A Look at Ordination the Church of the Brethren

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In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.

The following presentation was prepared and offered by Dana Cassell.

In its entry on “Degrees of Ministry,” The Brethren Encyclopedia declares, “traditionally, Brethren have not been concerned with precise titles or names for their elected church officials.” This is true, and sometimes maddening. This paper was originally prepared for the Ministry Advisory Council, and grew out of research that I had been doing for last year’s celebration of the 50thanniversary of women’s ordination in the Church of the Brethren. That initial research was frustrating because of the lack of unified titles in our ever-changing credentialing system. Some of the early women in leadership listed themselves as ordained, some as permanently licensed, some simply as “ministers.” This work led me to investigate the history of ordination in the CoB in an attempt to answer this one question: What does it mean to be ordained in the Church of the Brethren?

There’s no readily apparent answer to this question, but I have some findings to share with you. You’ve probably heard or known at least some of this before, but my hope is that this compiled history is helpful in telling a somewhat coherent story of our history of choosing leadership, and in our current and future discernment about how we continue to do so.

For two hundred years, Brethren ministers operated in a plural, non-salaried system. Each congregation had several ministers, or elders, and none of these men (and they were all men, except for a very few instances where a woman fulfilled the duties of her incapacitated husband) were paid. In 1855, Annual Meeting described three ministerial offices, filled by congregational elections conducted by adjoining elders. The degrees were to be identified by functions and duties associated with them:

  • 1st: The “speaker” was to preach or conduct worship service with permission of 2nd or 3rd degree minister.
  • 2nd: Elected from membership or an advanced 1st degree minister, a minister of the 2nd degree was authorized to preach, appoint or schedule worship meetings, administer baptism, perform marriages, and officiate at love feast in absence of an elder.
  • 3rd: Those elected into eldership/full ministry were senior members of the 2nd degree ministers. They were the only leaders ordained through the laying on of hands, and were authorized to preside at council meetings, to install deacons or ministers, to anoint the ill, and to conduct love feasts.

This description from Annual Meeting seems to be descriptive and not prescriptive: this is, roughly, what was already happening in congregations. It describes an organic system of homegrown leadership: there was a built-in mentoring program, each leader required full congregational approval, and the “credentials” or “titles” were associated with functions and practices – not personal qualities or “leadership ability,” though these things certainly factored in. Leadership was chosen in response to congregational need and not personal initiative: ministers were “advanced” to the next degree of ministry based on seniority when a congregation needed another elder. Volunteering for a position of ministerial leadership was a surefire way NOT to be chosen. Peter Nead, a passionate member of the conservative camp, insisted in his theological writings that there are 3 types of preachers:

 usually the self-called preacher was out to start a new sect, and was therefore accountable to no one. The man called preacher was a hireling, and therefore was most interested in pleasing his employers so that he would have a good living. Only the called of the Lord was motivated to please God and seek Gods approval…the only way to know who the Lord called was to consult the church…The ministers of the true church are not hirelings: it is the love of God; and not the filthy lucre, that constrains them to preach the gospel.1

Nead’s fears that ill-chosen leadership would lead to sectarianism and customer-service mentality were not unfounded. Conrad Beissel’s Ephrata cloister experiment was a classic example of ministerial leadership gone awry. Beisel claimed for himself a divine status and authority, and those in his group submitted to him. For those in the cloister, Beissel’s word carried more weight that either scripture OR the gathered discernment of the body – sources which had held utmost authority in traditional Brethren ecclesiology. Similarly, Brethren had long been at odds with “hireling” preachers, citing the failures of the institutional clergy as one of the initial reasons for leaving the state churches in Germany. Nead’s warnings came from collective Brethren experience, and they arose in the beginnings of what was to be an unending debate about how to define “the ministry.”

In the mid-19th century, Annual Meeting began to deal with divisive and confusing issues surrounding the ministry – what ordination meant, how it should be granted, if ministers ought to be paid, whether or not education was necessary or problematic for those in church leadership. These questions were part of a larger struggle between conservatives and progressives that would lead to serious fractures and the eventual institutionalization of the Schwarzenau movement into the Church of the Brethren and other denominational bodies.
The first major question to come before Annual Meeting was whether or not a minister ought to be compensated for his work. Like so many queries, this was a practical question that veiled a larger struggle: ought the ministry be a professional vocation? Compensation was a hot topic, generating impassioned speeches, sermons, and periodical articles.

