Round Three: Ordination Best Practices for Priests, Ministers, Elders, and Deacons
For our final round of ordination resources, we consulted five experts from five more traditions. Their best practices will help you understand the significance of ordaining people as bishops, priests, ministers, elders, and deacons.
What you assume about deacons, elders, ministers, priests, and bishops depends on your particular tradition. But anyone who looks into ordination practices will learn that being ordained in a Catholic or Orthodox tradition is very different than being ordained in a Vineyard church.
The following entries are edited from experts’ written or spoken responses to questions about ordination theology, polity, history, venues, and key elements. You’ll also find links to sample ordination services.
Christopher Flesoras is pastor of St. Anna Greek Orthodox Church in Roseville, California, an Air National Guard chaplain, an ordained priest in the Metropolis of San Francisco, and an adjunct faculty at William Jessup University and Fuller Theological Seminary.
Theology/Polity: In Orthodox churches, the word “orthodox” refers especially to correct worship, apostolic succession, and hierarchy. The Greek Orthodox Church of America (GOA) is an archdiocese of the global Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The GOA archdiocese is divided into metropolises, similar to dioceses. Each has about 50 to 77 parishes (churches) and is overseen by a metropolitan (bishop), also known as a hierarch.
The Greek Orthodox Church ordains only men as deacons, priests, and bishops. There’s also a permanent deacon program for men not intending to go on to the priesthood. Deacons and priests may be married, but bishops must be celibate.
Ordination to holy orders is considered a sacrament, something that draws all present closer to God to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. “Ordination is the imparting of grace, most profoundly, through the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Christ, our living head, ministers through deacons, priests, and bishops. All three offices give order to the church,” Flesoras says.
Christ acts as the suffering servant of the Father through deacons; as the liturgist and teacher through priests; and as the community shepherd and overseer through bishops.
Deacons are called to be living icons of Christ’s servant identity. They often give worship directions, assist at the altar (but may not celebrate the Eucharist by themselves), and oversee ministries of philanthropy and visitation. When blessed by their priest or bishop to do so, they may also preach. Some deacons are assigned to serve bishops or in non-parish ministries, but they must always be assigned to an altar.
Each specific ordination imparts grace and identifies the ordinand’s place within the church and the liturgy. The prayers during a deacon’s ordination ask that he be filled with the grace manifested through Stephen, the deacon who was Christianity’s first martyr. A deacon is ordained after the consecration of the Eucharistic offering, illustrating that he assists the bishop and priests with the liturgy but is not the celebrant.
“Priests officiate at celebrating the eucharistic mysteries, so priestly ordination prayers take place prior to the consecration of the gifts and focus on making him worthy to stand before the holy altar, proclaim the gospel, and renew God’s people,” Flesoras says. “The newly ordained priest receives the consecrated bread from the bishop’s hand, reminding him of what is entrusted to his care.”
The path to Greek Orthodox ordination is a years-long sequence that includes discernment by the candidate, recommendations from the parish priest and bishop, psychological exams and background checks, a four-year MDiv degree from an approved seminary, and approval by the synod of bishops.
“We will not ordain anyone unless there is a place he’s assigned to. Clergy always need to be attached to an altar,” Flesoras says. If the candidate is married, then his wife must acknowledge that she will go wherever he is assigned. A deacon’s wife is a diakonissa. A priest’s wife is a presbytera.
History: Flesoras explains that the early church had many ordained offices, including people blessed to be readers, chanters, doorkeepers, and instructors. Back then, bishops did the preaching and teaching. Some scholars say that Greek Orthodox priests didn’t become preachers until well into medieval times.
The Holy Spirit uses the sacrament of holy orders to preserve and continue the church through apostolic succession. Flesoras says that his bishop’s ordination can be traced back to the ordination of the apostle Andrew, who received his commission from Christ. This chain ensures that the same faith is handed on through the centuries.
