(Reblog) How seminaries and the ordination process leave theologically “liberal” Christians behind

This article makes a good and true point, although the empathetic part of me suspects that evangelical candidates for ordination face a similar fear of rejection by their committees.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that mainline Protestant denominations are neither conservative/evangelical nor liberal/progressive in their theological orientation (much to the chagrin of conspiracy theorists on both sides), but are trying to hold both perspectives together under the umbrella of their true agenda: maintaining the survival of the institution.

Theologically, this means trying to occupy the Barthian-Niebuhrian middle ground that dissatisfies evangelicals and liberals alike.  Evangelicals fear that the denomination is pandering to political correctness at the expense of gospel truth.  Liberals fear that the denomination’s appeasement of cantankerous reactionaries is blunting the edge of prophetic witness.

My experience of the process left me with the sense that my committee and examiners just wanted to know that I was able to articulate that middle-ground perspective using the language of our denomination’s polity and historical confessions.

I think the main thrust of this article is true, but it could equally apply to our sisters and brothers on the evangelical end of the spectrum.

Reblogged from Crystal St. Marie Lewis:

“Many denominations require candidates to obtain a graduate degree involving work in the areas of theology and philosophy. In those graduate programs, professors spend countless hours training students to think outside the theological box, only for their ordination committees to demand that they put God (and their capacity for exploration) back inside the box. Seminaries are often free and open spaces where people are encouraged to draw their own conclusions about sacred matters. Yet, students endure rejection after the academic stage of their ordination processes–ironically for drawing unapproved conclusions.”

Click here to read the full article

Out of Order

Hell has frozen over. Someone outside the Presbyterian Church has shone an interest in our polity. Apparently, they’ve now made movies on every other conceivable subject known to humankind. We’re down at the very bottom of the list, right after that thrilling expose on the mating habits of slugs.

Seriously though, this is a documentary, made by a non-Presbyterian, about LGBTQ people pursuing ordained ministry in our denomination. My wife tells me that one of the subjects was a seminary classmate of a friend of ours. Small world? Nah, just a small denomination.

They’re looking for financial help to complete post-production. You can learn more about supporting the film by clicking here:

A Priest Forever

This is the card my bishop gave me at my ordination. I keep it hanging in my office as a reminder.

Four years ago today, I became a priest.

It was a big step in a long journey.  It wasn’t the first step, for years of prayer and hard work had led me to that moment.  It wasn’t the last step either, for things didn’t turn out exactly as I’d planned.

I served the denomination that ordained me for a grand total of three and a half years: first as a lay chaplain, then as a deacon, and eventually as a priest.  I wish I could say that I was still serving there.  That church’s commitment to servant ministry among marginalized people is amazing.  It’s what first drew me to pursue my calling with them.

Unfortunately, there were problems as well.  In a group that small with a hierarchical structure, there was no accountability for people at the top of the chain of command.  Church policy was determined by the bishop’s bad temper.  My bishop was particularly prone to manipulative and abusive behavior.  When that behavior was eventually directed at my wife, I decided that I’d had enough.  I left my position in that denomination on the ides of September 2010.

My bishop made the process as difficult as possible.  In spite of the fact that their church constitution recognized the indelible mark of ordination (i.e. “once a priest, always a priest”) and the validity of holy orders without apostolic succession (a rare belief among sacramental churches), my bishop insisted that I wouldn’t be given my walking papers unless I officially renounced my holy orders.  In other words, I could only leave once I had declared that I was no longer a priest.

This was not strictly necessary, as the Presbyterian Church had already stated their willingness to receive me as one of their own.  Asking me to do this was my bishop’s way of twisting the knife into my back one last time.  In terms of my career, this was not a tremendous setback.  The Presbyterians told me, “Just give [the bishop] what [the bishop] wants.  We’ll ordain you again, if we have to.”  And that’s exactly what happened.  I started serving one of their congregations immediately and was eventually ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament on Pentecost 2011.

I’m glad to have found a home in my new denomination, but I have missed being a priest.  Liturgical and sacramental worship feeds my soul in ways that few things do.  Being disconnected from it feels like spiritual suffocation.  I continue to be a voice for high church renewal in the reformed tradition, but many Presbyterians still resist liturgical worship and weekly Eucharist on the grounds that such practices are “too catholic” or “too much work”.  Ugh.  It’s just not the same.

