Sunday, January 8, 2023

Online Ordination No Threat to Traditional Ordained Ministry

Midjourney AI 2022
So-called 'online ordination' doesn't make a lot of traditionally trained and ordained ministers very happy. At least, that's what I've picked up on over the years online. I get it, to a certain extent. Ministers in mainline denominations (United Methodist, Presbyterian Church, Episcopal, etc) are generally required to complete a Master of Divinity degree at an accredited theological school, as well as complete internships and perhaps a unit or two of Clinical Pastoral Education. Meanwhile, anyone who wants to be ordained can just log onto the Universal Life Church website and submit a request for ordination in a minute or so. Submitting the request through that specific site means that the aspiring minister need not even pay. A certificate will arrive free of charge to the address provided. With free ordination, for life and without any real requirements, it's only natural that other ordained ministers would feel that their calling is being diminished. However, I don't see it that way, and here's why.

First, ordination through a more traditional route is far from a solitary venture. Where the person seeking ordination online or through the mail is having that experience alone, someone seeking to become a minister along more conventional lines is engaged throughout the process with other members of their faith. For example, when I was 17 or 18 I told the pastor of my Presbyterian Church (USA) parish that I sensed a calling to ministry. The first step for me was to meet with the session, which in that polity is the governing body of the local parish. I explained to them what I was thinking and feeling, and we discussed next steps. Had I continued along that path I would have been introduced further up the chain as time went on, as I pursued first a bachelor's degree, and then an MDiv. Though the exact procedure varies from denomination to denomination, in general there is always a social aspect to one's journey into ministry. 

Although I have thus far only witnessed two ordinations in my Unitarian Universalist tradition, in both cases there were people present giving testimony, in a manner of speaking, to the preparation the ordinand went through, and the good things they did along the way. In both cases, friends, family, and parishioners gathered to witness and celebrate the ordination. 

None of what I have described would apply in the case of ordinations through an online application. Ordination in every other setting is truly a communal experience.

Second, the ordained minister in a more established denomination has a network and resources available that is not present for ordained ministers with the Universal Life Church or the Church of the Latter Day Dude. Along the road to ordination the traditionally ordained minister will have formed a network in seminary and within the denomination upon which they can rely. Further, the denomination provides access to resources for ministry that can prove quite useful. Meanwhile, the best the ULC or others have to offer are unaccredited, honorary degrees and a smattering of books and materials. There is no real network of contacts, either. In times past these had online forums, and whatever they were worth, they're gone now. Once again, the online ordained minister is left disconnected from any larger body of believers and clergy.

Third, the higher requirements of the mainline denominations tend to produce better-prepared clergy. By that I don't mean that they are necessarily more evangelistic or effective at church growth, by any means. If that were the case, the mainline churches would have been dying for all these decades. What I do mean is that if I had to choose between seeking counsel with an Episcopal priest or a nondenominational Pentecostal preacher, I'd go with the former if I wanted some level of competence. That's not what a lot of people want, though. People want easy answers, and the easiest answers come from people who take the Bible literally (when it's convenient for them, of course) and never learned to think more deeply. But let's look at this from a less negative angle.

When I was in college, studying for Christian service, I had intended to go for a Master of Divinity. In fact, that was part of a personal commitment I made when I decided to 'answer the call' to do mission work in Brazil. I wanted to be thoroughly prepared, to know the Bible inside and out, and be equipped to serve in every way I could. I was encouraged in this decision by someone who, hearing about it, told me that historically the missionaries who lasted longest overseas through a particular sending agency were those with higher levels of ministry preparation. However, when I graduated with my Bachelor of Ministry degree in late 1999, I was tired of academia and anxious to get to 'the mission field.' So I packed up and headed off to Brazil, where I only remained a few years. I've always regretted not having spent the extra time to prepare, not just academically, but also socially and through experience ministering more in the United States. 

Ordained ministers of traditional denominations are not threatened by online ordination, unless of course they're concerned about officiating weddings and funerals as a supplementary revenue stream. So far as I can tell, the main practical reason anyone ever gets ordained through the internet is in order to legally officiate a wedding. They have no intention of starting a church, and they certainly couldn't compete with traditionally ordained ministers for pulpits. After all, denominations have their own search and call policies, and most local parishes aren't going to be interested in hiring someone with no preparation whatsoever.