Who, How, Where: Only a bishop may perform an ordination. Clergy are often ordained in either their home parish or the parish to which they are assigned. The transition from deacon to priest can happen in a day, a few months, or several years, depending on diocesan needs.
Ordination as subdeacon, deacon, and priest sometimes happens for the same man in successive liturgies on a single weekend at the church where he will serve. On Saturday, a candidate might become ordained as a subdeacon and deacon before his ordination as a priest on Sunday. To show the unity of the church, most GOA ordinations for bishops take place at the archdiocesan cathedral, Holy Trinity in New York City.
“An ordination service takes place within the Divine Liturgy and lasts two to three hours. It’s very ornate and ritualistic, unfolding like a designed drama with lots of movement,” Flesoras says. “Two clergy lead the candidate by the arms, taking him three times around the altar table before presenting him to the bishop. The bishop lays on hands and invokes the Holy Spirit as the candidate kneels at the altar table.” Each ordination service includes the Eucharist. The gathered people intone (chant) and sing their parts in antiphons, prayers, and hymns. They use Greek and English languages in the GOA.
Key Elements: Greek Orthodox worship spaces are visually rich with icons and intentional interior layouts, so it’s no surprise that ordination services are so visual. This comes through in how ordinands are vested (dressed) and what they do immediately after being ordained. After the ordination prayer, a new subdeacon is vested in a white tunic, which symbolizes purity. He helps the bishop wash his hands and exhorts all the faithful to pray. A towel is placed over the subdeacon’s head to symbolize how Christ robed himself in humility.
When a deacon becomes a priest, clergy remove his tunic, stole, and cuffs (which symbolize God’s creative power). They replace these with five priestly vestments, each with its own prayer. The belt, for example, symbolizes God girding him with strength (Ps. 132:2). After being vested, the newly ordained priest exchanges the kiss of love with the bishop and other clergy. This shows that they welcome him as a brother.
“My favorite part of ordination,” Flesoras says, “is when the candidate is presented to the bishop and offers a word. It’s a humbling, personal, thoughtful process to speak of one’s unworthiness, brokenness, gratitude for those who have formed him, and hope for the grace to carry out the ministry. It’s teary and pastoral, a beautiful exchange between a spiritual son and father. The last line from the bishop is the invitation to ‘enter the holy of holies.’”
Flesoras also treasures the parts an ordination service when the bishop raises the kneeling deacon or priest and says, “Axios! Worthy!”, which the congregation repeats.
Learn More: The different patriarchates of Orthodox churches—Antiochian, Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and others—have their own canonical jurisdictions. In the United States, however, they cooperate through the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. About 60 percent of all Orthodox church members in the U.S. are Greek Orthodox. See the ordination service programs for Jason Seraphim Ivy as subdeacon, deacon, and priest at Saint Anna Greek Orthodox Church in Roseville, California.
Ronald D. Hutchinson is administrator of Basilica of St. Adalbert-St.James and St. Mary and director of Office of Priestly Vocations & Continuing Formation for Clergy in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church.
Theology/Polity: The Roman Catholic Church in the United States and U.S. Virgin Islands is divided into 34 ecclesiastical provinces with a total of 196 dioceses and archdioceses (very large dioceses), and one personal ordinariate. The ordinariate serves former Anglican groups and clergy in the United States who wish to become Roman Catholic. The archdiocese of Los Angeles has 287 parishes, while the diocese of Juneau, Alaska, has 11. All but 18 U.S. arch/dioceses follow the Roman rite and canon law.
The Roman Catholic Church ordains only men as deacons, priests, and bishops. All must be single and celibate except former Anglicans or permanent deacons not intending to go on to the priesthood, though permanent deacons may not marry after being ordained. Priests must be at least 25 years old; bishops must be at least 35 years old and have at least five years of service as a priest.
