An elder in The United Methodist Church is ordained to the “ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.” Ordering the church for its mission and service is the third categorical duty of an elder. It is also the area of the elder’s responsibility most likely to be unacknowledged or misunderstood by clergy and laypersons.
Most every Christian has some idea what is meant by ministries of “Word” (especially preaching), “Sacrament” (namely, baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and “Service” (helping people), but what is meant by the ministry of Order? The bewilderment of church people around this question is illustrated by the common stereotype of the pastor who works only one hour a week on Sunday mornings — ministering of course with Word and Sacrament in a Service of worship. The remainder of the pastor’s week is often caricatured as a joke, an utter mystery, or sheer sloth.
So what is this ministry of Order, and why is it important enough to be registered alongside Service and the two historically, most often heavily weighed marks of the Christian church, Word and Sacrament?
Order in the United Methodist Book of Discipline is used both as a noun and as a verb. It is used as a noun to refer to categories of ordained clergy, such as deacons and elders, and also to refer to programs (orders) for worship. Order is used as a verb in association with an elder’s responsibilities in organizing, overseeing, systematizing, leading, managing, teaching, and administering the church’s ministry and mission. In many cases these are exactly the things a pastor does during the remainder of her or his forty-to-eighty work-week hours that many of the more perplexed parishioners fail to acknowledge or understand.
The United Methodist Church thinks Order is important enough not only to be listed as the third main ministry of an elder, but also to require persons called to ministry who are attending seminary to take courses in Order to become prepared to fulfill the responsibility. The course most directly related to the ministry of Order is the required course in United Methodist polity. Others include courses in administration, leadership, stewardship, evangelism, and so forth.
I readily admit that the polity course, where I first learned about church Order, was not my favorite in seminary. I also admit that, when I began the course, even though I had an undergraduate degree under my belt and lots of practical experience with religion, like many of my peers in the class, I knew nothing at all about United Methodist polity. So began a semester of intense exposure to the Book of Discipline, study of issues related to General Conference, and how appropriately and legally to administer a local congregation in my chosen denomination. I slogged through the course not only because it was required, but also because I cared about doing my job well. I viewed it (and still do) as a huge responsibility, God helping me. The last thing I wanted to do was to mess up in the profession to which I was called by the Holy One.
As much as I was highly motivated to take the course on United Methodist polity, I did not enjoy the fact that it was kind of like studying sentence structure. Rules, rules, rules! My least favorite part of the course was learning about the processes and consequences imposed on those who violated the rules of the denomination’s book of Order. Even more difficult were the occasions at Annual Conference when I witnessed and had to vote on the consequences imposed on colleagues who had been found guilty of violating the rules of our denomination’s polity as expressed in the Book of Discipline. It was then that I began to understand the meaning of things like covenant community, breach of faith, defrocking, and forgiveness. I learned that, if I chose to join the covenant community of United Methodist elders, I should plan to follow the rules of the Order; otherwise, I should expect consequences that may include naming my violation and expulsion from the Order. I began to grasp that the covenant of the elders is a serious matter demanding integrity of both motive and behavior. It is not to be taken lightly or corrupted to serve one’s own interests.
Through years of professional ministry I discovered that my favorite thing about the ministry of Order is that it makes possible amazing results in ministry and mission. In a well-ordered system, things get done. People know what their responsibilities are and where to go for help. Resources are aligned with mission, vision, and values. Organizational integrity may indeed exist and those who participate in a system based on shared values may enjoy enormously their work and their journey in God’s mission together.
To return to the earlier discussion of why the ministry of Order is important, one of the greatest challenges before The United Methodist Church today is confusion about the ministry of Order and its significance in fulfilling the mission of the church. Alongside the unfortunate caricature of a pastor who works only one day of the week is another picture. The image is one of a growing number of elders, ordained to the ministry of Order, who proudly demonstrate affinity with ecclesiastical disruption, chaos, and disorder despite the commonly held beliefs that church organization and chaos cannot successfully coexist in one body and that disorder and Order are polar opposites. These ordained elders (and occasionally a bishop) are prone to mix up personal and political plans with the polity and mission of The United Methodist Church. They make a mockery of the church’s Order through premeditated performances of ecclesiastical disobedience while encouraging others to stand in (ironically) ordered conformity to the disorderly behavior of their cohorts in misconduct.
The movement of disorder in The United Methodist Church has escalated to the point that serious discussions are taking place around the possibility that the denomination itself will fragment, split, or dissolve. This would finally represent the quintessential act of disorder, an unfortunate, unnecessary tragedy for the body of Christ.
There is a lot at stake in the ministry of Order. Yet because it is so widely unacknowledged or misunderstood, its importance is easy to overlook until serious problems emerge. There is no more important time than the present and no better opportunity than the one before us in The United Methodist Church to exercise and honor the ministry of Order as one of the primary duties of an elder and an enormous blessing to the church.