The Task Force to Explore the Theology and Practice of Ordination, formed as an action of the 225th General Assembly (2022), held its first face-to-face meeting in October in Chicago. The purposes of the meeting were to cultivate a sense of community among task force members and to follow up on discussions from previously held virtual meetings.

Per PC-Biz, the task force will recommend “any needed changes” to ordination processes at the 226th General Assembly (2024).

Teaching Elder Juan Sarmiento from the Presbytery of San Fernando is a task force co-moderator alongside Teaching Elder Paul Roberts from Greater Atlanta Presbytery. In remarks after the meeting, Sarmiento called the task force essential to the denomination’s attempt to connect its current reality, “where there are a lot of new leaders,” to its principles “of full participation, voice and vote.”

Sarmiento’s own presbytery submitted the overture recommending the task force, with the full General Assembly broadening the scope from exploring the theology and practice of ordination to ordered ministry “for ruling elders” to expressly including “commissioned ruling elders (CREs), membership, church structure, accountability and chartering” in its work.

Task force meeting attendees (clockwise from left): Lance Wiesmann, Mary Lloyd, Paul Roberts, Alejandra Spir Haddad, Deborah Boucher-Payne, David Gambrell (staff), Renda Brinson, Hope Lee, Sean Chow, Juan Sarmiento, Cheryl Carson, Jihyun Oh (staff), Bobby Musengwa. Photo provided by task force.

Task force meeting attendees (clockwise from left): Lance Wiesmann, Mary Lloyd, Paul Roberts, Alejandra Spir Haddad, Deborah Boucher-Payne, David Gambrell (staff), Renda Brinson, Hope Lee, Sean Chow, Juan Sarmiento, Cheryl Carson, Jihyun Oh (staff), Bobby Musengwa. Photo provided by task force.

The task force reflects “the breadth of the PC(USA),” including theological diversity, members who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), and who belong to immigrant congregations, immigrant fellowships, and new worshiping communities. Committee members have also served on the Committee on Theological Education,  as CRE’s (Commissioned Ruling Elders), as Christian educators and mid council leadership. Denominational staff resource the task force, including those serving in 1001 New Worshiping Communities and Theology, Formation, and Evangelism from the Presbyterian Mission Agency and staff from the Office of the General Assembly.

The group began its two days together in Chicago with worship led by Teaching Elder David Gambrell, Associate for Worship in the PC(USA)s Office of Theology and Worship, who grounded that and future worship services in the denomination’s ordination liturgies. Worship was followed the first day with significant discussions around the biblical, theological and cultural foundations of ordination, as well as practical considerations.

After turning its attention to statistical and anecdotal data, the task force identified salient questions for its overall work, among them:

  • Can there be more uniformity from presbytery to presbytery regarding training for commissioned ruling elders? If so, how can that be achieved?
  • How do we mitigate the language barriers that are present in our process and education?
  • How do we address the high monetary and circumstantial costs of seminary education?
  • Considering the marginalization and other challenges certified Christian educators face in our current system, in what ways can the denomination be more inclusive and equitable in its approach to leader development?
  • In light of the growing need for CREs, what steps need to be taken to minimize economic disparities and better ensure the financial well-being of all persons who are called to lead our congregations?
  • How do we deal with angst from the growing number of smaller congregations about pastoral leadership?
  • Are there recommendations the task force can make that deal with structural issues stemming from social and denominational hierarchy?

Speaking from California after the meeting, Sarmiento praised the way lay pastors and CREs have become an increasingly significant part of the denomination in the last 30 years. But he asked if adjustments to their status and support, including salary and benefit support, are needed in order to make sure the church “is not creating a category of pastoral members who are being taken advantage of or unfairly treated.”

He added, “The task force is not seeking to hinder the freedom of presbyteries, but to provide guidelines for those presbyteries about all the people doing God’s work.”

That includes not re-inventing the wheel wherever possible. Sarmiento noted that there are guidelines already being used at presbyteries today that could help establish a broader standard of benefits and compensation for CREs and lay pastors, as well as sources of that support.

Reflecting on the broad scope of issues meriting attention, the task force in Chicago shared stories of perseverance and creativity that enabled those around the table to deal with the often confounding and contradictory realities they face as leaders in the church today.

Sarmiento recalled stories from the meeting, including one involving a task force member from the LGBTQIA+ community with obvious gifts for ministry who had interviewed for several CRE positions without being called to a pastoral role. “That story resonated with a number of us, who have seen people denied calls,” he said.

“An individual sense of call does not constitute the call; it has to be confirmed by the church and presbytery. Yet we have as a task force already recognized that as a denomination we’ve been less than open to what the Spirit might want us to do to serve and connect with communities.”

Sarmiento connected his own experiences as an immigrant to the salient question about language barriers and theological education, including barriers for Spanish-speakers, who constitute a large and growing part of U.S. population. “Not having enough resources in other languages than English is detrimental to the church,” he said.

During the last day of the in-person meeting, the task force split into smaller groups to engage in a guided exercise designed to help members think more deeply about the relevance and challenge of existing ordination practices. That time led to a compelling conversation about the merits of technical (smaller) changes vs. adaptive (wholesale) changes, and the role of the task force in possibly recommending one approach over the other, or a combination of the two. 

Following a Spirit-filled prayer by Teaching Elder Bobby Musengwa, the group experienced the assurance of the Lord in both its purpose and process. As their time together in Chicago drew to a close, the task force members focused on strategies for listening to voices from across the church to ensure that its reports include concerns and generative perspectives that will help the denomination facilitate avenues for a better ministry into the future.