Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Faith Works 9-21-13

Faith Works 9-21-13

Jeff Gill


Ordination, seminary, and other changing concepts



Christian ministry in this country has long been tied to the concepts of seminary and ordination.


Ordination is the practice with a much longer pedigree, going back to the earliest days of the Christian church, "setting apart" certain leaders. Paul talks about "preaching and teaching elders" and that having a role or an office in church life where someone receives compensation is sensible: "you should not bind the mouths of the kine who tread the grain" being an earthy catchphrase in the ancient world for "those doing the work should be able to make a living from it."


To hold such an office, certain traditions and even rituals were part of the "setting apart" for ministry, to be ordained to this service. In these acts, authority in Christ's name is passed along through acts like the laying on of hands, or the giving of particular items of garb, such as preaching stoles, echoing Jesus' towel in footwashing and also as a yoke worn in tandem with Christ to do his work.


By the Reformation era, ordination was one of the "seven sacraments" of most liturgical traditions like Catholicism; some branches of Reformation theology like Lutherans moved to a "no less than two sacraments" understanding (baptism and communion) with various stances on the other five, while the Anglican tradition which becomes Episcopalianism in the US calls the same two "necessary" with the other five significant or even labels them "sacramental rites."


Whichever way you go with the theological categorization, you still have an act of the church that calls for more involvement than just the parties involved. We don't consider two people off by themselves to be able to "get married" on their own, whether our faith tradition calls marriage a sacrament or not, and in almost every branch of the Christian family, no one person can just announce "I'm a minister" by themselves. Sacramental ordination or not, there needs to be the assent and active involvement of the church to say you are ordained.


Between the more liturgical and less so (or "low church") branches of Protestantism, ordination can be seen as requiring a unit of the larger church involved, whether a diocese or conference or synod, down to asserting that an individual congregation can ordain persons to Christian ministry. Even in most modern low church traditions, a local church ordination may be recognized as valid, but if you wish to exercise ministry beyond that congregation, some form of credential is going to be needed, liturgical or educational.


This is where seminary comes into the picture. From high church to low, everyone from sacramental to casual, Catholic to hyper-Protestant, has for the last few generations expected people called to ministry to pass through a post-bachelor degree program of seminary education. This echoes, but lagged behind a similar shift in professions like medicine and the law, where once apprenticeship was the norm and even a college degree was unusual, or at least a marker of special training.


Abraham Lincoln was not terribly unusual in his day and age for having never attended a single university class, but started with independent reading, found mentors and guides, apprenticed "to the bench" and then founded a small partnership from which he earned his legal credentials by being a good lawyer, from small cases to large. Even into the 20th century, many small town doctors were of the same sort of "training."


As expectations of the professions rose, so did the requirements to receive formal acknowledgement of one's place in a profession. Lawyers and doctors and soon most clergy had to have a college degree, and then learn their particular craft in a dedicated, accredited institution: law schools, medical schools, seminaries or Bible colleges.


Formal, public requirements have supported and even increased these expectations for the legal and medical fields, but ministry has no such formal role, except in certifying marriage licenses. Ironically, an increasing number of those doing weddings & "solemnizing marriages" in the legal sense are people who have declared themselves to be clergy, sending away a check in return for "ordination credentials." That and another $25 to the Ohio Secretary of State makes you fit to sign a license.


So we see a steady move away from formal credentialing for ministers, and an increased interest in even fairly liturgical traditions around a more congregation-based form of ministry training towards ordination, while seminaries are closing, or at the very least being marginalized.


We'll talk next week about changing trends in seminary education and ministry formation.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him about your training in ministry at knapsack77@gmail.com, or @Knapsack on Twitter.


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