By Rev. Eric Meyer
For the past few days, I have visited with a number of people who have asked, “what is an Elder?” Or, “If you were just ordained, what were you doing in this church before you were ordained? These are excellent questions, and I hope, in this blog, to provide some ways to understand what it means to be a Methodist Elder.
The Methodist Church has a rigorous process for helping pastoral candidates validate their call into ministry. This process begins when a potential candidate for ministry, under the guidance of an existing pastor, applies to their home church for validation of a calling. The staff parish relations committee reviews the application and either approves or denies the candidate. Then the church body votes to approve the candidate at the annual charge conference (yearly church business meeting). From this point, there is a yearlong vetting process in which the candidate is interviewed by a psychologist, interviewed by the Arkansas Conference Board of Ministry, and if all goes well they become a certified candidate. 82 hours of seminary is the next step. This is equivalent of a master’s degree and a doctorate degree combined into what is called an MDiv, or masters of divinity degree. After graduating, the candidate applies for a provisional (or probationary) membership in the Order of Elders. To be accepted, the candidate submits answers to 26 questions on Methodist doctrine and beliefs, and then is interviewed to discuss those answers in person. If accepted, the provisional period lasts between 2 and 8 years. After 2 years of continuing required course work and projects, the candidate may apply for full membership in the Order of Elders. Another 26 questions must be answered, and the candidate again interviews, this time in front of three different committees. If the candidate passes this final round of interviews, they are approved for ordination.
I was asked to write what ordination means for me in this blog. I was also asked to keep the answer short (!), so the answer will only cover a tiny aspect of the meaning for me. The above process took 7 years, and that is about the shortest time possible in which to move from candidate to full ordination. To describe what ordination means is to try to put into words how I have been physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually transformed by the process. Many of my friends who went through seminary told me that their home congregations were afraid that seminary would change them, and they were sent off to seminary with the well-meaning words, “Don’t let them change who you are!” Part of the meaning of ordination is realizing that God loves me, loves every human being, too much to leave us unchanged. To try to remain unchanged is to turn away from God. Part of the meaning of ordination is learning that developing an intimate relationship with God, who is very much right here, right now, in this moment, takes a tremendous amount of effort and dedication. To be ordained means to willingly spend the rest of my life trying to convince people to let God change every aspect of who they are so that they might also come to experience the abundant life that Jesus offers. That perhaps, is the reason for the psychological evaluation. The board of ministry wants to make sure we are rock solid stable before sending us into this pressure cooker!
The official definition of a Methodist Elder is one who is called to share in the ministry of Christ and of the whole church through the ministries of Word and Sacrament, while ordering (organizing) the Church for mission and service. What does it mean to be ordained for me? It means being able to begin to understand what the apostle Paul meant when he told the people of Galatia that, “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.” It means being excited to see how God is going to change me, being excited to die to my old ideas of what it means to be fully alive, and being excited to guide people into a relationship with God that quite simply changes everything.