Context Matters for Theological Identity - Elliptical Tensions in What It Means to Tell the Story
I'll share in a professional workshop for pastors called Shepherd's Advance for the Pittsburgh District on Friday. I've decided to talk about how context matters in what it means to be the church. In many ways, it's the other pole in an elliptical tension with theological identity. Note that it's "poles in tension" not a polar opposite.
Theological identity tends to be communicated as something centered, sometimes associated with the core with everything else--history, polity, practice, mission--radiating outward. It's not my view.
Theological identity is woven throughout a group as threads in a tapestry. I remember visiting the Bayeux Museum that showcases a tapestry, a 200 foot long cloth stitched with colored threads telling the story of the Norman conquest of England. The front side of the tapestry only shows small points of each thread. The bulk of each tread is underneath the surface of the story being told--hold on to this thought. The tapestry originally embroidered about 1000 years ago, rediscovered hanging on the walls of the Bayeux cathedral in the 18th century.
The history of the tapestry, as you can imagine with something this old, is as fascinating as the historical events depicted. The story of the tapestry is one of being told again and again, patching the holes, knitting together loose threads, displaying the story in a way that is accessible to as many as possible, and seeking some fidelity to the original events and participants.
Theological identity needs context to make sense. The surface of the theological story being told has another side--go get that thought I asked you to hold on to. There's more to what is usually seen and told, a patchwork just beyond. The telling of the story has a story to be considered. Each thread has a contribution and is something that is sometimes hidden in the background that just might bring about a better understanding. The weavers of the tapestry tell a story through the centuries and into the lives of admirers in much different times. The story once told needs to be told again. In each telling the threads--the textiles--bring text into a new context while taking the risk of falling into disrepair. The context might alter the text--to disintegrate or reinvigorate the text. The hearers become the tellers, and new threads are woven in the tapestry. The context becomes part of the text.
It's not a paradox to admit that context matters in developing one's theological identity as a group, whether it is a denomination or a local church; it's never an individual task. And, this elliptical tension between theological identity and contextual matters should be something to keep in mind this week during the MVNU L.E.A.P. Seminar on Theological Identity led by Scott Daniels on Thursday, registration starts at 9:00 a.m. in Ariel Arena.
Looking forward to a rich and insightful rest of the week on campus and on the Pittsburgh District.
A couple of things I have been thinking for a long time in addition to what I have already written about ordination.
Sacramental presence is exemplified in the actions of being broken and poured out. Powerful imagery that is enacted daily and remembered in the Eucharist.
The idea of "sacramental presence" is my theoretical framework ("theology of" for you seminarians out there) for Christian ministry. Ordination is, I believe, an essential aspect of this ideal. The ordination ceremony for me was the more like a wedding ceremony than other "life" event including commencements and commissioning services. This is also entirely appropriate. The Roman Catholic church recognizes seven sacraments that track a person's lifespan ((infant) baptism, (first) communion, (pentiential) reconciliation, confirmation, marriage/holy orders-ordination, anointing of the sick or "last rites").
The only sacrament not required of everyone is marriage. For some, the equivalent means of grace is entering holy orders, or ordination. As it goes with marriage, there's always the first date and first kiss, the process of dating and courtship, engagement, the wedding, and then life together in holy matrimony. Ordination should be though of as the wedding--when the union is recognized by the community, including church, family, and friends. The wedding is a highlight in this much longer practice of marriage, as many cultures put on this ritual, and can last about 20 minutes to several days.
A wedding ceremony, however, does not make people fall in love, it doesn't pro-create, it doesn't "make a covenant" happen, and it doesn't require anyone to stay together. But, with it begins the recognition of what is happening. It does provide a means of grace necessary to make all of this stuff happen for a purpose beyond oneself. It celebrates what has and what will happen through this covenant. So, it goes with the act of ordination. This is why I get so upset when people mess with this process.
This whole bit is a response to something who messaged me this morning. Here's the conversation used with this person's permission (this person offered it, I didn't ask).
Tonight the blog went over 25,000 unique visitors and over 50,000 page views!
Thanks if you were one of the visitors. If I made you think, cry or cuss (under your breath, of course), then I accomplished more I'd hoped when I started the blog about 10 months ago.
