Running the Gauntlet: Our Flawed Process for Choosing Church Leaders

The church takes an often brutal and unreflective approach to selecting leaders.  The commissions and boards charged with the process frequently rely on hidden agendas, trick questions, and parish assignments that are as far from the strengths of the candidate as possible.  And the process often bears more resemblance to hazing for membership in a fraternity than it does formation for the ministry.  When it doesn't feel that way, it can often feel like running a gauntlet. 

The result is a process that fosters cynicism, drives away competent candidates, narrows the ways in which ministry is done, and does little more than preserve and protect a clubby approach to ordination.  The complete dependence of candidates on the good will of the commissions and boards that run the process is the only thing that silences criticism.

Having run that gauntlet alongside other candidates, colleagues, and students for over thirty years, there are more stories to tell than I can relate here.  But a few examples of the questions that are asked will serve to illustrate the point:

One strategy is the litmus test question: "Who is Jesus?"  Hard on the heels of a seminary education, a question like that can sound like being asked to define universe and give three examples.  Understandably, candidates feel obliged to outline at least some of the complex history of the way in which the church has responded to it.  But there was only one answer according to the committee: "Savior and Lord."  And candidates who failed to answer appropriately were told they didn't know how to preach the Gospel.

Another is the loaded question: "Will you go anywhere we send you?"  The question, of course, has huge implications—not just for the candidates themselves, but for their families as well.  And any honest, intelligent answer would involve weighing a number of variables, including the ages of children, the portability of a spouse's career, and the needs of older family members.  But committees often ask the question with a view to getting an unguarded, on-the-spot answer that is used to evaluate the candidate's seriousness.  Men often answer the question satisfactorily, in large part because they give themselves permission to disregard the complexities involved in answering.  But women often struggle with it.  And in return they are often told that they are treating their vocation like a hobby.  Devotion to your family will get you into trouble and it's best to forget about it until you preach about it on Mother's Day.

Then there are the political questions: "How do you feel about ordaining women—or gays?"  The question itself, of course, is ill conceived.   No one is adequately defined by gender or sexual orientation and the question begs all the really important ones that might be asked about any candidate: "How is God moving in his or her life?"  "Does he or she live a life that models a desire to follow Christ?" "Does the community of which she is a part detect in her a call to ordained life?"  Clearly the question does not mean that all heterosexual males are eligible for ordination.  But the categorical question appears to suggest that they are.  Worse yet, the committee members asking the question are at war with one another about the right answer, so it's a no-win situation for the candidate.

And on the questions go:

  1. "How could you possibly get anything out of a feminist theology class?"
  2. "Why would you spend a semester reading Augustine?  He hated women."
  3. "Can you imagine yourself being a bishop?"  (Answer yes and you will be accused of inordinate ambition.  Answer no and they won't believe you.)
  4. "Why are you seeking ordination?  You have a Ph.D.  That won't get you first church, if that's what you have in mind.  You will start at the bottom like everyone else."
  5. "You want to serve as a hospital chaplain?  Or youth minister?  Why aren't you aren't interested in real (read: parish) ministry."

When the committee is finished, then the hazing proper begins: Send the city kid to a rural area.  Send the rural kid to the city.  Test the candidates' resolve by sending them as far as possible from their children's schools and their spouses' work.  Pay them at levels that ensure it will take them years to free themselves of the debt that they incurred trying to get an education.  When questioned, there are endless explanations for this kind of treatment:

  1. "They are being ordained to serve the whole church, not just a part of it."
  2. "It's a growth experience.  He or she needs a different kind of exposure."
  3. Or, simply answer with another question, "Aren't you called?"