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The Theology and Practice of Ordination

Cindy Kohlmann

Cindy Kohlmann is the connectional presbytery for New Castle Presbytery and was the co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly.

What would look different if we began to put into practice our expansive theology of membership, taking seriously the ways members are expected to be involved in every part of the life and ministry of a congregation according to our constitution?

An early chapter in the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) includes this
list of ministry responsibilities:

  • proclaiming the good news in word and deed,
  • taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation,
  • lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support,
  • studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life,
  • supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents,
  • demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church,
  • responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others,
  • living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life,
  • working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment,
  • caring for God’s creation,
  • participating in the governing responsibilities of the church, and
  • reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful.1

Any of us could be forgiven for supposing that this list of responsibilities is connected with ordered ministries, the calling to serve in the church as a deacon, ruling elder, or teaching elder. These responsibilities seem to be marks of a life that has been set apart through election, examination, and the laying on of hands, significant steps in our ordination process within the church.

This is what we find, though, when we back up to the paragraph that precedes this list. It reads:

Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is a joy and a privilege. It is also a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission. A faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church. Such involvement includes . . .2

These are the marks of a faithful member in the church, one who takes joy in the privilege of being counted in the number of the body of Christ.

As I was considering the theme of “the theology and practice of ordination,” I went, as any good Presbyterian would, to the Book of Order. What does our constitution say, I wondered, about ordination and our practice of it?

What I knew in the back of my head, and what was brought again into my full awareness, is that any discussion about ordination in the church has to begin with a discussion of membership. In fact, I believe that our theology of membership is the foundation upon which a strong theology of ordination will best stand.

After all, membership is a requirement for ordination. There is not a single ordered ministry in the church that does not first require commitment to a particular body of Christ. That, it seems, should be our starting place for this exploration.

It is clear that we have a robust and perhaps ambitious theology of membership. The list cited above combined with the descriptions of the church in “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” make it clear that the ministry of members is a bedrock assumption in the life of a vital congregation. The second paragraph of the Foundations section supports that assumption:

The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church. In Christ, the Church participates in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the good news of God’s love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ. Human beings have no higher goal in life than to glorify and enjoy God now and forever, living in covenant fellowship with God and participating in God’s mission.3

There is a footnote here that reminds us that the capitalization of Church refers to the Church Universal, “the Church as it is called to be in Christ.”4 Nowhere in this paragraph defining what it is to be the Church “as it is called to be in Christ” is there a division in the ministry and mission.

Do you see that? The language here is consistently calling on all to participate in mission, all to proclaim, all to offer, all to invite, all to glorify, all to live in covenant fellowship, all to be disciples. There is no division between ordained and non-ordained, between deacon, ruling elder, and teaching elder. The mission and ministry of the Church as it is called to be in Christ is shared among all.

So before we can explore our theology and practice of ordination, we need to take a closer look at how we are engaging in the theology and practice of membership.

Membership is a tricky thing in the twenty-first century, as the culture shifts away from requiring or even expecting membership in faith and civic organizations and shifts towards targeted commitment in places of hands-on engagement that may never include a formal membership. Recognizing this shift, there are ongoing discussions about what we mean by membership in the PC(USA) and what that might look like in the future. For my purposes, I’m using membership as described by the Book of Order but including everyone who is active in the life and ministry of a particular body of Christ. Membership is required for ordination, but the formation expected as part of membership is and should be open to all.

Having said that, from my vantage point as a pastor and presbytery leader, it seems to me that we are doing very little in the way of ongoing intentional formation of our members in the Presbyterian church. As with any generalization, there are exceptions of amazing programs and congregations with high expectations of their members. In general, though, I don’t see a lot of language or education focused on equipping our members for living into the full meaning of membership.

Come with me as I connect the dots. If we are expecting the bare minimum from our members, simply to show up somewhat regularly for worship and to engage in some kind of financial support of the church, and communicating that this level of participation is enough, is it any surprise that it can be difficult to convince members to take the next step into ordered ministry as a deacon or elder?

What would look different if we began to put into practice our expansive theology of membership, taking seriously the ways members are expected to be involved in every part of the life and ministry of a congregation according to our constitution?

What would look different if we began to put into practice our expansive theology of membership, taking seriously the ways members are expected to be involved in every part of the life and ministry of a congregation according to our constitution?
In that case, the members of each body of Christ would have learned what it is to proclaim the good news, support the ministry of the church, respond to God’s activity in the world, live responsibly in all areas of life, work for peace and justice, and participate in the governing responsibilities of the church. Those called into ordered ministries would have firm foundations developed through the regular practice and formation of their faith in this model and would be drawn from a body where ongoing partnership in ministry is an intentional expectation.

How could we begin to shift our understanding and practice of membership in churches where resources are stretched as far as they can stretch and the most constrained resource, time, is already tapped out? Let’s start with where we are and what we have.