All three orders or ranks are considered ordained ministers. Deacons may proclaim the gospel, preach, baptize, conduct weddings and funerals, and distribute communion elements. But only priests and bishops may celebrate the Eucharist and administer the sacrament of penance and reconciliation (i.e., hear confessions and offer absolution). Bishops oversee dioceses or archdioceses or work for the Vatican.
“The entire ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops is focused on the image and person of Jesus Christ,” Hutchinson says. “By ordination we become a conduit of God [and] specifically the image of the Christ. When priests and bishops exercise sacramental ministry, such as celebrating the Eucharist, we are exercising it in persona Christi. That means we make Christ present by our sacramental ministry—which is why the scandal over how some priests behave is so painful. Whenever any minister of any denomination uses authority wrongly, it erodes Christ’s presence.”
Hutchinson explains that the Church exercises the responsibility of saying yes or no to the call that someone feels. The discernment process is based on prayer and how a man exercises the four markers of priestly formation—human, intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral. Becoming a priest takes from five to 13 years, depending on when someone enters seminary. In Roman Catholic terms, the word seminary refers to priesthood preparation, which can begin in high school (at a minor seminary), college (college seminary), or after college (graduate seminary, school of divinity, or theology school).
Hutchinson recommends starting in a college seminary. “Young men in our diocese who feel a call go to St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. They attend classes with St. Thomas students, but they stand out. They wear collared shirts, pray the hours, have daily mass, and positively impact the campus. College seminary is like a special fraternity of men who also take seminary courses and develop an esprit de corps,” he says.
The ratio of priests preparing for diocesan ministry to priests preparing to live in religious communities (such as Dominicans, Franciscans, or Jesuits) is about three to one. Bishops assign deacons and priests to specific jobs within a diocese. The pope appoints bishops based on confidential communication and consultation from the diocesan level up to Rome.
History: In ordination, deacon and priest candidates kneel to affirm obedience to the bishop. The candidate puts his hands between the bishop’s hands. Attending deacons and priests come forward to lay hands on the candidate. “I still remember the pressure of those hands,” Hutchinson says.
Next comes his favorite historical ordination practice: prostration while everyone else sings the Litany of the Saints. “I did this when ordained as a deacon and again as a priest. It felt like a complete giving of myself, a moment of saying, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ Meanwhile everyone else is praying for all saints in all times and places to intercede so this ordinand will become a window through which others meet Christ. Every time I see this in an ordination, I’m overwhelmed and humbled,” Hutchinson says.
Who, How, Where: Only bishops may ordain. If a diocese is large enough to have auxiliary bishops (assistants), sometimes the auxiliaries ordain deacons.
Deacon, priest, and bishop ordinations happen at the cathedral, the mother church of the arch/diocese. However, someone being made an archbishop for work in the Vatican diplomatic corps might be ordained at St. Peter’s in Rome.
“Our diocese ordains deacons on the third Saturday in May and priests on the first Saturday of June. Guests include the ordinands’ families, friends, and parishioners from the church they served in seminary or as deacons. Almost all diocesan priests attend the local ordinations for priests, and many attend ordinations to the diaconate as well,” Hutchinson says.
Key Elements: The rite of ordination takes place within the Mass (liturgy of the Eucharist) after the Scripture readings. All clergy present lay hands on all candidates’ heads. The presiding bishop extends his hands over all candidates and recites the prayer for ordination, after which all candidates are considered ordained.
Ordination rites for deacons, priests, and bishops are separate but similar. Newly ordained clergy are vested (receive special garments) according to their office. The homily in a deacon ordination addresses the office and duties of a deacon, not a priest. A newly ordained deacon kneels again before the bishop and receives the Book of the Gospels. A newly ordained priest gets his hands anointed to symbolize that, in his hands, the bread and wine will become the body and blood of Christ. A newly ordained bishop has his head anointed as a symbol of authority. Newly ordained clergy receive a kiss of peace from others in their order.
Hutchinson says that everything in the ordination rite is “by the book.” The only room for creativity is in choosing songs and languages, “yet each ordination I attend is emotional and touching. It feels like being part of something very important,” he says.
