In a previous era of Protestant missions, it was very common for evangelistic missionaries to be ordained (or married to an ordained man). There were exceptions, of course, if you were a school teacher or doctor (or a woman). But for men who went to the mission field to do evangelism and church planting as their primary task, ordination was often expected. That has gradually changed over the years, beginning in the 19th century with some interdenominational faith missions, and in the present day, it is very common for evangelistic missionaries to not be ordained. A minority might be, but it is not necessarily expected in many missions circles, be it denominational missions or interdenominational groups.
Does ordination matter? Theologically, I think there is meaning and significance to ordination. In practical terms, it depends on the context. In some cultural contexts, it is very important. In other cultural contexts, it isn't. In some creative access contexts, there would be great danger in being known as an ordained minister. But even in open access contexts in a given culture or country, some churches value it highly and others don’t.
The question I want to answer in this brief post is whether missionaries should seek formal ordination by their home church (or church denomination). There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but I want to suggest some personal and practical benefits of ordination that a missionary (or potential missionary) would do well to consider in deciding whether seeking ordination is best in their given situation. Providing a full theology of ordination, however, is beyond the scope of this post.
Personal Benefits of Ordination
I initially went to the mission field for a few years to teach English and only afterward went to seminary to get a Masters of Divinity. That was a good choice for me as I got some cross-cultural ministry experience before getting any formal theological training. During my seminary years, I started to pursue ordination and (after graduation and a change of denominations) I got ordained before my wife and I went to Thailand for our first 4-year term of missionary service. Going through the ordination process forced me to think more deeply and make some decisions about what I thought on some issues because my denomination has certain positions which they maintain on things like baptism, charismatic gifts, church government, etc. The interdenominational evangelical seminary I went to didn’t force me to take any hard and fast positions on many issues as long as I had something reasonably intelligent to say in my written work and tests that fell within the broad spectrum of evangelicalism. Thus, the ordination process forced me to have a more developed understanding of the Bible and theology, and what my positions were on various issues and topics before entering into a full-time cross-cultural context where I would be faced with a whole host of other questions and issues.
When I was actually ordained, namely when the ministers of the Presbytery examined and then laid hands on me, I gained a greater sense of affirmation of my call to the ministry of the Gospel. It was really good to know that someone beyond myself thinks that I am competent to do what I will be doing. Of course, there is some experience of this affirmation when your home congregation sends you out or when a mission agency approves you to work with them; but because the ordination standards were so rigorous, I felt like it was really something for an entire Presbytery to say, “We believe that this man is competent to preach the Gospel, to be a minister of the Word and Sacrament.” This is very subjective, I understand, but it was a great boost of confidence as I headed into full-time ministry.
Being ordained, I have also felt a heightened sense of accountability because of my ordination vows. Not that there is no accountability without ordination, but as an ordained minister I have made a public statement that the teaching and doctrine of my church is true and that I will teach this. If I were to veer away from the doctrine that I have said I profess, that would be a serious thing that I would have to consider deeply, and if I ever find myself to no longer hold that doctrine, I would need to report that to my Presbytery. This doesn’t preclude growth or development in one’s understanding of Scripture and its application, but ordination has meant a heightened sense of responsibility and accountability as I minister overseas.
Ministry Benefits of Ordination
On the home side, ordination can be a handy calling card, showing people you are not a lone ranger. There is a church body that has examined you and judged you competent to preach and minister, and that church could potentially be called upon to verify that you are who you say you are. One of the reasons early Lutherans valued ordination was to protect against intruders who would come in and teach false doctrine in their congregations. Likewise, one of the reasons for the formation of the Assemblies of God, the first Pentecostal denomination, was to guard against charlatans who itinerated from place to place teaching odd things and fleecing money from unsuspecting believers.
Being able to say, “I am an ordained minister in such-and-such a church” (or simply include “Rev.” in your written correspondence) lends greater credibility and can open opportunities that may not be open otherwise. In my experience, many churches are more likely to give the pulpit to a visiting missionary who is also an ordained minister, as compared to one who is not ordained. Preaching is many times a more effective way of furthering your connection with a whole congregation than a two minute “Moment for Mission” during the Sunday service or even speaking to a Sunday school class. If a congregation is blessed by being taught the Word by a missionary through the regular Sunday sermon, even if the sermon has little to do with missions per se, that gives people a window into the type of teaching you do on the mission field, and speaks in your favor when people are considering which missionaries they really want to get behind.
On the mission field, many people may not know you are ordained, and it may not matter, especially in evangelism. But in various church circles around the world, it does matter. In Western cultures, there is a tendency to judge people based on their accomplishments rather than their degrees or titles. Not that the latter don't matter at all, but Western societies tend to be status-earned rather than status-ascribed cultures. However, in East Asia, and many other places, your family background, personal connections, and formally held roles, titles, or degrees carry more weight. Status is ascribed more easily, even before people look at your personal accomplishments. Titles and letters before your name do make a difference in terms of credibility. That’s why there is a cottage industry of fake diploma mills and rush-job ordinations to get increased status and credibility with little to no work. Of course, in the same way that the degree doesn’t make the man, ordination doesn’t make a person into someone more than they already are. But in the minds of some, the fact that you are ordained says something about the quality of your teaching and character. That can be a foot-in-the-door so that the quality teaching and ministry that you have to offer is given a chance to show itself. Letters before your name can get you in the door, but once you are in, you need to prove yourself if you want to be invited back.
In the mission context, there are many who want to be involved in pastoral training. This is a great thing, and you don’t necessarily need to be ordained to do this, but holding formal ordination credentials can communicate that you yourself have obtained the minimum requirements of being a pastor in your own country, and thus you are qualified to be teaching others about being a pastor.
Should Missionaries Seek Ordination?
If you are looking to impress others or boost your ego by getting some letters before your name, the answer is “No.” But if you want an established church body to help you become the best you can be for the sake of serving in the Kingdom of God and to stand behind you so you have maximal opportunities for service, the answer may be “Yes.” Not every type of missionary work is benefited by, or requires, ordination and there are examples of self-taught men without degrees or ordination who have very effective ministries. However, for the reasons above, men who will be primarily working in the area of teaching, evangelism, church planting, or local church ministry leadership (or leadership training) should seriously consider ordination if your church (or church denomination) has a practice of ordaining people.