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1959 Article

Ordination of ministers is an act of the church in which the minister-elect (or bishop or deacon) receives confirmation to his office by a ceremony of laying on of the hands of a bishop (elder) and the intercession of the congregation, which gives him the right to lead the congregation in worship and life as pastor, to perform the duties of his office, whatever they may be, to preach the Word of God, to perform marriages, to ordain, to administer baptism and communion, to administer discipline, to administer the alms fund, etc.

Originally and until well into the 19th or even 20th century the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition everywhere called for an ordination for each level in the ministry, bishop-elder, preacher, or deacon. Hence it was possible for one man to be ordained three times. In Holland formal ordination to all ministerial offices including that of deacon was usual in the 16th and early 17th centuries, and among the Groningen Old Flemish, until ca. 1760, and in a few small conservative groups until the end of the 18th century. But as early as about 1610 the Waterlanders had abolished the laying on of hands for deacons, and by 1665 also for preachers and deacons. But that time the Lamists had also abolished the ordination of deacons. In the 19th century all formal ordination in Holland was discontinued. Since then pastors have been instituted by another minister, usually an older one or a friend. It is customary to ask only whether the new minister will promise to serve the church faithfully. The promise is followed by a prayer. Since c1940 a kind of formal ordination of pastors with laying on of hands has occasionally been reintroduced. In some Mennonite groups in America deacons are no longer ordained. In the mid-20th century the Ohio and Eastern Mennonite Conference decided to have only one ordination with charges to the several offices as they are assumed and as may be necessary.

In the 1950s, normally women were eligible for ordination only among the Dutch Mennonites. However, some Mennonite groups in effect give ordination to women missionaries, and the consecration of deaconesses is akin to ordination.

Ordination normally confers a lifetime status. In the older practice, and still in the more conservative group, ministers removed from office for causes such as heresy, or gross sin, or insubordination, or even for lesser causes, were not considered to have lost their ordination, but to have been "silenced," i.e., no longer allowed to preach, and could be restored to office without reordination. Normally also ministers have been accepted on transfer from other Mennonite bodies or from non-Mennonite denominations without reordination. However, when the Kleine Gemeinde elder in Manitoba, Peter Toews, transferred to the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, in 1882 he and the three ministers who went with him were required to be reordained (also rebaptized). (See Ministry, and Ministry, Call to the.) -- HSB

1989 Article

Ordination is an act by which the church, after appropriate personal and corporate discernment, calls and appoints a person to a leadership ministry in the life and mission of the church. The service of ordination normally includes the laying on of hands, prayer, and other appropriate rituals of commitment and celebration. The church ordains with a sense that it has been so led by God's Spirit and is acting to express God's leading to confirm this gifted person for a particular public and representative ministry in and for the church.

Mennonite nonsacramental assumptions have often created problems for understanding ordination. Mennonites have resisted setting some persons over and above others. They have failed to find in Scripture any explicit teaching or example which could rightly be called ordination, though there are numerous examples of the church affirming persons for ministry and mission. However, Mennonites have chosen leaders for the church and in doing so they have followed a variety of patterns which they have called ordination, often following the examples of other Christians.

One view of leadership in the New Testament is based on 1 Timothy where three terms are used: deacons, elders, and bishops. While the terminology has often changed, the larger Christian community has affirmed over and over again this basic threefold ministry. In Anabaptist and Mennonite history this same threefold ministry has emerged repeatedly at various times and in diverse ways as the pattern for the church's leadership.

Broadly conceived, the bishop ministry is that of oversight covering a group of churches in a given geographical area; the elder ministry is that of a leader-preacher within a congregation; the deacon ministry is a lay ministry of service within the congregation and to the community.

In North America, the Mennonite Church (MC) has called for an ordination for each type of ministry: deacon, preacher, bishop, and hence it was possible for one person to be ordained three times in that sequence. The General Conference Mennonite Church often followed a similar pattern, though not in the same order. Persons giving pastoral leadership and preaching were first ordained as ministers and only later as full elders which then included the right to lead in administering the sacraments (ordinances). Deacons were sometimes ordained though not always. Generally the General Conference Mennonite Church did not have bishops, though in parts of the church the elders (Ältester) functioned in a similar capacity of oversight. The Mennonite Brethren Church brought to North America a pattern of ordaining elders, ministers, and deacons as a part of a multiple lay ministry. With the transition to a trained and paid pastor, the elder system of leadership declined both in the United States and Canada. The Mennonite Brethren Church continues to ordain people for the ministry of the gospel calling for a lifelong commitment.

The latter half of the 20th century has seen considerable change in understanding ministry and ordination among North American Mennonites. In the Mennonite Church there has been a gradual decline in the ordination of bishops, vesting the responsibility of oversight in conference ministers and overseers. In the General Conference Mennonite Church there was a major process in each decade extending over five decades responding to changing understandings. Perhaps most significant was the change to a single ordination as elder during the 1950s and 1960s. Out of concern for the increasing diversity among Mennonite Brethren ministers, there was a proposal in 1951 to establish a Board of Elders to unify the calling and training of ministers, but it failed to gain adequate support.