So . . . keep doing whatever . . . come back sometime, and, uh, . . . pay attention and look both ways.
Thanks for the overwhelming response to the recent posts about course of study toward ordination. Blog traffic for this week alone reached 825 unique visitors and nearly 1,949 page views. Obviously, this is an important issue for many people in and around our denomination.
One of the more interesting conversations I've had since the first post on Wednesday came about during the dinner for our university trustees. One of the denominational leaders asked me in table conversation, "Is ordination still essential for our church?" It's a great question. I've thought of it many times.
Conveying Trustworthy Ministers to the Church
In Africa, ordination was one step in the work of establishing a district with mature leaders. Some of the leaders were spiritually mature, vocationally vibrant, and some had earned advanced degrees in university, but lacked the credential of ordination which impeded placement in district leadership, which represented organizational trustworthiness.
In the U.S. ordination seemed to be about the same thing: recognizing trustworthy leaders for local church and district leadership, or at least enough to fill some slots that are being emptied by moving or retiring ministers. There is an urgency to fill a leadership void like Lucille Ball with a conveyor belt of candies. [NOTE: I am not sure what is going to happen when the conveyor belt speeds up. Right now, we're not ready for the wave that is coming.] The process now seems to include some variation of financial and psychological evaluations, interviews with current pastors, and checking of course lists. The process concludes with the episcopal affirmation of the district's work in the laying on of hands by the general superintendent.
This is not a sufficient explanation of what truly happens in and through ordination as I have come to understand this ritual experience.
Hands and Breath
The two primary physical actions of the ordination ritual are found in the laying on of hands and the spoken prayer of the episkopos (the one who ordains, the bishop, overseer of the shepherds). The spoken prayer connotes the pouring out of the Spirit of God through the breath of the one praying. The hands--biblical symbols of power and/or healing--touch the head of the ordinand. There is a transference of a spiritual grace-gift in this ritual not so much a succession of leadership, in my opinion. Like all means of grace, there is responsibility to receive and enact the gift that is given. One of the most important elements of this transformative action is that it takes place among the gathering of God's people in worship. It is not the work of one leader identifying another one, but the recognition of God's gracious gifting within the community of faith, a witness of the Spirit's work in the church.
What happens through the ritual of ordination? It is important to ask this question by first considering what ordination is not.
Rather, ordination is recognition of God's calling into equipping God's people for mission to the world through worship and holy living. Ordination is best described as the action of being a "sacramental presence" in the world through the church. Ordination is not a means of grace but becoming a means of grace for others. The ordained minister is to become the sacramental presence of Christ for the church, so the church as the Body of Christ altogether might become the sacramental presence of God in the world.
There's so much more to say here. Others have said more. Here are some of the resources that have helped me try to make sense of what happens through ordination:
What Validates a Course of Study? -- Response to more comments sparked by this week's posts
Even my dean, Jeanne Serrao weighed in the conversation on ordination and its requirements. It's one that honestly we do not have in our hallway often enough.
.... some perhaps careless statements written in frustration....
My statements were written in "frustration" yes, but "careless," never. Just the opposite of not caring, actually. I would find it difficult to find a single student, current or former, or many colleagues, current or former, that would characterize me as being "careless" in any way. Speaking up on behalf of the young ministers who are, frankly, being pushed away from the very path God has called them to is living up to my calling. It is really the responsibility of all of us already in ordained ministry. I wish I was talking about those students that think they're called (but not really) or that try to circumvent the system in some way. It would be easy to dismiss my words and move on. The ones I'm hearing from, however, are the kind of people we want and need in ministry. Yet, many are going elsewhere, or simply falling out of love with a church that needs them.
All districts must recognize a validated course of study, if the candidate has completed it and presents a certificate/letter or other evidence indicating that from the educational provider. What Matt is complaining about involves someone who did not complete a validated course--they were lacking 5 courses. Since the candidate did not complete the validated course, it falls to the district board to determine what else is needed to complete the course of study. The solution here, as I see it, is for the candidate to finish the validated course of study they started and present the evidence of that to their district board.
