Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"Ve have vays of makingk you talk..."

I had the opportunity to attend an Ecclesiastical Council a few weeks ago and I saw first hand the kind of grilling I can expect to get when I apply for ordination after seminary.
Perhaps "grilling" is too strong a word. The meeting didn't take place in a small room with a bare light bulb swinging overhead, and there wasn't a lone jack-booted figure standing in the shadows barking out questions and ultimatums to the poor unsuspecting ministerial candidate….but it certainly felt like it was an interrogation.

Going before the Ecclesiastical Council is one of the last steps towards ordination. The candidate writes a 20-30 page Ordination Paper outlining their spiritual journey and their call to ministry, with the primary focus of the paper being an expression of the candidate's understanding of theology and denominational polity and history.
The Council gathers at the candidate's home church with the "Council" being delegates from the regional association's churches and members of the clergy. The candidate gives an opening statement and then the floor is opened up to questions.

The questions are what I'm dreading.

I was told that one previous candidate was posed the question "How would you explain 'God' to a five-year-old?"…..after a long uncomfortable silence the candidate finally said "I have no idea." These are the job-interview-from-hell questions that are impossible to prepare for…questions like "If you were a tree what kind would you be?" - there is no right or wrong answer to questions like these but you just know whatever answer you give is telling the interviewer "this person is insane and incompetent, avoid them like the plague."

During the EC that I witnessed, the questions centered mainly on the candidate's understanding of the concepts of sin, atonement, and forgiveness.
I would have liked to have heard more about her understanding of her call and the type of ministry she felt drawn to, but there were some members of the Council who seemed caught up on her "vague" understanding of sin and her willingness to "move too quickly to forgiveness."
Double yikes.
To the candidate's credit, she handled the questions with ease and gracefulness, and as most of those present knew each other and/or had previous contact with the candidate, there was an element of lighthearted humor in the exchanges as well.
In the end, she was unanimously "approved for Ordination pending a call," which means she has to secure a job as a pastor, chaplain, etc. before she can be officially ordained.

The head of the Council on Ministries assured me afterward that I needn't worry about the questions I will receive when it's my turn to do this a few years down the line - Seminary will help me to clarify my theological positions and after attending a few more Ecclesiastical Councils I'll start to get a feel for the kinds of questions to expect.

So why am I still worried about it?

My SO woke up early this morning because she was stressed about our car, our money situation, and the end-of-school-year tasks at her job that all need to get done in a short amount of time… know, real-life, real-time important stuff.
Meanwhile I was lying awake worried about how I am going to explain my position on sin and atonement to an Ecclesiastical Council…four years from now.
I should just have the phrase "NEUROTIC GEEK" tattooed on my chest.

Admittedly, I haven't put much thought into what MY understanding of theology is. I've read and written quite a bit about other people's understandings of theology: Thomas Aquinas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton….there have been bits here and there that have resonated with me, but I've never assembled my thoughts into one coherent statement that says "this is what I believe."
The Jesus that I believe in…The Jesus that I follow, preached a very simple theology:
Love God, Love each other.
And I strive to practice this theology through prayer and service to others.
Perhaps I'm still bucking the restraints of my Catholic upbringing, but when I encounter words like Trinity, Salvation, Incarnation, Resurrection, Sin, and Atonement, I tend to throw them all in a box labeled "Divisive Dogmas - Handle With Extreme Care."

I know that as a minister I need to have a firm understanding of these concepts - my own understanding, an understanding of what these words have meant traditionally, and an understanding of what they mean to others.
Deep down I believe I already have this understanding, I just haven't learned to articulate it as of yet.
And to be quite honest, many of these traditional "theological" words still scare the bejeevus out of me at times.
When I hear someone say something like "Jesus is my personal Savior" or "Jesus died for our sins" I want to run screaming in the other direction. Words like these trigger my Intolerant-Christian-Fundamentalist early warning system. Right or wrong, I automatically assume that a person who uses these phrases often and openly in public also believes that people like me (read g-a-y) are unrepentant sinners and are damned to Hell for all eternity. This is a theology that I can't wrap my head around so I've avoided dealing with the words that force me to do it - Judgment, Sin, Damnation, Salvation.
Any word or concept that implies that God is not all-loving and all-forgiving is thrown into the aforementioned box and is not a part of my every-day theological vocabulary.

Having said that, my theology does include variations of these concepts. As Kathleen Norris did so well in her book Amazing Grace, I've learned to redefine many of these words so that they better fit in with my understanding of God.

"Sin" is not defined as an evil and depraved act worthy of punishment, but rather it is any belief or action that separates us from God or separates us from each other.
Greed, envy, intolerance, placing value on things that gratify ourselves while giving little or no thought to others - these are the sins that Jesus spoke of and urged us to avoid.

