Pause on ordination: Nine clergy stalled by COVID-19

Pause on ordination: Nine clergy stalled by COVID-19

Bishop Dindy Taylor lays hands on the Rev. Chris Ray during the Service of Ordination in June 2019. This year's ordination has been postponed. Photo by Buzz Trexler

The Rev. Kaye Seay has watched many others go before her in the ordination services that happen every June in Holston Conference. After years of working toward the finish line, Seay looked forward to her own ceremony.

“It’s a holy moment. You can’t describe it,” she said. “I’ve watched people be ordained and they smile and they just glow."

The Rev. Stephanie Parrott also had her sights set on a mid-June ordination. Her family was ready to be there for her, a promise they made when Parrott’s mother died suddenly on Christmas Day 2019.

“I had already accepted that Mom wouldn’t be there,” Parrott said. She was even more eager to experience the moment when, surrounded by supportive clergy and witnessed by her family, the bishop finally laid hands on Parrott’s head.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed Holston Conference churches for in-person worship and major gatherings were canceled one after another this past spring, many of the nine clergy slated for ordination soon realized their much-anticipated ceremony would have to be postponed.
The Rev. Stephanie Parrott: "Holding the grief"

In fact, the four-day yearly gathering in which ordination is a high point, Annual Conference, did not happen in Lake Junaluska for the first time in more than 40 years of history there. Instead of June 7-10 in western North Carolina, the Holston Annual Conference was rescheduled as a virtual affair on June 27.

Clergy Session, a prelude to ordination that typically happens on the first day of Annual Conference, was rescheduled as an online gathering on June 8. During Clergy Session, ordination candidates were elected as “fully connected” elders or deacons by their clergy peers.

The ordination service itself has been postponed as Holston leaders consider how to follow tradition while keeping participants safe from virus spread.

“It makes me sad but you have no control over it,” said the Rev. Natalie Justice, who’s also waiting to cross the finish line. “I’m not a person of pomp and circumstance, but ordination is another step toward confirmation of God’s call on your life.”

Powerful moment

According to United Methodist Communications, “Ordination is a powerful moment in the life of those who have been called to specialized ministry within the church.”

After years of discernment with the assistance of one's local United Methodist congregation, district, and annual conference board of ordained ministry; after receiving a master's degree; and after a period of supervised service in their ministry, candidates kneel before their bishop to be ordained. They are prayed over, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and authorized by the church for their life and work as a deacon or elder.
The Rev. Natalie Justice: Adapting to change

Justice, an elder, said she was already delayed two years on the ordination track by her health. One month after she was commissioned in June 2014, Justice was diagnosed with cancer.

After a period of medical leave and recovery, Justice picked up where she left off on the ordination track. She looks forward to “completing the journey” with a female district superintendent, the Rev. Jane Taylor, and a female episcopal leader, Bishop Dindy Taylor.

“We’re all in this whole bubble of adapting to a new normal,” said Justice, age 37, pastor at Grace and Greenwood United Methodist Churches in Marion, Virginia. “I’m trying to adapt to change, just as I know the conference leadership is trying to do the same.”

Parrott, a deacon, said she yearns for the day when she can finally wear the colorful stoles she received as gifts at Christmas and Mother’s Day.

“As ministers, we are already weighed down and stressed, and we’re holding the grief and stress of our congregations,” said Parrott, age 54, youth and children’s director at Central United Methodist Church, Knoxville, Tennessee.

“The gift of finally being able to put on that color” over her black robe would make a difference, she said. Parrott is also willing to have a small, intimate ordination service with restrictions necessary to keep participants safe from COVID-19, as other conferences have done.

Yoke of service

The Rev. Terry Goodman, director of clergy services, confirmed that wearing a stole is part of the service of ordination.

“The ordination is what gives them the ‘right’ to wear a stole,” Goodman said. “One will be placed upon their neck and shoulders as a part of ordination, signifying the yoke of service and obedience that they take in the ordination service. Until that time, they should not wear the stole.”

Seay said she received the “call to ministry” in 1997 and started on the ordination track in 2004, originally as a deacon before switching to elder.

“The process has been so long, so of course, it’s disappointing,” said Seay, age 70, pastor at Belfast-Midway United Methodist Churches in the Cedar Bluff, Virginia, area. “I don’t dwell on it. What makes me happiest, day to day, is to be able to serve in the churches.”
The Rev. Kaye Seay: "God is still with us"

Seay says she focuses on Matthew 28:20, when Jesus says, “I will be with you until the end of the age ...  God is still with us, even though we are not living as we once did,” she said.

The Rev. Linda Bass said she began the ordination process in 1997, and has served in ministry since 2004.

“I guess for me, I have had to wait so long it feels pretty normal ...  It will be a great victory knowing that God finally brought it to pass,” said Bass, age 64, pastor at Valley View-Heiskell United Methodist Churches in the Clinton, Tennessee area.


Patiently waiting

Some clergy said they do not feel as disappointed as others did when ordination was postponed. 

“I know it influences things like compensation and sacramental authority for most of our candidates and that they are eager to see this work finished,” said the Rev. Sean Hayden, age 41, assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Tennessee Wesleyan University. “My academic training has drawn out the ordination process so long that waiting another year to stand before the whole conference seems like a small price to pay to fulfill that expectation.“

The Rev. Joshua Swanson said he knows his family is looking forward to his ordination.

The Rev. Joshua Swanson: "Safety is more important"

“But when everything started to shut down, I realized it probably wasn’t going to take place. I think safety is more important,” said Swanson, age 30, pastor at Ketron Memorial United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee.

On Aug. 18, Bishop Dindy Taylor’s office said in an email that ordination plans are underway.

“We hope to be able to do ordination in the fall, but we have not set a date at this time,” said Lori Sluder, bishop’s assistant. “We are watching the COVID metrics closely and hope to make some decisions soon.”

Other ordination candidates in the 2020 class include the Rev. Monty Walton, the Rev. Jason Ratliff, and the Rev. Elizabeth Rudesill.

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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.