Should We Record Ministers?

May 13, 2015

If we believe that all are called to ministry, should Yearly Meetings specially record some people as ministers?

RecordingWhen a group of meetings were set off from Indiana Yearly Meeting a few years ago and then formed the New Association of Friends, they had the challenge of working out all the arrangements (policies, processes) of a Yearly Meeting (this even if NAoF doesn’t want to consider itself a Yearly Meeting). One of those challenges is the question of whether NAoF wants to record people as ministers. That question has particular resonance because a number of individuals in NAoF had been recorded in Indiana Yearly Meeting or in other bodies.

Friends began recording ministers at the very beginning of our history. Today some Yearly Meetings record ministers and some do not. (FUM YMs generally do; FGC YMs generally do not.) In nearly all cases, whether to record was settled by Yearly Meetings decades ago. I am finding the current discussion in NAoF fascinating: it raises questions that were thrashed out long ago but also some fresh notes.

NAoF appointed a small committee to draft a policy on recording. What they produced broadly follows the lines of current recording processes in FUM YMs but (in my reading) makes the criteria and process less formalistic. As an appendix they also provided an excellent historical overview of recording in the Religious Society of Friends. Now member meetings in NAoF are discussing the draft, and there is also a discussion taking place among NAoF members via e-mail.

This is a conversation worth others following. Here are three contributions (from among many) in that discussion.

One person writes: My main concern is that we find a way forward for the New Association that both honors our past while giving us the flexibility and creativity we need to envision a new future together. … My hope would be that we not conflate recording of gifts with the professional requirements of [pastoral ministry and chaplaincy], but instead be free to celebrate and record the wide variety of gifts evident among us. If there is a member of my meeting with a gift of music ministry, for instance, that should count just as much as a gift for pastoral ministry and should in no way require an MDiv or a background check. Perhaps the answer is in distinguishing between the professional requirements of particular gifts and the recording of gifts generally. How can we together develop a process that satisfies both needs? I believe that we can, and that we will have a better process for it.

Another writes: It might be useful to point out that those who have been to seminary, or who have professional aspirations related to ministry, approach this question differently than those of us who are simply part of the priesthood of all believers. Some (or many) of those who are or wish to be chaplains and pastors are asking for a process that supports their work in a world that requires credentials. The rest of us have much less at stake, personally.

For me, personally, I don’t mind if we engage in some level of affirmation and credentialing as a way of showing collective support, particularly where it allows a ready interface with the outside world (e.g., if recording permits someone to solemnize marriage under state law). Although it creates two classes of people in an otherwise egalitarian framework, I’m willing to hold my nose and support it because I value people who make such a commitment and want to support their work.

As a musician, I don’t need encouragement of my “gift” from the meeting through any formal recognition. In fact, I would prefer that I not receive special recognition: my music itself is my gift to my meeting, something that I give freely without a desire for recognition. To be “rewarded” with recognition in a formal way turns my gift of music into a transaction with the meeting, which undermines the very act of giving. I suspect the same is true for many others who volunteer their time and talents in many other ways. A minute of appreciation is more recognition than any of us seek. Recognizing gifts feels like a slippery slope: Which gifts do we recognize? Who do we exclude by not recognizing all gifts? Why make unnecessary distinctions?

My recommendation: do what we have to do to interface with the outside world, but keep things as simple and real as possible by avoiding too much recognition.

A third writes: I agree … that the document leans heavily towards the requirements for particular categories of gifts. My concern is that we are reducing the Testimony of Equality to the lowest common denominator. …

I have an MDiv and am a Recorded Quaker Minister in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, recorded by [another] Yearly Meeting. I don’t think the MDiv is problematic, and neither does it smack of privilege. I was a pastor in Indiana Yearly Meeting and the MDiv prepared me for that. It has been my experience since earning my MDiv that people are consistently reminding me that I am no better than them, consistently reminding me that it does not automatically make me a minister, consistently reminding that God speaks to them as well….and I have consistently devalued my education in efforts to make others feel better and to prove that I understand the testimony of equality.

An MDiv is not intended to automatically make someone a minister. That is the job of God and our communities of Faith. An MDiv does not mean that one hears or evens obeys the will of our Teacher. An MDiv has never been (especially among Quakers) something that has granted someone privilege. It DOES mean that I know how to exegete scripture, teach scripture, put together a sermon, understand the conundrums of particular theologies, and a variety of other things. Scripture is complicated, theology is messy, and history all too often repeats itself.

As a life long Friend, I have come against the Quaker mistrust of formal theological education often. I don’t even know what an indulgence looks like, let alone sell them. We don’t have physical sacraments, so naturally, I am not privileged in administering them. The Roman Catholics aren’t selling indulgences anymore and many of my friends who are ordained in other Christian denominations are well aware that they are equal to everyone sitting in their pews. We must be careful that our rejection of “ordination” does not carry with it inherent put downs of our other sisters and brothers in Christ. I sacrificed much to get my MDiv. I am proud that I accomplished this and have gained this knowledge. The Testimony of Equality does not require that I dismiss it. An MDiv is not the only place this education occurs. I do know several individuals who have read extensively, studied on their own, and applied their learning.

In my understanding of the Testimony of Equality, the meaning is that we are all equal, NOT that we are all equal in all things. Please do not hire me as your piano player. Please do not have me teach Sunday school to kids under that age of 16. Neither does the Testimony of Equality mean that we are all treated the same. We don’t treat people the same in our own lives, and that does not make those people any less equal. We don’t need to tear down one in order to uplift the other. The Testimony of Equality is also messy.

It would seem to me that the Recording of Gifts would come with categories of gifts, all equal, but having different requirements. As mentioned before, the Recording of Music Ministry would not need a background check. Things like jail chaplaincy, pastors, and Children’s Ministry would. There is a public face to some of our ministries and the wider public relies on and trusts that we will vet accordingly. We are not just Recorded for the Society of Friends, but for Society period. It would be a sad day if we just ministered to those that belong to our own group.

I also think, that a document outlining the Recording process needs to include portions that address the possibility of a Recorded Minister/Pastor abusing someone, or misappropriating funds. We would like to think that those things will not happen, but historically they have. What would the process be if those things were discovered and brought to the attention of the Recording Committee? A restoration process is also a good thing. How will we care for those Recorded Ministers who are struggling? How will we support them back to health?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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