Under care


In the Presbyterian Church, we call the process of ordination being “Under Care.” It is supposed to be a time of discernment, when we listen for God and our community to find out if we are called into pastoral ministry.

As an admittedly naïve twenty-three-year-old in the process, I took this to be the truth. I felt that I needed to be as honest as possible, and that my community would support me. This worked for me, most of the time, until I got to one sticky point in the process… and then, a trusted professor and friend took me aside, and said, “This is not a time for total and complete honesty. You need to start treating every step in this process as a job interview, not a discernment group.”

I am so thankful for the advice. I quickly changed my attitude, and gathered support from other people as I struggled with the very crucial decision of whether I was called into the ministry. It reminded me of the many complications of our ordination system. It can be a very difficult and most un-caring process.

While we (my husband and I) were “under care,” our promised book money was taken away from us. We were told that a church governing body was using us as a “political football,” and we ended up being thousands of dollars in debt.

While we were “under care,” we were homeless for three months. We had a job and a manse waiting for us. But there was some mix-up in the paperwork… and paperwork came before people. So we lived out of a tent.

I bring this up, not because I’m carrying resentments ten years later. Although I did feel sucker-punched at the time, years later I can identify that along with these frustrations also came wonderful moments of people who supported me in my journey.

But I bring it up because I hear too many horror stories, of church budgets being slashed, and along with the budgets, the seminary scholarships get gouged. And seminary students end up suddenly not knowing how they are going to pay for groceries for their small children.

A Psychologist gives out a strange result for a candidate’s exam, and then she find out that the good “Doctor” has hit on three female seminarians in her class.

And, don’t get me started on the ordination exams….

I guess what I’m trying to impress is the message that the professor gave to me. The church, in their most idealistic and hopeful moments, wants this to be a process that is full of love and concern and care. They want to walk alongside their candidates and support them.

But they don’t always do that. And in some ways they can’t. It’s like the ideal of your pastor being your counselor, or your Executive Presbyter being your pastor. There are so many complications in these roles….

So, I implore you who are “under care,” try to gather a real caring community. One in which you can really share your doubt and frustrations. One who knows your family, in which you can count on, who will not look at you as a line item in the budget that can easily be slashed. One that realized the importance of listening to your struggles, doubts, and fears.

You deserve that, as a candidate, and you will need it as a pastor.

19 thoughts on “Under care

  1. I am sorry to hear about the loss of the book money and the homeless episode. It should not have happened. My experience under care, over twenty years ago, was not nearly as bad, still . . . there was the time I went to my yearly consultation when all the committee wanted to talk about was why my wife and I had separate last names, the psychologists who administered my testing and wrote up the report included unethically included results of my MBTI without ever discussing with me or explaining to me the results, and the committee getting on my case because I barley passed my polity exam (the first time!) even though it was the first exam after reunion and no one knew what to expect and the multiple choice sections was absurd.

  2. The best advice someone gave me when I was under care was to drop a “Me vs. Them” attitude. Instead I used a “WE have a problem here, so what are WE going to do about it?” attitude. I doubt if it would have worked in your situation, Carol, but for me it was a way of getting the committee to take ownership of the morass we were working our way through. And I am glad to say for the most part they did. While from time to time they did seem focused on trivial stuff, they did work with me to get me through the process. And, no, I did not completely bare my soul and be totally honest. I saw it for what it was, a weeding out process, and jumped through the hoops I needed to jump through.

    Having served on the Committee on Preparation, there is definitely another side to it all. They are inquirers and candidates, who frankly should not be pastors. They might be great youth workers, or hospice chaplains, but it would be a disaster to put them in charge of a church. It is a very painful process to get them to understand this, and I can think of no other way to get through that.

    The only thing I have thought of is that perhaps we should have many more kinds of ordained ministry. Teachers can be licensed to only teach certain grades, so why couldn’t we ordain people to only certain ministries? And I guess the answer is that it sounds good in theory, but I am sure the paperwork and organizational process would be a nightmare.

