On Ordination

I’m coming up on the 21st anniversary of my ordination as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It was June 11, 1989. There was some fear and sadness mixed with the joy of that day. My son, Andrew, was born ten days before, two months premature, and would be in the hospital nearly two months.

I had graduated from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg a month earlier, and on the first Sunday in June I had been called to be pastor of a two church parish in Juniata County, in the ELCA’s Upper Susquehanna Synod. That’s how things work in the Lutheran system. You must be called by a congregation, and then you are ordained by the synod (either the bishop or his representative). In Lutheran theology, ordination does not give you any special powers, as in Catholic theology, to “confect the sacrament.” It is the church’s act–and God’s–of setting you apart to exercise this ministry for and in behalf of the congregation. It is your authorization–and thus happens at the beginning. It assumes a call to a specific congregation–and thus happens after you’ve received that call.

The service was held at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Abbottstown, Pennsylvania, where I had done my field education. My parents and some of my brothers were present, and an uncle and aunt. My sponsor was Gerhard Krodel, the dean of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, and one of my New Testament professors. The  preacher was Thomas Ridenhour, an Old Testament and homiletics professor. Representing the Synod was Glenn Heasley, whom I was following as pastor of the Thompsontown Lutheran Parish. The pastor of St. John’s, Norbert Mamet, was present, and a close friend from seminary, Len Shatkus (who had been a Catholic priest, a Franciscan of the Third Order Regular).

The liturgy for ordination was in the context of the eucharistic liturgy.  I picked the hymns, and they included “A Mighty Fortress” and “Oh Holy Spirit Enter In” (to the tune of “Wie Schoen Leuchtet”). After the sermon, I was called forward and asked questions about my faithfulness to Scripture and the church’s confession; the congregation was asked, as representatives of the people of God, if they would support and pray for me. Then I knelt while the ordained present laid their hands upon me. A red stole was laid over my shoulders (I was clad in an alb), and then I was raised up, to the acclamation of the congregation. The liturgy continued with the eucharist; Norbert presided and I assisted. Afterwards, my ordination certificate was presented to me. It was signed by my synod bishop, Donald Main, and by the bishop of the ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom, and the secretary of the ELCA, Lowell Almen, showing that this ordination was done in the name of the entire denomination. And yet it wasn’t just an act of the ELCA. I was taught in seminary that this act was bigger than the ELCA–I was to be ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. And that stayed with me when, in years following, the ELCA abandoned it’s Biblical and confessional foundation–I had to be true to my ordination, and not to the whims of political correctness within one liberal Protestant church.

A lot of water flowed under the bridge in those years. I resigned from the Lutheran ministry and entered the Catholic church–it was an affirmation that I must be true to historic Christian teaching, and to the larger Christian tradition in the face of the ELCA’s apostasy. I was in lay ministry for the Catholic church for 14 years, directing religious education programs, serving in campus ministry, and then directing an archdiocesan campus ministry department. My wife remained a Seventh-day Adventist, the church in which I had been raised, and that kept the Catholic church from ordaining me a priest under the “pastoral provision” that allows for married priests. The bishop had me take the seminary classes that would have been necessary for that to happen, but the permission never came from Rome (neither did a denial). Had it come through, I would have had to be ordained again, because though the ELCA recognized Roman ordination, Rome does not recognize Protestant (including Anglican) ordinations. Rome believes that the fullness of holy orders rests with the episcopacy, and only a bishop in apostolic succession can ordain a priest; and such ordination then has an ontological effect, conferring an indelible character, and imbuing one with the power to change bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ, and to act “in persona Christi capitis.” Rome requires something else beyond ordination, though–it requires “faculties,” given by a particular bishop, that allows one to act in accordance with his ordination. To minister elsewhere, the priest needs faculties from the bishop of the diocese to which he goes.

As readers of this blog know, I took a further step in my journey on April 21, 2007. I returned to the Seventh-day Adventist Church in which I was raised. I was immediately called to minister in this denomination; I was called by the Texas Conference to serve as associate pastor of the Houston International church. Call is different in Adventism than in Lutheranism–it comes not from the congregation, but from the Conference (equivalent to the diocese). Pastors are not employees of the congregations they serve, but of the conference that calls and sends them.

In Adventist practice there are different levels of ordination. There is ordination as a deacon (a congregational office), as an elder (also a congregational office), and ordination to the ministry. Ordination as a local elder allows you to preach, preside at communion (when an ordained minister is not available), and, in special circumstances, baptize. Ministerial ordination allows one to baptize, preach, ordain elders and deacons–and do so anywhere in the global church, as well as to be elected to offices such as conference president.

Typically, in Adventism, one is called to ministry after graduation from college. The young minister will serve for a year or two in a church as an intern, holding a “ministerial license” from the Conference; ordination as a local elder gives him (or her) authority to preach and preside at the “ordinances” in that congregation. After this, the minister will go to seminary, then, after seminary, complete the period of internship. There are yearly evaluations during this time. Six or seven years after the initial call, the candidate may be considered for ordination. The candidate must be approved by the Conference and by the next highest level, the Union Conference. (One of the issues being discussed by Adventists today is the question of ordination of women to the ministry. Women can serve as pastors, and can be ordained as local elders, but they are not ordained to the ministry–they are “commissioned”).

Things are a little different for one who was in ministry in another denomination. There’s still a period of internship, and further education (I took a number of courses from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary). But the time frame is shorter. And there is an ordination–not to give new “powers,” not to suggest previous “powers” were invalid or insufficient, but to demonstrate that this person has been called and tested and is now authorized by the church to serve the global church.

Thus it was that this past Sabbath, April 10, I was one of a dozen men ordained by the Texas Conference in San Antonio. The service took place at an area “camp meeting” (though it was a single day event with no tents!). We (and our wives, sitting with us on the platform) were introduced, there was a sermon, we knelt for prayer and laying on of hands, there was a “charge” and a “welcome,” and then a response from one of those ordained. My sponsor was John Macfarlane, my predecessor in my current church, and one who had traveled a similar path, having been a Presbyterian pastor earlier in his life.

A friend who works for a higher level of the denomination told me I should think of this not as a new ordination, but as an affirmation of that ordination I received 21 years ago. That I do–and as an affirmation of God’s leading in the years since–and as a commissioning for a wider ministry in the years to come. And I say, “to God be the glory.”

4 thoughts on “On Ordination

  1. Congratulations, Bill!

    “Rome does not recognize non-Roman ordinations.”

    Rome generally recognizes orders as valid in most of the other ancient, apostolic (non-Roman) churches. I’m not sure what the “Roman vs. non-Roman” distinction means here.

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