A few good men


Alright, those of you who know my writing realize that I’m a feminist who typically decries the fact that women are not cracking through the stained glass ceiling. Through personal experience, through watching friends bust their heads, through seeing women before me work hard and not get far, I realize that we’ve got a long way to go before we can fully claim that “in Jesus Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.”

But… I’m curious of another trend of late. Something that goes against my “guys float through this profession easily” attitude. Men–young men–are not making it through the PCUSA ordination system. I mean, the kind of intelligent young men that would make John Leith bust with pride, are somehow not making it through. They are dropping out from frustration, irritation, lack of support. Many of them are the primary bread winners and need jobs before they can get through the hoops.

Do you hear me? Louisville? Something’s wrong.

There is a pattern for some of the men. Often they are conservative when they leave for seminary, and they end up broadening their thinking a bit. They become imaginative regarding what they think the church should look like orthey become more inclusive on their views on homosexuality.

It seems like, for some Presbyteries, we have gotten to a place where we not only reject LGBTs, but we reject anyone who might accept them.  If this continues to be the case, we can pretty much write off the next generation of pastors.

Not all are liberal, many are conservative. Like any broken family, it seems like our worst dysfunctions are being played out upon our weakest members–our candidates. At a time when we are about to lose a huge number of retiring Boomers, we are doing all we can to discourage our up-and-coming pastors. It makes no sense.

Of course, I only have anecdotal evidence, but it’s pretty overwhelming. And perhaps there are just as many women and I don’t know about them.

But I really don’t like the pattern. A lot of women are resourceful, we have learned how to work whatever system we are in, and we can be compliant to get what we need. Is this the characteristic that’s helping us get through easier?

Tell me. What’s going on?

28 thoughts on “A few good men

  1. Great observation. I have a friend who is making it through the system but was told very specifically that one person’s support was based on his view of abortion, homosexuality and Scripture. Because he replied honestly on his view of LGBT ordination, she wouldn’t vote for him. Another friend is debating leaving the denomination all together because she won’t play the compliant female throughout the process and doesn’t want to go through the pain of that fight. Both of these people would be great losses to the denomination.

    I think the tide is changing. It seems that even five years ago you could get through on the strength of personality, likeability and making sure you stayed within the bounds of Reformed confessions. As long as you didn’t rock the boat, you were okay. But I think as the ordination question heats up (and with it biblical authority and interpretation), there are going to be more and more pointed questions, suspicion and fear of letting others in that might tip the boat. And it doesn’t matter anymore whether you’re male or female. A new kind of gender equality. 🙂

    One other thing… blogs. Our opinions are out there and we are usually discussing on an open form instead of behind closed doors. This just wasn’t a reality a few years ago…

  2. This doesn’t jibe with my experience. I think that being a true evangelical/conservative is still, as it has been for the last 20 years, the surest way to be flushed from the candidacy system inside the PC(USA).
    It is MUCH harder to oppose homosexual ordination in most presbyteries in the PC(USA) than it is to support it.
    From the time of candidacy, I was tagged as an evangelical, which has meant that at each interview, the basic question everybody wants answered is, “will you lead a congregation out of the PC(USA)?” As I watch our candidate (an evangelical woman, by the way– I think that theology plays much more of a role in this than sexuality does) struggle under the same suspicions, she is wondering whether this is really where God wants her to be, when she seems so unwanted. I wonder how many pastors are willing to try to make room for younger perspectives.

  3. Clay and I have had this conversation in person so he knows that I have had the opposite experience- Hi Clay! Clay’s experience is true – so is mine – a “renewal” group worked to block my call (which was creepy and frightening on so many levels). It did not ultimately work but my congregation and I are still dealing with the pain and fall out from that outside pressure years later. I also served in a presbytery that practiced active gatekeeping against those suspected of not being conservative/evangelical enough. This does not seem to be a gender issue – I have seen it played out across gender and age – it seems to be a power and control issue so the newest are most vulnerable. And since I read all the time but don’t comment- thanks CHM for creating a forum for so many timely and provocative conversations

  4. Clay,

    As I wrote, “Not all are liberal, many are conservative.”

    As a Bible school graduate in South Louisiana (who is still reeling from the PCA exodus), I encountered the same concern about leading churches out of the PCUSA.

    My concern is not just that liberals or conservatives are being kept out, my concern is that we have theological litmus tests on both ends. We have a very broad theological spectrum in our congregations, and we should allow our candidates to have that varied spectrum as well.

