Monday, March 17, 2008

on ordination and recording

Not all yearly meetings have the practice of "recording" ministers anymore, although I think it goes back to the eighteenth century or so--I'm not sure when it started. Maybe it started with people who wanted to go as traveling ministers and so they asked for a minute from their meeting (which we still do in a different way, as a traveling minute) saying that person was trusted by their meeting to speak truth, and should be received warmly. Anyway, my yearly meeting does "record" ministers, and some say this is the Quaker version of ordination--but today in one of my classes I realized that when we record ministers in the Friends tradition we are doing something very different from "ordaining" them. Now, I knew this before sort of, but it really hit home today.

What many denominations do is that when someone decides to go into the ministry they go to seminary and start jumping through the hoops required to be ordained. Many of my colleagues are working on exams and meeting with their various ordination boards right now, since my class that I came in with is graduating this May. They have to pass exams on knowledge of the Bible and various theologians, and they have to have a sponsoring group that starts the ordination process for them, and they have to pass a mental health exam, and so forth. If they pass all this they receive a "call" from their denomination into the ministry, and then they look around for churches in which they can work (or they are appointed to them in some denominations). So basically, ordination is a calling from the church, hopefully based on a calling that the individual has received from God.

By contrast, recording a Friend as a minister is the community saying, "We've noticed the Spirit working through you in public ministry, and we want to make a note of that for your encouragement, and for the encouragement of future generations." This is not something that happens only after passing certain written or oral exams, this is not something that has to happen in order to become a released minister in a Friends meeting, and this is not something limited to those who are in a paid leadership position in the worshiping community. Rather, it is open to any and all Friends, and it happens when a group sees God working in the life of that individual in public ways. Anyone can be a Friends pastor without any training as long as the community feels led to release them in that way (this has its positives and negatives!), and some who work as released ministers are never recorded.

I guess it just hit home recently how much I appreciate this practice over that of ordination. I appreciate so much that as Friends, anyone can be a minister, no matter what their education level. Anyone can speak in meetings for worship or business. It's a wonderful thing that we can just let the Spirit speak through people without limiting God by the things we think a person "should" do in order to be qualified to receive the Spirit.

Of course, this all has its limitations, as I'm sure we've all experienced--random people coming in off the street and speaking something totally not Spirit-led in worship, or people who speak often in worship about things that do not point the community toward God, and in programmed Friends circles there are sometimes the random people who decide to become "Friends" pastors because they can't get ordained in any other denomination. This practice of not ordaining people has its vulnerable side, but I think this is one of its strengths: I think it's really hard to meet the Spirit unless we're at least a little vulnerable. Sometimes the Spirit speaks through such surprising vessels that if we did not have this practice we would miss out on that gift altogether.

The only thing I would do differently is that I would record all kinds of ministry, not just public/vocal ministry. I might have said this before in a post about recording, but I think it would be so great to have a group set up at all times to record ministers of every form. It would be so great for everyone to have a mentor who listened to where the Spirit was working in their life, to read spiritual/Quaker books with them in that area, and to recommend them for recording to their local meeting. Then at Yearly Meeting sessions a bunch of these things could be shared with the gathered community for mutual edification and for encouraging those who felt led to more unusual ministries. It would be a great way to help people feel supported, as well as to encourage everyone that their ministry is important and welcomed by the community. Maybe it would become too much of a logistical headache, but I think it would be great to remind ourselves that it isn't just the people who are called to "up front" or "out loud" ministry that have the Spirit in a special way. We are all called, we all have the ability to listen to and follow the Spirit, and it's encouraging to hear about various ministries that are going on in our communities.


Robin M. said...

I think this is a wonderful post - and a reminder of some of the things I admire about NWYM.

One of the distinctions that I think is important is that we already record, even in my unprogrammed meeting, certain kinds of ministry. Some kinds we record in our minutes as Treasurer. Some we record as clerk of Children's Religious Education. We are clear that these Friends are named because we see they have related gifts, and we are easy with the concept that these gifts may be for a season. We are not always clear with each other that this is a kind of recording, of recognizing gifts "for your encouragement and for the encouragement of future generations." But it can and should serve some of that same function.

In meetings with unprogrammed worship, which includes a good many meetings that also have programmed worship, we often do not have a way of recognizing those who have received and are developing and sharing their gifts of vocal ministry. This is where the recording of "ministers" comes in.

Have you read the recording requirements for EFCSW? They sound much more like standard ordination - written and oral tests, psychological fitness, etc. There is a careful admission that women might be called to the recording process, but it feels like an afterthought.

cath said...

I think it's important not to make stark contrasts. I know ordained people who went through a more deeply spiritual process to realize their call than many Friends I know.

And the RSOF is not without its careerists. Sometimes the recording process can be used in a way that makes it seem like a pastor-generator with as many hoops as can be imagined.

To me, it doesn't matter what other faith traditions have as a process. That's their business, and I suspect that the ratio of deeply discerned calls to insufficiently discerned ones is not as lopsided as we may think.

However, that said, I value and appreciate the practice of recording


Ralph Beebe said...

Recording in NWYM is based on the recognition of special spiritual gifts by the local meeting, a good deal of study assigned by one's YM advisers, and approval by the YM. I think this is probably good, although it does increase the space between those recorded and all the rest of us. But in my observation it works quite well.