I have been spending the last little while reading and thinking about missional and other forms of Christian community and trying to discern whether it is time to be part of forming a new one. I am enormously grateful to Prof Elaine Heath, Dean of Duke Divinity School for her thinking and activism in this field and have been inspired by her two books, Longing for Spring and Missional.Monastic.Mainline.
The idea of being part of a Community is not new to me - I have been a member of the Corrymeela Community for the last five years and have beneifitted hugely from the community life of the Dominicans. But recently I have felt a calling to explore how ministry in the Methodist Church might be better supported, resourced and encouraged. I am deeply troubled by the conversations I am having with younger clergy who seem deeply disillusioned already by their experience of a Church that seems incapable of change. I am also, frankly, angry that, despite lots of rhetoric about lay ministry in the last 25 years and more, so little is available to support and equip lay people engaged in various roles inside and beyond the gathered congregation.
I am also increasingly haunted by Wesley's dictum: 'The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.' Having spent nearly twenty years in presbyteral ministry in various sectors and in other Connexions as well as Great Britain, I know that the idea of real team ministry is, at best, an aspiration in many Circuits for presbyters, let alone deacons and those engaged in lay ministry.
The Methodist Conference was supposed to be considering a report this summer on the Diaconate as a Religious Order, but this has now been delayed. It would have provided a good opportunity to discuss the nature of Christian communities and Orders and work that is emerging in other Connexions. In particular, it would have allowed us to think about how being part of an Order or Community strengthens team ministry and supports individuals in their place of service.
There are big questions in my mind about whether people of different Orders of Ministry should be part of the same Religious Community. That has not been the practice in the Methodist Diaconal Order, though it is a mainstay of most Catholic Religious who maintain two or three orders. I think it is essential to create an Order of Lay Ministry within Methodism to offer support, recognition and training for an increasing group of lay missioners, evangelists, administrators, youth workers and pastors, as well as local preachers and class leaders. Instead of adopting the rather cold secular language of 'employee', Methodism needs to find new ways of re-affirming the centrality of lay ministry in the life and mission of the Church and make sure that those engaged in ministry receive the spiritual support they need to carry out their work.
More controversially perhaps, I also think the option of a Community/Order for Presbyters should be available. I see the charism or purpose of such a community being encouragement, accountability and discernment for those who wish that extra dimension to their ministry. I suppose, in some ways, this should be provided by ordained staff meetings or the presbyteral session of the District Synod, but this has always been a bit patchy in my experience. So why not become intentional and create a space where this is guaranteed?
The United Methodist Church articulates this desire in its work around the Order of Elder. The Book of Discipline affirms that elders (presbyters) in each annual conference are members of a religious order and should gather for support and encouragement. The purpose of such gatherings is laid out thus:
Content of the Covenant
The following are the functions of a United Methodist clergy order. An order covenant should address practices to achieve these:
Gather regularly for continuing spiritual formation (Bible study, issues facing church and society, theological exploration of vocational identity, and leadership).
Assist in plans for individual study and retreats.
Develop a bond of unity and common commitment to UMC mission and ministry.
Nurture mutually supportive and trusting relationships among order members.
Hold order members accountable to the above purposes.
Format of the Covenant
Each order may develop into covenantal form the practices and promises that seem most critical in their context. Given the above-stated purposes of an order, covenants may include the components listed here.
I write this to test the waters. For those who read it, would an Order or Orders as outlined above, be something you would like to be part of shaping? If so, please either leave me feedback on this website, or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.