The Joy of Ordination for the Local Church
Seven years ago, we hired a 21 year-old guy to lead music in our Sunday morning worship services. We had just launched as a new church, and Kevin was a great fit for where we were. He had just married his high school sweetheart, Lauren, so there were no kids in the picture yet. He was still attending Bible college, but demonstrated a sincere desire to serve the body of Christ. Kevin thought he wanted to be a pastor vocationally, and even mentioned that church-planting was on his radar for the future. Who wouldn't want to take a chance on a young man like that?
Seven years and 4 children (and one on the way) later, Kevin is poised to be launched away from our church (NewBranch Community Church in Dacula, Georgia). We are sending him to the Boston suburb of Arlington, MA to plant a new church (Redeeming Grace Church). One of the important steps in this journey was Kevin's ordination, which we were able to celebrate together last month.
To be honest, I never considered the impact this celebration would have on our church fellowship. Though we have been talking to our church about Kevin and Lauren's departure for nearly two years, the ordination was a tangible way for us as a church body to express our affirmation of Kevin as a minister of the Gospel and that it was the Lord that had complete prerogative to lead this family wherever He chose.
Having been ordained in a Southern Baptist Church years ago, the only reference point for understanding this process was my own ordination. I knew that one of the hallmarks of Southern Baptist polity was that our denomination does not ordain, but expects each autonomous church to determine it's own set of criteria and process for ordination. My ordination included an outside ordination council that was independent of my local church where pastors from neighboring churches were invited to sit in and grill me on everything from my salvation experience to my ministry calling as well as on any point of theology they chose to address. In the end, the council seemed to be the rough equivalence of a rubber stamp to what the existing elder board of our church had already done. In fact, the ordination service itself took place immediately after the council met with me. I suppose this was convenient for the local pastors as they would not need to give up another Sunday evening to come back and participate in my ordination service at a later date; however, this always struck me as a bit of a formality. What if some on the council had deemed me less than qualified (which certainly could have been the case)? Would there really have been room to allow for those important discussions? Would they have then gone back out to the worship center and told everyone (including my family who had traveled from out of town) that the service had been cancelled? Perhaps. Even at that, the thought that an outside council could have such potential influence over the body of elders of the local church was something that never seemed to resonate with what I knew of Biblical ecclesiology.
When we as elders began to search the Scriptures concerning Kevin's ordination (which was the first for us as a church), we discovered that there was no such thing as an outside ordaining council that was prescribed for churches seeking to ordain one of their own. This is not to say that outside councils are not very helpful in some circumstances. One of our existing elders had been ordained years ago by a church to which he had been attached for less than a year. In such cases, the use of an outside council could be invaluable in helping the church discern the fitness of a young man for pastoral ministry. But this was not the case for us. Kevin had been with us for seven years. For seven years we had observed his life, his family, and his ministry. We watched as he grew in his understanding of the Scriptures and in his application of the Scriptures to his life. We observed as he learned to juggle the responsibilities and stresses of ministry life and that of a growing family. We were able to see how he handled conflict in ministry as well as suffering and hurt and the impact it can have on one's pastoral ministry. We saw him grow and mature in his faith and in his effectiveness in ministry.
To bring in an outside group of people who were not connected with our church family seemed superfluous and ultimately unnecessary. So, we as elders chose to craft Kevin's ordination without the use of an outside ordination council. Instead, Kevin was invited to sit with the elders of the church in our regular elder meetings. For nearly three years now, Kevin has both observed and participated in our elder meetings. Through these settings, in addition to each of us walking alongside him for seven years, the elders of our church knew Kevin about as well as anyone can know someone. Kevin was evaluated with respect to his spiritual life, family life, ministry life, theological convictions, and just about every other area which an outside council could only hope to address. Based on these interactions, the elders voted unanimously to ordain Kevin to Gospel ministry.
In preparing the church body for Kevin's ordination, we wanted to make sure the congregation knew that this was something in which they had an important role. We saw the ordination service as an opportunity for the covenant members of our church to affirm that which God had already done. It had been our conviction as elders that God had already set Kevin apart to serve Him in pastoral ministry. In the service itself, the elders would be asking the congregation if they could affirm our convictions and agree with us that this is what God was doing. As they voted to affirm his ordination, the congregation would be giving the elders permission to do so, as well as releasing Kevin to serve the Lord wherever He leads him. We wanted to teach them that ordination is not about giving religious vestments to someone who just wants to serve in their own church, but it is affirming a young man's calling to serve Jesus in His kingdom, for the rest of his life, wherever God leads him to do so.
Kevin's ordination was a beautiful demonstration of kingdom work. We talked about the providence of God in bringing Kevin to our church at the perfect time. We talked about God's sovereign oversight of Kevin as he developed into a mature and experienced pastor. And we talked about our responsibility to unselfishly release God's workers as He raises them up and sends them out. The congregation voted to affirm his ordination to gospel ministry, and then each elder was given opportunity to lay hands on Kevin before the church and pray over him. Afterwards, the church family joined together in a fellowship dinner reception to celebrate what God had done in our church, in Kevin, and in His kingdom.
We have been profoundly affected by the demonstration of God's grace through this process, and we have been awakened to the possibility that there are others that our Lord is tapping on the shoulder. There is still much work to be done for the kingdom, and God is still raising up laborers for the harvest. It is our job as pastors and elders to carefully identify, diligently equip, and faithfully ordain and release them as God directs. May we be found faithful in this important task of kingdom work.