Something I Learned At Baccalaureate

As I type this post my denomination (United Methodist) is meeting for General Conference. General Conference is a gathering held every four years (always the years of the Summer Olympics and presidential elections) in which delegates from around the world meet for worship, prayer, and decision making. You can read endless takes on what will or should happen at this gathering and what people think the main “issues” are. For me, certainly one of the main issues is that of leadership. I often feel that our denomination suffers from a lack of leadership, at least on things that truly matter. Currently Christians are known more for hate, judgement, and discrimination than anything else. There should be leadership that seeks to address this.

Our leadership crisis (if we want to call it that, and I hesitate to use the word “crisis” but others have, so fair play) stems from many factors and none of them occurred overnight. But one factor I have noticed in the past few years is that our language and practices around calling and vocation are extremely limited. Our denomination started as a movement with strong lay leadership. Clergy were few and far between. A lack of clergy wasn’t a huge deal as they were really only required for sacramental duties. Lay people led congregations and taught and preached. As the professionalization of clergy started to tick upward so did the demand for every congregation to have “its own” pastor (meaning a clergyperson). Clergy also began to request more autonomy (power) in leading congregations, and lay people were all too happy to comply. And so the work of churches to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter for those without homes, and visit those in prison became primarily the work of a pastor and, in some cases, professional staff of a church. What happened is more nuanced than this in some ways, but this trajectory is accurate.

And so now I hear of stories where decisions of a congregation are made almost exclusively by clergy and staff with little to no input from lay people (who vastly outnumber those being paid to lead ministry). This reality is counter to notions of leadership in Scripture. Jesus did not say to the disciples “I am leaving, and since I am God incarnate, stop doing things!” Jesus empowered them with the Holy Spirit and said, “You will do greater things!”

This brings me to the baccalaureate service I attended the other day. In my time as a pastor I have attended a dozen or so similar services. They are mostly the same, and while I like them, I’d usually be happy to be elsewhere. I went mainly to volunteer on behalf of the campus ministry I help lead. But I am truly glad I attended because I witnessed something quite marvelous. During the service, there was a time of ordination for all the graduates to service in the world. Again, I come from a tradition that takes the word “ordination” quite seriously. There are paths to ordination. There are boards of ordination. There are requirements for ordination. Some people are rejected from being ordained. The process to be ordained takes more time than if the person chose to pursue almost any other profession. And yet, because we take this so seriously I think we sometimes miss the larger blessing. Ordination is ultimately from God, and we are all called to ministry with our lives. If we are to survive as a denomination let alone thrive as followers of Christ, we had better stop talking about “calling,” “vocation,” and even “ordination” as only pertaining to clergy. And yes, some efforts toward this are taking place, but there are miles to go before we sleep.

The baccalaureate service got it right. We are all called to serve God with our lives no matter what we do. Imagine churches having regular services of ordination for all who are disciples. Think about sermons that lift up not only those who left “secular” jobs to pursue life as a clergyperson but also those who find deeply meaningful lives of ministry as teachers, firefighters, and accountants. God’s calling is so much bigger than we often try to make it. I wasn’t reminded of this by a sermon or a church worship service. It happened at baccalaureate.