“Here, There Be Dragons” for Young Clergy

How to talk about justice while in the ordination process

On old-timey maps (the ones where the world was flat and you would fall off the edges), they would write hic sunt dracones in the unknown regions, literally “here be dragons.” This term denote dangerous or unexplored territories…places where the wise need not dwell. Places where you should avoid if you don’t want to get hurt.

This phrase came to mind last night when a new twitter friend had the following update on her page:

Talked at lunch with seminary peeps about how we R called 2 speak against injustice but were afraid 2 due 2 hurting our ordination process.

For adventurers, they were called to venture out and either avoided the pitfalls or engaged them head-on, well equipped for the perils or dragons ahead. For young clergy, they are following their calling as well…but the sentiment is that they are still being watched over, evaluated, and potentially tossed for following their passions and convictions. “Here, there be dragons” indicate areas of our pastoral maps where we know we will get into trouble if we engage controversial topics and the temptation to simply avoid them seems insurmountable but simultaneously unfaithful to our calling.

I am young clergy: 31 years old and fully ordained in the United Methodist Church. I don’t have any words of significant wisdom for my fellow young clergy who are only a few years in age (but years of significant steps) behind me. But here’s a few suggestions that might better equip young clergy for when they decide to engage the dragons, using examples from my own life.

Two disclaimers. One, these aren’t prescriptive but subjective comments that may or may not be relevant to your context. Two, while I’ve been accused of being unfairly critical of the BOM process, I’m not writing this to dissuade candidates from ministry but to equip candidates out of my own mixed experience. Okay? Okay.

  1. Use the language of your community.
    • In our study on Everyday Justice, I noticed much of it including recommendations to advocate for stronger government involvement. I knew this would not fly with my congregation, so I used the language of freedom. We want to be free to make our own choices, but we should want that for others too. For coffee growers who are paid low amounts for their beans, we want their children to have the freedom and opportunity to move beyond the plantations. For cocoa beans picked by slaves, we want their freedom. For coastal communities impacted by ocean litter and pollution, we realize our freedom is infringing on others’ dignity. By framing justice issues in values that are relevant to your community, they hopefully will be better received.
  2. Establish trust both with your community and with your Board of Ordained Ministry (BOM).
    • In my community, I worked closely with the local school for 16 months before I engaged them about incidents of bullying in the schools. By getting to know the community and not wearing an agenda on my sleeve, I established trust and firmed up a relationship before I engaged the shortcomings in the community. Then when I did, my information was both received well, and the schools were able to show to me the areas where they were making progress. It was illuminating on both sides of the table…illumination that might not have come if I hadn’t done the work of building the relationship beforehand.
    • Similarly, establish trust with the BOM.  They are looking to gauge your spiritual journey and your fruits as a leader…and believe it or not, they’ve also had to balance spiritual leadership with righting injustice before! I talked about using children as servers in the communion service (the church had outlawed it in the past) and was called out on it by board members who were concerned that children can’t understand what they are doing. I didn’t even have to answer: another board member spoke up and said that I clearly have a high regard for children’s participation because I had talked about it before. By being consistent and establishing values early on with your Board, they can help you out even against themselves. [note: this is hard to do when your evaluators change via quadrennium shifts or internal reorganizations]
  3. Fuse the justice issue with pastoral concerns for your community.
    • My first parish was shared with a Brazilian congregation. There was a big raid on undocumented workers at an area factory that ended up with parents being wisked off to detention and leaving children to have to stay with relatives, friends, strangers. None of our partner congregants were involved, but I used that incident with our congregation. “How would you feel if Petrus was left without parents. Or Angelina? The kids didn’t do anything wrong!” Talking about immigration issues and nuances was more effective when the congregants knew people who could be impacted.
  4. Be wise on how to engage justice issues.
    • If you know your BOM has struck down candidates who have advocated for immigrants, LGBT, or, in the worst cases, fair trade coffee…then be wise about how you engage. John Meunier clued me in to a entry from John Wesley’s journal:

      My favorite story about John Wesley is one he tells somewhere in his journal. He is getting ready to do some field preaching. He looks down at the ground and sees a lot of fair sized rocks and dirt clods spread about. These are ready ammunition for his heathen foes and the mobs stirred up by his critics in the church. So, he moves to another field where the rocks are not quite so big.