When I last met with my spiritual director, I mentioned that I have now been an “ex-priest” for as long as I was a priest.  My director (a progressive Roman Catholic) gave me a confused look and reminded me of the “once a priest, always a priest” theology.  My bishop had no right to ask that of me.  In ordering me to un-ordain myself, my bishop was asking the impossible.  I might as well have written a letter stating that I would no longer submit to the law of gravity.  A priest can resign (or be removed) from actively functioning in an official capacity within the organization, but one cannot be un-0rdained anymore than one can be un-baptized.

It is as my bishop said to me at my ordination: “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

Something funny happened at church on the very Sunday after I met with my spiritual director.  During the Prayers of the People, there is a spot where the layperson leading the litany offers prayer for “Barrett our pastor”.  But on this particular Sunday, the liturgist misspoke and accidentally prayed for “Barrett our priest”.  John Calvin must have rolled over in his grave.

It was an accident, but I think it was a holy one.  I take it as God’s way of reminding me about who I really am and what I am called to be:

A priest forever.

Why I Don’t Believe the Ordination of Men is ‘Biblical’

This is, of course, a tongue-in-cheek argument.

Nevermind that I hate the word ‘biblical’ in all of its pretentious and coercive glory.  I find that it usually has nothing to do with the Bible and a lot to do with arrogant jerks who don’t like to have their authority challenged.

You want to know what’s really unbiblical?

Bacon.  And I’m not giving that up either.

Anyway, here’s a list of farcical reasons that appeared in Sojourner’s Magazine.  One of my seminary profs had an almost identical list on his office door.  The purpose of this joke is to show how absolutely ridiculous are the hermeneutical arguments of those who fight against women in ordained ministry.

10 reasons Why Men Should Not Be Ordained For Ministry

Internet Heretic Superstar

The Original Superstar

You know you’re a real Internet Heretic Superstar when you get requests for interviews.

But I don’t think it counts when it comes from your former roommate (shades of Spaceballs: “I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate“).

This particular request came from Brian Kingbird, who I bunked with during my Freshman year at Appalachian State.  Our conversation is part of Brian’s ordination process in the United Methodist Church.  Send him your best thoughts, prayers, vibes, and/or small animal sacrifices (I’ll donate one of my cats if you don’t want to use your own).

As I was typing my answers, my only intent was to be honest.  When I was done, my answers surprised me.  This year, I’ve come to new levels of honesty with myself over just how far I’ve traveled from the theological territory where I started my journey.  I remember shaking my head at people like me only ten years ago.  Now, I’ve become “that guy”.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote:

How has your relationship with God developed over your lifetime?

Life with God, for me, has been a long and meandering process of evolution.  I use the term evolution deliberately, despite the controversy surrounding its use in church.  One of the core principles of evolution (in the biological sense) is the emergence of life from death.  Organisms pass on their DNA to future generations and further the growth and development of species.  In the spiritual sense, the concept of evolution bears striking resemblance to the way of the cross, as described by Jesus.  Out of his death, new life was born.  He taught his followers to follow him in this respect.  Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  In another place he says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  New life is born out of death and it is as I follow the way of the cross that I discover an ongoing resurrection taking place within me.  This continual path of death and resurrection has led me into, between, and through several different corners of the Christian world: from evangelicalism to the charismatic movement, the Episcopal priesthood, and most recently to congregational ministry in a Presbyterian church.

I also find that many of my own thoughts and opinions about theology, morality, and spirituality have undergone a similar process of evolution over time.  There has been death and resurrection there as well.  For example, I never could have imagined in high school or college that I would one day have a ministry as a chaplain to the gay and lesbian community.  God has led me to become a spiritual companion to people who have been exiled from their churches of origin because of their sexual orientation.  Being an advocate for their equal rights has become a major part of my work as a pastor.  This particular aspect of my ministry has brought me into no small amount of conflict with many in the church who believe the Bible speaks clearly about homosexuality as sinful.

For me, my faith in Jesus, Christianity, and Bible has brought me to a place where grace trumps legalism and intelligent faith trumps blind faith.  I am comfortable with ideas like same-sex marriage and the theory of evolution.  I value the blessings of interfaith dialogue and fully expect to encounter many faithful non-Christians in the kingdom of heaven.  Rather than a move away from Christian faith, these developments have arisen out of my ongoing attempt to take Jesus, Christianity, and the Bible seriously.  I am continually and pleasantly surprised to find that Christianity still has much inspiration and guidance to offer me as I move into ideological territory that would have been unthinkable for me only a few years ago.  I go forward into the future, trying to stay open-minded, and fully expecting to be surprised at what God has in store for me as my faith continues to evolve.

