What is ordination?

There was a fantastic (and ongoing) discussion on an email list for aspiring UU ministers recently about issues of ordination. What does it mean to be ordained and to be a minister?

Now, as such things often go, this discussion didn’t start out about ordination per se. Rather, there was a question about the appropriateness of not-yet-ordained people wearing particular vestments (that’s religious clothing). Should a seminarian interning at a UU church but not yet an ordained minister wear a clergy stole or a robe?

In true UU fashion, I have several answers to this. Traditionally, stoles have been worn only by ordained clergy, and this cuts across a number of traditions. So no, only ordained clergy should wear stoles. But it depends, I suppose, on what stoles represent and what ordination means, which is quickly where the discussion went. Soon, the discussion jumped from what we should wear to what it means to be ordained.

I think it all comes down to what you think about ordination—and what you think about ministry. These are issues about which Unitarian Universalists have many views, and no views at all for some. Is the minister just an officer of the church, assigned to make sure worship happens and supervise the staff, make sure the bills get paid and teach the occasional adult ed class—are they called only to that set of tasks a church assigns them? In short, are we non-profit executives assigned to a specific job for a given time? I pray not.

I believe that we have a calling, and it is to more than just a given job at a given church. It is a calling to be leaders unto the church universal, which stretches across all time and space. This is not to be entered into lightly, and it is something that stays with you forever, I believe. This is different from the ministry positions we may hold. Yes, ministers are called to a specific job, whether it be in a congregation or another setting. And in our polity, congregations are the body that ordains. But these aren’t always the same thing. Ordination is a recognition of a person’s call to ministry to the church universal, and our process for calling a minister, and then installing him or her is what brings one to a specific vision.

My calling is to service where and when the Spirit tells me, and when (if?) I am ordained one day, the community’s affirmation of that call will be meaningful, especially as I place a stole on for the first time. But my calling will not just to be to that particular church, but to all of our churches.

So, tell me, what is ordination to you?

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