"Judgment" is not a punishment enacted by a vengeful God that gives him the power to separate us from his presence for all eternity. Rather it is a mutual understanding and awareness that we did not always live our lives to the best of our abilities; that we "sinned" or separated ourselves from God and each other and in order to move closer to God we need to be aware and "remorseful" of those times when we moved away.
"Salvation" comes to those who exhibit this awareness, but not all reach this level so easily. Whether it's lack of spiritual development, a by-product of free will, or the expression of darker forces that some would label as "evil", there are some souls who don't turn as easily towards God. But I don't believe that God deliberately damns these souls to Hell for eternity. Hell may exist as place for those who have turned from God but it is not God who keeps them there. Whether you believe in free-will or the influences of dark forces, there is something other than God that allows the separation to exist.
I believe that over time all souls reach awareness and are "saved."
Does that make me a wimpy, progressive Christian?
Damn right!

There's another Ecclesiastical Council coming up on June 6th and I read the candidate's ordination paper last night. Her theology can be classified as progressive and is much more in tune with my own. She relied on plain-spoken, every-day language to present her position, rather than the academic and sometimes stilted language of theology that I encountered in the last paper I read.

So there is hope that a "simple" Christian like me will survive the approval process and make it into the ministry.
I can assure you, and them, that yes, Jesus is my personal savior. It is through him that I move closer to God. I just don't feel the need to tell it to every passing stranger, put in on a T-shirt, or to tell others that they must claim this theological understanding as their own in order to be "saved."
The guy wearing the "Buddha is My Personal Savior" T-shirt has just as good a chance of uniting with the force that we Christians choose to call "God" as anyone else in this world. Even the atheist who can't find room in his philosophy for the concept of an over-seeing power but dedicates his life to the service of others "gets" what it means to "saved."

Theology is not about how you define the words, but how you live your life.
And I've got four years to figure out how to say that in a way that will convince others that a minister is what God is calling me to be.



Mrs. M said...

Timely post, I'm really feeling some of this.

As far as doctrine, ect., is concerned, I'm enough of a heretic to say that sometimes theology seems to get in the way of knowing God. Who has the right theories, who has the right definitions? Seems like there's some serious arrogance if you can raise your hand to those questions. Takes me back to The Cloud of Unknowing, and the idea that there is far more about God that we don't know, than that we do.

Mystical Seeker said...

It just seems horribly grueling to undertake the route of being a pastor. Have you read the book "Do you hear what I hear" by Minna Proctor? The book deals with the subject of "calling", mostly in the context of the Episcopal church, but what she writes seems universally relevant to all denominations.

I was particularly struck by your statement, "I know that as a minister I need to have a firm understanding of these concepts - my own understanding, an understanding of what these words have meant traditionally, and an understanding of what they mean to others."

While it make sense that you should have a firm understanding of the latter two, I can think of no reason why you need to have a firm understanding of what they mean to you. Does a pastor really have to have a certain dogma in order to be ordained? Why can't a pastor honestly be uncertain about certain of the finer points of theology? What is wrong with that?

I read in a Presbyterian blog recently the complaints about a candidate for ordination who was rejected by some committee for something or other. I'm not a Presbyterian so I don't understand the details, but the impression I got was that his theology, which wasn't all that liberal, was still deemed too liberal by the guardians of orthodoxy in his Presbytery. This is the sort of problem that I see here. There is too much concern over conformity to orthodoxy and not enough for the other qualities that should make for a good pastor.

I'm not saying that the UCC does this. I don't know the details of what is involved in you case. But it does make me wonder a bit about this process. As one who resides on the fringes of the Christian tradition, I am hypersensitive to the question of dogma and how this is dealt with by denominations and by clergy.

MoCat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MoCat said...

Sorry to remove my own comment above - it had too many spelling errors and it was bugging me. ;-)

I agree mrs. m that nitpicking over theology seems to put yet another wall between us and God. I wholeheartedly believe that the more we try to define God the further away we get from being open to all that God is.

MS - you've raised the same concerns that I've had with the whole discernment process. I'm just glad that the UCC is not as stringent as some other denominations. I did read Proctor's "Do you hear what I hear" and I've heard horror stories from other Episcopal postulants who had to jump through multiple hoops over the course of years before they even got to seminary, only to run into a brick wall when some sub-sub -committee determined that their call either needed "further discernment" or was not valid.

I know the committees and councils are there to weed out those who are obviously unfit for ministry, but for them to stand in the way of someone who truly feels called by God because that person didn't use the right theological "buzz words" (to quote Proctor) is to me ludicrous.

I agree that I should not expect to have my theological understanding set in stone before I become a minister. I personally wouldn't trust a minister who claimed to not have doubt or uncertainty in matters relating to theology.
But if that's my position I have to find a way to articulate it to the Council without looking like a stammering idiot. ;-)
I'm working on it!

Thanks for the comments!

Mrs. M said...

"other Episcopal postulants who had to jump through multiple hoops over the course of years before they even got to seminary, only to run into a brick wall when some sub-sub -committee determined that their call either needed "further discernment" or was not valid."

You just described where I am right now. I'm about this close to throwing in the towel. But first I'm going to go to Amazon and check out that Proctor book...