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Looking anew at baptism, confirmation, ordination

When I went through confirmation class decades ago at First Presbyterian Church in Woodstock, Illinois, no one said to me what Jan Edmiston, co-moderator of the PC(USA), said to a gathering at my church in Kansas City some weeks back: “If you’ve been baptized, you no longer are a lay person.”

I wish someone had said exactly that. It may have given me a better sense as a 13-year-old of what it meant to confirm the baptismal vows taken on my behalf.

Jan’s broad, almost metaphorical language also might have stirred up the discussion then that we need to have about ordination now. If baptized people aren’t lay people, in what way do they differ from people we ordain as deacons, elders and pastors?

More to the point, why does it (almost always) require ordination as a pastor for someone to baptize others or preside at the Lord’s Supper — the two tasks of ministry referred to in the only two ordination vows pastors take but ruling elders and deacons don’t?

I’m not trying to flatten our ideas about leadership so completely that we could trust any 14-year-old confirmand to do what pastors do. There are good reasons to have certain people set aside to study Greek and Hebrew to unpack the Bible in sermons. There are good reasons to have people trained in pastoral care — good reasons, in other words, to have Christian professionals among us.

But as seminaries adjust to new realities, including the growing presence of women and second-career candidates, this 500th year since the start of the Protestant Reformation seems like a good time to gather our best minds and decide whether ordination as we’ve long understood it still meets our needs.

One reason is to make baptism and confirmation more meaningful. Baptism and the later confirmation of that baptism mean people are entering what the Second Helvetic Confession calls “the priesthood of all believers.” The priesthood, that statement of faith asserts, “is common to all Christians.”

Another reason to talk about this is to avoid clericalism, the danger of giving so much power and authority to our pastors that they begin to imagine themselves as the source of all wisdom. That happens sometimes, you know. And it’s not pretty.

Our Book of Order (G. 2.0504) describes the essential tasks of pastors this way: “They are responsible for studying, teaching, and preaching the Word, for celebrating Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and for praying with and for the congregation.”

As a ruling elder I have done all those things except for celebrating the two sacraments. And I see no valid reason why deacons, elders or even unordained members of congregations couldn’t do all of those things if they had proper instruction and some kind of oversight to make sure we don’t abandon our essential tenets and practices (both of which also should be up for periodic review).

In many ways, the most effective ministry grows from needs congregation members see and respond to. It’s almost impossible, in fact, for pastors to meet the pastoral care needs of members on their own. It’s one reason we have deacons. It’s why we encourage people to take someone a meal or pray with a family in crisis without feeling obligated to check with the church office first for permission.

As Jan says, if you’re baptized, that’s your job because you’re a minister. And if each member of each congregation is a minister, what should the role of ordination be today?

My hope is that as Frank Yamada takes on the role of executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, he’ll be open to drawing the whole church into a discussion of the future of ordination. In fact, as a baptized non-lay person, I formally request it.

Bill TammeusBILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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