On October 1 2003, I wrote a letter to the Candidates Committee of the church I serve as a Director of Christian Education, and of which I am a member, inviting them to join me in a journey. It contained an application for enrollment as an inquirer in the preparation for ministry process in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the usual transcripts, one from an undergraduate school in Nova Scotia, Canada, and one from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, now Union-PSCE. I had served in educational ministry for twenty-three years, nineteen of them as a Certified Christian Educator, and it was time.
It wasn’t time to stop doing what I was doing, or to change my focus from educational ministry to another kind of ministry, or to be more than I am, or to be someone I’m not, or to “sell out” as someone suggested I was doing. It was time for me to again affirm that the call to educational ministry in the church is a call from God, a call accompanied by spiritual gifts, a call to ministry “understood not in terms of power but of service, after the manner of the servant ministry of Jesus Christ” (G-14.0103). It was time to invite my church, my presbytery and my denomination to explore the question of what to do with a Certified Christian Educator with a master’s degree from an accredited theological institution who sought to be considered for ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.
It was time to move in a direction envisioned by a Task Force of the PC(USA) charged in the fall of 2000 with the responsibility to “recommend standards for ordination to Minister of Word and Sacrament with specialization in educational ministry to be included in The Book of Order.” The task force did its work and presented its overtures to the 2002 General Assembly, where they passed overwhelmingly in a floor vote. The key overture related to ordination of Certified Christian Educators (CCEs) established a process whereby individual presbyteries could work with individual CCEs who became inquirers, and who had the equivalent of a minimum of five years full-time experience in educational ministry. The presbytery, in conversation with the CCE, could waive educational requirements and/or exam requirements, upon determining what preparation, competence, and experience the CCE brought into the process. The recommendation would become an “extraordinary circumstances” clause in The Book of Order and require that 3/4 of the presbytery approve an individualized plan for the educator. Presbyteries, many of which had no Certified Christian Educators in their midst and no one to interpret either their preparation or their ministry, defeated this key recommendation. A common reason given in opposition to creating such an opportunity was that The Book of Order already had an “extraordinary circumstances” clause, and that an additional one specifically intended for CCEs was not needed. It was time.
It was time to hear that rationale as an invitation to CCEs. It was time to invite a presbytery (in my case a presbytery that had passed this recommendation by a 2/3 majority and shown its willingness to take on such a process) to take an individual educator by the hand, and walk the journey of exploration and comparison. What do you, a CCE with an MA in CE degree, bring to this process? What does The Book of Order require for ordination? Where do these two converge? What process will we use to determine the steps to be taken toward ordination?
I discovered many others who also thought it was time! My church’s Candidates Committee said welcome to the journey; here’s a liaison to walk and discern with you. My session said: We get this. This makes sense. We’re behind you. We’re not sure what this will mean for us down the road, but we are willing to take this a step at a time and support you in the inquiry process.
The Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM) of the Presbytery of New Brunswick welcomed the conversation, and me, with open arms. Neither of us knew what the journey would look like, but we were definitely ready and willing to affirm an openness on their part to attempt to create a process, and an openness on my part to explore the fullness of this call and what it could mean. And we both agreed on what we needed to do together – create a process
1) comparing what I brought to the process with what is required for ordination;
2) identifying what preparation might be missing;
3) determining from what is missing what is still necessary.
We all assumed it would require use of the “extraordinary circumstances” clause (G-14.0313). The committee appointed two liaisons to work with me, and officially accepted me as an inquirer under care of the Presbytery of New Brunswick in February 2004. The two-year time clock began and we were off.
Only Presbyterians can imagine those meetings over lunch, over coffee, over The Book of Order, over transcripts, over questions and descriptions of experience, over details and clauses and phrases and interpretations. During the first year the committee and I agreed on a number of actions to be taken and equivalences to be granted:
1. I took the required career counseling. I had all the paperwork from PSCE but it was twenty-seven years old.
2. CPM agreed my MA degree from PSCE satisfied The Book of Order requirement, “presentation of a transcript from a theological institution accredited by the Association of Theological Schools acceptable to the presbytery”(G-14.0310 b.(3)).
3. I enrolled in Greek, and then a class on exegesis of the New Testament using Greek texts. (I expected one language would be required so why waste time!)