The Conservatives were firmly against an educated, paid, professional ministry, but progressives insisted that the professional minister was the only way to keep up with a swiftly changing world. This particular issue factored largely into the splits of 1881-1882. The Conservatives focused on biblical precedent, citing Jesus’ commission to the disciples, sending them out without silver or gold in their purses. Similarly, they appealed to the Acts account of believers sharing their possessions (Acts 4:34) to warn against personal income. The salaried ministry was “deplored as a corrupt, parasitic system which was dangerous to vital Christianity, also against an educated ministry, which was viewed as despising the humble, unassuming lifestyle of primitive Christianity.”2 An 1845 Henry Kurtz sermon, quoted in John Kline’s diary, paints the position vividly:

I have to say that God never meant for the Gospel to be used as a means for getting water to the preacher’s mill, or grain into his garner. When the Gospel is converted into merchandise, the preacher becomes a merchant, and like all other merchants it becomes his interest to handle his goods in a way that will please his customers, and put them in such shape and procure for them such kinds, whether good, bad, or indifferent, as will suit their fancies and please their tastes. The love of money is a root of all evil, no less in the ministry than anywhere else.3

The Progressives, whose opinions would ultimately shape the Church of the Brethren, argued that a paid ministry would free ministers from the distractions of full-time employment, enabling them to devote their full attention to the ministry of the church. In a changing and urbanizing society, they argued, the church must change to keep up with the needs of the world:

The church’s historic belief in imitating Jesus’ love and living according to the Sermon on the Mount necessitated a change in attitude toward industrial and urban society in the latter half of the 19th century. The work of ministry was progressively seen as an adaptation to and an extension of Christ’s message to a society in need.4

Debate raged at Annual Meeting, as the church gradually accepted an educated, salaried, professional ministry. But change did not happen all at once.

In 1856, AM insisted that payment for ministerial services was against the gospel, and not allowed. In 1861, however, AM agreed that financial support for ministers was appropriate in “times of necessity or hardship.” In 1866, “supporting the ministry” became allowable, but a stated salary remained unacceptable. Again in 1882, AM affirmed that there is to be “no specified sum per day, week, month or year, paid to ministers on missions or any other work; but the Mission Board or Committee having control of funds may donate to ministers such sums as in their judgment their circumstances require.”

As is often the case, practice changed before polity, and in 1891, Tobias T. Myers of Philadelphia became the first full-time salaried Brethren pastor. It took another 20 years, however until Annual Meeting finally officially allowed congregations to pay their ministers set salaries. Despite its long history of plural, non-salaried ministry, the church had gone from adamantly opposed to a professional ministry in 1856 to grudgingly accepting it as inevitable in 1911. In another 25 years (1939), the General Brotherhood Board would actually be actively encouraging congregations of 200 or more to hire a full-time, seminary-trained, salaried minister. A 1951 statement explains their motivation: “We believe that a consecrated, trained pastoral ministry, properly supported both financially and with the cooperative efforts of the membership, will be the most efficient ministry in making the church an adequate influence in the community through an adequate organization of its resources for worship, fellowship, and service.”

In addition to compensation, the shift to a professional ministry also meant changes in processes of calling out leadership and in educational expectations. In 1915, Annual Meeting agreed to allow individuals to volunteer for ministry. The same decision advised the establishment of educational standards for ministry, and permitted employment of pastors – though ministers were still encouraged to give their services to the church for free. In 1921, the General Ministerial Board was created to “promote the growing trend for each congregation to have its own professionally trained and salaried pastor,” and in 1922, the designation of “licensed” pastor was created – allowing beginning ministers (including women) to preach, but perform no other functions. Responsibility for ordination officially shifted from the congregation to the district in 1921, and in 1923 the first official Pastor’s Manual was published – an official guide that confirmed the breakdown of the personal mentoring inherent in the old degree system of ministry. Perception had changed so drastically that Edgar Petry could write in his 1942 Bethany thesis that

The full-time pastorate represents the maximum adaptation to modern life. It is the result of the movement to meet the needs of people in a scientific and industrial world…It provides for a more systematic and efficient carrying out of the functions of the minister and of the church. It elevates the place and work of the minister in the church and community and releases him from the task of making a living.

These changes led to a lack of uniformity across the denomination – some congregations still used the degree system of ministry (even though AM had combined the 1st and 2nddegrees into the category of “ministers” in 1917), and others were employing licensed or ordained pastors. In 1957, to clarify the functions of the various leadership positions, Annual Conference listed the duties of elders and the duties of pastors. A decade later, in 1967, AC finally discontinued the office of elder, combining elders and ministers into the category of “ordained ministers.” Despite this merger, no new list of duties or functions was created for these “ordained ministers.” In one century, ministerial leadership had undergone a complete transformation in the Church of the Brethren – but nowhere did the denomination define or document what, exactly, these changes implied.

