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Ross Bartlett: “A Question of Competence”

Having been involved in various discussions, panels and symposia about ministry in the United Church over the years, I have gradually come to realize that what matters to me is the issue of competence.  Most of those in any of the multiple streams of ministry personnel feel quite strongly about the vocational integrity of their choice.  Having heard Designated Lay Ministers argue passionately for their sense of a “lifetime call to full-time lay ministry in various settings” I accept that trying to change that position (even though I cannot completely comprehend it) is probably futile.  I have greater feeling for my diaconal colleagues, most of whom chose a minority path over against the numerically dominant ordained because something in the theology and ethos of the diakonia spoke to their spirits.  It is one of the tragedies of the United Church that we have never truly embraced the many differences of diaconal ministry and the gifts that such folk could bring.  Unfortunately, they have often found themselves in “second” or specialized ministry roles which were the first to be cut when finances were challenged.  Most diaconal ministers are serving in solo ministry roles with training that would far better equip them for other settings.  If there is any fault to be laid in that situation it does not lie at their feet.  So I have concluded that it is very difficult – if not impossible – to overcome the vocational commitments of the different streams.  Thus, having set in motion the forces which bring us to this place, the Church is faced with either terminating one or more streams, or drawing them into a greater degree of coherence.  I doubt we have the stomach for the former!

Equally challenging is the rather ugly covetousness that raises its head when individuals consider the, so-called, advantages of other streams.  For instance, when those in the M.Div. stream  complain that DLMs have avoided the costs of education while earning a salary and accruing pension credits and have essentially the same rights and privileges, while at the same time effectively discounting the worth of their advanced education and training, there really is no response.  An attitude which views education simply as a barrier to be overcome on the way to desired credentialing is probably unswayed by arguments about opportunities for growth and development – personal and spiritual.  On the other hand, the significant costs of education and the high levels of indebtedness of some of our graduates poses a challenge to the entire church if we are to sustain our traditional commitment to “an educated ministry” – and assume that is manifested in higher university study.

What is most important to me is the competence of the person who will be labeled “United Church minister.”  Because that’s what the pastors of the local congregations scattered across the country will be called – in the church community and outside.  Very few will care what their academic or practical credentials are.  From one side the issue is: is this person capable of doing adequately or better those things which are reasonably expected of someone called minister?  From the other side: is this someone in whom the church has reasonable confidence that they can be our face in that setting?  It’s a question of competency – not just in the performance of discrete tasks but in being the “representative person” for a particular denominational tradition.  Ministry personnel are “presbyters,” not only because they represent the congregation in the Presbytery but because they represent the Church to the congregation (and beyond that to the world).  This is by no means a call for a cookie-cutter approach.  There are many different ways of fulfilling those two legitimate expectations.  But they are legitimate and they must be met.

That’s why I welcome the enhanced preparation requirements contained in the One Order of Ministry documents.  It is difficult to imagine any setting in which a genuine call to a particular vocation would conflict with a requirement for greater training or expertise in its expression.  Enhanced training will not overcome the concerns of those who feel they are unfairly penalized for choosing one preparation stream over another.  It will not help people understand vocational choices they do not share.  It will, however, go some distance towards ensuring that those whom the church and the community calls “ministers” will be adequately equipped for their role.  It may enhance the sense of collegiality amongst ministry personnel who have a greater degree of shared preparation.  That’s the church’s responsibility and we should be about it without delay.

Ross Bartlett is in ministry at Knox United Church, Lower Sackville, NS and an adjunct faculty member at Atlantic School of Theology.

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