Set Apart for Ministry

Picture this. It’s time to head to the church to help with a children’s program or a study. Perhaps it is Sunday morning and it’s time to join others for worship. You arrive, greet others and get started on the ministry, participate in the study, or move into the worship event. Others are involved with you in various ways. Some are doing what you do; others have different roles or responsibilities. Some have volunteered while others have been asked to serve or to participate. And in the midst of these people, one (or more depending on the size of the congregation) carries a different set of responsibilities. Whether others use it much or not, those people carry the designation of “Reverend” with their name, as in Rev. Joe Brown or Rev. Sally White. In more recent times, many have opted for the using “pastor,” as in Pastor Bill or Pastor Ann, which refers to the function that person officially has within the life of a congregation. But in formal written or spoken address, the word “reverend” still appears. And the address of “reverend” indicates that a person has been “ordained” to the ministry. Those who have been ordained are often called clergy or referred to as “belonging to the clergy.”

Ever wonder how someone ends up being referred to like that?

What will be described here is a typical journey towards ordination and reflects our Baptist identity, theology and traditions. This process has been agreed to widely among American Baptist churches over the years and provides the groundwork by which leaders are called out and prepared to serve. While there are many similarities, other denominations have different processes to and understandings of ordination.

Why Ordination? Who Does The Ordination?

As a part of the wondering about all this, one might ask why be ordained? In Baptist settings in which we value something we call “the priesthood of all believers,” why do this? The act of ordination indicates being set a part for ministry on behalf of the body of Christ. Acts 13:1-3 tells of the Holy Spirit moving among the congregation at Antioch and telling them to “set apart for me Paul and Barnabas for the work …” The Bible shows that each one is called to be a witness for Jesus in the world and yet in God’s economy of things, some are set apart for leadership of ministry. In Baptist theology, ordination does not indicate the special rank of one who is “closer to God” than those not ordained. Neither does it mean that a person necessarily has an inside track on God’s ways or God’s will. It does indicate, however, an act of obedience to the movement of God in one’s life and the willingness to devote one’s life to that particular place of leadership within the body of Christ.

One of the more distinctive aspects of Baptist life is that we believe that ordaining a person to the full-time ministry of the church is a function of a local church. Local churches provide the key discipleship mechanisms for individuals. Local churches are usually in the best positions to experience the daily walk of people with Christ. Thus, it has been the practice that local churches ordain called, gifted and trained people to ministry. However, as Baptists have associated to do the work of ministry together, they have also agreed on general guidelines for recognizing local church ordinations. That agreement has come about so that pastors and leaders could be shared among the churches with confidence that some general theology, training and experience would be common among them. What follows below, then, is the process by which churches have agreed together to recognize local church actions in regards to leadership.

The Mile Markers on the Road to Ordination

Before the move to leadership and ordination within the church can ever happen, a person must first and foremost become a fully committed, lifelong follower of Jesus.

Without a personal relationship with Jesus not only Savior but also as Lord, one cannot be qualified to be set apart. It’s a bit like wanting to be a doctor because they can make a lot of money and not caring anything about helping people, about healing diseases or preventing suffering. People do attempt it, but the results are usually disastrous.

After moving into a personal relationship with Christ, there comes what has been referred to as a call or a sense of call to ministry.

The call to ministry can be experienced as internal (the person him/herself becomes aware of God’s working in his/her life) or external (others within a congregation who know the person recognize God’s hand on the person in a special way). More will be said about this in a future article, but for the purpose of this outline, two things can be mentioned here briefly. A “call” to ministry always begins and ends always at the initiation of God. As noted above, Acts 13 records that the Holy Spirit started the process: “set apart for me Paul and Barnabas.” In addition, Scripture never indicates a call to ministry is a “right;” that is to say, a person should not be ordained simply because he or she wishes to be.

The next mile maker on the road is an initial confirmation of the call to ministry.

If the sense of call has first been sense by the person him/herself as he/she has sought to follow Jesus, others will acknowledge and agree with that sense of call through prayer and discussion. If the call has been external – others believe God is calling a person to ministry, that person will come to sense an agreement within his or her spirit to God’s call. This initial confirmation is usually accompanied by a license for ministry, which is the step preceding ordination. A local congregation who knows the work of a person takes the step of formally recognizing a person’s call to ministry and plans to prepare him/herself for that future work by issuing a license for ministry. The license is usually issued for four years and can be renewed once. It usually allows a person to act as a pastor in matters of baptisms, communion, weddings and funerals, especially where the state requires such a document or recognition of a person acting officially on behalf of the church.

