Ordination

Last weekend, I preached at the ordination service of a friend. I thought it was strange of her to ask me, being that I don’t really find ordination helpful anymore (I did once, and I am ordained). It’s not so much the institution itself (though I do have problems with it), but the way it’s used that I find so troubling. It’s too often used as some kind of worldly power grab, an excuse to make someone call you “Pastor,” or a reason to get a really lucrative tax break, or the chance for an otherwise relatively culturally powerless person to be in charge — of a pulpit and microphone on Sunday, a staff meeting on Monday, a board of elders on Tuesday, etc.

Thankfully, I was involved in the ordination of a friend who is tempted toward none of these abuses. Here is an edited version my sermon:

“We are here assembled on a very interesting and solemn occasion, and it is proper to advert to the real object for which we have come together. There are in the world, and there may be among us, false views of the nature and object of ordination. I do not believe that any special or specific form of ordination is necessary to constitute a gospel minister. We are not here to make a minister. It is not to confer on this our sister a right to preach the gospel. If she has not that right already, we have no power to communicate it to her. Nor have we met to qualify her for the work of the ministry. If God, and mental and moral culture, have not already qualified her, we can not by any thing we may do by way of ordaining or setting her apart. Nor can we, by imposition of our hands, confer on her any special grace for the work of the ministry; nor will our hands, if imposed upon her head, serve as any special medium for the communication of the Holy Ghost, as conductors serve to convey electricity. Such ideas belong not to our theory, but are related to other systems and darker ages. All we are here to do, and all we expect to do, is in due form, and by a solemn and impressive service, to subscribe our testimony to the fact, that, in our belief, our sister in Christ, [Antoinette L. Brown], is one of the ministers of the new covenant, authorized, qualified, and called of God, to preach the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ. This is all; but even this renders the occasion interesting and solemn. As she is recognized as a pastor of this flock it is solemn and interesting to both pastor and flock to have the relation formally recognized.”

These words – with one notable difference – were preached by the Rev. Luther Lee on September 15, 1853 in South Butler, New York. The occasion was the ordination of Miss Antoinette Brown, the first woman ever ordained in modern times. Appropriately enough, Rev. Brown was ordained as a Congregationalist….

However, I come today with some troubling news. Ordination, my friends, is in trouble. Deep trouble.

The verb, “to ordain,” comes from the same Latin root as, “to order,” and it means basically the same thing. Ordination is, presumably, about putting things in the right order, about getting the hierarchy right. Now, as Congregationalists, we don’t have much hierarchy; there’s a little more for Presbyterians and a lot more for Episcopalians and Catholics. But all of us Baptists (small “b” and large “B”) and Congregationalists, the order is really just two levels, ordained and non-ordained (also known as “laypersons”).

Ultimately, no matter the denominational flavor, ordination is about the conferring of some kind of authority upon the ordinand. Danielle will have hands laid upon her in a few moments in a sign of demarcation that has its origins in the Bible, and she will join the millions of men and women who have followed St. Peter, the one who was initially set apart by Jesus himself, given the “keys to the church.” And suddenly, magically, after we lay hands on her, Danielle will have the authority to baptize, marry, bury, and preside over the Lord’s Supper. She’ll have the authority to shepherd young people, to assist God in ushering them into his kingdom. She’ll have the authority to speak the gospel to the powers of our age! Or will she?

Here’s the rub. We live in possibly the most anti-authoritarian era of all time. You may already be convinced of this, but humor me by allowing me some examples. Just 60 years ago the press wouldn’t show the President of the United States in a wheelchair; today the President is skewered nightly by Leno, Letterman, and Saturday Night Live. The Pope is mocked in editorial cartoons, and the Supreme Court is depicted sans robes – or anything else – in this Christmas’s bestselling book.

People are deeply, deeply suspicious of authority. But before we start to bemoan how much times have changed, and how much we wish it was the way to used to be, let me say in the interest of full disclosure, I think that this suspicion of authority is a good thing!

