I spent last week helping assess a group of people for a job I couldn’t do if my life depended on it.
Actually, what they were seeking is not a job; it is a calling. And my life here and in the hereafter depends on how well they do it.
I am part of a group of Methodist ministers and laity who evaluates candidates for ordination into the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.
It is kind of like officers candidate school for ministers. The aspirants have arrived at this pivotal point in their lives from a variety of background: nurses, accountants, a former Air Force navigator, teachers, young people, middle-aged people, black and white, male and female.
By the time the candidates get to this stage, they have already invested a great deal of time and effort into the process. They have earned their undergraduate and master’s degrees, have been approved by their local congregation as well as a district committee and will have served in some capacity in a church for the past three years.
They are grilled on a variety of subjects, not the least of which is their understanding of the doctrines of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Their sermons are analyzed and dissected, their biblical knowledge challenged and their call to the ministry examined in depth.
I dare say if you pass muster, you are eminently qualified to deal with sinners like me. That can be a full-time job. I haven’t done a lot of research on the subject, but I am reasonably sure there are more sinners walking around than there are preachers.
Not all of those in our assessment sessions have as their goal to one day stand in the pulpit of a large church and preach on Sunday mornings. Some have chosen to work — as one candidate so aptly put it — with the “least, the low and the lost.” Others have expressed a desire to be involved in campus ministries or with the elderly, the disabled or to confront social injustice.
While humility is not my strong suit, I will confess that I would not make a good Methodist minister. In fact, I am struggling just to be a good Methodist. I have pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment to Dr. Gil Watson, the World’s Greatest Preacher, who strives valiantly to keep my spiritual boat afloat. Despite his heroic efforts, as soon as he plugs one leak I seem to spring another.
We can have unreasonable expectations of our ministers, and I’m not talking just about Methodists here. This observation is ecumenical. We want them there when we experience pain and suffering, without wondering if they are experiencing some pain and suffering. We want to unload our burdens on them, but forget that they may have a few burdens of their own. We expect them to exhibit superhuman behavior, ignoring the fact that they are humans, just like the rest of us.
We expect them to be available 24/7, even though we might skip church if it looks like rain. We want their spouses involved and their kids to be saints. In the Methodist Church, we espouse “itinerancy,” which means our ministers have to move whenever they are told and wherever they are told, and that includes their family.
We reserve the right to criticize their sermons, the order of worship, the music and the temperature in the sanctuary. Ministers are equal part grief counselors, marriage planners, fundraisers, alms dispensers and, on occasion, plumbers and politicians. All of this while trying to lead a bunch of stiff-necks to the Lord who are oft-times too busy seeing the speck in someone else’s eye to admit the plank in their own.
In spite of the challenges, the hardships and the frustrations, good people continue to hear and heed the call to ministry because they know what they are doing can make a difference in our lives now and forever more.
I come away from these sessions optimistic that the United Methodist Church has a new generation of bright, committed ministers in its midst. I hope that is the case with all faiths.
I could face down a grizzly bear with nothing but a toothpick, but I could never be a minister. I don’t have what it takes. But I thank God I saw some people last week who do. I’m not sure I did much to help them along their spiritual journey, but they sure helped mine.