Learn More: Learn the key moments of a bishop’s ordination. Study common Catholic terms. In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church (Western or Latin Rite), Eastern Catholic churches have different rites yet are still in full communion with Rome, even though most allow married priests.
Tarence E. Lauchiè is senior pastor at Grace for the Nations Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a professional development and training consultant at Lansing Community College, and an ordained pastor in the Church of God in Christ.
Theology/Polity: The Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a historically black denomination, has congregations around the world and is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States. It is organized as 200 dioceses called ecclesiastical jurisdictions, each headed by a bishop. Jurisdictions are divided into districts, each led by a district superintendent (male pastor) and district missionary (female licensed evangelist/missionary). Churches are often geographically affiliated with a district but also can choose which district to join.
The COGIC ordains only men to the offices of elder, pastor, and bishop. All three ordained groups are considered to be ministers. Ordained elders may administer church ordinances (immersion baptism, foot washing, and communion) and preside at weddings and funerals. In congregations large enough to have elders and pastors, the elders serve the senior pastor as associate ministers. Jurisdictional bishops oversee jurisdictions and execute the decisions of those above them. Twelve elected bishops, including the presiding bishop, serve on the General Board of Bishops, which makes denominational policies and maintains spiritual order in the global COGIC.
Women may be licensed to preach and often serve as missionaries, church founders, or in the COGIC Adjutancy. Clergy wives are often referred to as “First Lady [first name].” Women are often called “Mother or Shepherdess [first name]” if they serve as primary leader of a congregation, start churches, or succeed their pastor husbands.
“Denominationally, there’s still a lot of distinction between men and women in clergy roles—but not in our local congregation, because congregations have autonomy,” Lauchiè says. “Our elders and their wives operate as ministry teams for outreach, education, jail ministry, visitation, benevolence, and so on.”
The route to becoming an ordained elder begins with discussing one’s sense of call with the pastor and preaching a trial sermon. The pastor mentors him and gives him license to preach in the local church if the jurisdictional bishop approves.
After about two years, when a pastor deems a licensed minister suitable for ordination, he recommends him to the jurisdictional ordination committee. It prescribes a course of study, administers oral and written exams, and presents elder candidates to the jurisdictional bishop. That bishop ordains elders and pastors. “Typically, an elder only becomes a pastor if the bishop sanctions him to start his own church, fill a vacancy, or take on some other appointment,” Lauchiè says.
Elders with at least five years of service may be appointed by the General Board of Bishops to become jurisdictional bishops. These bishops may appoint or remove pastors (for just cause), but, unlike Methodist bishops, they don’t periodically rotate pastors.
“It’s international COGIC policy,” Lauchiè says, “that all ordination candidates undergo background checks and screening for mental health and conduct [such as domestic violence or sexual misconduct]. Jurisdictions make their own education requirements for ordination. Seminary is not required, although jurisdictions often will ordain on condition that a man will take college or seminary courses. My personal journey includes attending seminary after becoming an elder.”
Some jurisdictions such as Ohio North First or Michigan Southwest Third, where Lauchiè is dean of ordination, follow a standardized ordination curriculum. “In the year 2000,” Lauchiè says, “our jurisdiction established an ordination academy that meets four hours a month for 15 months. We cover doctrine, history, homiletics, hermeneutics, and more. Women take these classes along with men, so they are equally educated but not equally credentialled. And wives of ordination candidates are often oriented by someone from the women’s department of adjutancy on the protocol of how to support their spouse in their ecclesiastical role.”
History: The first line of the COGIC Constitution is: “We, the members of the Church of God in Christ, hold the Holy Scriptures as contained in the Old and New Testaments of our Bible as our rule of Faith and Practice.”