You see, coming out of the Enlightenment of the 18th century, things were pretty rosy. It was commonly assumed that the human race had finally begun to figure things out. As Europe emerged out of two centuries of war, a generation of philosophers and scientists promised a new age, based on “enlightened rationality.” Philosopher Immanuel Kant declared that humankind had left its immaturity and that the motto of the Enlightenment was, “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence!”

The universe is orderly, rational, and ultimately knowable, the Enlightenment thinkers declared. And human beings will figure it all out, if we just “put our minds to it.”

And then the 20th century happened. The human race achieved great heights, unparalleled progress. But every height was matched by a depth, a deep darkness that makes it possibly the most ambivalent century of all time.

We cured diseases at an astounding rate, but an influenza epidemic in 1918 and 1919 killed 25 million. AIDS is currently devastating the continent of Africa.

The global infant mortality rate has dropped from 198 to 83 deaths per thousand births in the last forty years, but overpopulation is paralyzing the growth of underdeveloped countries.

The Internet has delivered incredible resources of news, information, and pornography to young and old alike.

This list, of course, could go on. But what really brought the Enlightenment dream to an end was war. Rather than bringing a century of peace, the 20th century was the bloodiest that humankind has ever seen. 150 million people died in warfare, and the 20th century ended with armed conflict taking place in fully one-third of the nations on Earth.

And at whose feet do we lay the blame for this? At the feet of authority, because for every Einstein, Kennedy, King, and Churchill, there’s a Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot. Authority, my friends, took a beating in the 20th century.

And so we emerge into the 21st century with a vast horizon of possibility before us, and an ambivalent legacy behind us. People don’t trust authority, and with good reason. Postmodern philosophers have for thirty years now been attempting to do “philosophy after the Holocaust,” for how does one speak authoritatively about “truth” when such talk sounds vaguely like the claims made by the Nazis and Africaans?

How does a pastor, for instance, stand in a pulpit and authoritatively preach about what is good and true and right when the backdrop of her profession is headlines of pedophilic priests, T.V. preachers, and pastors with moral failings? At one time we wore these robes to convey a certain amount of authority, to show how well educated we were, back when Oxford and Yale professors wore them to lectures every day. Now few know what they signify….

For only now, after the institution of ordained ministry has been laid low, can it be reborn into what it can and should be.

There is no better time to restate Paul’s dictum: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, ordained nor lay, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Now we can truly embrace St. Peter and Martin Luther’s ideal of “the priesthood of all believers.” The unspoken contract between pastor and congregation can be rewritten, for we are all called to ministry, all called to serve God daily and wholeheartedly. The pastor does not deliver us the truth – that’s the job of the Holy Spirit. The pastor gathers us, makes sure the bills get paid, and helps us to develop theological language to describe and redescribe our lives. The pastor reminds us that we are a “royal priesthood,” that we are the “body of Christ.” This is not authoritarianism but cooperation.

And there is no better place for ordination to be reborn than in a congregational church where the minister has always been in some sense, just “one of the folks” (to use a Rounerian phrase). We do “set apart” our pastors insofar as we pay them to do the business of the church. But when it comes time to vote on something, there’s one vote a piece, whether you’re “Reverend” or ir-reverend.

There’s a verse that makes any Congregationalist’s heart sing, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” Danielle is ordained today not by a distant bishop or a denominational bureaucracy, but by the local body of Christ, by the same folks who led her in youth group, discipled her through high school, prayed her through college, gave her a job in ministry, and kept her in care in seminary. We encouraged her to preach, serve communion, teach Bible studies, run summer camp, lead mission trips, hang out with kids, and mentor an amazing group of young women.

And there is no better person in whom ordination’s rebirth can take place than Danielle Hample. I have been honored to watch God forge Danielle these past years, and, more than anyone I know, myself included, Danielle’s motivation for having this celebration on this day is pure. She holds no illusions of grandeur, takes no egocentric pleasure from standing in a pulpit, doesn’t long for credibility in the eyes of men and women. She desires no worldly authority, no office of power. No, hers is as pure a heart to serve as a sinful human being can have. And she has been serving, lo these many years.

