Monday, July 28, 2008

The United Methodist Caste System Is Yet Alive and Well!

As noted in comments a few years back we have in the republic of the United States a unique caste system that most refuse to recognize. If attention is drawn to it there are vehement protests of denial!

This caste system has existed within the clergy structure of the United Methodist Church for quite a long time.

I started out as a supply pastor in the former Methodist Church nearly half a century ago. Supply pastors were persons who felt called of God to pastoral ministry but in most cases had rather limited education. They did not hold the “status” of ordained seminary trained clergy. They were limited in the appointment process with the seminary trained people given preference to the higher salaried “prestige” appointments – sort of an unwritten “law” in how things were done – you know, we pray about the appointment procedure and if God is going to work in this thing, He better make sure that the dignified ordained elders are placed in the preferred appointments, while those who rank lower on the totem pole get the leftovers.

Over time if anything the “caste system” is more entrenched and complex that it has ever been in Methodist history with new categories being invented into which preachers are sorted out and positioned!

A couple of critical issues that further underscore the sheer stupidity of categorizing pastors involve voting rights and serving the Lord’s Supper.

Depending on what slot you fit into, you may not be able to vote on ministerial issues. General Conference 2008 has attempted to expand that a bit, but rest assured that it is a sure thing that there will always be some pastors who can stand in a pulpit of a United Methodist Church and preach a sermon but who will be restricted somehow when it comes to voting at annual conference sessions!

And then there is that matter of the Lord’s Supper – who can serve it and who cannot.

Again, depending on your ranking in the United Methodist clergy caste system, you may be “authorized” to serve the Lord’s Supper or you may be told by a member of the hierarchy or a member of that illustrious group known as the Board of Ordained Ministry that you cannot serve the Lord’s Supper.

Now here’s a stimulant for a few brain cells – how is it God calls a person to preach and teach His Word but because of a caste system set in place over time due to the trappings of human tradition, that person is not permitted to serve the Lord’s Supper to the persons with whom he or she shares God’s Word on a weekly basis?

Now then, how about this -- where do you find in the New Testament church such a caste system for clergy established? And where do you find that an ordained elder must “consecrate” the elements for those who are at a lower level on the United Methodist clergy totem pole?

Yes, I already know – objections will quickly be hurled in my direction preceded by the word, “But…”

Just remember, the way to Hell is paved with cobblestones – on top of each one is engraved the word, “But!”

Will anything of substance be done to dismantle the UMC’s infamous caste system which members of the hierarchy refuse to acknowledge?

Hardly – ordained elders will adamantly refuse to give up even one square inch of their coveted domain!

Clayton D. Harriger
Retired elder in full connection
W. PA Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church

PS: Those “comments” referred to at the beginning are found at The Caste System Nobody Dares to Mention! Use return feature on your browser to come back here.

PPS: Even as this was written notice has already been sent out to all pastors in the W. PA Annual Conference, no matter what their position on the totem pole might be, of a gathering later in August. The Order of Elders is to be organized. It is noted that it is not necessary to organize the Association of Local Pastors and Associate Members according to the Discipline. However, Bishop Bickerton desires that all three groups should be organized at the same time. See what we mean in saying that the “caste system” is alive and well when it comes to United Methodist clergy?

Caste: any exclusive social or occupational class or group; rigid class distinction based on birth, wealth, etc., operating as a social system or principle. --- as defined in Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing will be there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.
--- James 3:13-17


Wesley Matthews said...

Interesting. Biblically speaking, who is “authorized” to serve the Lord’s Supper?

I wonder if this “caste” type of system is similar in other denominations. Obviously, the Catholics have their traditions and rules.

Pamela said...

The presbyterians are not so restrictive, their lay people servecommunion without a hassle. My Presby friends find our ordinances amusing, esp since I am on the "totem pole" and cannot serve communion and they are not and can. I figure it is in God's hands. I began this journey as an Anglican and was called to this denomination. God knows I can't serve communion here. He will either change the hearts of the people who seem to be guarding their "turf" or He make a way where there seems to be no way.

PA Maverick said...

Certainly there are some degrees of this "caste" thing in some other groups. That, plus a pride problem among some clergy who absolutely insist on being called "reverend" or "doctor" if they happen to have some kind of doctoral degree, even if is from some internet diploma mill! The New Testament revelation is clear -- no person or group can impose the restrictions on the serving of the Lord's Supper -- that is, to set down a "law" which in effect states that the Lord's Supper cannot be shared unless an "ordained elder" has properly "consecrated" the elements! But then, who pays any attention to the New Testament when we have our traditions -- huh?

kmichael07 said...