The COGIC Official Manual thoroughly examines New Testament references to ministerial orders and explores what early church fathers said about bishops, elders, and deacons. The manual explains that the laying on of hands predates ordination in a hierarchical sense. In the New Testament, the laying on of hands “seems to point to the communication of a spiritual gift or to its invocation, rather than to the imparting of an official status.” In the biblical epistles and the epistles of Clement of Rome and Ignatius, the manual finds a model that COGIC follows: a council of presbyters (elders and pastors) ruled by a bishop. The denomination recognizes ordination to the three sacred orders as a gift from God to nurture his people and proclaim his gospel everywhere.
The emphasis on hierarchical authority as biblical and COGIC’s character as a holiness-Pentecostal denomination resulted in a detailed dress code for clergy and credentialed women (101–115). The manual explains, “Since we are a holiness people and a growing Pentecostal denomination in the world, it is important for us to maintain some beauty and balance with our fervor. ‘Order with Ardour’ is the mandate of our times.”
A licensed minister, for example, would wear a black suit to his ordination service. After his ordination, his ceremonial garb would be a black cassock, black cincture (cloth belt), white surplice (tunic worn over cassock), and black tippet (long ceremonial scarf), with a silver pastoral cross worn on a black cord. Only bishops may wear a gold cross on a gold chain.
Who, How, Where: Elders become ordained at an annual service in their jurisdiction. Pastors are also ordained at an annual jurisdictional service called The Ministers & Workers Meeting, Annual Consecration Service, or The Holy Convocation. Bishops are consecrated (ordained) at the international holy convocation, usually held each autumn in a huge space such as The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, Missouri, or in Memphis, Tennessee, where the COGIC world headquarters is located.
Key Elements: Ordinations publicly affirm that a candidate has come under the authority of God’s word and COGIC leadership. At each ordination service, candidates are presented to the ordaining bishop. The bishop gives a charge explaining the candidates’ duties. Each answers a series of five questions. After these vows, candidates kneel, and the bishop lays hands on them and prays.
After the prayer, newly ordained elders receive a Bible, newly ordained pastors make remarks, and newly consecrated bishops receive a surplice, tippet, gold cross on a gold chain, and a ring. The presiding official then charges the congregation to accept and pray for their new leaders.
“The liturgical order of ordination services provides an ample picture that something important is happening,” Lauchiè says. “The special music, sacred hymns, and solemn assembly are different than the spirited music in regular Pentecostal worship style. These are high order services, with processionals, consecrations, prayers, anointing with oil, and being dressed in special garb. Each piece of attire, such as a cassock, cord, or cross, is symbolic and has ecclesiastical significance.”
Learn More: See the full liturgical order of a COGIC ordination service for bishops. Find sample services for licensing preachers, installing elders and pastors, and consecrating bishops in the COGIC Official Manual (199–212) and Broadman Minister’s Manual, also known as “The Black Book,” an interdenominational guide to planning ordination services and other special services.
Caleb J. D. Maskell is chair of Society of Vineyard Scholars and worship pastor (licensed minister) at Blue Route Vineyard Community Church in Media, Pennsylvania.
Theology/Polity: The Vineyard started as a renewal movement led by former Quakers John and Carol Wimber in Southern California in the 1970s. It now describes itself as a global family of more than 2,500 Vineyard churches on six continents. It grows by planting churches and adopting other congregations into its network. The global family stays connected through Vineyard International Executive, led by coordinators Eleanor and John Mumford. Vineyard leaders from many nations participate in online courses made available through Vineyard Institute, established in 2013 to provide theologically orthodox and contextually relevant training and equipping resources for Vineyard leaders around the globe.
However, each national Vineyard association creates its own polity. This approach to polity is structured to help Vineyard avoid the historical dangers of cultural colonialism that have sometimes been present when a U.S.-majority movement grows internationally. As such, national Vineyard movements tend to describe their particular identity in terms of their core values and distinctives, which are often shared internationally by Vineyard associations in other nations.
