Shepherd’s Care: Ordination

Yesterday, Deacons and Elders were ordained by Bishop Ken Carter in the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. [1] This annual service is a highlight and a reminder that God calls every Christian to a discipleship ministry, and some Christians to an ordained ministry. As a retired clergyperson, it is inspiring and encouraging to see the new people God is raising up. The beat goes on.

It is also a time to remember my ordination as an Elder 46 years ago, at Polk Street UMC in Amarillo, Texas (June 6, 1974), as Bishop Alsie Carelton (and others, including Jeannie) laid hands on me and prayed for me as I knelt at the altar rail. Even though I was the one given the title Elder in that ceremony, ministry has been a team effort with Jeannie every bit involved as I have been. We have been united in holy ministry even as we have been joined in holy matrimony.

Each year, the service gives me the opportunity to reflect anew on the meaning of ordination. Here are the thoughts I had yesterday, thoughts which have evolved over time.

First, ordination is a vision. The Church is never better than in the words it uses to describe itself in the ordination liturgy. In this sense ordination is a witness the Church makes about its nature and mission—a witness to which it holds itself accountable even as it receives new clergy into its membership. Ordination is a moment for the Church and its newest clergy to remember the vision and to recommit to it.

Second, ordination is a vocation. Paul wrote that God gave some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, to equip the saints for ministry and to build up the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11). Ordination is the way we remind ourselves that being clergy is a calling, not a career. Indeed, every Christian is meant to look at their work in this way. But for clergy, ordination is the reminder that we are not institutional employees. We serve God alone, and do not sell our soul to any “company store.”

Third, ordination is a vow. The bishop asks a number of questions, and clergy answer in ways that affirm their faithfulness. Vows are an expression of conscience, but they are not silencers of it. Vows are an occasion when the Church and its clergy confess mutual accountability. Each promises its best to the other. In the good times, clergy are pastors in the Church; in the bad times they must be prophets to the Church. Our vows hold us to both tasks.

Fourth, ordination is a voyage. We travel with Christ, and the one who calls us is faithful (1Thessalonians 5:24). As an Elder (order of ministry) and as an elder (stage of life), I have experienced Christ’s faithfulness again and again. Ordination is an expression of our confidence in his goodness and trustworthiness.

Finally, ordination is a venture. Earlier in this post I noted that Jeannie stood with me and laid her hands on me when I was ordained. Now, forty-six years later, I can say in a very real sense we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. To be ordained is to spend time on the mountaintop…and…back stage. Ordination is a path through the best and worst of the Church.

But in the words of the gospel song, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.” And I pray that those who were ordained yesterday will say the same some day.

[1] In an earlier service, others were Licensed and Commissioned for various ministries in the denomination.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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