      Hilarious. But wise. I have seen progressive clergy that irritate their congregation just because…without thinking through it, like an adolescent disagreeing just to be disagreeable. They walked into a field with ready-made consequences. Don’t do that, but that doesn’t mean you do not engage. It means you engage on a different field. For example, if you want to offer an after-school tutoring program and the parlor with the fancy furniture is the best place for it, you could hit this head-on and ruffle feathers and make people feel bad for their felt values of cleanliness and respecting property…or let it go. Meet in another room, removing the concerns for the furniture. After it has been established and people have found inspiration, then you will have your advocates to move it to the parlor. Removing obstacles to ministry and mission needs is part of your role as pastor, and picking a field with less rocks may be the wiser path that still leads to a justice effort.

  5. Ground your BOM paperwork in John Wesley and Doctrinal statements.
    • The UMC has a myriad of doctrinal statements and resolutions relating to the social issues. When I talked about justice issues in my paperwork, I had the least contention when I tied them back to Wesley. Wesley advocated for prison reform. Wesley visited a man accused of sodomy in prison. The Book of Resolutions has statements on abortion, immigration, collective bargaining, and LGBT concerns. By tying your perspective with reasoned reflection on the UMC’s often-very-nuanced positions, you cease being a “lone voice crying out in the wilderness.” Even if the BOM or your mentors say “that position may be where the UMC is but it’s not where your local church is” then saying “and as a connectional minister, that’s my role is to bring the local church closer to the global church” shows your understanding of your role in a congregation in a faithful way.
    • One note: if your advocacy doesn’t find any substance in the very wide areas of the Book of Resolutions and Discipline….well, you might want to rethink it!
  6. Gather a community to reflect on how it is going.
    • It can feel lonely in ministry, even more so when you are wading into controversial topics. It can feel like it is you against your congregation, your community, the entire world. So rely on community for endurance.
    • Talk to your friends. Keep up on facebook to vent or share ideas. Search on twitter for people who are enduring similar struggles. If you are in seminary, you are guaranteed to find a higher number of justice-oriented people there. 
    • Talk to your mentors (the ones not required to report on your progress) and get wisdom from seasoned clergy, even if it doesn’t seem related. I have gotten so much from an elder minister who did civil rights marches in the 60′s and had super-relevant thoughts about such efforts today on completely different topics. Wow. Inspirational.
    • Most importantly, Talk to God. Pray about it, keep a journal about it, reflect on scripture about it, and simple spiritual renewal will sustain you through the difficult times.
    • Christianity is lived out in community, and Christian convictions require community to be sustained and inflamed. You’ll make it. It gets better.

Remember that “here, there be dragons.” You must be equipped and prayerful in how you advocate for justice issues. Wading into controversial topics as a young clergyperson can have devastating results, as Chad Holtz will tell you. And even if you are wiser than I, the power is not on your side when it comes to your ordination process. However, being clear about your calling, connecting it with your congregation, and informing it with UMC doctrine and tradition will be appreciated by the faithful people who evaluate your process. And in the sad cases when there is unreasonable animosity or prejudice or hypocrisy on the other side of the table, they will have to stick their own necks out and risk being called on it. And that may lead to change in the BOM itself. Rock on.

Thoughts from candidates or clergy in the process, or clergy already through the process who have more life experience and can offer thoughts?

Discuss.

(Image credit: Allan Näslund “Here Be Dragons” 2010)

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Comments

  1. says

    We are 3 young, recently ordained clergy like yourself. 2 Presbyterians and a Disciple. Each of us in our own ways had struggles with the ordination processes of our respective denominations. Your advice here is excellent. The one thing we might add is to give permission to make mistakes and not always say or do the right thing. We talk about very similar topics here. You might especially watch Aric Clark’s video in which he talks about his ordination experience in relation to speaking out on justice issues.

  2. says

    This is a great post. I think it emphasizes the fact that you don’t have to give up your convictions to go through the process. The idea of using the language of your community is, I think, the most beneficial of the whole thing.

    I have actually had a VERY positive experience in the process. I have been supported at every turn, encouraged and helped by both my DCOM and BOM in positive, uplifting, and constructive ways. I have never felt a fear toward them as many of my colleagues have.