Vineyard USA has an episcopal structure, with a national director, 16 regional leaders, and area leaders within regions. All work together to provide guidance, care, and encouragement for pastors and congregations. Virtually all Vineyard USA churches have a senior pastor. Some of those churches have both elders and deacons, while others have only elders and pastors. Even churches that have both elders and deacons don’t often make much distinction between the two.
Each Vineyard congregation writes its own bylaws. Pastors and their boards (often called “elders”) are responsible for ordaining ministers. Vineyard USA keeps no statistics on what percent of Vineyard ministers are considered ordained. Maskell estimates that half of Vineyard pastors have some form of seminary education.
“Ordination occurs at the local church level,” he says. Vineyard churches ordain men and women—most often as pastors, but also to other areas where they’ve been clearly called to lifetime ministry, such as teaching, worship leading, or church administration.”
The bylaws template from Multiply Vineyard USA’s church planting resources suggests that Article X be titled “Licensure and Rite of Ordination,” but leaves it up to each new congregation to fill in.
In congregations that value ordination, Maskell says, the key theological point is that only God can truly call and ordain his children to the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When churches recognize that calling, they ratify the ordination that God has so obviously placed on a leader’s life.
“In the Vineyard,” Maskell continues, “ordination is insistently a discernment process. It’s an acknowledgement after the fact of the ministry a person has already been doing. In Vineyard, you get ordained once you’ve already been doing the work. Most Vineyard churches have a high view of the real presence of God, without which nothing—not worship, music, preaching, prayer, or communion—is efficacious. The real presence of God infuses communion and ordination, but just as it’s not the wedding ceremony that makes the marriage, it’s not the ordination service that makes the minister.”
History: Maskell is responsible for the care of the papers of John Wimber, the most influential founder of the Vineyard movement. “The more you examine the history of Vineyard theology and practice, the more you notice evangelical Quaker sources and roots,” Maskell says.
Like Quakers, Vineyard churches value the Holy Spirit’s ability to work through the priesthood of all believers, expressed in Wimber’s aphorism “everyone gets to play.” Maskell says Vineyard began as a church renewal movement, oriented toward worshipful encounter with the living God and teaching people to actually do what Jesus did. Because everyone is called to participate in God’s kingdom, anyone may lay on hands to pray for healing or to offer a prophetic word. Jesus calls all his followers to experience and extend his ministry through intimacy with the Father and empowerment by the Spirit. “It’s a way of understanding how the Holy Spirit moves through community, revealing the work of God for and through the community,” Maskell explains.
“John Wimber used to say, ‘You know you’re a leader because you look behind you and people are following you.’ In most Vineyards, you become an elder because the senior pastor notices that you exhibit ‘elding’ characteristics by working with and supporting the pastor—so he or she appoints you,” Maskell says.
Also like many Quaker movements, Vineyard churches are uneven in their emphasis on the Eucharist. Therefore, unlike many denominations, the Vineyard doesn’t connect ordination with administering the sacraments.
“Most Vineyard churches, like most Quakers, don’t make a big deal about their building or ordination,” Maskell says. “Historically, Quakers had what they called ‘recorded ministers.’ Quaker meetings [congregations] would recognize someone as having a gift for public ministry—and in turn they’d literally record that person’s name in a book in acknowledgment of that discernment.
“Unlike older movements with deeper polity and defined hierarchy, a lot in Vineyard happens through oral tradition and individual practices established within a more or less explicit set of tolerances. Churches write their own bylaws and often decide that the senior pastor will choose elders from among the congregation who will serve the church with him or her. The practical danger, of course, is that under these circumstances, an unwise pastor can begin to act like a monarch.”
Now that the Vineyard has grown large enough to be considered a denomination, Maskell says, questions of ecclesial mission and ecclesial models are arising in a renewed way. “If the Vineyard is to be more than a historical renewal movement, but rather a full contemporary expression of the church of Jesus Christ with an ‘apostolate’—a particular assignment from God—then we need to continue to do the hard theological work of articulation, clarifying and stewarding the ways God wants us to express Jesus Christ and his church in the world. If we are going to last, we must institutionalize well—not least by intentionally building structures for spiritual renewal into our core practices.”
