I am often asked for advice about various stages of the ordination process. While I’m not an expert, and I’ve only experienced the UMC process is one part of the Connection, here are a few thoughts you might find helpful. I’ve divided my advice into stages, from first principles to the outcome of the interview. If you know someone who is going through the process, please pass this on to them if you think it could be helpful.
Ordination is not a right, it’s a rite. In ordination, we set apart certain of the baptized for full-time service in the church. No matter how much education or debt, no matter how many years of service, no matter how sincere the call or how much your mom thinks you deserve it, ordination is a pure gift; holy orders are never earned or deserved. The church owes no one ordination. In fact, many of the early saints experienced ordination as a temptation more than a blessing.
Accept the insanity. The UMC ordination process, as I have experienced it, is far from perfect. It will feel redundant at times, and silly at others. You are experiencing a rigorous process designed by fallible people who are, in general, doing their best. A lot of our process is simply a test in endurance. If you are willing to jump through hoop after hoop, and show resilience – even when the individual steps don’t make sense to you – you are showing the kind of grit necessary for success in ministry. One could even argue that such a cumbersome process is designed to prepare us for the complex world of the local church.
On Writing Papers
Follow directions. The best advice I have ever heard about writing ordination papers was from a retired District Superintendent: “The process is an exercise in following directions.” As simple as it sounds, make sure you answer every part of every question as clearly as possible. Especially if a question is multifaceted, make sure you leave no question as to whether you addressed each part or not. I often recommend organizing a given answer so that each element gets its own paragraph. Be intentional about exercising attention to detail. My first time up for Provisional Elder, I failed was not passed because I forgot to include one (relatively minor) part of the Bible Study. The sad truth is I was just rushing and missed that part of the directions.
Get an editor. Your papers need to be not just clearly written but grammatically flawless. Find a retired English teacher or a professor. Hire someone if needed. But if you turn in otherwise solid work with repeated errors, you will most likely not pass. Maybe you worked very hard on researching your paperwork, but if the grammar and spelling are sloppy, your readers will assume you were lazy and/or rushed in your preparation.
Get away to write. Everyone’s flow is different, but I find it best to get away for dedicated periods of writing. Schedule time at a retreat center, or go to a church member’s mountain cabin. Don’t try to write while facing a Sunday sermon. Make sure your church knows that writing time is not vacation. Alternatively, schedule a day a week to work on writing for a year. Again, this is part of your ministry. Make space to get it done well. I highly recommend the Study Leave program at Duke Divinity School, an affordable retreat which also provides access to the library, for research purposes, and to faculty, to help with content or talk through thorny questions.
Send your papers to multiple readers. The more eyes you get on your papers, the better. I recommend former BOOM(Board of Ordained Ministry) members, retired District Superintendents, and recently ordained folks in particular. Take them to lunch and ask for their honest input. If you know someone is strong in a particular area (say, polity or preaching), send them the papers for which they can be most helpful.
On Preparing for the Interview
Talk to recent interviewees. Talk to people who were ordained in the last couple of years. Ask them if there was a particular question or area that got hammered. Ask them who was tough, and who was supportive. Find out if two members of a particular committee like to get into debates while interviewing a candidate. Quite often, in a given year, a Board will have one or two areas in which they are focusing. When I came through, everyone was getting asked about the atonement that year. Another year, candidates were being asked about the possibility of online communion. Many BOOM members will have a particular soapbox. Find out what that is, and you’re a step ahead.
Know your papers. In my Conference, we were allowed (and encouraged) to bring copies of our papers. If you get asked, “Why did you write ______ on page 5?” and you look like a deer caught in the headlights, it will set a bad tone for the whole interview. Know what you wrote so your conversation flows smoothly.
Anticipate questions. This is another reason to talk to recent ordinands. I would also recommend sending your completed papers to another reader or two (different from previous readers) and asking them for feedback. Ask a former BOOM member or DCOM (District Committee on Ministry) member, “Where are my weak spots?” or, “What questions would you have if you were on my committee?” Make notes of potential questions or talking points in the margins of your paperwork beside each question. Make it a cheat sheet!
Prepare in prayer and peace. Ask your church, family, and friends to pray for you in the month leading up to your interview. Don’t preach the Sunday after you are going to interview, so your focus can be totally on preparation that week. If your interview is more than an hour away, stay in a hotel or with friends the night before so you don’t have the stress of traffic or the possibility of a flat tire interfering with your mindset. I spent the night before my Full Connection interviews in a hotel room minutes from my interview location looking over my papers and enjoying some nice wine.
Plan for the worst. Just assume that you will encounter at least one jerk in your interviews. Like most local church committees, the typical BOOM has one or two antagonists in the bunch. Or, you might just catch someone on a bad day. You might remind one of your readers of their ex-wife or their middle school bully. Anticipate someone being openly hostile and don’t get rattled. Stay polite, focus on the question, and don’t be afraid to say, “Please tell me more, I’m not sure how to answer your question.” For instance, I encountered two individuals on a particular team during my provisional interviews who were entirely hostile to me. This happened on two separate occasions a year apart. The first time (when I forgot a component of my Bible Study, mentioned above), I assumed they felt slighted because I turned in sub par work. The next year, I turned in much better quality work, and they were just as nasty to me. Then I realized: it wasn’t about me. Some people are just dangerous with a little bit of power. It’s not about you, so don’t take it personally and don’t allow yourself to become shaken.
On the Aftermath
Holy on loosely. Passing or failing these interviews is not a ratification on your calling or your gifts for ministry. I’m going to say that again: pass or fail, this says nothing about the validity of your calling or your gifts. Do the best you can to prepare and leave the outcome to God. Every year people pass who are a complete mystery, and people get held up who are brilliant, holy, gifted pastors. I’ve known folks with doctorates in theology who fail theology, and people who can barely put coherent sentences together who get through. I’ve had friends get read the riot act for their papers by people who are far less gifted than they are. Find your value in the God who has called you to ministry and the transformed lives of the people you serve, not on a rubber stamp from a committee who does not know you.
What advice have I left out? Are things drastically different in your conference or denomination? What other tips and tricks do you have? Leave a comment below!