to travel to churches served by licensed clergy to offer the sacraments
3) If we’re going to appoint someone as the pastor of a local church, ordain them, and eliminate the link we have right now between ordination and full connection membership in an annual conference.

I personally like option 3, because option 1 would not be true to our Anglican heritage and I think has some theological issues I’ll explore in a later post, and option 2 has practical difficulties, because there are tens of thousands of our churches served (and served well and faithfully) by licensed local pastors; in This Holy Mystery, we recommend weekly Communion to all churches, and so we shouldn’t make it harder for churches to do this. So, option 3: If we think ordination is something that matters, we should be sending ordained clergy to our churches. It would mean greatly expanding how many people we ordain, and so perhaps the standards for licensing would need to be looked at more closely. But ordination is a gift of God to the church, and we should find ways to make sure that as many of our local churches as possible benefit from this gift.

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11 comments on “The Orders of Ministry in the UMC
  1. […] through it all. Wesley Sanders does a great job of demonstrating some of these problems in “The Orders of Ministry in the UMC.” Wesley is one of the brightest young minds I know of in the UMC, and he just started […]

  2. Aaron Kesson says:

    I like the way you describe the differing roles of clergy in our denomination. I am currently a Provisional Elder and have experienced time as a Licensed Local Pastor, as well as being a District Superintendent Assignment (maybe just a title in my particular Conference? Possibly tied to the ‘supply pastor’ category you mention? i.e. – no sacramental authority – Interesting that even among colleagues, we need to “explain” our level of status).

    The options you suggest for the UMC to move forward are some that I have tossed around in my mind as well, and I have to agree that making ordination a more streamlined process (maybe direct is a better word?) would help us regain our sacramental theology. It is really interesting to have to explain this process to those outside the UMC, but even more so to those in my own congregation that I serve. I am sure that your experience as a local pastor is similar to mine because to them, you and I are their pastor and to them, that is all that matters. A frustrating point for me has been the fact that I have been serving as a pastor for almost 10 years, and I am just now going to be ordained. I appreciate the process, and I respect the process, but I think we really do need to look at licensing more closely and see that our churches aren’t missing out on experiencing God through the sacraments because of our ordination practices. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    • Supply pastors are called DSA in some conferences – it’s an office not defined or regulated by the Discipline (other than a brief mention of some enabling authority in the Constitution), so various conferences handle it in different ways

  3. Pat Glazener-Cooney says:

    I have often wondered why we are so focused on Ordination being a requirement to celebrate the Sacraments. As soon as we had a problem with having enough ordained folks to serve we began going pragmatic. In the 30+ years I have been in ministry (24 as an Elder) some of the finest Pastors I have had the privilege of serving with have been Local Pastors, And some of the sorriest creatures called Pastor have been Ordained Elders. Where is the Biblical rationale for expecting only Ordained folk to celebrate the Sacraments????? Aren’t we just doing things exactly like Catholicism depending on tradition but only when it’s convenient/necessary?????

    • Wesley Sanders says:

      I’ll address the theological and biblical rational for ordination as necessary for the sacraments in a later post, but I do want to say that I 100% agree with you that we are depending on tradition only when convenient, and that’s what I was trying to demonstrate. I agree there are lots and lots of wonderful licensed local pastors without whom we could not function as a denomination, and an MDiv is not a requirement to be effective in ministry (Indeed, our most successful years as American Methodism were before we had seminary as the usual route for educating clergy)! And so I’m suggesting that we instead expand ordination to the people who are currently licensed.

  4. Chuck Wolfram says:

    I agree with you, and also would opt for the third option. I would ordain all local pastors who complete their educational requirements and resurrect the office of “local elder.” Local elders would not itinerate. Licensed local pastors would still exist, those being seminary students or those working on their COS, and would continue to do all they do now—except celebrate the Eucharist. Make use of the retired elders and those who teach in our seminaries and colleges.

  5. Bryce Behnke says:

    As a licensed local pastor I am still confused by the titles and duties that are prescribed by our denomination. I like the idea of ordaining local pastors but I worry about the consequences. It has been my experience that not all local pastors have or teach Methodist beliefs and this proves very confusing to those both within and outside of our denomination. If the church does decide to ordain local pastors in the future I would like to see better care and preparation for local pastors and at least some safeguard that they understand Wesleyan theology. This was a well written and interesting article. You must have had a great theological education.

  6. Thank you for your thoughts on this matter. As one who has served on my conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry I can well appreciate the difficulties that arise. I do believe that the time has come for us to solve this problem and establish a clear definition of what it means to be ordained. We must strengthen, not weaken, our sacramental theology.

    • I agree, though I confess I do not see a clear path forward for how we might do that. Most of the studies of ministry commissioned in the last 50 years have suggested that we fix it, but it’s never stuck. Part of the problem is that the 2-week General Conference is just a really poor way to do theology, and sacramental theology just doesn’t get the kind of floor time that sexuality debates and restructuring do. I’ve actually considered drafting legislation that would do this and submitting it to the 2016 Conference, but then I’ve wondered if that wouldn’t be a waste of my time since it would be extremely far-reaching legislation with lots of Disciplinary edits.

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