Today the headlines across our church are about the adoption of Amendment 10-A, which replaces the language in the current G-6.0106b concerning the “standards for ordained service.” The Office of the General Assembly has released a variety of materials to assist in understanding what has and what has not changed when the amendment takes effect on July 10. I encourage you to review those materials (http://oga.pcusa.org).
What I want to reflect on at this moment is the new language that appears within the amendment rather than focusing on what is not there. The bodies within the church responsible for ordinations—sessions in the cases of ruling elders and deacons, and presbyteries for teaching elders—are required to “examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office.” Considering each of those areas in light of the particular concerns of this blog related to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, it seems to me there is much that requires our careful attention and discernment as we work with inquirers and candidates under our care.
“Calling”—at a time when so much emphasis on “calling” is placed on individuals’ personal sense of the leading of God’s Spirit in their life, our Reformed understanding of vocation requires that we also help a candidate hear the “call” of communities for someone both to minister to and alongside them. The Apostle Paul not only had the dramatic yet personal call from the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9, especially vv. 6-7), but also the vision of the Macedonian calling him to take his ministry literally in a new direction (Acts 16:9-10). We need to examine our candidates not only in terms of what they feel “called to do,” but also on their understanding of “call from” the community.
“Gifts”—God has entrusted everyone with not only “talents” (Matthew 25:14-30) but also “spiritual gifts … for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). So the question when examining someone for ordination as a teaching elder is not, “Does this person have gifts for ministry?” We know the answer to that is, “Yes!” Rather, the question is, “Does this person have the gifts necessary for the ministry of Word and Sacrament?” (1 Corinthians 12:27-30; Ephesians 4:11-13)
“Preparation”—there is ample evidence in scripture that having a call from God and gifts for ministry are not sufficient. Elisha was called to be a “son of the prophet” Elijah (that is, a prophet’s apprentice) before he began prophetic ministry of his own. Jesus called the disciples to live with and learn from him before sending them out in mission on their own. Both the sense of call and the use of one’s gifts need to be intentionally developed through a deliberate process of preparation with those experienced in ministry. Candidates need to be examined not only on their preparation but also on what they have learned about the need to continually develop their sense of call and their gifts during their ministry.
“Suitability”—a “manner of life [that] should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world” (G-6.0106a; nFOG G-2.0104) together with overall personal spiritual and mental wholeness are measures of suitability for this particular ministry. But once the calling has been discerned, the gifts developed, and the process of preparation completed, the final decision about whether a candidate is to be ordained must also include examining whether this person is suitable to the particular ministry context. Ordination is an act of the whole church, but ordination and installation are always to specific “fields” of ministry (John 4:34-38; Luke 10:2). The same person who would be God’s loving gift of grace in one community could prove a stumbling block in the path of God’s children in another. Candidates suitable to this ministry will not only understand that, they will feel it in their bones.
The adoption of Amendment 10-A has reminded the church that it has always been our responsibility to consider the whole person and the community when making decisions about ordination.