I was ordained on September 19th, 1999. The day was hot and the service was really long but filled with good soul friends and families and church members and supporters… The memories of that day are still a well that I draw from on those days that are hardest.
In my current role as a Conference Minister, I have the honor of officiating at these service and every single service - every single one - is a portal to the day when I responded to the same words I ask ordinands to respond to. I might be the one saying the words of the ordination examination out loud but my heart whispers the response along with the ordinand. The weight of these words is different on different days.
Over the next several weeks, I’m going to try something; an occasional Thursday reflection on the different questions that are a part of the ordination exam. These aren’t “right” answers per se or the answers a candidate should give if asked to interpret them. These will be heavily contextualized within my own experience of ministry.
“Michael, before God and this congregation we ask you:
Are you persuaded that God has called you to be an ordained minister of the church of Jesus Christ, and are you ready with the help of God to enter this ministry and to serve faithfully in it?
I love the fact that the word “persuaded” is in this question. Its not “Have you decided…” or “Are you certain…” but “Are you persuaded…”
Its not an unusual story to hear from a clergy person a pretty intense resistance to the idea of becoming a minister. Some tell stories of being hounded by family, friends or church members to become a minister. They tried to ignore or evade this call for years until, finally, they relented. For some, something in their life breaks or a way is made where there wasn’t a way before. For others, ministry was a clear vocational option that they’d explored openly and simply made sense in their life. There are a few that had a particular spiritual experience - like a conversion moment - when all of the sudden the call to ministry became real.
Even though I come from generations of ministers, I never really remember feeling pressured to become one. I remember getting tired of the question from members of the churches my Dad served and saying a few pretty snarky things to try and discourage what had become a boring question, but I don’t remember ever really taking the idea itself personally. For me, it became clear when I was 19 and helping lead a youth retreat. They used a Tony Campolo video as one of the conversations starters and in it he was talking about hypocrisy in the church. I was right there both reflecting on what I’d see in church and seen in my own life. Church was not feeling like a great fit. Then Tony said something along the lines of “When you walk in to a hospital, you don’t ask ‘What are all these sick people doing in here?’ Why are we so surprised to find hypocrites in the church?” It felt like a door gently opened and I was able to walk through it saying, “I’m going to be a minister.” It took me almost 10 years to get to a point where ordination seemed like a fit but, somewhere along the way, that outward and inward persuasions met and I was formed in to a minister. That’s not to say I feel like one every day or am always thankful I am one. There are days I want to be doing anything else but, almost always, a door gently opens and I walk through it once more.
This is an ordination to Christian ministry. The church we’re called to serve is Christ’s. In addition to these questions being part of the ordination exam, they’re also a profession of faith. We are “The United Church of Christ.”
As a denomination, we don’t have a test of faith you have to pass to become part of the UCC. A local church might but, as a denomination, there is no set of beliefs that our national offices determine you need to be a member of one of our churches. This is part of what attracted me to the UCC. Faith moves, evolves, changes, grows and really shouldn’t be the same year to year if we’re faithful and paying attention. Faith-wise, “Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Its up to a local church to really determine whether or not to determine if membership requires a certain set of beliefs or any belief at all. I love this about us. It doesn’t always make our life together easier but I do think it makes our life together better.
Here’s the thing though; I don’t think this is true for those of us who are ordained into the UCC. The ordination exam is a test of faith asking us, in this question, to be faithful but to also to affirm that we’re serving the church of Jesus Christ; that we’re willing to lean on God; and that we’re willing to have our service connected to our faith. In other of the examination questions, we’re asked to promise to take the Bible seriously, to pray, to hold on to the gospel and to show Christian love. This is a covenant we make with our church and these are the things the church promises to support us to do. Sure, there’s still a lot of breadth of interpretation with all of these ideas but being true to this covenant is part of what forms us as a UCC pastor.
You’ve probably heard this before but some suggest that UCC actually stands for “Unitarians Considering Christ.” Its said jokingly, sometimes lovingly and sometimes mockingly. Personally, it just makes me sad. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is a great one and there are a lot of values we share. Although there are some Unitarians that self define as Christian, the UUA is not a Christian religious body as a whole. I’m thankful for the presence of the UUA and happy we can be partners in so much good work.
That said, I’m not a “Unitarian Considering Christ.” I’m a Christian in a relationship with Christ. Sure, like any relationship, its not consistent. It moves, flows, changes and is more difficult sometimes than others but its a real, vital and key part of my life. No, to be a member of a church in the United Church of Christ, this isn’t required. However, as a UCC clergy person - if we are to take our covenants honestly and seriously - I think it is.
Although local churches have autonomy within our covenants and local church members have little accountability, this is not true for those of who are ordained. The responsibilities of being ordained have been determined to be so important that no one person can carry these responsibilities alone. We trade the autonomy of a local church member for increased accountability to the wider church and the promise to remain faithful in carrying particular responsibilities. Sharing the gospel is one. If this isn’t something we can do, we shouldn’t say yes to the ordination exam questions. If this are promises we can no longer whisper along with the ordinand, I think we need to begin asking ourselves hard questions about whether we can continue as a United Church of Christ pastor with integrity.
I know that last statement, in particular, is not an easy one to swallow and challenges some of our UCC cultural expectations. However, finding myself welcome in the church does not mean I should be welcome in to every role or persuaded to consider it. I don’t have what it takes to be a church organist. You wouldn’t want me as your treasurer. I was a church custodian and I wasn’t great at it. I was only an OK youth director. A church not welcoming or persuading me to do these things does not mean that the church is somehow unwelcoming or cruel. It doesn’t mean that I’m deficient because I wouldn’t be good in these roles. It doesn’t mean that there’s not a place for me in the UCC. It does mean that I can't serve in every role in the UCC, nor should I. Knowing that is both humbling and freeing.
That’s enough for this first essay. If you got this far, thanks for sticking with it. Peace.