In June of 1970 I asked to be considered for ordination as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. At that time ordination to the office of deacon was a step toward ordination as an elder for Methodists. I had completed two years of graduate theological and professional studies, and I had served as a “licensed local preacher” for seven years in a variety of church-related positions. The Conference to which I belonged was Central Illinois, where I had lived all of my life before moving to Chicago in 1968, but my two years in Chicago had stretched my ties to the Methodists in central Illinois. My original mentor in ministry, Glen Sims, had died suddenly with a brain tumor. Controversies surrounding racial justice, the War in Vietnam, and other social issues had alienated some ministers who had been part of my formation, and they had left the conference or found themselves in vocational jeopardy.
The times were changing, but I wanted to persist in a path toward ministry and knew that I had to submit my credentials and my ideas to the judgment of those who made the decisions regarding whom the church would ordain. There were two dozen men who were candidates for deacon that year, a large class. Women were just beginning to request consideration; I do not remember any that year, although I knew several excellent candidates who were coming in the years ahead. Just to help us feel more insecure, the leaders of our assembly made it clear that the church had a lot more candidates for ministry than they had congregations to employ us, so we should be ready to be disappointed.
The panel called us in one by one. Several ministers sat around the table with questions. Mentally I reviewed the theological and social controversies that wracked the church and challenged us all to deeper faith and extensive preparation. So the questions came. “Do you smoke or use tobacco?” No, I found that I am allergic to tobacco, I responded. “Do you drink alcoholic beverages?” Very little, I said. (I don’t have money to waste, I could have added, but didn’t.) “Do you expect to have an appointment to serve a local church?” No, I have secured an internship in a Methodist Church in Danville and Tilton, and afterwards I will return to seminary to complete my studies. “What about your wife?” I explained that she loved the church as I did, but she was raised a Lutheran and a Presbyterian, so she was just getting acquainted with Methodism, and where we lived in Chicago, we worshipped at a Disciples congregation near our home. This coming year would be her first opportunity to worship regularly with Methodists, since we had left Illinois Wesleyan and its ecumenical chapel services. Responding to me, there were some comments that wives could help or hinder one’s ministry, and I should resolve this situation before seeking an appointment. That was it. That was my ordination interview. My answers to their questions disappointed my interviewers. They appeared to be mostly relieved that I wasn’t seeking an appointment to a parish anytime soon.
Later I learned that the panel had approved my ordination as a deacon. Bishop Lance Webb appeared before our class before the service itself, letting us know that some of us were not likely to be ordained as elders unless several matters were resolved. He would not ordain anyone who accepted smoking and drinking. Our families had to be as committed to the Methodist ministry as we were. He was looking at me as he spoke, or he seemed to be. What about other issues? What about our faith formation and life in prayer and the extensive problems facing our society? They were not mentioned that day, except that he wanted us to read his books. I recognized that these were tests that I would not seek to pass when the time came, not because I couldn’t, but because there were other tests that were more important to me and to the church I wanted to serve.