How does being Christian affect your daily life?

If I had a favorite Bible verse, it would be 1 John 4:16: “God is love and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.”  These words provide me with ample fuel for spiritual and ethical meditation.  What it says to me is that God is not some distant and all-powerful authority figure who sits on some golden throne above the clouds in an alternate dimension.  Instead, God is a mysterious and loving presence who can be experienced here, on this earth and in this life.  If I want to serve God, I can only do so by loving my fellow human beings.  Anywhere there is love, there is God, regardless of whether the name of God is verbally spoken or not.  As Jesus told his followers in Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  I love the baptismal vows in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, where the new Christian pledges to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”.  At the end of every Sunday service, I charge my congregation with these words from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship: “Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”  For me, this is what it means to be a Christian in my daily life.

How are you in (your) ministry in the world?

My “ministry in the world” is largely shaped by the principles outlined in the previous question.  I find that working as a pastor is the easiest way for me to live out that universal Christian calling.  Specifically, I am interested in ministries of social justice and mercy: alleviating the effects of poverty and eliminating the causes of poverty.  I try to nurture relationships with those who exist outside the bounds of institutional religion.  I have already mentioned my work with the gay and lesbian community.  Another issue close to my heart is homelessness.  I spent several years of my life during and after seminary working with people on the street who struggle with hunger, illness, and addiction.  My first job was to be a faithful friend and my second job was to provide assistance where possible.  Sometimes, this would lead to conversations about religion and spirituality.  Sometimes, people would start coming to my church or seek a more active and conscious relationship with God.  I was always open about my faith and inviting people into Christian community, but I am careful to never make conversion a prerequisite for relationship or assistance.  My hope is that others will see Christ in me as I try to “seek and serve” Christ in them.

I am also passionate about the liturgical aspect of my ministry.  The nurture of the church’s ministry through Word and Sacrament is, in my mind, what makes us uniquely Christian.  I try to help people open the Bible for themselves and listen for inspiration and guidance from the Holy Spirit through its pages.  I lead a weekly Bible study using the lectio divina method of simultaneous prayer and reading.  I am also an advocate for more regular celebrations of the sacrament of the Eucharist (also known as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion) in our church.  I believe that Christ is truly present in this mystery, feeding and empowering the people of God with his very self.  As we come to recognize Christ’s presence in these physical elements, I believe we will be more able to recognize Christ’s presence in the rest of the world.  The meaning of this sacrament is quite simple and can be taught in a single Sunday school lesson, but the regular and frequent experience of this sacrament opens us up to ever deepening levels of truth and spiritual reality.  In essence, Communion is caught, not taught.

What (do you think) are the gifts of discipleship?

There are two ways I might answer that question.  First, I could understand “the gifts of discipleship” to be gifts given by the Holy Spirit to empower us in our daily Christian living.  On the other hand, I could see “the gifts of discipleship” as the blessings that arise from the process of being Christ’s disciple.  For the sake of brevity, clarity, and simplicity, I will choose to take the second meaning as the one I will keep in mind as I answer the question.  The primary blessing that I receive in my life as a disciple is a growing sense of connectedness.  I love that the Latin word religion literally means “to re-connect”.  Through Christ, I re-connect with God, myself, my neighbors, and creation.  Paraphrasing the words of theologian Paul Tillich, sin is separation from these things (God/self/neighbor/creation).  Through grace, I am reconnected with them.  I honor God’s grace by passing it on in deeds of love and mercy.  Grace becomes an experienced reality of connectedness and restored relationship.

What are the challenges (to your ministry), if any?

In a general sense, the biggest challenges to my ministry come from my own ego and selfish failings.  The phone rings with one more person needing assistance or another annoying drunk person who wants to spend all day chatting.  I get so busy with sermon writing and bulletin printing that I ignore my daughter’s pleas for attention.  I exhaust myself at work to the point where I take no time to care for myself with proper food and rest.