"Must recognize," yes. Do they always? No. At least in my experience there is broad variation in how seriously credentials board or board of ministry take the validated courses of study. It usually boils down to the list of courses offered in the RIIE modules or from NBC. Validated courses of study cannot always be completed in one location or level, so the districts offer opportunities to complete it or the needed courses can be taken through other institutions.
My "complaining" is frustration in that the student is not being asked to take five courses in addition but NINE additional courses (nearly twice what it actually necessary). I could add other examples from other situations: not counting a course on ministering in pluralistic world because this phrase was not in the course title but meeting a competency embedded in three different courses. Or, asking a worship pastor of eight years to take a six session course in worship. Um, what? There are many ways to recognize the competencies necessary for ministry and taking courses is but one of the ways.
The frustration is felt in the skewed fashion that competencies are evaluated: what of previous experience? Conferences attended? Continuing education events? The evaluation by "course list" is the work of a registrar, and this is a diminishing of the valuable work of the district in mentoring and shepherding young ministers into ordained ministry. Checking off courses is an easy substitute for this hard work of walking with the next generation into the work of ministry.
As I understand it, it is the prerogative of the district to add qualifications for ordination in addition to a validated course of study depending on the context and needs of the district and the candidate. But they cannot say a person has not completed a validated course of study.
Lots of questions come to mind including, why validate courses of study if they are not valid everywhere in the region? I have no problem adding qualifications, but shouldn't these additional requirements also be validated? This is the "whims of a district board" that I mentioned in my first post this week (second paragraph). How does the student know the additional qualifications respond to a contextual need? How does the board justify contextual needs? Are there criteria to discern what needs to be added?
What is the criteria for adding qualifications? Shouldn't these qualifications be made available and ratified by other stakeholders in the process? By the way, I can say the same thing about university-taught courses of study: district boards, district superintendents, pastors and lay leaders should have a say in what constitutes adequate educational preparation for ministry. What if district assemblies were asked to ratify courses of study that have been ratified by the ICOSAC and RCOSAC.
Could this deter a district board from not recognizing any validated courses of study by just adding more qualifications to all of them? What then makes the course of study valid? What keeps a university of adding additional courses not required as competencies for ministry? The questions go both ways.
This process is clearly outlined in our USA/Canada Regional Handbook and Sourcebook. Perhaps all of us should read these so we are all on the same page.
i discussed the lack of clarity in the Sourcebook and the role of the district boards in a blog post on February 18, 2015.
Struck a C(h)ord, I Guess -- A response to some good questions provoked by this week's posts
Excellent questions from Dean Blevins, US/CAN Regional Education Coordinator and professor of Christian education at NTS-Kansas City, who left on a comment to a previous post:
Did you ever speak with anyone on the anonymous district to find out why they made the decisions they made? . . .
I wish it was a single district, but it's been several over the last seven years located across the country from coast to coast and across the midwest. I have also spoken to at least 20 district superintendents, and raised these issues with them in private conversations and various meetings, and they are sometimes as perplexed as I have been. So, the issue is not geographic or acute, but a systemic issue. The variety of responses I have received, either publicly or privately, tell me that I'm not the only one that has recognized the severity of this issue.
I have dealt with students that have completed a validated course of study and still have not received recognition for their educational efforts in fulfilling the educational requirements toward ordination without being required to do more educationally on the district. I have also dealt with those that have chosen other programs that are not validated, missing maybe five or six courses, yet have been required by their districts to do nine or more courses.
Never has the question been raised if the students have exemplified competencies necessary for completion of the requirements but simply not seeing the same course title on the transcript. It's been difficult because the district boards seem to see the process as "counting courses" not completing the competencies necessary to be recognized for ordained ministry: avoiding this is the whole point of the 4Cs and the reason ICOSAC and its regional counterparts exist. Either these processes are necessary or they are not. If districts take up this responsibility, there should be some awareness of what is expected of validated programs of study.
If I remember right this ICOSAC and 4Cs were supposed to avoid the difficulties of the "good ol' boy" system or the development of much different requirements within or between regions. The process is supposed to make sure that universities are preparing students for ministry and not just further academic work. The process expects something from every stakeholder involved.