  3. Yes, the process looks as if it will be helpful. When I was under care in the 1960s I had one telephone conversation with the chair of the committee. I met with the whole committee once (it was interesting for me to accompany 12 men to lunch the day of the presbytery meeting), became a certified church educator, and never heard from the committee again. Two years later, I left that job (married and moved away). No follow up from the committee. I’ve been independent ever since!

    Today, friends on the COM seem to do a much better job than that. If only our structure allowed some younger people to participate! Isn’t it strange that all meetings are during the day when younger elders, many who have multiple skills in dealing with people, have to be at their paying jobs?

  4. Amen, and preach it, Carol!

    I think I’ve come a long way in just one year of inquiry and being “under care” (and having lost complete financial support from our home church).

    There was a time (at the beginning) when I was committed to inquiry as a theological and vocational exploration — and I trusted the process to help me in that.

    It actually has helped me, but not in the ways I would have expected (and I probably need to leave it at that, since this is a public forum).

    But I like the metaphor of “extended job interview” more than the “guidance” one, as it seems more accurate. It may be less than ideal, but so is ministry. Messy Spirituality, I believe it has been called 🙂

  5. As someone who sits on a COM in a presbytery that just watched a pastor who should NEVER have been ordained to the PC(USA) blow up the church he was serving, commit grand larceny, and take up the pulpit in the E. Free church in the same small town, I can tell you that there is a fine line between discernment and interview. The truth is that inquirers/candidates and CPM’s have may have vastly different goals. I think some come into the process not looking to explore their call, but believing they ARE called with little willingness to consider that that may not be the case. Sadly, the bad apples condition our committees to cast a leery eye on all who seek ordination, or in my case all who seek a call in this presbytery. We’re gun shy. Is this person here to serve the church, or seek their own agenda? Will they truly work with their colleagues, or only those of a like mind?

  6. Howard,

    Yes, it was a “we” process, for sure. Although they were very firm about the process, which I didn’t complain about at the time, but now that I look back, I wish I had been less compliant.

    The only time I wasn’t was at the very end… I told them that I was called by God. If the Presbyterian Church did not want to recognize that, then that was fine. But I needed to leave and find another denomination. I meant it, and they stepped up. The process sped up considerably after that!

  7. Matthew,

    Your comment showed up after I responded to Howard’s… which puts my comment into a different context! It was, after four years of excruciating years of doubts discernment that I ultimately felt called to ministry. My community did too… it was just a matter of dragging feet in the end.

    Yes, you’re right. I have seen Presbyterians be very gun-shy.

    Instead of firing one ineffective campus minister, we will shut down the whole program. Instead of dealing with one rotten pastoral relationship, we will try to add and entire amendment to the Book of Order. If one candidate is a problem, instead of dealing with him/her directly, we try to legislate things that make it difficult for all candidates.

    It’s a very odd organizational trait that we seem to nurture in our decent and orderly ways!

  8. Thanks, as always, for taking on these issues related to call and ordination.

    Howard Chapman mentions the possibility of exploring “other kinds of ordained ministry.” To some extent, I see CPM’s that do this. Not all people ordained are ordained with the intention of being head pastors of congregations. Not all of those who remain will be “Associate Pastors” in the conventional sense. Even so, it is clear that this traditional mode of “pastor” is the default position, and perhaps for good reason.

    Although I don’t think I’d argue that other church positions need to be “ordained,” I do think that if the discernment process is what it is intended to be, it shouldn’t just stop with finding the “yes/no” answer to the question “Is this person called to be a (traditionally defined) pastor?” Perhaps it is clear that the person is called to “something else.” Surely there can be some mechanism put into place for the exploration of these “alternative calls” even if the person isn’t to be a “pastor.”