And so I reiterate the sentiments of Rev. Luther Lee at that ordination service so many years ago. We’re not doing anything here today – at least, we’re not doing anything that God didn’t already do years ago. In some ways, we’re just catching up with God’s work in Danielle’s life enough to say that she is, indeed, “one of the ministers of the new covenant, authorized, qualified, and called of God, to preach the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ.” We will all do well to watch the grace with which she carries the title, “Reverend,” for my guess is that she will embody the humility that we read about in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, considering others better than herself, and looking to the interests of others before her own. It’s to this standard that we’re all called and set apart. And no one will proclaim that with more zeal than Reverend Hample.

  • Mike King

    Good morning Tony. I started my day with your post. Well done. Unfortunately, I think tax incentives have become a bigger factor in the motivation to “get ordained.” There are so many Ordination Organizations out there to “help someone get ordained who is restricted by denominational requirements.” The process is quick, painless, and very impersonal until the actual event of Ordination when the person gathers unto themselves some ministry friends to execute the “formalities.” Removing the “lucrative tax-break” motivation for ordination will most likely come from the government eliminating the tax-breaks, or some kind of more extensive application process for gaining tax benefits by an ordained person, such as, proving that the one ordained is carrying out sacerdotal responsibilities within some type of parish context. This would eliminate what many parachurch ministry people have done with ordination. I’m telling you from firsthand experience the financial benefits are most of the time not even veiled as a primary motivation to pursue ordination. I just refused a request to sit on the “counsel” of an ordination like this. “You can opt out of Social Security.” “Housing Allowance is cool.” “We can double-dip on a deduction for the interest I pay on my mortgage.” Ordination while it should not be abused as a power position and title should be protected from being handed out flippantly and should be viewed with a healthy and proper sacredness by the one to whom it has been conferred upon. Ok, I have some bloggin to do on my site, a paper and an article to write. I love you Tony and will miss not seeing you in SD next week.Peace,Mike

  • jay v.

    Brilliant sermon Tony. No, really. I mean it.jay

  • clave

    It’s a great sermon and appropriate. Power lust is a blight on the church today. And it’s surprising at how many church leaders hide behind their power rather than minister in an authentic manner. They believe their suit and tie gives them authority. All the while you have someone like me who sees a tie and immediately thinks I’m about to get sold some insurance. Fight the power brother. Anyway, as someone looking forward to those tax breaks, I agree that you won’t find a more serving heart than Danielle Hample.

  • Gregg Koskela

    Fascinating read, Tony! You’re dead on, and as you probably know, very much where Quakers have been in their whole existence. I was “recorded” instead of ordained in 1996; my faith community gathering together to record that God had gifted me-NOT to minister, as we all are called-but to record that my community saw in me God-given gifts in “proclamational ministry”. May God raise up more who will serve with a heart like it sounds Danielle has.

  • Kevin

    Tony,Is there room in the church for concept of ordination as a formational pivot of a persons ministry? Almost like a right-of-passage, a time where both the ordained and the ordaining body shift their understanding of the given person? For good or for ill isn’t there something we are doing during ordination besides standing there and embarrasing our friends? Perhaps we are deliniating a power structure we shouldn’t, that is *something* we are doing. Perhaps we are affirming the ordained in much the same way we affirm our confirmands? Maybe I’m just jaded or a theological whack-job but part of me *wants* to hold on to some high-church-ness and sacredness of ordination. -Pkj. My blog: Ignoti Et Quasi Oculti

  • RobeFRe

    TonyI am heartened by the words you wrote on the integrity of ordination and am reminded of Jesus’ warning to the crowds listening to beware of the religious experts in long flowing robes who parade about and yearn for the respect of others while using wordy prayers to trick old widows out of their assets. Luke 20:45-47. I say heartening, because while it is not good that some would don the collar as hirelings, it is ecouraging that one at the helm, such as yourself, and this new Reverend Hample, just ordained at your hand, would be aware, and so state so that those of us ’round about should take note of the signs of the aspirant’s intent. For even in the congregational church the role of Pastor becomes so armored with innate character and responsibility that the laiety often takes for granted the character and integrity of the man in the role and often votes his whim as their own. Kuddos to you and yours.RobeFRe

  • john alan turner

    Great post — great sermon. I’ll probably steal from it liberally if I’m ever called on to speak at someone’s ordination service.Still…the tax break is pretty nice.