I hope universities do not take up the sole responsibility for educational preparation toward ordination. It was seem to me to be several steps backward. The flexibility of the Nazarene system is one of its strengths. It allows all who are called to be prepared adequately for what it takes to engage in an active and thoughtful ministry.
I think there might be something to be said about [warning: Nazarene lingo follows] the "field" leaders, district superintendents, the board members in the credentialing process, and ordained faculty members, work together within an educational zone, maybe even in unison with the university in consultation with NBC and NTS (at least within the US/Canada Region). I had an encouraging conversation with a district superintendent at the university trustee dinner last night about this very topic, and what the district superintendents in our neck of the woods are doing already in this direction. This person also mentioned similar collaboration work in another educational zone. Encouraging signs.
Hope this clarifies some of your questions, and the other posts might also help in answering some of your concerns.
Invalidated, unmotivated--What I've learned from 15 years of working with validated courses of study toward ordination in the Church of the Nazarene
TL; dr -- Let's talk about figuring out how to create missional pathways for people seeking to respond to God's calling in their lives, since as church leaders, it's our responsibility to guide this process wherever in the world we find ourselves.
Yesterday's post on "extra" courses being required by districts after graduation from validated courses of studies in Nazarene universities, um, hit a nerve. Lots of response on Facebook, likes, retweets, and private messages. I won't name names, obviously, but there are a lot of people under 30 years of age that are hurt, confused, and angry at how districts have been dismissive of their previous years of formation in the classroom and in ministry contexts. A lot of them are no longer Nazarene because of their bad experiences.
This is a drum that I've been pounding on for a long time. In 2000, with a trip to Cote d'Ivoire, I began working with course of study issues at a retreat for Nazarene educators in West Africa. It was here that I met Mike Vail and Bob Woodruff. They were in the midst of a large-scale revision of the Course of Study toward Ordination under the supervision of Mike Vail, on contract at the time with the International Board of Education, and Robert Woodruff, on specialized contract with World Mission as the Global Education Coordinator. Both were consultants with years of educational experience and various church responsibilities. Once I was formally asked to lead the educational efforts in francophone Africa, I began to work with the global revisions to the educational requirements especially in how they might be contextualized in my new setting, especially in terms of the Bologna Process. Oh, the work.
I already had a Ph.D. in education from the University of Kansas, but soon realized there were many things I still needed to learn. Namely, the Course of Study is built on Western ideals of outcomes-based education, which is not much different than ancient cultural traditions of "observation-action-reflection-correction-repeat." This I did know from years as a curriculum editor. I was somewhat familiar with Malcolm Knowles' influence since my college days due to Rick Ryding's influence at MVNU and later Don Whitlock's teaching style at Nazarene Seminary in Kansas City. I soon read up on Jane Vella, Paulo Freire, and others, especially in their influence upon the British Commonwealth educational system and international non-governmental organizations that fed on OBE and adult learning theories. Woodruff was an expert in this area from his time in the Australian university system. I had learned enough in the Ph.D. program to learn what I did not yet know.
What was not taken into account in the new Nazarene revisions were the French educational system and other non-European and structures that ascribed to similar educational theories in marginal fashion but used much different structures to get there than the American and British systems, such as learner-centered pedagogy and the educational levels of certificate, diploma, and degree. The terms were different but so was the meaning attached to each level of education. Also, I knew next to nothing about West African culture, Francophone culture, and just how different these contexts were from North America.
I needed to learn the flux within the Nazarene system: the (limited) reach of IBOE and ICOSAC, the influence of the previous experience of Nazarene higher education in contexts beyond USA/Canada, and the partnerships between school and church that can be described as perpetually strained. Layer on this moving the family to six different countries in our first eighteen months on missionary contract while learning another language and taking on church development responsibilities as district superintendent, and this became quite the task. But, I was able to figure some things out, like:
So, ten years later, I return to the U.S. and begin teaching at a Nazarene university. Not once in the last seven years since I've been in the U.S., I have not been asked by the Regional COSAC or any district in the region about educational requirements toward ordination, except by students that are working through this process or by districts to affirm if students meet their requirements. I've worked with educators in central and south America, Cuba, West Africa, and have been asked to be involved more in Asia. I've written an assessment plan for Christian ministry majors based on the 4Cs, but I'm not considered an expert in the U.S. and Canada, except by students seeking a guide toward ministry beyond graduation and how to work through the various options to get there. I've been published on the theology and practice of ordination, but I've not been tapped to weigh in on these issues in my own country. Fine. Don't listen to me, but at least listen to those I'm hearing from.