This is not to imply that the process of call, licensing and ordination is a simple process. Sometimes the call and its confirmation take years to complete. Sometimes the delay is result of a lack of obedience; sometimes it takes time to gain the necessary skills, training and maturity for completion.

Once a person has sensed a call to ministry and there has been some confirmation of that call, training for ministry is the next part of the journey.

God provides gifts and talents for those called to lead the church but those gifts and skills need to be developed.

That training happens through education, assessment and hands-on experience.

The typical education experience of many pastor leaders is they attend four years of college and three years of seminary, earning a bachelors degree (B.A. or B.S.) and a masters of divinity degree (M.Div.). Another requirement for ordination is participation is a ministerial ethics conference. This seminar is usually conducted by the region and covers issues related to sexual and financial misconduct as well as setting and maintaining personal boundaries and good physical and emotional health practices

A formal assessment for ministry is made sometime during either seminary or immediate thereafter and is a requirement for ordination. These assessments are usually conducted at one of the three Centers for Ministry or their satellite offices throughout the country and provide feedback on elements in a person’s life essential for solid, healthy ministry. Hands-on experience is also an essential part of training in which a person serves in a ministry position under the supervision of a pastor and/or seminary faculty.

Some have questioned about the effectiveness of this kind of training process. Historically, Baptists have sometimes been skeptical of training that might “educate the Spirit right out of a person.” That skepticism continues today, especially in light of leaders who are Bible smart but ineffective in leading a congregation to reach the world with the good news of Christ. However, the intent and great need in the church is for clearly Christ-called leaders who are not only Scripture savvy but who can also interact effectively with their congregations and their communities. We cannot turn our back on any kind of training that will equip people for such a task.

After the period of preparation comes the time of examination.

Baptists have convened ordination councils for such work. Ordination councils are made up of representatives from a number of churches, and their purpose is to discuss with the person his/her walk with Christ, call to ministry, training and theology. At the council a candidate for ordination presents a written paper containing statements about conversion, call to ministry and major points of theology. Members of the council ask the person questions about the paper and other related issues. After the time of “examination” is complete, the candidate is dismissed for a time. Those present discuss and pray about what they have heard and then vote to whether or not to recommend the church proceed with ordination.

Ordination councils are configured in different ways across the country. Some regions have standing councils which meet regularly; others are councils called only as someone is presented by a church for ordination. In ABC of the Northwest, ordination councils are called as the churches request them and have a stated quorum of churches that must be represented for the council to proceed. Each church is allowed two voting delegates at the council but may send as many people to participate as they wish. Several ordination councils will be called in the next few months in the Northwest. Take advantage of an opportunity to attend one. You will find them encouraging and reminders that the Lord is at work among his people to build his church so that love and grace of Christ will continue to change lives and communities.

The Final Mile Marker - A Call To a Place of Ministry

Because we take the call to ministry and ordination so seriously, a person must also receive a call to be the ministry leader from a part of the body – usually a local church – before ordination actually happens. When a local congregation or ministry group believes in a person’s call and gifts enough to bring him/her on their own pastor leader, missionary or minister, paying the proper compensation that such a ministry needs, then Baptists have felt the call of a person to be complete and genuine. Training does not and should not guarantee a pastoral or ministry position. Extending an invitation to someone to take on ministry leadership makes the call true not only in theory but in practice.

Called Leadership Becomes Confirmed Leadership

With all that is involved in a call, some might wonder if it’s worth it. Why not just go out there and do it if that’s what you really want to do? Part of the answer lies in the nature of the call, as we’ve said. Another part of the answer lies in the support that one needs from the body to do the work of ministry. Ordination is a visible sign of that support.

Because there is so much involved in bring a call to leadership ministry to fruition, it is also evident people who may be sensing a call to ministry need encouragement. Current statistics indicate that we are facing and increasing shortage of pastor leaders for congregations and ministries needing leadership. That shortage may be due to local congregations not encouraging gifted and called people to pursue the road to set apart ministry. Those currently called to set apart ministry need to think of developing more leaders like themselves. Those who are carrying out the ministry of Christ in other ways might be the ones through God’s call to ministry will happen. As brothers and sisters in Christ we are all in the work of confirming leadership.

Patricia Duckworth ©2009