  • Mark Calhoun

    Bravo!!!I can only hope these words and this meassage fill the air at my ordination.

  • Rick

    Ordination as intended is a positive,in my opinion. I can certainly see how it has been abused over the years along all denominational lines. It is when ordiantion becomes about something other than intended that it becomes a problem. You are right– there is a problem! It is scary!Perhaps the problem isn’t really about ordination, it is about the popel being ordained.Rick

  • Ecclesial Dreamer

    Tony, this is a great post and I loved your sermon. B-E-A-utiful!!

  • RobeFRe

    I wonder if in keeping true to the ordination Paul described to Titus if a preacher should be required to stay at that church where he was ordained or to be reordained at the church to which he is called. Ah oh! the cat is out.(8~)

  • Jan

    Thanks for your thoughtful words. There is a group of us who are discovering (and re-discovering) what the ordained ministry is all about. Your post is a helpful aid in our conversation.

  • Chris Enstad

    and of course the guy that got hauled in front of the IRS for abusing the housing allowance was Rick Warren.Go figure.

  • Chris Enstad

    Oh tony tony tony, my friend, I wonder what happened to you along the way of this thing called ministry. Are you the only one in your desert that you cannot find a person who demonstrates the true meaning of the word “pastor”? I sit here typing this wearing my collar. You always get a kick out of me wearing my collar. “Why are you wearing *that*?” you ask. Is it so I can do a power grab and hold authority over another person? You, of all people, should know better than that. The pastor holds little or no authority in our culture today. But I wear my collar to the bedside of the sick, it’s my uniform, just like any soldier, police officer, or even the guy at McDonald’s would wear. Of course my collar symbolizes more than that… it is, I have come to think, the visible sign that Jesus Christ has got his hands on me and I’m yoked to him. But it’s fun to throw rocks at the clergy… you are getting pretty good at it. It happens to me all the time when I meet someone who has been slighted by “the church” in some way.But that collar also brings comfort to the afflicted. why? I don’t know… I suppose because deep down those sick folks are anxious to hear about how God has known them, even in the womb, from the guy who has been set aside to bring such a message. This set-asideness is strange as you know. It is not an elevation, although many people do seem to want to put us on a pedestal… but I think it’s reassuring to folks to know that *someone* is doing the work not of imitating Jesus, or trying to BE God, but rather doing the work of putting eternal language on the ups and downs of daily life.Barbara Brown Taylor quotes an old seminary prof of hers in a conversation she had with him:BBT: My biggest fear about ordination is the whole perfection thing — impersonating Jesus in front of a whole lot of people who will see right through me.Prof: Oh lovey, that’s not your job. If you decide to do this, they you’re not promising to be perfect. You’re just consenting to be visible — to let other people watch you while you try to figure out what real life is all about.Tax breaks? I will never be a rich man monetarily. I, not that you need to know, pay my entire FICA and Social Security which secular employers would pick up half of. To me it’s a wash. And if one *is* pursuing ministry for monetary reasons that would only make me sad. There are a million other jobs where you can work just as long hours for way more in compensation. But you wouldn’t be able to quite get a window into real life like a pastor can.So yes, I do wonder what happened to you along the way. The stones you throw sweep over an entire vocation of people who didn’t necessarily choose to be in your firing line, they are merely doing what God has called them to do… and that’s a hard call to resist no matter how unpostmodern that idea is. Is it the ordained ministry’s fault that some pastors get caught up in the cultural idea of pastor as CEO, as rock star, and traveling motivational speaker? I don’t think so. It’s not really their fault that the cultural accolades drown out the still small voice of God.But in the end there’s me filling this office of ministry that existed long before I came into it. Sitting by the bedside of a dying old person, sharing a bit of Scripture, a prayer of thanksgiving… all because that’s what I was set aside to do. I didn’t have to leave work early to get there because that IS my job. Thanks be to God for that.

  • Dennis Lee

    Tony — It is wonderful to see people quoting from my great-great-great grandfather’s writings. He was a magnificent author and leading abolitionist in his time. Thank you.


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