(Author’s Note: This started out as one thing but became a cathartic exercise about the ordination process. I’m not going to say it’s useful but it does show a lot about what I realized about the process that, until I start writing this, I didn’t get. If ordination isn’t part of your life, read with a grain of salt and apply as you can.)
So yeah, it’s been awhile. Life is crazy right now, but my job has waned a bit and ministry is oddly quiet (God, that isn’t my way of asking for more to do :-S ) so I’m going to get back to blogging. I want to get back to writing, I want to get back to posting sermon podcasts, and I want to start another podcast. To do all of that, I actually have to take the time to blog. I think.
Anyway, I was reading this book on communication, which I recommend you buy right now, before you finish reading this, and then read it because it is awesome, and they have an extensive list of interpersonal skills that we tend to never learn that would make us better communicators and healthier interact-ers (totally a word) that I thought was a bit much and expanded too much when a more concise list would have worked better.
Until I read one that stopped me dead in my tracts and I realized not only do I never do this when I absolutely need to but also is the best advice I never got about going through the ordination process. That skill was this:
Refusing to be questioned when the purpose is unclear
I wanted to unpack that for myself a bit. Why did it strike me so strongly when I read it? Why did I feel the need to share it the moment I read it? Why did it remind me of the many ordination interrogations that have gone so poorly?
In the flow of the book, they talk about learning these skills in a safe environment where mistakes are acceptable. Their purpose is to help you learn the new skills, but I was inspired by this idea of safe enviroment combined with this skill that I absolutely never understood.
From the moment you start the ordination process, (or at least in the PC(USA)) you are under a constant barrage of questions about yourself.
Why do you want to be ordained?
What do you want to do in ministry?
Can you do that without being ordained?
Are you doing okay?
How is it with your soul?
How did that test/paper/project/sermon go?
How are you doing?
Are you sure you want to be Presbyterian?
How is (insert task for ordination) going?
Now all of those are legitimate questions, no matter the purpose. There is nothing out of line there. When you are being trusted with the sacraments of the church and the spiritual and emotional care of people, those who are placing that trust in you should know who you are and where you are in your life. There is no reason for them not.
What I missed, and I think a lot of people miss if they are the sort of person who value absolute honest and vulnerability with everyone, is that the answers to these questions, when answered honestly, is different given two similar sounding and similarly treated yet radically different purposes in asking a question.
When you are being ordained, there are people who are concerned for you and people who are concerned about you, and when they ask these questions, their purpose should be clear to you. One group asks you in a safe environment, another does not. One group answers your questions in a safe enviroment, another does not.
This may seem obvious to some but I missed it because of how the wording around the Presbyterian church handles ordination is that there is a committee that is there to prepare, enrich, and guide you to ordination. This committee is built up of pastors and ruling elders who do genuinely have your best interests in mind when they make decisions. They are doing the best they can, given their experiences, spiritual gifts, and position. Even with the vast struggles and anger I have felt over the process, I believe that most CPM members and moderators are doing what they feel is best for you and the church.
The problem is that, when they ask a question, they aren’t concerned for you; they are concerned about you. The difference is that when they ask you a question, it isn’t a safe environment for you to answer without repercussions. And it shouldn’t be; their goal, along with preparing you, is to act as the gatekeeper. I will not say that there aren’t committees that take that particular role much too seriously but it is one of their major tasks. To do that, the enviroment that they interact with you will not be an environment without consequences for words and answers and questions. Everything you do that they know about will be used in deciding your readiness and fitness for ministry.
I want to speak to the fact that never in anything I did in ministry was it ever expressed to me that everything that I told this committee – every word said – would be used in evaluating me. Maybe I should have realized this, maybe I’m just dumb about these things, but I was under the impression that part of preparation – which it part of the committee’s name – is talking about weaknesses and shortcomings, improving on those that can be improved upon, and addressing those that will always be present. Naturally, being honest and vulnerable as part of who I am, I was honest and vulnerable in that room.
Never the vulnerable in a CPM meeting. If the enviroment is intentionally not safe – be that a bad or good thing – being vulnerable opens you up to criticism and rebuke that is unnecessary. You absolutely should be honest – and if you are entering ministry, honesty should be your default – but there is a wide expanse between being vulnerable and being honest about things. In ministry, we have to be honest but very seldom should be vulnerable because ministry is not a safe enviroment, either.
The rub comes from the fact that so many questions from people – including those on CPM – are asked in a way that you would assume the question is out of concern for you. It sounds like concern for the state of your soul and state of your health. It acts like concern for how you are doing. The purpose always seems to be for you but that isn’t the case every from the CPM.
The CPM is never officially concerned for you. The individual members may be – the are loving Christians – but as a group the purpose of a question is to evaluate you. Period.
This sounds harsh, but that is the way it is. When I started the ordination process by entering seminary 4 1/2 years ago, I didn’t know this. I, somehow, missed that every word I said in a CPM meeting would be used to evaluate me. No one told me that. No one implied that. I had a really nice and opening first meeting with CPM and thought that they saw someone they firmly believed should be going into ministry and so it would be to my benefit to be open with them and vulnerable as they were tasked with preparing me for ministry.
Seminary takes 3 years, ordination can take 2 but usually closer to 3. I’ve been officially in the process since May 2011. That is nearly 4 years. As things are going, I won’t be eligible for ordination until May 2016. I know people who finished the process in 3 years. I know people with similar gifts and readiness for ministry who are ordained pastors now. Yes, I’m working as a temporary supply – my ministry has started – but I am still limited in my rights as a pastor and will be for some time.
Because I answered questions without knowing the purpose behind them. I assumed incorrectly what the purpose was, and revealed more than is safe to reveal to people who are evaluating me. Even as I write that, I know it sounds weird that there is anything I wouldn’t reveal to the people, that it feels deceptive to do not reveal anything, but it is impossible to get through the process while being vulnerable in a CPM meeting.
Every CPM meeting, despite the name “preparation” is a job interview, yet it’s also more than that. It’s like a job interview where you have to tell them about your personal life. And, as a job interview, they don’t just have the option not give you a job but to throw you out of an industry (or least their segment of the industry). Even in the best instance, that meeting isn’t an safe enviroment. It just isn’t because of it’s purpose.
At the end of the day, this is all to say that you need to know why you are being questioned and the motive behind the questions being asked. In the CPM, the questions are always, despite appearances, evaluative. Knowing this, you can control the conversation. If you know that your answers are 100% going to be used against/for you, you can know how to answer.
Just do your best to know why you are being questioned. For the 98.657% of people who don’t care about the ordination process, that’s the take-away. Refuse to be questioned if you don’t know the purpose or motive behind the questioning. In those instances that you are refusing to be questioned, make your goal not just to refuse but to discern the purpose so you can answered adequately, positively, and not have to continue refusing to answer.
Deep breath. Mind back to other matters.
* In this piece, a safe enviroment is one that you are free to make mistakes and your words can’t be used against you, and an unsafe one is not that. This has nothing to do with abusive situations or dangerous situations. If you find yourself in that, this advice is null and void.
P.S.: If you made it this far, you probably have some sort of connection to ministry. I want to do a Google Hangout Podcast about current events, Christianity, and fellowship amongst ministers and non-ministers. If that’s something you might be interested in participating in or listening to, send me a message or leave a comment so I can gauge if I’m dreaming or if there is something to it.