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Task force seeks ways to increase Hispanic clergy

The Rev. Francisco Cañas addresses a task force comprising members of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and the denomination's National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry. UMNS photos by Linda Green.

By Linda Green*
Dec. 13, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

For some Hispanic men and women, life circumstances make it difficult to get the education required by The United Methodist Church to respond to God's call to ordained ministry.

A task force of members of the denomination's National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry and the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry spent Dec. 11 discussing how to develop Hispanic/Latino pastoral leadership and consider alternatives to education for ordained ministry.

Bishop Minerva Carcaño of Phoenix, task force chairwoman, noted that some Hispanics do not have access to the denomination's educational processes and institutional systems for ordination.

"We feel that God is giving us an opportunity to respond by walking with them and finding ways to enable them to respond to their call," she said. "The church needs them -- not only the Hispanic/Latino community but the whole church because of their spirit, their experience of God and the witness they bring to the table."

Seminaries require an undergraduate degree, but only about half of Hispanic youth graduate from high school, and 9 or 10 percent go to college. "So the group that could go to seminary diminishes exponentially," Carcaño said.

According to the Rev. Francisco Cañas, coordinator of the Hispanic Plan, the development of new Hispanic pastoral leaders is critical because 40 percent of the leadership serving the 733 Hispanic/Latino ministries that currently exist has retired, while 60 percent serve local congregations and the remainder are local pastors.

"That means we have few ordained clergy in the United Methodist context for Hispanic/Latino ministry," he said.

The church has 630 Hispanic clergy members, according to the 2006 racial/ethnic clergy membership summary of the General Council on Finance and Administration.

'This is about leadership'

The Hispanic/Latino Education Task Force was formed following a self-assessment by the 12-year-old National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry. One issue that surfaced in the assessment was the need to do a more effective job of preparing Hispanic/Latinos for pastoral ministry.

The Rev. Saul Espino and Bishop Minerva Carcaño participate in the Dec. 11 meeting.


"That had to be a priority," Carcaño said. “We can't develop the congregations, we can't form those faith communities, and we can't disciple persons without the right leadership. This is about that leadership for the church."

Latinos who arrive in the United States are not simply Roman Catholic. Many have been influenced by the evangelical movement that has spread across Latin America and the Caribbean.

"We have tremendous opportunities for reaching out and partnering with people who already know Christ, who already have a faith commitment and are seeking a church that is responsive to that — a church that is grounded in community, that cares about the world, that cares about our society," Carcaño said. "Social holiness is very much of the spirit of Latinos and Hispanics. It is part of the way we look at life and our faith. That is who we are as United Methodists and so we have a great opportunity to be about disciple-making and disciple-empowering for the transformation of the world."

Since the plan was established, the focus has been on developing lay leadership in Hispanic churches. "A lot of work has gone into that, but when we did the assessment, we realized that we hadn't put that kind of effort into a pastoral leadership component," said Helene Slessarev-Jamir, professor of urban ministries at Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology.

Barriers to ministry

Slessarev-Jamir told the task force that the assessment, which involved visiting 10 annual conferences and interviewing another six by phone, indicated that those participating in lay leadership development modules were interested in pastoral leadership but faced barriers to making a transition.

Hispanic lay members said the denominational system allows students with more traditional backgrounds to get through but not those who come from nontraditional educational backgrounds – for example, students who don’t have a high school diploma or undergraduate degree.

"In a sense, ultimately we have a structure that is not welcoming, that does not facilitate their entry into doing what they have a passion for. We have not created the vehicles to allow them to fully come to the table," Slessarev-Jamir said.

To address these problems, conversations with the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and annual conferences and their boards of ordained ministry are planned.

The task force wants to engage the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, seminaries and other academic institutions in a dialogue concerning support of partnerships that would accelerate completion of bachelor degrees in areas related to pastoral ministry and graduate theological education

The task force also wants the agency, annual conferences and seminaries to take a critical look at the Course of Study programs, which are used by Hispanics, young people and others for pastoral ministry and to explore alternative criteria for ordination in The United Methodist Church.

"The course of study is a 'treasure' in our system, but we need to improve the quality of (the) course of studies. That is what we are looking for," Cañas said.

Annual conference option

Most Hispanics in ministry are local pastors, and a few become full ordained elders, Slessarev-Jamir said.

There is a disciplinary process to make the path to ordination shorter if annual conferences would choose to make it so, according to the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, the staff executive over the Division of Ordained Ministry of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

The Rev. Aquiles Martinez talks about Hispanic/Latino pastoral leadership challenges.

"One of the questions related to that is our value of an educated clergy and what that means in this time," she said.

Most United Methodist clergy go through a seminary degree program, but the denomination’s Book of Discipline also offers other ways to fulfill that educational requirement.

"It is important for us as a denomination to look at how we can implement that other way in some creative ways for the church, not to lower our standards, but how we can use what we have as process to increase the number of pastors in a variety of communities," she said.

The Rev. Aquiles Martinez, a professor at Reinhardt College, Waleska, Ga., said the task force "shouldn't at this point, at this juncture, rely on what higher education can do and will do for our Hispanic students. Because in the structure, what you have is a gap between reality and the institution."

The priority is providing Hispanic/Latino people with opportunities to go to college, he said.

"The institution marginalizes them and objectifies them. That is not justice. The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry needs to be more relevant in that respect. They need to hear our voices and hear them loudly if we are going to scratch where it itches."

Task force members identified the issue as "classism" and noted there is no uniformity across the annual conferences in requirements to be ordained a full member. Every annual conference can add to the requirements that are in the Discipline.

Jurisdictional gatherings on Hispanic/Latino leadership are planned in 2008 and early 2009, culminating in a national conference in the fall of 2009.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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