by Layton Friesen
Ordination is a word in danger of losing its gist, like what happened to floppy disks and dungarees. You may have attended an ordination service and wondered what was really going on. “We already picked George to be our pastor and he has been serving for a year, but now we are ordaining him? Is this some new level in the video game of pastoring? Is George getting new powers? Or what?”
Simply put, ordination is a set time of testing, discerning and anointing during which a Spirit-filled Church confirms the call of God on someone to be a minister of the gospel till death do us part.
Inner and Outer Dimensions
Ordination has both an outer and an inner dimension. The outer part includes things like conversation with mentors, self-examination, study, examination before a conference committee and the laying on of hands by the church. But I will focus here on the inner dimension, what’s happening between God, the pastor and the church, in the Spirit.
Scripture is full of call stories. Ordinary people were minding their own business when God interrupted their ambitions and said, “Stop that: your life is over now. Your life is being taken from you and my own life is being given you in its place.” Abram, Moses, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Esther, Jeremiah, Mary, the disciples, Paul, John; each one in their own unique way had their life taken. Each one was told that in the providence of God their lives were now being commandeered for a mission on behalf of the people of God. In having their lives taken from them they found their own lives again, for the first time.
Each one of these, even in the Old Testament, was called in Christ; their lives were now called to participate in some aspect of the calling by which the Father sent Jesus into the world by the Spirit. All these other call stories are ways in which humans join up with Jesus’ own call from his Father to redeem the world. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).
Commandeering a Life
There is a story at the end of the gospel of John that shows how God points to one person and sets them aside, takes their life, and commandeers it in the direction of the new kingdom. After the resurrection, Jesus and Peter have an exchange on the beach over breakfast in which Peter has his life taken from him.
The charcoal fire and the three-fold question, “Do you love more than these?” remind him of his denials just days before around another charcoal fire. As Peter painfully walks back those denials by three exclamations of his love for Jesus, he is told, “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus tells Peter that this calling will finally be the death of him, both spiritually and literally. “But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go.” By giving Peter his life calling, Jesus is indicating “the kind of death by which he would glorify God” (John 21).
But Peter is anxious to know if he is the only one being called and he asks Jesus, “what about him?” pointing to “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. Surely, Lord, your calling is the same for everyone? Surely you would not call one person to feed your sheep until death do us part, and then give his brother some other work?
Jesus’ reply to Peter’s anxious question about the priesthood of all believers turns Peter’s gaze back into the furnace of Peter’s own calling: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” Each one of us lives by the will of our Lord Jesus. Each one is taken in some way, but how that unfolds is finally up to Jesus. My work is to follow Jesus in the life that he is giving to me.
Peter was only being called to follow Jesus. Peter is not called to be a Big Shot in the church; he is not given the gift of worldly power over others. He is called to sheep-herding.
Jesus himself has authority and power, dominion and honour in so far as he utterly surrenders it all in heroic submission as the Good Shepherd. As Jesus stooped to serve the least in an obedience that literally took his life, he is shown to be the Son of God, partaker of the divine glory. This must then also be what apostolic power and authority consist of.
One for the Sake of All
But how does Peter’s call relate to the calling by which every believer is called to serve God and the church. This too is the biblical witness, that all people of God are “a royal priesthood.” Why do we ordain pastors but not kindergarten teachers?
“One for the sake of all”: this is a deep biblical pattern. Some lives are commandeered to dramatically portray and live out the call that God intends for each person. God has always used a few people to live their lives written large, with a tenderness, courage and persuasiveness with the Word of God that serves as a model for the church of submission to God. The few are called to feed, empower and create space for everyone’s call.
This is the calling of Peter and it is the calling of those we ordain. To be ordained is to have your life taken away in a way that serves notice to the whole church that this is what God wants to finally do with everyone.
To be ordained is thus a weighty calling that has serious repercussions for the rest of one’s life. Because it can be so expensive we need to be careful about throwing this call around willy nilly. Thus, the whole outer aspect of ordination, the period of study, testing, prayer, training and waiting before laying on our hands in partnership with the Holy Spirit.
Marinated in the Bible?
Is this person truly marinated in the Bible? Has this person suffered and shown in their suffering an endurance and inner strength? Does this person have the habit of regarding the whole congregation? The whole conference? Is this person clamouring and grasping for an anointing, or are they approaching it with a holy fear and trembling? How confident are we that God is calling in this instance? If so, then let’s celebrate God’s mercy!
Why do we find movies so compelling and stirring? Because for two hours we have our life taken from us. We are temporarily given a new life in the story of the movie. We stretch out our hands and someone fastens a belt around us and take us where we do not want to go. Watching a movie is a metaphor for being taken in ordination.
This is why there are few lives as unexpected and nerve-wracking as the pastoral life, or as revealing of God’s utter grace that is available to everyone. To think that Layton of all people, vexed by all seven deadly sins, having heard the cock crow, should now have his life taken and set aside for fearless footwashing in the Kingdom of God as a servant-pastor—how can this be?
Pastors are people whose lives were taken from them to serve the church and enable everyone else to be taken in. Your pastor was willing to let go of self-ambition and to say after Mary, “Let it be with me according to your word.” That had fierce consequences for Mary, as it will have for your pastor. Pray for, encourage, and love, but never pity your pastor.
Layton Friesen, PhD, is the EMC’s conference pastor. He has served as a youth pastor at Crestview Fellowship and as senior pastor at Fort Garry EMC.