One Major Challenge in the Appeal to Abide By Ordination Policy

October 10, 2016

By now, a lot of articles have been written about what is taking place at the Seventh-day Adventist Annual Council meetings in Silver Spring, Maryland. Basically, delegates have gathered at church headquarters to discuss, among other things, what to do with respect to ordination policy compliance.

In truth, though, these discussions aren’t as much about ordination, or even compliance with agreed working policy, as they are about procedure and authority. What does the church do when one entity takes actions independently of standards that have been agreed upon by the entire church body?

George Knight wrote a MUST read article for every Adventist member and leader about this issue which you can read on theHaystack.

Still, for all of the discussion about adherence to policy, I have one major challenge to this logic:

Religious appeals based primarily on policy adherence are bureaucratic legalism. And just like religious legalism, there is disproportionate attention given to some matters of the law at the exclusion of others.

For example, in my previous post about Adventist extremists, I shared the story of one pastor who was grilled by a church member for drinking water with a meal when, unbeknownst to the pastor, that same church member was struggling to quit smoking.

The current request for Unions to comply with voted ordination policy appears to be, on the surface, a selective witch hunt (although that may not be the case). This may be new information to some church members, but many conferences and unions have been out of compliance in other matters of ordination policy for years, but no one has ever gone to the lengths of disciplining these Unions as they are now with those who have approved the ordination of women. What am I talking about? For reference, here is the current denominational policy for the hiring of ministers in the Adventist Church:

L 05 Ministerial Training L 05 05 General ProvisionsThe educational requirement for entrance into the ministry shall be completion of the Ministerial Training Course as prescribed by the division committee. Candidates for the ministry who, because of age or unusual circumstances, have not completed the Ministerial Training Course as prescribed by the division and who are considered for employment as ministers, shall be referred for consideration to the respective union committee for careful study and implementation of applicable division policy in such circumstances. (emphasis added)

When I was at a Praxis meeting held at the General Conference in September 2015, one of the areas of frustration that I heard from leaders in the North American Division was the continued practice of employing and ordaining of pastors who had not gone through the ministerial training outlined in policy. It was noted that in theory, policy requires a vetting process for pastors who are outside of the educational requirements in order to see if their experience is comparable. Yet this is rarely, if ever, done in practice.

In some circles, the term “90-day wonder schools” is used to describe institutions that provide intensive training programs that cover a variety of evangelism topics like apologetics, personal and public evangelism, preaching, etc.

Two examples of these programs are the Amazing Facts College of Evangelism (AFCOE) and the ARISE program from Lightbearers.

Don’t get me wrong: these programs do deliver on their promise to provide practical evangelistic instruction to their students.

Some conferences hire these graduates to serve as Bible workers in their fields. Some take this a bit further and, after some time, hire these graduates as pastors, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are obvious: the graduate may be an effective soul winner, or may otherwise be shown to have a clear calling from God into ministry. A conference may perceive this and make the moves to hire them as a full-time employee.

But there are other conference leaders who prefer hiring these graduates because of the “heresy” they fear is being taught and promulgated at Adventist universities and the Seminary. Speaking with an admitted degree of speculation here, I wonder if some conference leaders also prefer hiring these evangelism college graduates because they sense that they are easier to manage than pastors who have been seminary trained, as the latter may be more questioning and less submissive toward conference leadership.

The reasons for this submission are based on a subtle power dynamic comparable to the experience of undocumented persons in the country. Pastors in these positions might feel a sense of powerlessness because they have “no papers” and know that they could be gone at any minute without a degree to fall back on for other income. Thus, injustices (be they real or perceived) are tolerated and silence is kept until at least ordination when a bit of “extra security and tenure” is given.

Back to the matter at hand however, to be clear, these intensive programs do not provide the graduate with a degree from a higher education institution. When someone is hired as a full-time pastor, they begin to earn experience and are eventually ordained. To my knowledge, an ordained pastor must have at least a bachelor’s degree (preferably a Master of Divinity) before being ordained.  The practice of ordaining pastors without academic degrees is out of compliance with current ministerial ordination policy. Yet this practice has been done for years with little to no fanfare, unlike current discussion over policy adherence when it comes to women’s ordination.

Here is a real life scenario of what happens when this detail is overlooked.

Pastor A is a single female who has a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. However, she struggles to find work after leaving seminary because few conferences want to take the risk of hiring a single female.

Pastor B is a single male who graduated from one of these 90-day intensive schools but has not yet completed his academic studies to obtain his bachelor’s. He also struggles to find a job because of his lack of degree.

Eventually, both are hired into full-time ministry.

At the point of hire, Pastor B is out of compliance with policy. At the point of ordination, Pastor B is still out of compliance.

In contrast, Pastor A is within policy at the point of hire, but is out of compliance at the point of ordination.