Since I've again made note of another red flag of a deeply flawed system, I'm hearing from folks that have also seen or experienced the problems that have become obstacles in the path toward ordained ministry. I've seen what happens when a region, field, district, and missional zones get it right, and the path toward ordination flows into a rapidly expanding multiplication movement of new churches in a context that is linguistically and theologically complex. I've seen when it gets it wrong, such as one district that has a written policy stating that "completing the certificate programs through Nazarene schools may not complete the District's Course of Study." Is the district now an educational provider? (If so, I'm cool with that.) Is this Course of Study validated? (I do not believe this is the case, so I'm no longer cool with that. We're not Presbyterians, even though there's nothing wrong with this. Let's not try to be them, and instead be who we are.)
I hope we can expand this necessary conversation if not for the present then at least for the next generation.
Not again - Another graduation, another frustration (for those young millennial, spiritual leaders seeking ordination)
Yesterday, I came to work at 7:30 a.m. and left about 6:00 p.m. On the way out of the parking lot, I received a message from a recent graduate. This associate minister is seeking to meet ordination requirements. This person's degree in Christian ministry did not include five courses that would have completed the educational requirements for our denomination as approved by a national and international board of ministry leaders and educators.
But, apparently, this associate minister's district credentials board/board of ministry thinks they know better than everyone else in this process of preparing people for Christian ministry. This associate minister is being asked to complete twice the number of courses than anticipated--about one more year's worth of study in district, pastor-led, multi-week courses, about 20-30 hours of class time in courses, all of which do not count toward another degree or credential. It's just a process to satisfy the whims of a district board that changes as pastors are voted on or off or move to new districts. Some will not be there to observe and celebrate this young minister's ordination.
Personally, I find these nonsensical district imperatives to be greatly offensive. It denigrates the efforts I (and my colleagues) put in every day and over weekends to make students ready for the next step into ministry. I returned to campus last night at 7:30 p.m. for a meeting with students that lasted beyond the 9:00 p.m. conclusion lasting until about 11:00 p.m. Students are hungry for the informal experiences of learning from professors that they also respect as practitioners--people like me that are pushing them on to something greater than a paycheck or career toward a God-called vocation to equip His people for the work of ministry in this world.
What this young, new associate pastor needs is not a registrar checking off a list of courses. The structure of the denomination allows districts to out-source this task to colleges, universities, and a seminary. What this associate pastor needs is not a taskmaster that watches over the shoulder to make sure the younger one is good enough, but not so good as to surpass the overseer. This young person entering ministry needs the readiness necessary for the work they will encounter and not another set of hoops to jump through like some circus poodle. What this associate pastor needs is a mentor to walk him or her into the struggles and summits of ministry. It's time for pastors in positions of district leadership to live up to their callings.
As my denomination wonders why it cannot keep millennials in the pews or find enough pastors and ministers to fill its leadership positions, I think I can see a part of the reason why.
EDIT: typos corrected.
UPDATE: Thanks for the responses to this post as it is reposted on Facebook. One of the responses that looked toward the desire to be united as university and districts in the raising up of the next generation prompted this reply from me:
"Every year I've been here [at MVNU], we've had students on various districts at various times go through this frustration [of being required to do more course work]. Some students will take a course of study that does not include all of the required courses, mainly to include a value added skill like a language or business courses. What happened here and at other times is the courses not taken are not the only ones required by the district. They add courses that are not necessary to complete the competency [required] for ordination. It diminishes the credibility of the board that deems a student not ready when many people [leaders] in their lives from university, local church, internship mentors, and colleagues know they are ready. It also diminishes the credibility of the university as if our intensive and difficult ministry preparation programs are not legitimate or inferior. It's frustrating, man, even sickening, especially receiving messages from students on days that I work myself to exhaustion on their behalf and on behalf of my denominational assignment as an ordained minister."