  5. Celeste,

    I’m so sorry to hear that happened. How awful. And I’m so glad that you were strong enough to tough it out.

    I do hope that the wounds heal. It’s so difficult to be attacked by those claiming to be the “body of Christ.”

  6. I know that this is not what comments are for, CHM, but I want to say that I am blessed to know Celeste as a sister in ministry, and in the Lord. We both made it through for a reason.
    What do you think of a generational explanation of what is happening– that we have become so monocultural in a generational sense that no one young “looks like a pastor to me”? I guess I have never been in a conservative enough presbytery to have encountered what you all have. This is the first place I have been where I wasn’t painfully aware that I was a minority. I thank God for your ministry.

  7. Having been through the wringer several times in our Presbytery, I’ve tended to view the best approach…for progressives…as being relentlessly scriptural and grounded in classical theology. It gives a common framework for conversation.

    At my last clearance interview, I had an interesting interchange with a very bright conservative. He had read my bloggery on the subject, and was challenged by my nuanced position on abortion, and my support for gays and lesbians in the ministry. But he saw that I had solid scriptural grounds for my position…and that was that.

    The larger issue, I think, is that our call system is a serious pain in the butt. It is, quite simply, trial by process, and it bears little resemblance to the actual process of call. You know. The God-calling-you thing.

  8. I am weeping. I often wonder if I am doing something wrong. That God has indeed not called me to ministry. I left and still feel like I am not good enough. I have spoken in length with many regarding options. I wish there was a different way to be ordained in the PCUSA. My love and passion for the denomination has not waned. I want to be accepted and get my ticket punched. I will not subject myself to an abusive system. I have been called to serve a particular context. I shall answer this call with or without a denomination. I believe that all are called to serve the ken-dom of God. I love the GLBT community and will support their full inclusion to serve and be served, just as I am. I apologies to you Carol for the emotional reply.

  9. When I was a candidate, I would have never known how our Presbytery would vote on B. An outsider coming in (which, I think, most candidates are) would not know the players in our theological minefields. It’s completely unfair for us to expect unknowing players to line up their answers according to who’s in the room at the moment.

    Nowhere in the BOO does it say, “Your conscience must be bound in the exact same way that your CPM/Presbytery’s conscience is bound in all matters concerning gay and lesbians, or you will have hell to pay.”

  10. Clay asked, “What do you think of a generational explanation of what is happening– that we have become so monocultural in a generational sense that no one young ‘looks like a pastor to me’?”

    I think generational issues have a lot to do with it. According to Strauss and Howe’s work on generational shifts, in very broad strokes (we, of course, can find many, many people who don’t fit these labels), Boomers paved the road for Civil Rights and so many huge changes in our culture. The way that they constructed these important roads is through the fact that many are idealistic fighters, who don’t tend to compromise their beliefs. Conservative and liberal boomers tend to hold fast in their positions.

    Generations who came after Boomers, often grew up in broken homes, they don’t always see a lot of value in arguing ideals. We would rather leave than fight. We are very pragmatic, practical, and innovative. We’d rather see people DO things than THINK a certain way.

    The shift that seems to be critical in the way that this is playing out is this is no longer only about LGBTs, and whether we accept them or not. This is about where a person lands on the issue, and if it is in the same place that the committee/presbytery lands.

  11. It sounds like to me, that the recommendations from the PUP report about doing a thorough and careful examination are being followed. If you are conservative in a liberal presbytery you are doomed. If you are a liberal in a conservative presbytery you are doomed.

    This is what happens when there is no theological standards or tenants. Funny too, you never hear about a liberal candidate going to one of our seminaries and having the views broaden and becoming more conservative!

  12. This is so sad. And it is so old. Calvin approved Servetus being burned at the stake for his dissenting views. We drove Fosdick out of the denomination because of his liberal views. We have driven conservatives out of the church because of their views. However, we have no choice but press on.
    The church, every denomination, every congregation, is too important to leave it totally in the hands of the close minded and hard hearted.
    I will never condemn someone who can’t press on. In fact I often think they are saner than those of us who stick it out. But those of us who, for whatever reason, can continue the struggle must do so. There is too much on the line.

  13. Hm. Of course I’m not for burning people at the stake, but I hope that Servetus would at least have trouble being ordained today…he was, after all anti-trinitarian and probably would have had a hard time passing the psych eval, too! 🙂

  14. I see HOPE. If this is generational, then let the younger generation come together– liberal and conservative– and let us exercise power (ministerial and declarative) to be able to define a zone of tolerance. Let’s force the forces of idealistic extremism to cede the field– and the only way that can be done is if we come together across the PC(USA). We are too thin on the ground in any one place.
    What do you say, CHM?