Who, How, Where: The Vineyard USA national office recommends that local churches contact their area leader about ordination best practices.
“Historically, for all the Quaker-like emphasis on flex and listening to God, some Vineyard leaders put a lot of work into individual ordination services,” Maskell says. “While there was no standard form, there was dead-serious acknowledgment that ordination means being set apart for the ministry of the church. It’s fidelity of witness to the church in Scripture and in later history. It’s a big deal. The services I have come across were saturated with Scripture, yet there were no standard words of institution, no clear before-and-after moments.”
Ordination services often include the regional leader, an already-ordained pastor close to the ordinand, and the ordinand’s friends and congregants. The service would probably happen in the local church where the person to be ordained is already serving.
Key Elements: Maskell says an ordination might take place in a special Sunday evening service. “It would usually open with a time of worship through music, followed by a welcome by the person leading the service, and then some liturgy written for the occasion. The ordinand might be invited to say something, along with the service leader. Then, at the appointed time, the gathered group would lay hands on and pray for the person. Everyone would silently wait on God. Then someone might share something that they felt they heard from God—‘I think that God might be saying. . . .’ Then there would likely be more singing, and perhaps they’d end by sharing a meal together.”
Learn More: To learn more about leadership and ordination in Vineyard USA, check out Multiply Vineyard’s church planting discernment process. The international Vineyard Institute offers theological resources to equip and develop church leaders at every level.
Rubén Ortiz is the Latino field coordinator for Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Decatur, Georgia, and an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches (ABC-USA).
Theology/Polity: The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) is a network of individuals and about 1,900 congregations in the USA. They are grouped into 18 state or regional organizations that affirm basic Baptist beliefs and core values. A CBF executive coordinator and governing board provide fiscal and legal oversight, work to strengthen theological education, and plan an annual CBF meeting.
“We live in the tension to be recognized as a ‘denomi-network’ that takes the best of denominations and networks,” Ortiz says. “CBF did not craft an informing theological statement in the early days because of its staunch commitment to freedom—the deep belief that each congregation is free and responsible to listen and discern God’s direction for itself.”
The CBF ordains men and women as ministers and deacons. Each church decides how and when to ordain. The CBF core value of church freedom states: “We believe in the autonomy of every local church. We believe Baptist churches are free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine their membership and leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain whomever they perceive as gifted for ministry, and to participate as they deem appropriate in the larger body of Christ.”
Ortiz likes how Stanley Grenz summed up three meanings of ordination in The Baptist Congregation: A Guide to Baptist Belief and Practice: “First, ordination is a recognition that the Holy Spirit has invested this person with certain gifts for ministry. The laying on of hands symbolizes in part the coming of the Holy Spirit on an individual to empower that person for the task to which that one has been called.
“Second, ordination is an act of commissioning by the church. Through this act the community places a person into a significant area of service within the body of Christ. Third, ordination is a public declaration of ministerial position. In our society clergy status is recognized in the civil sphere as well as the ecclesiastical. In ordination, public testimony is given to the fact that the candidate has been entrusted with this position and may be called upon to fulfill whatever functions society relegates to clergy” (69–70).
Ortiz became an ordained pastor in the American Baptist Churches (ABC-USA) many years before joining the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He first received a license to be the local minister at Primera Iglesia Bautista (First Baptist Church) in Deltona, Florida. Four years later he was ordained on a successful ministry track that required particular conditions, such as church membership growth. He was the first Hispanic Baptist pastor at the time to experience this type of track to ordination. The growth and success of the local church ministry in addition to his education in Ecuador and Cuba made this possible. “I wrote a statement for the ordination council that addressed such things as my conversion, call to Christian ministry, interpretation of Baptist history and the pastor’s role, challenges and goals for my local ministry, and more.