"Caste: any exclusive social or occupational class or group; rigid class distinction based on birth, wealth, etc., operating as a social system or principle. --- as defined in Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary."

The key word there, and the defining characteristic in why this description does not accurately apply to the Methodist system, is the word "rigid."

In a caste system, you are typically barred from moving from one caste to another. In the United Methodist system, you have every opportunity to become an ordained elder.

You complain about this "caste system," but one might also ask, when The United Methodist Church has a clearly defined system for how it evaluates/approves, trains and then ordains its clergy, why should it treat you and others as the same as the persons who have gone through that process? Why should persons who have not gone through that process be given preference above or even equal to those who have?

There isn't anything unfair about this. It is a clearly defined process, not a secretive, behind-closed-doors-in-a-smokey-room kind of thing. Throughout your nearly 50 years of ministry, you have had the opportunity to become an ordained elder if you would like to do so.

Since you apparently don't--you don't want to go through the process that the UMC has setup--that raises the question, why do you want to pastor within the UMC? You don't seem to agree with UM teachings and theology around this, and there is nothing wrong with not agreeing (there are lots of denominations/churches precisely because it's okay to disagree about this kind of thing), yet then you demand that the UMC change to embrace YOUR thinking. That seems just a bit absurd to me.

Why haven’t you become a Baptist or applied to pastor at a non-denominational church where the processes are different and more along the lines of how you seem to think it should be?

There really is no end to the variety of systems out there for calling pastors. And yes, there are those that are more rigid, the Catholic Church amongst them. For a mainline denomination in the U.S., however, the UMC system is fairly typical.

Sure, it’s true that the UMC has a number of sub-categories of pastors, and I imagine that most people would even agree that there are more than is necessary, but then, that is why you get when a church tries to model a democratic governing process rather than something more authoritarian. Putting a thousand people together in a room every four years doesn’t typically lead to policies becoming more simple, yet there are still some advantages to this process over having a pope or having ever individual church create its own rules.

Regardless, the larger point is that it is reasonable for a church/denomination to setup a process for calling, evaluating, approving, and training its clergy and treating those persons differently than other people who also want to pastor but have not gone through that process.

Regarding serving communion, your portrayal of that process is not entirely accurate. Anyone can serve communion; the issue you are really getting at is the blessing of the elements. The UM policies for who can bless the elements is openly published in the Book of Discipline, its book of church law (they have to be blessed by an ordained elder, after that, anyone can serve them, including laity). These aren't secret things that you are being excluded from. So again, it raises the question, if you don't agree with it, why have you been pastoring within the United Methodist Church all these years?

As for what the New Testament says, do you really find it that unreasonable for some people to interpret Jesus’ blessing of the apostles as setting them apart as different from other persons? Is it really that unreasonable for a church to view something like blessing the elements of the Lord’s Supper as something that should be done by people who have been specially set apart for ministry (and in a denomination, that would naturally be the persons who have gone the process that denomination has setup for identifying those persons, rather than it being just anyone who says so)? I’m not suggesting you and others must agree with that interpretation, but is it really so unreasonable? Is your interpretation of scripture on this issue really something that all other Christians must agree with?

It's no secret that the UMC is not perfect--no church is. Yet its basic character comes from the teachings of John Wesley. You are asking something that goes against the teachings and theology that shaped the formation of the UMC. In effect, you want it to change policies that have come out of pieces of its identity. That would take it down a road away from its Methodist heritage. It just seems to me like you are making an unreasonable request. The United Methodist Church is not the only game in town, and when you could seek to pastor within any denomination/church, how is it reasonable for you to pick one with a couple centuries of history, and grounded in the histories of two other denominations that precede it, and then demand that it adapt to your individual beliefs and get upset when it doesn’t?

PA Maverick said...

Whatever -- but just for your information in order to counter your false assumption that because I have "ranted & raved" a bit about the caste system in the UMC, that I don't want to go through the process of becoming an ordained elder and that I should go into another denomination or go independent -- I have a college degree and a seminary degree which were obtained many years ago -- I was ordained a deacon and later an elder in the former Methodist Church -- hope this doesn't disappoint you too much!

kmichael07 said...

No, it doesn't disappoint me, but your discourteous and unthinking response to my thoughtful reply does.

Misunderstandings about your clergy status aside, have you no cogitative response at all to any of the main points I raised?

PA Maverick said...