    Of course, I’m also aware that resources are pretty thin right now. CPM members don’t always have time to give proper care to the task of even the “yes/no” question, let alone the expanded role I’m describing here. That should be taken seriously, too.

  9. Carol – I appreciate your honesty! I am in the candidacy process at the moment (we don’t call it under care in the ELCA) and went into it with the idea of joint discernment and looking for ways to remove barriers to make things happen. This has not been the case – thus far. They speak it that way, but then when push comes to shove – the process is the process and it is VERY inflexible.

    Also, as far as the greater church is concerned, I find that lay members have no clue what happens in the process and are often very surprised at the way things really work. They tend to hold many of the misperceptions that I held going into the process.

    In addition, financial support is unrealistic in my opinion – I have found the committee very willing to encourage me to take on debt in amounts that I am not comfortable with. Even going so far as to label my unwillingness to assume the debt as a lack of faith. At the same time, I have also heard the committee members complain about people coming out of seminary with debt loads that preclude certain calls. Well, duh!!

    Anyway thanks for opening the topic to discussion!

  10. Carol – your situation wasn’t very good. It’s a testimony to your perseverance and faith. When my time is up on the current Presbytery Committee, I will likely suggest the Care Committee – for several reasons. One is that I have seen a fairly good process that encouraged, rather than discouraged. Another is that I am in frequent contact with many pastor friends, such that I would include those under care. I also had the example of a home church pastor who called every week for the three years of seminary, to see how I was doing, to be available with a listening ear, to pray, to help gather support, etc.

    In seminary we were advised to “protect your call” – with fairly clear indication that committee meetings were not the place to put out the laundry. I didn’t take it to mean that we had to hide, nor to be suspicious of every question thrown our way. I took it that we were not to be stupid–don’t shoot yourself in the foot. I’m now over 4 years into the first call.

    I was blessed with a care committee which served as my advocate and frequent encourager. I was also blessed with a home church that supported us through the process. I was blessed in that my tuition was fully paid. But, having a family of five go through seminary meant we had living expenses. But God had provided for this in funds originally set aside (with employer matching) for retirement. So, we came out of seminary without debt and were able to take a call to a small, rural church. This has been a real blessing – to serve in a very supportive congregation. I offer this to let folks know that sometimes the process does work in a reasonable and caring manner.

  11. I’d love to hear your opinions of the ord exams! They left a rather unpleasant taste in my mouth — what was your experience?

  12. I have observed my fellow students struggling at seminary with being “under care” in various denominations as they worked toward their MDiv. I did not hear very many positive comments. I did notice that the seminary professors gave students some practical feedback on how to handle their various types of interviews as candidates.

    The Presbyterian ordination exams seemed to be something like the general exams I did for my doctoral degree, that is something to really study and prepare for and then pray you could keep your thoughts together enough to give coherent answers. A big problem with the PC(USA)ordination exams is that it is months until students knew if they have passed and if they haven’t it might be another 6 months until the exam is administered again and meanwhile they have no money to live on, can not interview for a pastor’s job, etc. One fellow student I knew, who struggled to pass the theology exam, was doing an excellent job as the solo student pastor at a small church (his mentor pastor was very ill with cancer). I tutored this fellow student for his theological exams (he knew the content, he just had not answered the questions exactly as asked). By the time I discovered he needed help he was preparing for his third try (which he passed), but this was all so unnecessary. It took me only about 30 minutes of reading his previous failed exam to see what the problem was and then I told him I could help him and I did. I did not know nearly as much theology as he did; I just knew how to answer the question asked by the exam and how to teach him to do this.

    After observing the ordination process for about five years as I studied for a Master of Theological Studies at the local Methodist seminary,I think the PC(USA) needs to gather together people like you Carol and others concerned with seminary education and the future leadership in the church, review the entire ordination process and come up with some suggestions on how to make it better.

    (Note: I am Presbyterian (PC(USA).