“There was practically no difference in my ministry as a local pastor or being ordained later,” Ortiz says. “For me, the purpose of ordination was to discern the sense of calling by God and my personal commitment to the life of the local church. My ordination was, for the congregation, the acknowledgment and seal of approval on my ministry among them. In other countries, like in my native Cuba, the licensed pastor cannot officiate the ordinances [believers’ baptism and the Lord’s Supper] until he is ordained. I personally found that this was not the practice in the community that I pastored at that time in Central Florida.
“A funny story is that we had to give a workshop at church before my ordination because so many members came from a Pentecostal background. They thought the title Reverend belongs only to God,” he recalls.
History: “Ordination is a very interesting issue in Baptist life,” Ortiz says. “We are a very diverse tradition with many different ordination requirements, basically all of which are conferred in the local church. Since all Baptist churches are locally autonomous, it is difficult to trace a main document or agreement on ordination. In our 400-year Baptist tradition, we know that early Baptists did not use the term ordination. When they eventually used the word, they were always careful to state that ordination is a recognition of the call of God to exercise ministerial servant leadership without lording over the congregation. It confers no special spiritual status.”
The CBF formed in 1991, after withdrawing from the Southern Baptist convention in part because the CBF congregations wanted to ordain women. Officially the CBF ordains ministers and deacons, but there’s a lot of variety among CBF congregations in whether they even have or ordain deacons and what deacons do. Deacons are lay leaders.
CBF ministerial ordination candidates generally meet with an ordination council drawn from staff and lay congregation members and sometimes regional leaders. The candidate writes a statement about personal faith, theology, and Baptist principles, and council members ask questions and decide whether to recommend the candidate to the congregation.
Since congregations make their own decisions about ordaining ministry, there’s no CBF-wide requirement about education. Many large congregations such as Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, require that ministerial candidates have degrees from accredited undergraduate and graduate theological institutions.
“There is a big educational gap between Latinos and their English-speaking counterparts,” Ortiz says. “Most pastors in the CBF Latino Network need one or two jobs to support their family, besides ministering to their flock. Many have minimal biblical education and training and are working as church starters [church planters]. And many are undocumented. They ask for better opportunities for formal theological education as well as training to help local laity assume leadership responsibilities. There is big potential for emergent leadership among second- and third-generation Latino youth.
“Calling a minister is always in the hands of the local church. But in CBF, we have a very special ministry, Reference and Referral, that helps match candidates seeking a church and churches seeking a minister. CBF only facilitates the encounter, knowing that no two search committees go about calling a minister in the same way,” Ortiz says.
Who, How, Where: For some people, getting ordained as a CBF ministers affirms what they are already doing in a local church, such as leading youth ministry. Others, especially recent seminary graduates, get ordained because they have been called to a place of CBF ministry.
Ordinations often take place on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in the church to which the person is called, but sometimes they happen in the church where the person grew up.
Key Elements: The ordination council, congregational leaders, and candidate help plan the service. The service always includes charges to the congregation and candidate, the laying on of hands by anyone who wants to bless the candidate, prayer, and presentation of a certificate of ordination and (usually) a Bible.
Ordination council members, mentors, family, and friends often lead parts of the service. There’s often, but not always, a sermon. The newly ordained minister usually gives the benediction. Common CBF ordination songs include “The Servant Song,” “The Summons,” “Take My Life, and Let It Be,” and “Here I Am, Lord.”
Ortiz fondly remembers his ordination service as a real celebration—especially the fiesta after the service. “It was a real Latino family and community feast!”
Learn More: Connect with Rubén Ortiz and learn five ways to get involved in the CBF Latino Network/La Familia. Check out CBF’s network of partnering theological education schools. Peruse sample minister ordination and installation services posted by CBF of North Carolina and Baptist Women in Ministry. CBF of Georgia partners with the Baugh Center at Mercer University on Baptist Deacon Network resources.