    I will be going for my final ordination interviews in two weeks, and I am actually looking forward to it. Instead of a business-like interview style, our BOM actually hosts a retreat with us candidates. We eat together, we worship together, and we also have “interview” conversations. They get to know us as individuals rather than just as paperwork. I know that my paperwork and my interviews are not the only impressions these folks are going to get of me. We will also break bread together a number of times throughout the experience.

    The greatest advice I can give is that NO ONE is going to be looking after the procedural stuff for you. I didn’t actually receive my provisional minister’s handbook last fall, so I was waiting for it to begin my final steps toward ordination. Fortunately, I took the initiative to contact my registrar when I thought it was getting just a little too late, and I snuck in right under the deadline. I am actually serving outside of my conference (and I went to college and seminary outside of the conference, so I have not lived in the conference since I began the process), so it takes even more effort to be sure everything is done on time and in the correct hands.

    So, keep the faith, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t have to be a painful process, although many have made it so. There are still loving, caring, ministers out there on BOMs who understand this experience as part of the journey and aren’t just out to “get you.”

    • says

      Oddly enough, I also had a cross-conference appointment and first 3 years of my provisional membership were cross-conference. I’m back now but I’m more aware and appreciative of our connectional church that allowed me to do that.

  3. Steve says

    As a BOM member in his early 40′s I can tell you that #5 is critical. If you can speak from Wesley it will carry you far. Even in the places where you disagree with Wesley, at least be able to articulate what he said and then explain why you think differently. Just as you suggest using the language of your community when talking about justice issues, I would say to be sure to use the vocabulary of our Wesleyan tradition when explaining your views or defending your practices.

    • Carolyn says

      I agree that grounding oneself in Wesleyan theological and historical heritage is the way to go. Personally, I found that did not work as well as I had hoped when a DCOM member did not like the point I made in my paper. Even though I quoted Randy Maddox’s “Responsible Grace,” one of the most-used resources for ordination papers, the DCOM member tried to explain it away and tried to say that Maddox’s scholarship was poor. It was instructive to see how personal opinions can trump scholarship in committee discussion.

  4. says

    Great work Jeremy! Much wisdom here. #1 is especially pertinent since the vast majority of us “fresh faced idealists” out of seminary serve rural congregations that take a lot of pride in their home fried values. There is a way to translate, but it takes patience, willingness, and creativity. My dad always says, “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

  5. says

    Great post, Jeremy. Excellent advice, so far as I can judge it.

    An old bit of wisdom (is there young wisdom?) says to start where they are. Reading the congregation – and the BOM I’d venture – is the first step. Learn and listen as you lead.

    This should be handed out as part of the ordination paperwork.

  6. says

    I agree with John: wonderful post. I would add a third bullet point to item #2, which folds into item #3: be thorough in your pastoral care. When people (parishioners and adjudicators) know that you care, it builds trust for other areas of ministry. When you dive off into unfamiliar, even scary, political areas, people will wonder what you really care about. Being trustworthy pastorally can put that fear to rest. You may even win a few unexpected allies in your justice work.

  7. says

    Jeremy,

    I’m also 31 and on the BOM in my conference. I have to say that both from the (relatively-fresh) experience of having gone through the ordination process and now sitting on the other side of the table, this is sage advice. Thanks for sharing. There are many ways in which the BOM is limited in its knowledge of the people who come before us: depending on how it works from conference to conference, the interviewers might not have read your paperwork, even. So establishing relationships as well as grounding possibly controversial positions well theologically is exceedingly important.

    We’ve talked a lot in the past few months in my conference’s BOM about what kind of clergy we’re going to need for the future of the church. One of the things I’m convinced we need less of are pastors who have right theology or justice-knowledge or even practice…but cannot lead communities of faith. It’s messy, difficult, and yes rocks (both real & metaphorical) will get thrown at you.
    Do you have patience?
    Are you compassionate?
    Can you teach not once, but over and over again?
    How well do you navigate turbulance?
    Can you respectfully disagree?
    What has failure taught you?
    These, it seems to me, are questions we ought to be asking and looking for evidence of…and yet we aren’t.

    Thanks for a timely & thought-provoking post!

    • says

      “Right” theology, no. “Good” theology, yes. Is your/my theology generative, generous, authentic, grounded in the quadrilateral process and well communicated.

