Saturday, October 10, 2009

an appreciative inquiry into ordained ministry in the united methodist church

(A revision of a reflection shared with the Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, United Methodist Church in Nashville, October 9, 2009)

Our local church has been involved in a strategic planning process over the past ten months. We have been guided by a tool known as "appreciative inquiry". The emphasis is not so much on our problems and how to "fix" them; instead we have focused on the identification of our gifts, what is sometimes called our "positive core". And so we listened to our congregation and community, and overwhelmingly they taught us about three strengths:

1. The presence of deep friendships and strong social networks (for example, our Sunday School to Worship attendance ratio is almost 80%, and we have twelve United Methodist Women circles, plus a Men's group known as the Squares!

2. We offer strong traditional worship. We believe that God has gifted us with musicians in this area; as one young adult told me, if we tried to do contemporary worship it would be "cheesy"!

3. We are engaged in significant (Schnase would call it "risk-taking") mission (again, for example, we have a homeless shelter in our church, and hundreds of volunteers are involved in hands-on ministries with the homeless).

And so the Appreciate Inquiry model is pushing us to think about how we build on these gifts in the future. All of this led me to think about the United Methodist Church and Ordained Ministry. What is our positive core?

Again, an initial reflection:

1. United Methodists have a rich and broad understanding of the grace of God.

2. United Methodists grasp the fullness of a holiness that is both personal and social.

3. We have, at our best, the qualities of both a movement and an institution (think "Nothing But Nets" and General Board of Global Ministries, or "Five Practices" and Sunday School).

4. Our heritage is both catholic and evangelical.

5. We are marked by a connectionalism that is increasingly global.

6. We value the intellectual life. Wesley was a scholar at Oxford, a voracious reader, and his legacy has been a succession of schools, colleges, universities and seminaries across the world.

Ordained ministry expressed in this context takes a particular shape:

1. Elders, deacons and local pastors are called not only to embrace the grace of God but to grow in that grace; this implies discipline.

2. Elders, deacons and local pastors are encouraged and required to be evangelists and prophetic in their witness.

3. Elders, deacons and local pastors are called to be a part of the denomination as it is, but also to help in shaping it to be more than it is. Here I am grateful to the ideas in the helpful little book Orbiting The Giant Hairball (thanks, Robert).

4. Our personal experience is always placed in the context of the needs of the whole church. We are a (U.S.) church planted in the soil of a democracy, and yet we also episcopal in our tradition.

5. We live in covenant with each other; we are learning that this is a part of what it means to be a part of an order (the other aspect may be related to a rule of life).

6. We submit ourselves to the rigors and sacrifices of intellectual preparation for ministry, and as a denomination we support this work with our tithes, offerings and apportionments.

The work of the Division of Ordained Ministry, and, I would argue, the ongoing Study of Ministry commissioned by the General Conference will be most fruitful as we claim the gifts of God that are distinctly ours, and build upon them.


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