Dr. Johnny Jeffords joined us at Memphis Theological Seminary this week to discuss the journey towards ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. The luncheon was part of the Methodist House of Studies‘ ongoing series of fellowship gatherings designed to build community and provide opportunities for Methodist students at MTS to draw on the wisdom of ministry practitioners.

In addition to serving as senior pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Memphis, Dr. Jeffords is also the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry for the Memphis Conference. That means he has a unique insight into how ordination candidacy works for those seeking to become deacons or elders in the UMC.

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One of the real highlights of our lunchtime conversation was in getting to hear Dr. Jeffords speak about how he sees the candidacy process both¬†from the annual conference-side of things and from the candidate’s perspective¬†. Here are some of the things he mentioned:

  • We need to clearly understand the relationships between the local church, the District Committee on Ministry (or DCOM), and the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry (or BOM). Local churches should only put forward candidates for ministry that they would want to have serve as their own pastors. (That’s a pretty good criterion to go by, if you ask me.) The DCOM also needs—for practical reasons—to understand itself as the primary body to discern which candidates will ultimately be ordained or not. That’s not to deflect the responsibilities of the BOM; it is rather a reality about how much time a given body will spend with a candidate and how workload is distributed.
  • Formal training for both DCOM and BOM members is essential for these bodies to understand their roles and perform them well. That has to be matched by a personal commitment of each DCOM or BOM member to undertake his or her work with seriousness, intentionality, and prayer.2014-11-11_Jeffords visit 5
  • Candidates themselves need to know that the church will be more discerning in the future about who needs to be a pastor in the United Methodist connection. Knowing and embracing our Wesleyan doctrinal distinctives is necessary. Understanding and agreeing with our polity and form of ministry—also necessary. It isn’t up to a DCOM or a BOM to determine who is called to ministry; it’s just up to them to determine who is called into ministry in a particular annual conference of the UMC. The church is in a stage where it has got to be more robust about how it goes about identifying and preparing its future leaders. And this is ultimately a good thing.
  • In preparing for both written and oral responses to doctrinal questions, a candidate should be able to articulate answers in a couple of ways: 1. Knowledge and agreement with our core doctrines with reference to Scripture and the Wesleyan tradition. 2. How our core doctrines relate to ministry and the living of the Christian life. You can be too academically sterile on one extreme, and you can be too mushy/personal on the other. So the balance would be in having the ability to respond with theological rigor and integrity while also being able to speak meaningfully about how our understanding of the triune God, the Lordship of Christ, the sacraments and other means of grace, justification & sanctification, etc., make a different in ministry and discipleship.

These are just a few of the highlights. There was much more, and it was all great. (All the summaries above are, of course, from my own notes and are not a transcript of what Dr. Jeffords said.)

2014-11-11_Jeffords visit 3I’ve been counseling students for years who are working through ordination candidacy while they’re also going through seminary. I’ve never found that they have an issue with candidacy being a demanding, even rigorous process. The objections they tend to raise have to do with the seeming opaqueness or confusing aspects of the process. Usually that is due to poor communication of one sort or another, and sometimes it is due to the inherently “institutional feel” that candidacy processes have taken on in the contemporary church.

The good news is that these challenges can all be fixed. The bad news, if that’s the right word for it, is that the work of fixing our problems is dependent on intentional, focused work by those in the relevant leadership positions in each annual conference. The Memphis Conference at least is fortunate in having a leader the caliber of Johnny Jeffords as it moves forward with the work of its own Board of Ordained Ministry.

For other posts about the Methodist House of Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary, click here.