      My advice to those “going through” is to invest at least as much time and energy on good quesitons as good answers.

  8. says

    Spot on. Every single point.

    I’ll add one more piece to your work on “justice,” perhaps connecting the dots a bit more. Justice and Wesley DO go together, but not as common parlance tends to connect them. Justice for Wesley was precisely about speaking up for other people– not groups, not abstractions– other people in one’s own social networks, and helping those people find their own voice in the process. Justice for him and for the early Methodists– who ended up founding the labor unions, leading the charge to end slavery across the British empire, created the first social welfare structures in the Industrial Revolution, created educational opportunities for all, helped end the debtors prison system, and started many hospitals and health clinics– was concretely about “watching over one another in love.” If I love those who are sick, I have to make sure they have some folks who help them get well. If I love those who are working, I need to make sure they have a voice in labor conditions that may be harming them. If I love my neighbor who is a slave, I want to see him freed from that situation, and I’ll talk to others in my social networks (and in Methodism the social networks ran from the highest to the lowest!) to help that happen. And not just I will– we Methodists will– because that what it means for US to watch over one another in love.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  9. Carolyn says

    Thank you for a wonderful post, Jeremy. Fortunately, all this advice was passed on to me through relationships at seminary and field education, so I did not make some of these potential mistakes.

    Even so, I want to point out that engagement in controversial issues is not always under control. I was outed as an Ally to my DCOM outside of my interviews (against the rules). I did not sit in front of the committee and start rambling about gay rights. Instead, I was confronted with the issue. I handled myself the best I could in that situation, and though it impacted my ordination process negatively, I am proud of my poise and courage.

    So my advice to those in the process would be: prepare for the worst. If someone on your committee brings up this kind of topic and indicates displeasure in your justice advocacy, you need to be ready with a response that is both truthful and political. Rehearse ahead of time. My response included:
    1. Admission that I am an open and affirming Christian
    2. Loyalty to the Discipline and commitment to upholding it as is
    3. My pledge not to force the issue on churches to which I might be appointed

    It also helped me to point out that the BOD is not univocal on this issue, and to cite the parts that I strongly support and value.

    • says

      Carolyn, Great thoughts, I went through the process with basically the same 3 response set. But the best advice I had was to prepare for the best-knowing that God would be fully present no matter what.

  10. says

    This post is totally going in my bookmarks for when I decide to take the leap from licensed local pastor to ordained clergyperson — if that day is in my future. I particularly resonated with you point about tying things to Wesley or our United Methodist tradition (be it Social Principles or otherwise). I think this is a great post for anyone who is doing ministry that might not always be appreciated by those “higher-ups” we may have to come before one day – whether it is speaking out against injustice, doing crazy and out of the box ministry, or anything in-between.

  11. says

    I would agree that knowing your BOM is important…For example, in my conference, it’s much more social justice oriented than some other conferences that I have friends in process…My mentor told me that if I don’t have solid examples of peace & justice work, I was in trouble (she is on the board too…) and she also emphasized interfaith work.

    But yes, grounding in Wesleyan theology is important for anything…

  12. says

    I don’t know, Jeremy. I understand what you’re saying, I really do, but as someone who’s been on the other end of it, who has needed someone to stand up for me and with me, I can tell you that the relationship between my pastor and I was significantly damaged when he refused to do so because it was too controversial, would make the rich congregation members mad, would get the DS called, and whatever other reason.

    I think being able to triage is important. There are times when it’s totally possible to take your time, and building relationships can be remarkably helpful then. There are other times when it just can’t wait. That’s when I expect a pastor, of whatever stage of the process, to walk out in faith, stand up for what is right, and frankly, say to hell with the consequences.

  13. says

    Great post, Jeremy. I agree with all of your comments, but would also add that pastoral familiarity with one’s congregation often goes a long way as well. If they know and trust you, they are often going to be more willing to follow you on social justice issues. It’s tough to be out in front and then look behind and find that no one’s following you. But if your congregants know you to be a person of integrity whom they can turn to in times of need as well, they will be more likely to lend their support to causes.

  14. says

    I’m not in or aimed for ministry, but I sure learned a lot from this post about mistakes I have made over the years in Bible studies and other congregational (and secular life) activities.

    Thank you

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