Recently I went to lunch with a seminary student who is also in process with the United Methodist church. One of the things we talked about was how you have to watch what you say everywhere you go in the conference for fear that it will come up at some later point in the ordination process. We sort of have our own set of Miranda rights, "anything you say can and will be used against you by the Board of Ordination."
But it's not just what you say, it's what you do, who you know, who you associate with, all of these things can hurt you later. One of my colleagues appropriately described the process as going through a process to join a fraternity or sorority at their heights when hazing was all a part of the process. Except universities and Greek organizations have really worked to eliminate hazing. The church, however, has not. I saw, heard about, and experienced things that should never have been tolerated, and I always felt like it was being done for one of two reasons.
The first was that it had been done to them and so they were returning the favor. After all when it is replicated then what they went through can be justified. Rather than saying, what happened to me never should have happened, they keep perpetuating the process, and one could argue, make it a step worse each time. This is what happened in Greek organizations and the military and other organizations with significant hazing practices that have since been cracked down on.
The second reason was that it was a power system with absolutely no checks on it, and as Lord Acton said, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." There is little recourse that ministerial candidates have in the UMC, and even to raise an issue is to again take your career into your own hands because you honestly don't know who you can trust and who you can't. If you say something will it hurt you later? You simply don't know and so many keep their mouths shut.
I did have something happen to me which I raised with my mentor, and she took to someone in a position of power, whom I liked and trusted. I then told him what happened, and he said he would address it. But nothing ever happened, at least as far as I could tell. The person in question continued to serve on both the BOOM and the DCOM and I am sure is still torturing other candidates and using information he gathers inappropriately simply because he can.
And, unlike fraternities, members of the BOOM and the DCOM control your future and your career. If they say you aren't moving forward, then you aren't moving forward. If they remove you, for whatever reason, then you are done. I had candidacy mentor training last week and it was amazing how many of them talked about candidates they had worked with being shot down by different groups because someone "didn't like them." This was never raised as an issue, simply stated as a reality.
Which leads me back to my lunch with a candidate for ministry. As we talked about this and he told me his experience I was able to confirm it, even though much of which happened to me was in a different conference, and told him to keep his head down. I did say that I did see myself having more freedom to say things I never would have said, including on this blog, before I was ordained in June. But what I also realized after it was over was that the process still has me on edge and trying to protect myself because as I was driving home I realized that I had been able to be completely open and honest with him, and that I had not been able to do that for a long time.
I actually felt refreshed in being able to just have a conversation with another clergy colleague, which I considered him, and not worrying about anything else, that I didn't have to guard what I was saying or be concerned that others might hear what I had said and question/grill me about it later. As Elders we are supposed to be in relation with each other, as part of a covenant, but until you actually get into the "cult of the Elder" as I called it, you are always separate and the covenant does not extend to you.
Rather than bringing the best out in candidates, in my experience, and testimony of other, it instead silences us and leaves us constantly on guard and on watch. It leaves us holding our tongues careful to watch literally everything we say and everything we do. It discourages the sort of "radical" thinking the church says it wants to see, and it stifles those in process from ever trying to stick their heads out because, just like it Whack-A-Mole, it will be hit or taken off altogether.
And what's worse is that because the process takes so long, it was 9 years from the time I entered seminary to my ordination, it becomes ingrained into who we are. I didn't realize it was so until that lunch meeting and the feeling that I was free to be who I am and there was nothing they could do about it. Even though I am now ordained and therefore protected to a large degree, never having to justify myself to another group, that hesitancy was still part of me. I hope that with time it will go away, but really wonder if to a degree it will always be there.