Here is the great irony that I’ve noticed in the appeals at the Annual Council to be in compliance with ordination policy: the church is discussing what to do for conferences and unions that have ordained Pastor A, citing compliance to policy. Yet no one bats an eye when Pastor B’s name comes up for ordination, even though his ordination would also be out of policy compliance.

As an outsider, it seems to me like a clear case of picking and choosing. It also seems that the push to discipline unions ordaining women is driven by an ideology which takes issue with women being on equal leadership footing with men in an ecclesiastic setting, not so much because of unity and concern for policy compliance.

Let’s use an even worse scenario. Some might remember the controversial educational scandal from earlier in 2016 when Adventist leaders had been accused of using fraudulent degrees to advance their careers. Both of the men in this scandal were ordained ministers. One of these leaders resigned from his position due to the fallout, but the other is still employed by the denomination at the Division level.

It seems to me as though the church turns a blind eye to policy matters in some cases, but uses policy as an excuse when it is expedient. Cynically speaking, it looks as though you can make it to the highest echelons of the church with questionable degrees (being in breach of ordination policy the whole time, of course), but as long as you’re a man, the issue won’t be brought up. This is not the way we ought to lead and work in God’s church.

Again, just like legalism in churches, arguments based on strict adherence to all points of policy are usually shortsighted and selective. These arguments look at the letter of the law yet overlook the Spirit that led to its establishment.

In speaking about this issue with a few colleagues, one noted:

Also, male only ordination is not part of our fundamental beliefs. We have a theological document (produced by the Theology of Ordination Study Committee), and it says nothing about that. You don’t implement policy in place of theology. We were told the policy is to unite us, not to bring us in compliance with scripture.

Another colleague responded with this candid remark:

The problem is that anti-WO activists are trying to use policy as a proxy for doctrine and thus bring in a new fundamental belief through the side door.

What our church really needs is not uniform compliance to policy as much as uniform conversion of the heart. Both sides need to see each other as fellow workers, not rivals. When pro-women’s ordination proponents jeer President Wilson for his views, we are not moving in the right direction. When anti-women’s ordination proponents revel in the prospect of punishing Unions or “cleansing” the church, we are not moving in the right direction.

Personally, I think the church needs to reexamine the idea of policy variance. I don’t believe the solution is to punish Unions ordaining women (in however form that looks like) any more than we should retroactively punish Unions ordaining pastors with no academic degrees. The practice of ordaining male pastors outside of ordination policy compliance is already happening on local levels where Unions deem fit. Unless we truly believe in the call of “reviving and reforming” our beliefs, practices, attitudes, and yes, even policies towards each other, delaying action on this matter for a year will only delay an unnecessary split in the church over non-essential matters.

If we believe that the Holy Spirit equips the Church with gifts for the furthering of the mission, and that spiritual gifts are not gender exclusive; and if Unions already make exceptions to policy when the Spirit’s leading is evident in the life of a young man possessing no academic degrees, why would we not make provision for the Spirit’s leading in the life of a young woman with three degrees?

If we’re not careful, we will slip into the same error of ancient Israel, who felt it needed to strictly adhere to the rules and even add new creeds to compensate for its reluctance to follow where God’s Word and Spirit were leading. (I could make a quip about the proposal of adding Adventist education as a new Fundamental Belief, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.)

I’ll be praying for the discussions and decisions taking place this week. I hope you’ll join me.

  • TravelingThrough

    It is not currently denominational policy that someone must have a degree to be ordained. Also it is not current denominational policy that one must hold a degree to be hired as a licensed pastor (that is what a pastor is before ordination)

    Here is NAD policy on hiring a licensed pastor:

    L 25 06 Requirements—A person is recognized as a licensed
    minister when all the following prerequisites have been satisfied:
    1. Completion of the Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in
    Bible or religion plus nine quarters in the SDA Theological
    Seminary, or two years of employment in ministerial or pastoral
    work or a total of two years of seminary training and employment
    in ministerial or pastoral work. Until this prerequisite has been
    met, the person will receive a missionary license.
    2. Recipient of a ministerial license.
    3. Appointment by the conference to a ministerial or pastoral
    4. Election as a church elder in the churches, or named in the
    companies to which he is assigned.
    5. Ordination as a local church elder.

    Here is NAD policy related to ordination:

    L 05 06 Educational Requirement—The educational requirement
    for entrance into the ordained ministry (except as provided in
    L 05 21) shall be the completion of the seven-year ministerial
    training program. College ministerial graduates shall attend the
    Andrews University Theological Seminary to complete the ninequarter
    program. Upon satisfactory completion of the nine
    quarters, the graduate is eligible for a three-quarter assignment as
    a ministerial intern, or for other direct appointments to the
    ministry. (See also L 25)
    L 05 11 Undergraduate Requirements—The four-year college
    program shall include a minimum of 128 semester credits, or 190
    quarter credits, leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major
    in Bible or religion.
    L 05 16 Postgraduate Requirements—The course at the
    Theological Seminary, leading to a Master of Divinity degree,
    shall consist of nine quarters of study, approximately 25 percent of
    which shall consist of applied theology.
    L 05 21 Alternate Plan—Candidates for the ministry who
    have not followed the above plan because of age or unusual
    circumstances, and who are being considered for employment as
    ministers, shall be referred for consideration and action to the
    respective union conference.

