Running the Gauntlet: Our Flawed Process for Choosing Church Leaders

The tragedy of this approach is that it destroys people who are told "no" and it destroys people who are told "yes."  Those who are told "no" are often left without a candid, gentle conversation about the shape of their gifts.  Nor are they offered help in discovering how they might serve. Those who are told "yes" endure the indignities of the process and emerge ordained.  But they also emerge angry, distrustful—if not cynical—and determined to go it alone.  Worst of all, a broken few wait their turn to "do unto others as they have been done unto."

What drives this approach, when one might expect an emphasis on prayer, discernment, mutual respect, honesty, and a bent for soul-care?  There are a number of reasons:

  1. Some of what happens can be traced to a lack of training in and attention to the task of mentoring.  Many of the people assigned to commissions and boards—both lay and ordained—have had little or no experience in mentoring and they often rely upon the methods by which they were mentored.  Committee members read candidate profiles only late in the process, shape their questions on the basis of privately crafted agendas, and contribute to a process that often lacks careful orchestration.
  2. Others work from a narrow template, defining ordination purely in the terms that have shaped their own ministries—killing innovation that comes with the work that God does in individuals' lives and condemning the church to a single form of ministry. 
  3. Hidden agendas are also at play in the process.  Bent on gate-keeping for their own side in the church's conflicted landscape, the questions that committee members often ask are shaped by a desire to insure that the "right kind" of people are ordained—rather than asking themselves in a more intentional fashion what are the characteristics of those ordained to the church's ministry.
  4. And in many churches there is an implicit pyramid of appointments, with career ladders to big steeple churches.  Ecclesiastical hazing gives those who worry about losing their place in the pecking order a means of guaranteeing that no one will achieve advanced placement over them as they labor away at the bottom of the pyramid.

If you have ever wondered why clergy seem to be as cynical as the denizens of any other corporate ladder—if you have ever wondered why someone with evident gifts for the ordained life was told "no" for the most obscure of reasons—if you have ever wondered why mid-career clergy can seem so skeptical about the structures with in they work—or why retired clergy often stop going to church—in many cases you need look no further than the way in which the ordination process itself is handled.

How can it be fixed?

  1. Put an end to the abusive behavior and name it when it occurs.
  2. Train people to serve on boards and commissions to listen, ask questions, mentor, practice discernment, and care for candidates.
  3. Make it clear: Everyone has a God-given vocation and the process should not be conducted in a way that suggests—even unintentionally—that the only God-given vocation is an ordained vocation.
  4. Define—publicly and transparently—the criteria that are used to determine whether someone is called to the ordained life and the prerequisites for entering the process.  Those can't always be defined in absolute terms, but boards and commissions should not hide behind the complexity of defining them either.
  5. Be honest with candidates—about both the good news and hard news.  The conflict adverse boards should not continue people in the process who don't belong there, nor are the values of the board an excuse for eliminating candidates with trick questions and hidden agendas.
  6. Be consistent in the treatment of candidates.  It's time to put an end to the old-boys' club.
  7. Put an end to the gate-keeping—in both its ideological and professional forms.
  8. Think divergently about the shape of ordained ministry.
  9. Craft a process that treats people with respect and efficiency.  It is grossly unfair to continue people in a process without clarity, feedback, and information about the "next steps."
  10. And, above all, focus on formation, nurture, and development.  Everyone has a God-given vocation and an abusive process that destroys a person's sense of that vocation is a sin, pure and simple, whatever the motives for it might be.

From time to time in life, we run the gauntlet in the name of our faith.  Our brothers and sisters should not be the ones wielding the weapons.

5/8/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Frederick Schmidt
    About Frederick Schmidt
    Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at:
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