On a more specific level, my most recent ministry challenges have to do with the specific issues that arise within congregational ministry.  In the first two years after my ordination as an Episcopal priest, I worked as a chaplain.  There was a constantly changing stream of people who came through my office seeking help.  This is the first time that I’ve worked with a larger organization with long-term members.  I am also more involved in practical administration and daily leadership.  This requires that I develop a new set of skills and nurture deeper and more long-term relationships with the people under my care.  It’s a new challenge for me, but a welcome one.

My (re)Ordination

My leap over Hadrian’s Wall is now complete!  I am a minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Click here to read the bulletin from the service.

Posted below is the sermon, which was written and delivered by my dear friend (and fellow Trekkie), the Reverend Naomi Kelly.  Naomi serves as pastor of Forest Presbyterian Church in Lyons Falls, NY.  This sermon is reprinted with her permission.

Her text is the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12.

I’m sure that you’ve watched many Star Trek episodes, and I’m sure you’re familiar with the Episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard becomes a little boy, there is some kind ionic cloud and passes over the shuttle craft and he, Guinan and Ensign Ro are genetically altered to the time just before puberty, they are pre-teens is you will. Captain Picard is very happy that he has hair, and when the antidote seems impossible and the he will be young and grow up again, and be given another chance to go through life, he begins to imagine what he can become, he was already a Star Ship Captain, maybe this time he will be an archaeologist, another one of his passions. But soon the ship is in danger and young or not he must act, he must do something to save his ship. It was very difficult for him not being able to command his ship the way he used to.  He  still has all his skills, only in a younger body. And he finds that when he changes his perspective and begins to see with the eyes of  a child he is able to do great things, he is able to use his childishness to save the ship. His perspective is changed as he figures out what he needs to do in order to succeed at his calling. When Jean Luc was able to humble himself, to become vulnerable,  to allow the child that he’d become to direct  his actions, he was able to do great things. Star Trek always has the ability to give us new and fresh perspectives on our culture by taking us outside ourselves just enough so that we can see where we fall short, where we need work, what we can do better.

Jesus does that too, (you see Star Trek always copies Jesus) Jesus gives us new perspectives on life, like His Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes give us one such twist. Seasons of the Spirit, a commentary on “Year A January 30, 2011 says:  “In these saying, Jesus turns human notions of happiness upside down. What kind of living brings God’s blessing? Jesus teaches that the blessed ones are those who are humble of heart, who are gentle, who show mercy, who hunger and thirst for God’s ways. Those who mourn will be comforted; those who make peace will be called God’s children. Those who are persecuted in the cause of justice will find themselves part of God’s transforming reality.”

The Beatitudes give us a beautiful vision of what the world can be like. It is a vision that allows us to see the world from a different perspective.  Like Paul says in the letter to the Philippians we need to be humble as Jesus was humble, to be more Christ like- that gentle merciful nature that is part of us, that we hide away, because we think it makes us vulnerable is what Jesus reminds us to show to the world. The kind of power that we’re used to, is not God’s idea of power.

These stories are revealing of the church in a way, they remind us that at one time the church took itself too seriously, that we began to want more power and influence in the world, and now all the mainline denominations are struggling, perhaps we lost the vision of Jesus’ teachings, perhaps the world doesn’t need what we have to offer anymore.  I don’t know about you, but I often think I know better than God, I have all the answers, this kind of attitude leaves us inflexible, and not humble at all.

It is time for new a perspective again, it is time to reform and always be reforming, it is time to read the words that we have had handed down to us with new eyes, in a new light, and see where we need to change our perspective. The Spirit of Christ enables us to do that, gives us the insight and vision to change. Just as the young Jean Luc was able to change his perspective and use the skills of a pre-teen to save his ship, we are able to open to new ways of being church to make a difference in our world. And we can say, Blessed are the weak because when we are weak then God is strong and can influence and change our lives and our behavior.  Blessed are the flexible for they will survive the changes that come along.

Blessed are the young at heart for they will able to transform the church to serve the world and each other.

We Are All Ordained

William Wilberforce, as portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd in Amazing Grace (2006)

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Acts 2:1-21.

William Wilberforce had a problem.  He was trying to figure out what to do with his life.  Most youth and adults know what that’s like.  However, what makes this case different is that Wilberforce was already a successful member of the British Parliament.  In American terms, he would be called a Congressman.  To be where he was (especially in 18th century England), one would assume that he had already climbed the ladder of success!

