How Church Chooses Clergy -- and Evaluates Their Fitness for Ministry -- Surfaces as Major Issue

Episcopal News Service. July 25, 1991 [91159]

Steve Weston

A report by the Church Deployment Board lays down the clearest challenge yet to how the the church chooses its clergy and determines their fitness for ministry.

The subject of clergy deployment is an issue which has far-reaching implications for every parish and diocese in the church. But it was not the only clergy-related issue considered by the bishops and deputies during the 70th General Convention meeting in Phoenix July 10-20. Also approved were resolutions dealing with the role of deacons, access to ordination for all members, direct access to ordination, and clergy ethical behavior.

Call for new profile system

Largely overshadowed by the debates on sexuality, the deployment board's critical review of the clergy deployment system involved bishops, clergy, lay professionals, parish search committees, and ethnic minorities in 13 dioceses. Conclusions from 1,370 participants produced a series of recommendations that could radically alter the way the church deploys its professional ministers.

The report calls for the 3oard for Church Deployment to revise the clergy personal profile developed by the Church Deployment Office, a tool used in the search for new priests, declaring it "too complicated and too subjective" and a failure at presenting an accurate reflection of clergy leadership abilities and spirituality.

While 90 percent of the 15,000 clergy in the Episcopal Church are registered with the deployment office, only half keep their placement information current. The report urges bishops to insist their clergy maintain their profile information. The profiles are usually the chief tool of parish search committees in their task of finding a new rector.

Training for search committees and accountability for diocesan deployment officers factored into the report's conclusions. Search processes take too long to find new rectors for parishes, the report says, and a time frame of nine months or less should be considered adequate for the search process. "It is not healthy for any organization to be without consistent, permanent leadership for an extended period of time," according to the report. Search committees often feel hampered because of "poor or nonexistent training," the report says.

Deployment officers and consultants also are held up for scrutiny. The report asks the Deployment Board to begin a standardized program of study for deployment officers encompassing ethical standards, decision-making, study of addictive behaviors, and legal aspects of personnel administration.

Clergy and laity interviewed for the report expressed concern over misuse of sensitive information available to deployment officers. In turn, the officers themselves said there is "no clear, consistent, universal set of ethical standards by which they can monitor their work." The report urges the framing of a universal code of ethical conduct by the Deployment Board with confidentiality as its centerpiece.

Bishops defeat equal access canon

An attempt to guarantee an open access to the ordination process faltered when deputies and bishops tethered it to the issue of the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.

While bishops and deputies eventually reached a compromise on the main sexuality resolution -- affirming traditional marriage as the teaching of the church, admitting there is "discontinuity" between teaching and practice, and confessing an inability to reach a firm decision now -- access of homosexuals to the ordination process haunted the debates.

Bishops discharged a resolution (C-032) as part of the compromise, but the deputies resurrected and approved the measure, which would have guaranteed that "all members shall have equal access to the selection process for ordination in this church," without naming specific conditions, such as sexual preference, age, or disability.

Bishop Alex Dickson, Jr., of West Tennessee warned it could be used by some bishops as an excuse for going ahead with ordaining gays and lesbians. "I have every reason to believe that members of this house will interpret this canon in such a way as to justify the decision they have already made to ordain sexually active homosexual persons," Dickson concluded.

Bishop Thomas Ray of Northern Michigan argued that the equal-access measure addresses more than opening the ordination process to gays and lesbians. "I've discussed this with people who say this issue is much broader than that," Ray said. "It involves those who are discriminated against because of age, because of physical disabilities, and because of our myopia around the issue of sexuality."

A separate resolution adopted by both houses amends Canon 1.17.5 that currently declares that no one is to be denied "rights or status in this church because of race, color, or ethnic origin." Using a much broader brush, the resolution eliminates reference to race or ethnicity reversing the thrust from a negative list to a positive statement, saying, "All members shall have equal access to the life, worship, and governance" of the church.

Broader look at ministry

Who are the ministers to the church? What is their ministry?

These questions from the Book of Common Prayer catechism underscored a lengthy debate in the House of Bishops over the authority of the diaconate. The issue at hand was a recommendation from the bishops' Committee on Ministry to change the canon describing the duties of deacons.