  13. Carol

    I am sorry to hear about your difficulty in the inquirer/candidate/call process. I have to admit that I did not have those struggles. My struggles with the process came in the ordination exams. I knew my material, but my test anxiety left me paralyzed and I struggled to answer questions. I did have to retake them because I didn’t answer the questions in the right format. (I needed a Janet who helped me see ~~ you know your stuff just word it properly)

    But I do wonder how presbytery’s can help this process. I sit in the presbytery meetings as we examine candidates for ministry, and think “are they qualified?” I often know very little about them except for their one page statement of faith. So I try and trust the process and hope the committee has done their work. But it seems that committee struggle to do their work when they only talk with people once a year. I think the process needs to be changed, but just am unsure what would work or how to improve it.

  14. Sherri said:

    In addition, financial support is unrealistic in my opinion – I have found the committee very willing to encourage me to take on debt in amounts that I am not comfortable with. Even going so far as to label my unwillingness to assume the debt as a lack of faith. At the same time, I have also heard the committee members complain about people coming out of seminary with debt loads that preclude certain calls. Well, duh!!

    Very true. I don’t think that our churches realize how much debt that many of us have had to acquire to gain our education (undergrad and grad). Especially when they are from another generation, and they think that we are irresponsible and lazy for getting into debt.

    Martha said:

    But it seems that committee struggle to do their work when they only talk with people once a year. I think the process needs to be changed, but just am unsure what would work or how to improve it.

    You’re right. These committees are supposed to assess our aptitude to be good pastors, but they hardly know us. And we hardly know their first names.

    Who can assess our aptitudes? Our Professors would probably be right about a candidate 80% of the time. Our colleagues (other students) would be right 95% of the time. We all knew who the creeps, perverts, liars, and cheaters were, as well as the people who were caring, inspiring, genuine, and loving.

    Peer reviews would be tricky… but I bet they would be a trove of information!

  15. As we seem to be moving into a post-denominational age, I’ve played with the thought that candidates could be ordained by seminaries according to standards developed by each seminary. These standards would be publically available. Seminary A might ordain women, seminary B might not, and seminary C might ordain GLBT folk, etc. Aptitude assessment would be conducted by profs, not tests or committees.

    As per peer reviews, I had (and still have) friends from seminary who I didn’t think were fit for ministry. Thankfully, their sense of call was denied by the process. However, these were/are my friends, and I would have felt very awkward about evaluating their fitness for ministry. I know they are nuts, but even nuts need friends and advocates!

  16. I have been a reader of the PCUSA ordination exams many times, and agree 100% with Janet Bohren. IMO candidates should not be prevented from looking for and accepting pastoral positions ONLY because they have failed one or two of the ord’s. If you fail all four, other things are going on and they should be dealt with. Truthfully, what you can and cannot do whether or not you have “Rev” attached to your name is a small percentage of ministry.

    I do have a 3 page “How to pass the ord’s” document that I have made up for anyone who wants it. Just some hints from being a reader as to what they are looking for. E-mail me if you would like a copy.

  17. I have to say that my committee seems to honestly care about me and the other folks under care in our presbytery. But I have done more work in the discernment process with my classmates than anyone else.

    I’ve wondered about how one is supposed to explore alternate pastoral calls… like, what if one is gifted in administration and would make a great EP? Or if one were energized by the prospect of interim or redevelopment ministry? Or by chaplaincy at a major airport (or some other non-clinical setting)?

  18. Carol — I’m ELCA and I agree with what Sherri is saying. I found a lot of affirmation in the process, actually, but financial support — terrible. I wasn’t homeless, but I probably took on a lot more debt than I ought to have, especially given my desire to work in small churches/inner city/etc., but I know people who had a lot more debt than I did.

    And of course, the “old boys” like to talk about the good old days, when the synodical support was almost 100%, and when pastors got through seminary with no debt. They still paid tuition, but it was very cheap, almost nominal.

    I hear you about not being entirely honest re struggles and discernment.

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