4. The committee affirmed that courses on my transcript (supplemented by teaching experience) met the requirements for “presenting evidence of competence in the fields of theology, Bible, polity, and worship and Sacraments. There happened to be a one-credit-hour course on sacraments, weddings, and funerals available to me at Princeton Theological Seminary that seemed a perfect addition to my education – not specifically required of any students but a great match for my need.
5. Equivalence was granted for field education for a combination of previous field education and experience.
6. I submitted a letter requesting exemption from Clinical Pastoral Education, required by the Committee on Preparation for Ministry of this presbytery, which was granted on the basis of equivalent experience.
After the required annual consultation with the CPM in November of 2004, and a meeting with my session to be approved for candidacy, I took the English Bible Content exam in February of 2005. Educators will appreciate my circumstances. Since the English Bible Content exam is only offered once a year, and early in February, I had to arrange for a private proctor to administer the exam on Friday of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators annual conference in Vancouver, Canada, and reschedule a workshop I was supposed to teach in order to take it at the exact time required. Donna Cook, educator certification process staff from Louisville, was my gracious host! At the end of February, I took the Open Book Bible Exegesis exam, even though I was only halfway though my exegesis class. But I had taken English Bible exegesis classes, and been doing exegesis for a lot of years! Although scheduled to appear before the presbytery that same month as well, a year from entering the inquiry process, the presbytery examined and accepted me as a candidate in May – I wonder, can both overloaded dockets and snow storms be called “acts of God”?
Since I had no additional classes to take in preparation for the other three ordination exams, I took Theological Competence, Worship and Sacraments, and Church Polity in August. It was the first year they were offered at that time instead of in late-September. What an incredible gift to an educator to walk into the new program year with the exams behind me instead of on top of the myriad of start-up activities we plan and execute!
The only major question left to be addressed was whether or not the CPM would require or exempt Hebrew. I made such a request in writing, and after extensive debate my request was denied. CPM did, however, exempt me from taking a class on exegesis of the Old Testament using Hebrew texts, on the condition that I submit an original exegesis of an Old Testament text to a member of the committee for review. I was not party to the conversation, but I expect the fact that I have easy access to two seminaries, one of which offers a one-evening-per-week, one-semester language course, made it difficult to vote for an exemption when there is a long history of Presbyterians requiring both languages.
It was at this juncture that a major turn in the process occurred. Apparently the committee discussed whether or not it was necessary to invoke the extraordinary circumstances clause for my situation. They informed me that over the course of the process I had demonstrated “equivalence,” and indeed, satisfied all the requirements for ordination put forth in The Book of Order. Use of the extraordinary circumstances clause would not be necessary.
On Monday evening, March 6 2006, I participated in my final assessment process, appearing before the CPM. After preaching a sermon and being examined on it and on my exegesis of Deuteronomy 5:1-21, I was certified “…ready for examination for ordination, pending a call,” a recommendation with which the Presbytery of New Brunswick concurred on March 14, 2006. It had been two years and one month since I was taken under care as an inquirer. It was the right time.
At the beginning of the journey, the CPM and I set out to create a process that would honor the polity of the PC(USA), follow the path to ordination with integrity, and take into consideration the unique preparation and experience of a Certified Christian Educator with a degree from an accredited theological school. We not only knew, but intended, that the individual decisions made along the way would apply to one individual. But we also intended to be able to document a process any such educator who was called to seek ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament might follow.
The CPM’s work is now complete, but I am at an end and a beginning. The 2002 overtures from the original task force on ordination of educators included one for my situation. It addressed the possibility that a Certified Christian Educator, the church session by which he/she was employed, and the congregation he/she served, might all want to continue to do ministry together, and to call that educator to be an associate pastor in that congregation, with primary responsibility for educational ministry. That overture was defeated with the others and no such process exists, short of the creation of a new associate pastor position, the formation of a pastor nominating committee, the process of a fully open search, the application of the educator (allowed because an educator is not ordained), and his/her selection by the committee.
Hmm – what is it time for now?
JOYCE MACKICHAN WALKER has been the director of Christian Education at Nassau Church in Princeton, N. j., for seventeen years. She awaits the proposals of the Committee on Ministry of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, the Personnel Committee, Session, and congregation of Nassau Church.