If our bare minimum expectation of members is that they participate in worship somewhat regularly, that’s our starting point. Worship can become the first place where a deeper theology of membership begins to be explored, communicated, and explained. This can be through sermons, through a monthly special Sunday dedicated to a particular theme or lesson, or through intentionally beginning to invite members to practice some of the responsibilities outlined in the list from the Book of Order during the worship service.

Build from there. Begin a weekly or monthly discussion group exploring membership and discipleship more deeply. Offer occasional classes in how to read the Bible with curiosity, how to prepare a meditation or witness as part of learning to proclaim the good news, what it looks like to bring caring for God’s creation into daily life and choices.

Another possibility would be to lead the whole congregation in an exploration of the ordination questions, which seem to me to link directly back to the list of responsibilities for a member. Imagine a church where everyone knew what it meant to “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith” and everyone understood that they were called to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.”5

None of these steps needs to be fancy or overly involved. The whole purpose is to help people live more fully into their faith, and therefore more intentionally into their lives as part of the body of Christ. We can start small, with what we already have, and begin to shift what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the Presbyterian church.

But wait, you might be saying, this is supposed to be about ordination! Why all this focus on the formation of members?

Well, those who are ordained are members first, and they bring what they experienced and learned as members, the good, bad, and ugly, into their leadership and ministry as deacons, ruling elders, and teaching elders. How we practice our theology of membership has a direct impact on how we experience the practice of ordination.

I don’t know if anyone has studied this, but I wonder if the increasing frequency of destructive church conflict could be tied to the decrease of discipleship and spiritual formation. I wonder if the increasing frequency of pastors leaving ministry altogether in their first few years of ordained service can be connected to a diminished theology of membership and an expectation that the “professional Christian” is supposed to do it all. I wonder if the increasing desire for seminaries to include faith formation as part of their curriculum is a direct outcome of our churches not offering such formation as an expectation for every member.

I wonder.

If you look up “ordination” in our Book of Confessions, the connection between the ministry of members and the setting apart of ordination is made plain. In the Confession of 1967, these two paragraphs follow one another in Part II: The Ministry of Reconciliation; Section A: The Mission of the Church:

Each member is the church in the world, endowed by the Spirit with some gift of ministry and is responsible for the integrity of [their] witness in [their] own particular situation. [They are] entitled to the guidance and support of the Christian community and [are] subject to its advice and correction. [They] in turn, in [their] own competence, [help] to guide the church.6

In recognition of special gifts of the Spirit and for the ordering of its life as a community, the church calls, trains, and authorizes certain members for leadership and oversight. The persons qualified for these duties in accordance with the polity of the church are set apart by ordination or other appropriate act and thus made responsible for their special ministries.7

Did you catch the language in the first paragraph? Members are “entitled to the guidance and support of the Christian community.” There is an expectation that the body of Christ will be active in the ongoing formation of each participant, which then equips each member to “help guide the church.”

It is out of that equipped and formed membership that some are then called forth and set apart by ordination. This is for the ordering of the mission and ministry of the body of Christ, hence the term “ordered ministries.”

We see here a theology of ordination that clearly depends on a strong theology and practice of membership. A further survey of the Book of Confessions reveals that many more words are devoted to what it means to be a member of the body of Christ, to live faithfully as a follower of Jesus, than what it means to be set apart in ordination. Again, membership always precedes, and in the case of our constitution, is given precedence over ordination.

What, then, is our theology and practice of ordination when it is built on the strong foundation of a robust expectation of membership?

Our practice of ordination is drawn first from examples found in Scripture, which is where our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ is also based. In both Testaments, we see people set apart by the call of God for specific tasks. In the Hebrew Scripture, Moses and Aaron are called to lead the people out of Egypt, and the seventy elders are appointed to help decide disputes and teach the people God’s statutes and instructions. Judges are raised up to lead the people and decide among them, and prophets are sent to speak faithfully as God’s messengers.

In the story of Jesus, we see that first essential step of discipling people into a new way of life and faith, followed by a shift into leadership roles, being sent to share good news and baptize, and gathering the people together for a remembrance meal as a community of believers. Apostles, teachers, and preachers are sent out, and the first deacons are set apart to oversee the caring ministries of the growing body of Christ. The practice of appointing elders to serve as leaders in the community continued in the early church, with men and women named in the letters of the New Testament.

We draw heavily from the first letter to the Corinthians in our services of ordination, proclaiming that all are given the gift of the Spirit for their God-intended purposes and that, as members of the body of Christ, each has a part to play. Some are appointed to particular roles, but those roles are tied directly back into the life of the community where all are expected to participate in mission and ministry together.