The confusion persists. In nearly every decade, Brethren voices have called for clarification. In 1950, Floyd Mallot contended that “the future of the church depends upon the surmounting of the problems that arise out of the change from the free to the professional ministry.In 1978, Floyd Bantz wrote in a Brethren Life and Thought article;

We know deep down inside ourselves, apparently, that there is a set-apart ministry, but we aren’t sure why there is, nor what it is to do. We certainly do not want that set-apart ministry to have any intermediary power. We want to control its institutional authority and we are not sure just what are its unique training and skills…We are not sure we know what ordination means but we do raise questions about continuing ordination for those who do not do what ordination means.5

In 1987, a Believer’s Church conference took on the subject of ministry. The Findings Committee listed pressing questions about ministry for the Anabaptist communities:

  • We need a more precise working definition of “universal ministry,” “ordination,” and “gifts.”
  • We are uncertain about the process for employing spiritual gifts. What is the balance between the individual’s leading and the faith community’s calling?
  • What structures and forms at the local and denominational level are best suited to carry out the vision of ministry of all believers?
  • There was uneasiness expressed with formal graduate level training programs for vocational profession of “minister.” What forms of training are most suitable for the universal ministry of all believers?6

A 1997 Survey of Brethren women in ministry by Rebecca Slough and Debbie Eisenbise showed that ordained women in the Church of the Brethren tend to see their ordination less as a spiritual or communal commitment and more as an institutional pass or credential needed to fulfill their calling. These findings, the authors say, “leave open the question of what ordination actually means for Church of the Brethren women pastors.”7

The implications of this confusion and lack of clarity on what, exactly, ordination means are not pretty. Because we lack a working definition of our leadership credentials, the title and office of “minister” has been used as an instrument of injustice. Granted, the old 3-degrees system was certainly not free of nepotism, sexism, and prejudice. But since moving from that mode of ministerial leadership to this institutionalized system of ordination, the Church of the Brethren has found itself with an undefined credential. We are very reluctant to define or delineate who CAN or SHOULD be ordained, but have not hesitated to create a list of those who CANNOT or OUGHT NOT be: remarried people (1933), women (until 1958), homosexual people (2002).8

I don’t mean to paint this ambivalence about institutional leadership as all bad. I think there are, in fact, some benefits to operating without clear polity and doctrine. And yet, we continually call ourselves to define ordination, to call gifted leadership, and to figure out what it is that we expect in the ministerial leaders of our church. And so, my question is, is it possible to define ordination in the Church of the Brethren, given the crooked path we’ve taken to get to where we are today?

  1. Peter Nead, “Theological Writings on Various Subjects; or, ‘A vindication of…” (Dayton, OH: B.F. Eller), 1850. []
  2. “Ministry,” Brethren Encyclopedia, Donald Durnbaugh, ed. (Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc) 2003. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Floyd E, Mallot, Studies in Brethren History (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House) 1983. []
  5. Floyd Bantz, “Liturgical Connection: Reflections upon the Meaning of Ordination,” in Brethren Life and Thought, 23 no 2, Spring 1978. 72. []
  6. David B. Eller, Servants of the Word: Ministry in the Believers’ Church (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press) 1990. []
  7. Rebecca Slough and Debbie Eisenbise, “The Significance of Theological Education in the Career Development of Women in Ministry: A Case Study in the Church of the Brethren” in Brethren Life and Thought, vol. 42 no 1-2, Winter-Spring 1997. []
  8. Each of these decisions came in the form of an Annual Conference decision. []
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  • Steven Schweitzer

    This is a helpful summary, sketching out the complexity and the struggle over this issue. Once again, we need to remember our past to understand our present and even to envision our future.

  • http://princeofpeacesb.org David Hendricks

    Thanks for posting this, Josh. In my own experience ordination has been functional as opposed to something sacred. Ordination is something the district confers when I receive the call to serve as pastor of a particular congregation in that district.

    It does not mean that I have some sacred state that elevates me over the other members of the congregation. I am know more reverend than anyone else in the congregation. All baptized members are ordained for ministry in the church.

    In my view if a congregation calls a woman or a homosexual person they should be ordained by the district after they are properly interviewed by the district ministry commission.

    Thanks!

    David K. Hendricks

  • http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com Brian R. Gumm

    This is a wonderful historical overview, Dana! (And thx for posting, Josh.)

    Lots of directions my mind goes in a post like this, but just one reaction is that this somehow normalizes some of the painful discernment and struggle going on in the denomination now. Such experiences could now be seen as symptomatic of our non-creedal tradition. Non-creedal being not just related to creeds, but to a whole host of ways in which Brethren, it seems, have been quite an ad hoc people across these three centuries.

    I got the same sense, recently, from reading the denomination’s ministerial ethics documents. They seemed hodge-podge, abstract, and ahistorical. But if you’ve got no systematized body of thought and polity to draw upon in the tradition…what else can you even do?

  • http://www.well-yah.blogspot.com Dana

    Exactly, Brian! There’s (comparatively) very little paper trail of polity and precedent for the theology and practice in our tradition, which makes writing systematized documents and agreeing upon polity set in ink pretty difficult.

    But I think there’s another side to that non-creedal, anti-academic bent, too. In the absence of systematized doctrine and polity, we’re forced to turn our energy toward the actual practice of living with one another and working through disagreements with intentional conversation and listening…theoretically.