Early in 1974 I sent my paperwork to the Central Association “Church and Ministry Committee” requesting consideration as a candidate for ordination in the United Church of Christ. By doing this I bypassed the usual procedure of becoming “In Care” of an Association for at least a year before being considered for ordination. I had served the United Church of Tilton full-time since receiving a Doctor of Ministry degree a year earlier, and I “voluntarily located” at that Methodist-UCC merged congregation, instead of entering the United Methodist itinerant ministry and be subject to appointment by the bishop. For that year I had been living between denominations. Toward the end of it I surrendered my credentials as a United Methodist deacon.
I was grateful that the area UCC committee was willing to give me a hearing; they were not obligated to do so. Although I had studied the UCC for the five years of graduate education, and organized the Chicago Theological Seminary archives, which required a growing familiarity with UCC polity, I did not know what to expect when facing that committee. My essays on personal experience, theology, Christology, ecclesiology, ministry, and church history and polity were rooted in biblical study but far from traditional. If I were to be rejected by the committee, I had no back-up plan. I expected that at best they would delay my request while I developed longer relationships and more trust with UCC people in the area.
The committee, equally divided between clergy and laypeople, heard my presentation and asked perceptive questions that revealed that they had read my papers. They also explored the particular needs and background of the ministry at Tilton. Most of the time the group seemed to be interested and agreeable, and I sensed no areas of disagreement or serious challenge, until one of the members, a senior minister at one of the leading area congregations, wanted to know more about my Christology. It appeared to be “low” in comparison to his “high Christology.” I had already spoken at some length about the mediating and representational character of Jesus’ ministry. He pursued the weakness of my positions relentlessly. Finally, I admitted that he was probably right. I was closer to being a Modalist than an Athanasian Trinitarian. I did not have a philosophical position that enabled me to know the internal being of the divine. That did not please him. I retired to another room while the committee deliberated for the next hour.
The new minister of the Association, Robert Sandman, came out for a minute to reassure me that they were dealing with each other’s different positions as much as dealing with my case. That did not encourage me at the time, but I realized that they were giving more attention to serious matters of Christian life and belief than any church-related group I had faced before.
At the end, they called me back into the room, congratulated me for my ministry, and asked that I proceed with preparations for ordination as soon as practical with the aid and advice of a couple members of the committee.
I had passed their scrutiny, and they were willing to approve my ordination. They had seriously considered many concerns that I thought were important, including some of the social issues of the day, but, equally important to them and me, theological questions in depth. I was impressed. They were living up to their reputation of considering creeds as “testimonies but not tests of faith.” They were willing to suspend their own rules in order to recognize the validity of a ministry that they valued. It was a high point in my journey into ministry, and it would be followed by many more.