  15. It’s interesting that Carol pointed to Louisville in her post, because so little of the issues seem to be coming from Louisville. Our system just doesn’t work like that.

    If we feel like we should change the ordination process, then let’s change it. Take a motion to your session, get it to Presbytery, and change that Book of Order. Yes, it’s a huge hard process, but I sometimes wonder how much all the energy we exude complaining about such horrible (and real) issues might do if focused on real work to fix the system. I don’t know, it just feels un-Presbyterian of me to complain about “the system” or “the people in Louisville” when it’s our system and our people and our book of order.

  16. Is this a general feeling or do you have stats to back it up?

    For instance, how many male candidates for ministry are there in conservative denominations, as opposed to total candidates in the liberal ones?

    Just a thought

  17. Adam,

    That certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been called un-Presbyterian!

    When you’re in seminary, you do spend a lot of time complaining about how unfair the system is. Once you’re through the hoops, you never talk about it. Ever. It is far removed from daily life.

    I certainly wasn’t blaming Louisville. What Louisville does have is some power to research and communicate. The ordination exams are run by Louisville.

    But… I’m certainly no expert on Louisville. It’s also far removed from my life.

    Systems are hard to change. Little church systems are hard, and big denominational changes are even harder. But, I’m glad there are people like you who surely will!

  18. Clay,

    I have hope too. People have asked me to start a non-geographic presbytery. I’m not sure if that will solve anything! I learn a lot from my boomer colleagues–like how to stick it out and fight, when I’d much rather walk away.

    But, something has got to come out of this larger conversation. As we stay connected, keep naming problems, keep searching for solutions, and continue to support each other, things are bound to become different.

  19. I see a lot of labels thrown around here, and I’m not particularly fond of labels. They mean different things to different people, and in general are not very helpful. They enhance the division of people into “we” and “they” categories.

    I am a “liberal” in some ways and a “conservative” in other ways. I am both “pro-choice” and “pro-life”. That doesn’t say anything of significance. I liked the reply of the person who said he would answer his call in or outside the denomination. If it truly is a call from God, you can expect trouble. Check out the prophets he called in the Old Testament. A study of these, even cursory, should give you some food for thought.

    No one ever promised that ministry would be easy. Was Jesus’ ministry easy? Was Paul’s? Was Martin Luther’s? If you think God has called you, don’t check it out with your like-minded friends. Put out a “fleece” and see what God says. And if your are Biblically challenged, you’ll have to read about Gideon in the Old Testament to catch my drift.

    Believe it or not, this debate is not about GLBT versus straight, nor about conservative versus liberal. It is about whether the church is a social/political organization, or the body of Christ.

    It is enlightening to read Jesus’ parables of what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is like salt–seasoning, preserving, healing. The problem with the church, as an institution, is that it bears no resemblance to that description. A pile of salt all in one place–cathedral, church building, temple, synagogue–is that it is more like a storage container than a society-seasoning agent, or a preserver of truth, or a healing agent in a hurting world.

    Jesus also said the kingdom of heaven is like leaven that is hidden in a loaf and changes the nature of it. You don’t notice the taste of leaven in the bread, but you do notice the texture. What is your version of “leaven” doing to transform the texture of the world in which we live?

  20. G.F. Luce,

    “I see a lot of labels thrown around here, and I’m not particularly fond of labels.”

    Right. I’ve read Generous Orthodoxy, and understand what you’re saying. I also understand that people are complex (including me). I’m pretty sure that most of the people following this conversation do too. But… when you’re writing, and talking about an issue. You still have to name it.

    “No one ever promised that ministry would be easy.”

    Of course not. I’ve been a pastor for ten years, and I know that it’s incredibly interesting, intellectually stimulating, but it’s not easy.

    “And if your are Biblically challenged, you’ll have to read about Gideon in the Old Testament to catch my drift.”

    Um. Should I even respond to this one? I’ll just say… I know about Gideon, and I’m not biblically challenged. I’ve read the Bible cover to cover countless times. And most of these people who are PCUSA not only have to read the Bible and study it in English, but they have to study the Hebrew and Greek as well.

    “It is enlightening to read Jesus’ parables of what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is like salt–seasoning, preserving, healing. The problem with the church, as an institution, is that it bears no resemblance to that description.”