There will always be an attempt to justify layer upon layer of human traditions over time, and Jesus did a perfect response to such things. I have a couple of rather negative reactions to such traditions that had become established in the United Methodist Church. Years ago a friend was appointed to serve a church close to one of mine -- he was just getting started in the ministry -- he was not permitted to serve communion until the elements were properly blessed by an ordained elder. So I met with him early in the morning on the Sundays in which he was going to serve communion to his congregation and did the "blessing." The other situation was before technology took over the processing of votes for delegates to General Conference. I had a very close friend who was an associate member of the conference. He wasn't permitted to vote on the ministerial delegates. What the conference "powers that be" required him and others such as he to do was to collect the votes, go into a back room, count them, and then report the results! Now, Mr. Defender of the system, you tell me and the other few who agree with me, how those kinds of antics can be justified in an organization that claims to be Christian! You can dress it up all you want to with your reasoning and logic, but it still comes out smelling much different than a rose!

kmichael07 said...

Rev. Harriger, first of all, I would appreciate it if you would be a bit more respectful towards me. Derogatory remarks, such as calling me, “Mr. Defender of the system,” are not helpful, or Christ-like. That said, in your haste to reject my points, you also completely misjudge me.

To provide one example, I do not disagree with you regarding Communion. In fact, I wouldn’t have any qualms with a lay person blessing the elements and performing Communion. But I still understand why the UMC doesn’t do it that way.

There are many things I would have the church do differently if I were czar of the UMC (some of it things that even you as a self-described “maverick” would probably think is too far), but I’m not so quick to judge it as un-Christ-like when it does things a way that perhaps I wouldn’t do them.

For example, I do not see anything un-Christ-like about a church setting a process for how it decides who will serve as its clergy. I don’t see anything un-Christ-like about the processes many independent churches use either, where they simply hold interviews for their pastor, anyone can apply, and there aren’t necessarily any requirements that must be fulfilled first (such as seminary training), but out of the two, I have to admit to preferring the UMC system. I want a pastor with some education and training for the profession, as well as affirmation of the calling, background checks, and psychological review (to weed out those who don’t even know the Bible or Methodist history and teachings, are pedophiles or unrepentant criminals, have emotional or psychological problems, or are responding to a “call” that really has nothing to do with God). [Though on a side note, there are still a lot of things about the UMC system that could be done better.]

Back to the point, just what is it that is so unreasonable about a church having such a process? What is so unreasonable about believing that its clergy ultimately need to go through an ordination service (similar to how the apostles were commissioned by Christ)? What is so unreasonable about treating those persons differently from other persons who do pastoral work but haven’t been through the church’s process of calling, affirmation, training, and ordination? What is so unreasonable about determining that the elements of a ritual, believed to be a sacred ritual instituted by Christ, need to be blessed by someone who has been called and set apart for ministry, someone that the church has affirmed by ordaining them? (Here, I am thinking of the difference between ordained elders and licensed local pastors.)

Is this the best process on earth? I don’t know the details of many other processes enough to answer the question, but I’m pretty sure the answer is no. Is it at times absurd? Yes. Onerous? Yes. Does it ever fail? Yes. So it isn’t a perfect process or a perfect system, and there are things the UMC does that don’t always make perfect sense (such as some of the limitations on associate members who are in the process of becoming ordained). But that isn’t the point.

We aren’t discussing whether this system is perfect (we both agree it isn’t), or whether it is the best system (we are in agreement there too), or whether or not some of the things that can happen within it are uncaring. You are arguing that this system amounts to a caste system, that it is unchristian, and that is just utterly unconvincing to me.

And further, it continues to seem absurd to me, in the day and age that we are in where there’s not one denomination but many and we can join any of them, for you to think that it is incumbent upon the UMC to change practices that ultimately relate so fundamentally to how it understands calling and setting apart for ministry and the sacredness of Communion, just because you say so based upon arguments that, from my perspective, look so flimsy. Virtually every UM has things they think the church does that are un-Christ-like and should be done differently!

To be clear, I can understand your frustrations, and I wouldn’t have any objections to your first friend blessing the elements of Communion (I’ll leave the second friend out of this since that policy has just been changed, and I thought it should be too, and I don’t see it as applying in quite the same way as your first example), and I don’t have any emotional connection to the UMC’s ordination system that will cause me to lose sleep when it is forced to break in some way in order for the UMC to better respond to today’s reality and needs (such as not producing enough ordained pastors and having to rely more and more on local pastors), but I still don’t think that the system the UMC has in regards to these things is inherently unreasonable, un-Christ-like or that it amounts to a caste system.