It is in the first letter to Timothy, chapter 3, that we are given qualifications of the episkopoi and diakonoi, translated as overseers and deacons from the Greek. These qualifications are coming out of their own contextual time but are clearly meant to provide guidance for choosing leaders that is above and beyond the requirements of living faithfully as a member of the congregation. Here the focus is on character and standing in the community, boldness of faith and the ability to teach and manage daily affairs.

Having these scriptural images to guide us, we return to the Book of Order for further insight into our theology and practice of ordination. In chapter two of the Form of Government, the chapter specifically addressing the subjects of “Ordered Ministry, Commissioning, and Certification,” we find this opening paragraph:

The Church’s ministry is a gift from Jesus Christ to the whole Church. Christ alone rules, calls, teaches, and uses the Church as he wills, exercising his authority by the ministry of [people] for the establishment and extension of God’s new creation. Christ’s ministry is the foundation and standard for all ministry, the pattern of the one who came “not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). The basic form of ministry is the ministry of the whole people of God, from whose midst some are called to ordered ministries, to fulfill particular functions. Members and those in ordered ministries serve together under the mandate of Christ.8

Once again, our understanding of ordination is based first upon what it means to be part of the “whole people of God” under the authority of Jesus Christ. In fact, the following paragraph exploring Ordered Ministries baldly states, “The existence of these ordered ministries in no way diminishes the importance of the commitment of all members to the total ministry of the church.”9

One of the key components of our theology and practice of ordination is that a call into an ordered ministry cannot be discerned solely by oneself. Just as we are nurtured and formed as followers within the body of Christ, a call to ministry as a deacon, ruling elder, or teaching elder can only be fully discerned within that community.

By requiring three parties in the work of discernment, we signal the seriousness with which we take ordination. As stated in our constitution, “This call is evidenced by the movement of the Holy Spirit in the individual conscience, the approval of a community of God’s people, and the concurring judgment of a council of the Church.”10

This three-way discernment makes the most sense within a community that has regularly participated in mission and ministry together, that has witnessed growth in faith and maturity, and that can describe the gifts or qualities for ministry that are key to being set apart through ordination. In such a congregation, a person’s discernment of a particular call can be affirmed, sharpened, or redirected as necessary, all within the context of a shared life of faith and witness.

A second essential component of our theology and practice of ordination is the assertion that any gifts or abilities that would be exercised through ordained ministry come from God alone. It is not by our own might or power that we step into ordered ministry; it is, as is fitting, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the steadfast love of Jesus Christ.

When we consult the paragraph on Gifts and Qualifications, we again see that any particular gifts for ministry are possessed in addition to the marks of active membership within the body of Christ. In fact, the list of responsibilities for members is both longer and more complete than the gifts and qualifications associated with ordered ministries:

To those called to exercise special functions in the church—deacons, ruling elders, and ministers of the Word and Sacrament—God gives suitable gifts for their various duties. In addition to possessing the necessary gifts and abilities, those who undertake particular ministries should be persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship, and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world. They must have the approval of God’s people and the concurring judgment of a council of the church.11

There is one other important component to our theology and practice of ordination, and that is the understanding that there is freedom of conscience within the bounds of Reformed faith and our polity. This incorporation of the freedom of conscience into our understanding of ordination has intentionally created room for differing views of Scripture and the shape of mission and ministry in each age.

By explicitly tying this provision to ordered ministries, we have put into our practice of ordination the path by which we can seek “a new openness to the sovereign activity of God in the Church and in the world, to a more radical obedience to Christ, and to a more joyous celebration in worship and work.”12 It is ruling and teaching elders who constitute the councils of the PC(USA) and vote according to their consciences, wrestling with and offering different interpretations of Scripture. Through their leadership, our practice and theology as a whole church has been and will continue to be challenged and changed.

Taken together, our discernment of call as a threefold conversation, our proclamation that God provides everything we need to be faithful in the work God calls us to, and our assertion that the freedom of conscience is a place where the Spirit can work in new ways contribute to form the framework upon which we build our theology and practice of ordination.

While providing a necessary framework, these three components all rely on and are built upon our theology and practice of membership. The practice of lifelong discipleship formation within the body of Christ is where a call to ordered ministry begins and where it continues to be rooted and deepened. A renewed focus on what it means to be a member of the community of faith within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will strengthen the ministry and mission of the whole church, while better equipping those called and set apart to serve.


  1. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II, Book of Order (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2019–2021), G-1.0304. All quotes from the Book of Order will be taken from this edition.
  2. Book of Order, G-1.0304.
  3. Book of Order, F-1.01.
  4. Book of Order, p. 1.
  5. Book of Order, W-4.0404c and h.
  6. The Confession of 1967, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part I, Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2016), 9.38.
  7. The Confession of 1967, Book of Confessions, 9.39.
  8. Book of Confessions, G-2.0101.
  9. Book of Order, G-2.0102.
  10. Book of Order, G-2.0103.
  11. Book of Order, G- 2.0104.
  12. Book of Order, F-1.0404.
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