    For both licensure and then ordination having a degree is the traditional, but not required route.

    • Thanks for the comment. I didn’t mean to imply that someone must have a degree to be ordained, only that when someone is ordained with them, it is done outside of policy compliance. Even the policy you share is an example of this:

      “L 25 06 Requirements—A person is recognized as a licensed
      minister when ALL the following prerequisites have been satisfied:
      1. Completion of the Bachelor of Arts degree…”

      (Emphasis added)

      There are many pastors who have not completed even the basic requirements to receive a ministerial licence, not to mention an ordination credential. There is little push back given when these exceptions to policy are done. My point isn’t that we should fire these pastors. Only to recognize that when conferences/unions chose to make exceptions to the rule, they are also out of compliance with policy.

      • TravelingThrough

        But it is not done outside of policy compliance. If you read the policy again you will see that a degree is one option but there are other options that are equally valid:

        L 25 06 Requirements—A person is recognized as a licensed
        minister when all the following prerequisites have been satisfied:
        1. Completion of the Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in
        Bible OR religion plus nine quarters in the SDA Theological
        Seminary, OR two years of employment in ministerial or pastoral
        work OR a total of two years of seminary training and employment
        in ministerial or pastoral work. Until this prerequisite has been
        met, the person will receive a missionary license.
        (emphasis added)

        According to policy someone can have no degree, the requirement here is a degree OR seminary classes OR two years of ministerial or pastoral work.

        • Ah, I see you point. Good observation. At the same time, I notice that the policy says that “until this prerequisite has been
          met, the person will receive a missionary license.” The people that I know who had been hired have had a Ministerial Licence from day one. This is only one example, I could share a better example about how financial policies are ignored or stretched because of various factors.

          Here is a reality about policy: people will always find ways around it if they really want something. The point is that it’s not ideal to appeal to adherence to policy as if it adherence to policy were synonymous with doctrinal adherence.

  • ptilinopus

    I was disappointed when the Theology of Ordination study committee focused primarily on the ordination of women. I should have thought it’s primary focus would have been the theological basis for ordination per se. It would be difficult to find a Biblical foundation for ordination as we currently practice it. Indeed, the office of pastor as currently defined is not founded on a Biblical model. It does not equate to apostle, elder, prophet, deacon, evangelist, teacher, priest or missionary – though it has elements of all of these. It has its origins in the clergy model of churches going back then early centuries of the Christian Era – but not the New Testament period. If the committee had indeed studied that, we might have avoided the issue which currently divides the church. (And yes, I am a pastor. And since my login is via Facebook, my name is Colin Richardson.

  • Dan Vis

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece. Have just started reading your blog and find it quite worthwhile. 🙂 One issue with your main point however is that the difference between ordaining women ministers and ordaining men without a degree is that there is zero theological objection to the latter. That makes the former issue of compliance more serious.

    While we may have no official position on women’s ordination in our fundamental beliefs, the vast majority of the arguments against it at the general conference were in fact theological. And whether people voted against WO because they opposed it theologically, or just saw it as theologically ambiguous at best, the issue WAS inescapably theological.

    The absence of a position on WO in our fundamental beliefs (ie, voted by the world church) is hardly an endorsement for it. For my two cents, the world church is right to not move forward until the theological issue is resolved first. And no union should move forward until that has happened either. It seems these unions are the ones “attempting to bring in a new fundamental belief through the side door”. Not those arguing we should stay together until the church has clearer light.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Dan (and welcome to the blog)! I didn’t want to bring theology into the mix because as the document (and the chair at the Annual Council meeting highlighted), the issue on the table was policy driven, not theological.

      Therefore, the “yes” vote yesterday means that the rubric for compliance is based on policy, not theology. So, my argument is that conferences that hire pastors with no education, or deviate from GC financial polices, should be also worked with to bring them into compliance just like conferences who ordain women.

      If however, the issue that is singled out is the ordaining of women, it will be evident that the disagreement is not policy or polity, but theology (as you’ve rightly said). At this point, we’ll be back to square one, lol. We’ll see what happens.

  • Stewart Pepper

    It seems the church’s policy on not ordaining someone until such time as they have a degree would be as difficult to defend Biblically as not ordaining women. This kind of policy, although it may have been well-intended, is precisely why we have been counseled to grant unions a large portion of autonomy and latitude concerning ministerial hires and ordination. If all of the dictates come from the top in a one-size-fits-the-whole-world manner, you can bet the effectiveness of the work will be greatly diminished.

    • Yes, we don’t know the unintended consequences that await the church. Still, I’m looking to Jesus as the author and finisher of this work. I remain hopeful. Thanks!