    I’m pretty sure that the 200+ homeless people who are finding food, warmth, shelter, and care at our church right now would tell you a different story. We have been feeding the homeless for over 20 years. Probably the kids who are learning art in transitional housing would tell you something different too. And the prostitutes who are receiving care on the streets thanks to our institutional church. And the children who will receive medical care in Ethiopia.

    If you asked the average person in our congregation if our church was there to prop up the institutional church, I’m pretty sure they would laugh quite hardily at the accusation.

    I could go on, if you’d like, but I’m sure you understand.

    In all, I think you’re making a lot of assumptions about the denominational church label that don’t quite fit. Sometimes people get all of their information about the denominational church from caricatures that a couple of emerging church speakers draw. It can be very unfair, and quite damaging to people who are working hard trying to be the Body of Christ.

  21. While the information may be anecdotal, those anecdotes are about human beings who are being treated unfairly and even cruelly by the church. In my experience, if there are four or five stories like this (and there are at least that many definite cases), it means there are dozens more out there about whom we don’t know. Furthermore, find any person who has gone through the system recently who thinks it was a positive experience. Not those folks are really anecdotal. This system has to be changed and I agree it will be done from the grassroots up.

  22. Are barriers to ordination and then pastoring for women different from what men face today – a question I am presently researching.

    CHM’s comments and others above are very interesting in this regard. Like others, along with gender I think the issue of age is important in this question. But also class and ethnicity, which no one mentioned above. Any thoughts on this anyone?

    Another thought, many people seeking ordination are doing it as a second career. How does this change their experience with committees responsible for candidates?

    I am doing some research about barriers women today face in the ordination process and after they are out in the pastorate (in mainline denominations like PC(USA)). Hopefully my results will help inform the curricula at the seminary I attend. I am a Presbyterian, a retired professor of education and doing an Master of Theological Studies now in retirement — much fun. And so I was intrigued by this blog.

    Thanks to everyone above for a really interesting conversation.

  23. Carol,
    Thank you for responding to my comment on A Few Good Men. I seldom read blogs and almost never comment on one. But it seems to me everybody has been dancing around the real issues that are depleting the ranks in PCUSA and other “mainline” churches. I am not basing my remarks on hearsay or caricatures of the church, but on my own experiences and observations.
    First, it’s only fair to tell you a little about myself. I have been a PCUSA member (or its various previous names) since I married a Presbyterian 57 years ago. Before that, I was American Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist—depending on where my family lived. We had no car, so had to choose a church within walking distance. I have been a regular church attendant since I was a babe in arms.
    I was ordained an elder in the early 1970s, have been a lay commissioner to General Assembly, a participant in the Convocation on Reformed Piety held at Princeton for the Synod of the Northeast (April 1972?), and have been active as a Sunday School teacher—preschool through adult, a youth fellowship advisor, church newsletter editor, and am currently serving on the Mission Study Task Force in my local congregation.
    I only mention these things to indicate that I am not a casual or detached observer. I am distressed over many of the things I have seen happening in the institutional church. This is not to belittle the ministry to “the least of these his brothers and sisters” in which your congregation and some others are engaged. You are to be commended for your faithfulness.

    What disturbs me is the hundreds of congregations that appear simply to be playing church—-performing rituals, singing songs without being touched by the words, speaking a language foreign to “outsiders” who were not raised on ecclesiastical jargon, bending over backwards so far, in an effort to be politically correct that they become Biblically incorrect in a very public and damaging way.
    My congregation’s pastor of nearly seven years left last summer to re-enter seminary in pursuit of a doctorate in theology, with the goal of becoming a theology professor. This person has a gift for teaching but, in my opinion, not a gift for pastoring.

    During this pastorate, our church school attendance dropped from nearly seventy youngsters to less than ten. Several families with young children left the church, many of our most talented and active members. The pastor literally directed the “worship” service as if it were a stage play, trying out various ways of getting across a highly-charged political agenda in a very diverse congregation.Today our Sunday attendance is about one-third of what it was seven years ago.

    I personally believe the pulpit should not be used as a political springboard. I read Paul’s letters to Timothy and find that instruction in godliness is paramount, and that “godless chatter and opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge” are to be avoided. As Peter J. Gomes says in The Good Book, we all need to “take the Bible seriously, neither trivializing it nor idolizing it.” I agree wholeheartedly. And that “names the problem.”

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