The thing that had Wilberforce all worked up about his future is that he had recently experienced a profound and life-altering spiritual awakening.  His personal relationship with God had suddenly taken over his life to such a degree that Wilberforce was thinking of quitting politics for good and entering ordained ministry in the Anglican Church.  He was at a loss over what to do.

While he was in this state of mind, Wilberforce was introduced to a group of Christian activists who were campaigning heavily for the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain.  The beginning of Wilberforce’s involvement with this group (later known as ‘the Clapham sect’) is depicted beautifully in the 2006 film Amazing Grace.  Seated around his dining room table, they showed him examples of the irons used to restrain captured slaves during their journey across the Atlantic.  Conditions were so brutal that no one was guaranteed to survive.  They introduced him to Olaudah Equiano, a liberated slave who became an active abolitionist.  Equiano showed him the scars on his body.  While Wilberforce’s mouth was still hanging open in shock, Thomas Clarkson and Hannah More delivered what I believe to be the best line in the film:

Thomas Clarkson: Mr. Wilberforce, we understand you are having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist.

Hannah More: We humbly suggest that you can do both.

And I think they were right.

The members of this group understood one very important truth that most Christians tend to forget.  It’s a truth that we celebrate every year on the feast of Pentecost.  And here it is: The Holy Spirit ordains all people to preach good news to the world.

Not just some, but all.  Have you ever noticed something strange about the early church in the book of Acts?  Most other radical movements in history emerge with a chain of successors once the initial founder is out of the picture.  There was even biblical precedent for this.  After the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, people everywhere recognized his apprentice Elisha as his chosen successor.  They said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”

But that didn’t happen in the early days of Christianity.  Jesus Christ had no heir or replacement.  The title ‘Messiah’ did not pass to a predetermined chosen one after his departure into heaven.  Instead, the Holy Spirit, the very power and presence of God, came to dwell within the entire community of faith.

We read, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

This kind of thing was totally unprecedented, although the ancient prophets had prayed for something like it to happen.  One time, when people complained to Moses about unauthorized prophets in the Israelite camp, Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”  Later on, God spoke through the prophet Joel saying, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And that’s exactly what happened.  The entire community of believers on Pentecost was filled with the Holy Spirit and each one started “speaking about God’s deeds of power” to people from “every nation under heaven”.  There was no seminary course or board-approved examination.  They simply opened their mouths and started to speak “as the Spirit gave them ability.”

There was no single successor to Jesus’ ministry.  There was no special order of priests or prophets.  The only qualification for speaking forth good news in the power of the Holy Spirit is that you had to believe.  “Out of the believer’s heart,” Jesus said, the Holy Spirit would flow, like “rivers of living water”.  He never said, “Out of the apostle’s heart” or “Out of the pastor’s heart”.  No, Jesus said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

Anyone with an open heart and an open mind about Jesus is a vessel for the Holy Spirit.  This is an important piece of good news for us to hear, on this day of all days.  Later today, a new pastor will be ordained in this church.  But, if we take the message of Pentecost seriously, then we must admit that there is a very real sense in which all of us are already ordained as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, each of us has a responsibility to answer God’s call on our lives and preach good news to the world around us as the Holy Spirit gives us ability and opportunity.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we all need to become experts at delivering sermons.  That’s only one way to preach the good news.  A single act of kindness can be a sermon unto itself.  You can even preach by listening while people tell you about their problems.  You might not have fancy theological answers to questions about Christianity, but the simple fact that you’re letting someone ask a tough question is sometimes enough to speak to that person’s heart.

William Wilberforce found his way to do the work of God and the work of politics at the same time.  He devoted the rest of his life to fighting slavery.  He sent petitions, lobbied Members of Parliament, spoke out in the House of Commons, and wrote legislation.  Finally, in 1807, he succeeded in ending the British slave trade once and for all.  He never became a member of the clergy, but this was his life’s work as an ordained minister of the good news.

In the same way, each one of you is an ordained minister of the good news.  You will leave this church today and go back to your neighborhood, your family, your school, your shop, or your office.  As you go, let this reality sink into your heart.  Let this mentality take over your brain:  You are a missionary.  The place where you stand is your mission field.  Be open to whatever ministry opportunities the Holy Spirit may bring into your life today.  Be faithful in your calling as an ordained minister of the good news of Jesus Christ.