Among Canadian Mennonites particularly and to a lesser degree in the United States, there has been and continues to be a strong commitment to lay ministry. Such persons who earn their living in other vocations are ordained for ministry and often have given lifelong leadership in congregations. At present there is a strong reaffirmation of this lay ministry heritage, but more often such persons serve alongside of the professional pastor. In some groups there is discussion of changing ordination to commissioning for lay ministry, especially where such leadership may be limited by time, place, or a particular ministry position.

A major change among North American Mennonites has been the growing openness to the ordination of women within the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church; the Mennonite Brethren Church at the present time (1987) does not accept women for ordination, though the issue continues to be discussed. In 1974 the General Conference Mennonite Church passed a resolution on ordination which committed the church to "Affirming that in Christ there is neither male nor female and that God is no respecter of persons, neither race nor class, nor sex should be considered barriers in calling a minister." In 1987 44 women were in licensed or ordained ministry positions in the General Conference Mennonite Church, either as pastors or as chaplains. In the Mennonite Church the issue is being debated on an area conference basis. Half of the conferences are ready to ordain women, and 34 women are serving in licensed or ordained ministerial leadership positions in the Mennonite Church. Included in the above numbers are 14 women who serve in dual-affiliated congregations (1987).

The 1980s saw again much discussion concerning the understanding of ordination among North American Mennonites. Among Mennonite Brethren the discussion centered in their seminary community, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary of Fresno, Cal. In the Mennonite Church there were a series of consultations and documents: "Leadership and authority in the life of the church" (1981) and "Consultation on ordination" (1986). The General Conference Committee on the Ministry gave leadership also in 1986 to a consultation to evaluate a document "Ordinal: ministry and ordination in the General Conference Mennonite Church." As a result of the two consultations in 1986, there was a strong sense of convergence in understanding ordination and a process was begun for these two groups to develop a common polity statement on ministry and ordination. In addition to the consensus around the overarching threefold ministry tradition (oversight, pastor-special ministries, and lay ministry), there is an agreement in the use of terminology (licensing, ordination and commissioning). Licensing is an initial approval for ministry, given to a candidate for ordination. The short time of one or two years of licensed ministry is understood as a period for testing and discernment by the candidate and the church as to whether or not ministry can be confirmed in ordination. Ordination is a rite of the church giving approval for ministry within and for the church; it is understood as a long-term ongoing commitment to ministerial leadership. Commissioning is an approval for ministry which is limited to a particular time or term, or limited to a particular place or task. It may be the appropriate approval for those serving the church as lay ministers.

Discussion continued in the 1980s in several Mennonite denominations around other issues related to ordination. (1) Should ordination be seen in a strongly functional manner -- for persons assigned specific tasks or because of their special gifts, or should ordination invest in the person a representational quality of the position of leadership for the church? Related to this question is the issue of whether ordination has to do with "being" or only with "doing." (2) What is the place of ordination for those in so-called special ministries: chaplains, pastoral counselors, administrators of church institutions, etc.? There is generally a strong sense that chaplains should be viewed as the church's ministry in the world and that they are therefore appropriately considered a part of ordained ministry. But there is less clarity about others. (3) Is ordination for life or is it limited by actual functioning in a ministry role? In a time of changing vocations, should ordination at least be voluntarily laid aside when one no longer serves in the church's ministry? (4) Is ordination tied to professional ministry (training, vocational commitment and accountability) or should ordination be granted to a broader group of leadership persons in congregations'? (5) Is ordination the responsibility of each separate congregation, or should the church carry out ordination in a more connectional system of congregations, area conferences and denomination? Issues of authority and accountability are being widely discussed. (6) What is the authority for the termination of ordination in cases of moral failure or substantial theological digression?

In the ferment around ordination there continues to be a strong commitment among Anabaptist-Mennonites of the need for effective leadership within the church. Thus ordination continues to be used (1) in recognizing the personal gifts of leadership, (2) by offering the privilege and the responsibility to exercise that leadership in a representative position for the church, and (3) for providing boundary clarity for the respective roles and functions of clergy and laity. -- JAE


Janzen, A. E. and Herbert Giesbrecht. We Recommend: Recommendations and Resolutions of the General Conference the Mennonite Brethren Churches. Fresno, CA: MB Board of Christian Literature, 1978.

Leadership and Authority in the Life of the Church: a Summary Statement. Scottdale, PA 1982.

Ordinal: Ministry and Ordination in the General Conference Mennonite Church. Newton, KS: Committee on the Ministry 1987.

Pannabecker, Samuel Floyd. Open Doors: a History a the General Conference Mennonite Church. Newton, KS 1975.

Statement of Convergence: Consultation on Ordination in the Mennonite Church. Elkhart, IN: MC Board of Congregational Ministries, 1986.

Toews, John A. History of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Fresno, CA: Mennonite Brethren Board of Literature and Education, 1975.

Additional Information

Leadership and Authority in the Life of the Church (Mennonite Church, 1981)

Ordination (Mennonite Brethren, 1997)

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
John A. Esau
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and John A. Esau. "Ordination." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 22 Mar 2019. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Ordination&oldid=162953.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and John A. Esau. (1989). Ordination. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 March 2019, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Ordination&oldid=162953.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 73, v. 5, pp. 660-662. All rights reserved.

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