Introduced by Bishop Frank Allan of Atlanta, the measure proposed loosening strictures that bar deacons from serving in chaplaincy ministries. While retaining the prohibition against perpetual deacons having charge of congregations or becoming chaplains in the Armed Forces, the bishops called for deacons to be able to serve as chaplains in Veterans Administration hospitals, prisons, and similar institutions.

Argument centered around the nature of servanthood, as the diaconate is often characterized, and whether that understanding precludes deacons from being pastors. Suffragan Bishop for the Armed Forces Charles Keyser said deacons are well suited to serve in vicarships, and logic dictates that the church enable them to do so. The problem is that the church is dealing "with the old hierarchy which doesn't fit anymore," said Keyser. "I would really urge we find some wording that does not strip deacons from being in charge."

It is important to ensure the diaconate gets full recognition as a separate order, said retired Bishop William Cox of Oklahoma, but care must be taken not to consider priests and deacons interchangeable. "We have had a hard battle trying to restore what we believe is a legitimate order in the church," he said. "It has its own legitimacy. But it is an order of servanthood, of people who are to be icons of Christ, and I hope that we will not authorize the use of perpetual deacons as substitutes for priests."

Convention approves study of 'direct ordinations'

If it was good enough for St. Ambrose, St. Leo, and Gregory the Great, it ought to be good enough for the Episcopal Church. So goes the argument in favor of a study of direct ordination (C-026s), approved by this convention.

Under current circumstances, a candidate for ordination proceeds first to the order of deacons, then to the order of presbyters or priests, and then -- if so elected -- to the order of bishops.

It hasn't always been that way. Historically, the order of deacons has always been considered a "servanthood" order, the presbyteral or priesthood order a "sacramental" order, and the episcopal or order of bishops an "apostolic" order. But there are several historic instances of bishops ordained directly to that office without proceeding through the others, among them St. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397 A.D.), St. Leo the Great (d. 461 A.D.) and St. Gregory the Great (d. 604 A.D.). The so-called "transitional diaconate" through which candidates for the priesthood pass is sometimes criticized as "muddying the waters" with regard to the true function of deacons.

Others say it is necessary for priests to receive the "grace" of the servanthood bestowed with the diaconate on their way to higher orders.

The legislation approved by convention requests that the Council for the Development of Ministry and the Standing Liturgical Commission study and report to the next General Convention on ways to ordain candidates to the specific holy order to which they have been called.

Other actions approved by convention related to clergy issues include the following resolutions, which now become church policy:

  • Arrange transfer of assets for pensions of Anglican Communion clergy who have emigrated to the United States (C-034s).
  • Ask for early intervention for reconciling disagreements affecting the pastoral relationship (D193).
  • Authorize the General Board of Examining Chaplains to charge a fee for the General Ordination Examinations not more than $300 per candidate. According to the resolution, the fee can be waived for qualified candidates who are unable to pay it (A-079).
  • Commend the work of the Cornerstone Project on clergy deployment and wholeness (B-035).
  • Consent to the election of a bishop coadjutor for the Diocese of Dallas (B-055).
  • Consent to the election for a suffragan bishop for the Diocese of South Dakota (B-018).
  • Consent to the election of a bishop coadjutor in the Diocese of Easton (B-016).
  • Direct the Board of Theological Education to develop alternative programs and locations for ordained and lay theological education sensitive to cultural diversity (A-225a)
  • Direct the Council for the Development of Ministry to "facilitate the development of educational materials and training programs... to help eliminate discrimination in deployment throughout the church against clergywomen, clergy of color, ethnic clergy, and clergy with disabilities" (A-090s).
  • Direct Board for Theological Education to establish new means for the education of persons recruited for the specialized area of new congregational development (A-064a).
  • Encourage the settlement of disputes within the church by peaceful dispute resolution processes (C-033a).
  • Request review of guidelines for accepting congregations into the Episcopal Church, so that the pastor of such a congregation may be ordained priest at the same time the congregation is accepted (A-075).
  • Request the Council for Development of Ministry to continue review of Title III canons (A-134).
  • Continue and continue funding the Council for the Development of Ministry (A-138).
  • Restructure the membership of the Board for Church Deployment (A-037).
  • Support new administrative structure for coordinating church deployment (A-036s).
  • Prepare a paper on the matter of direct ordination and consider canonical changes necessary (C026s).