Making it hard for young people to explore a priestly vocation

By Martin L. Smith

On July 4th I celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I have a slight claim to regard this as special, because I was ordained under the minimum age laid down in canon law. The Archbishop of Canterbury issued special licenses as I was still 22 when I became a deacon and still in my 23rd year-just-when I was ordained priest. So while I can't be certain that I wasn't beaten to the record somewhere by a few days, there is probably no Anglican of my age ordained longer. I was theologically precocious, and though I did have five intense years of theological education behind me, I certainly looked younger than many members of my parish youth club. On my house visits for funeral and baptism planning, I would have to work to get past the initial reaction of utter incredulity which my appearance often excited. I'm still pondering the significance of being ordained so young.

Back then, we were taught that priests were primarily trained by lay people in parishes-seminary was just groundwork. And we made ourselves living proof of that philosophy. We were ordained as pastoral apprentices, not experts or professionals, and ordained ministry was geared to maximize personal pastoral encounters from which we would learn and grow in the field.

On a ferry crossing from England to Holland I had one of those rare prayer experiences when we hear a distinct voice, a clear word from God. I heard these words clearly and simply: "priesthood is people." This was completely consistent with our culture of spiritual apprenticeship. This culture required maturity and responsibility from lay people to trust the young newly ordained and put them through their pastoral paces. In exchange, people benefited from the vigor, energy and imagination of young pastors. I look back with amazement at the gusto and inventiveness with which my friends and I threw ourselves into parish life in our early and mid 20s.

It's hardly any wonder that I came to feel so many misgivings about very different attitudes that took over in the Episcopal Church in the decades that followed, which caused the average age of the newly ordained to climb well into middle age. There was a phase when men and women in their 20s seemed to be discounted as proper candidates for ordination. Whether people seriously believed the blanket theories about the 'need for life experience,' or whether it was just a cover for ushering into the process a majority of middle aged people, I am not sure. I am certain that these attitudes thwarted the Spirit of God in hundreds of stillborn vocations.

Now, I have been in the business of nurturing and mentoring candidates for ministry for decades, and I know perfectly well that "the Spirit blows where it wants." I have rejoiced in the work of discernment and preparation with dozens and dozens of people in the second half of life. But I didn't rejoice at all in the policies that resulted in a cumulative graying of the clergy. And I believe I have earned my right to be skeptical about the design of most of those bureaucratic contraptions called "our ordination process," whose successive models seem to need constant tinkering, only to replaced altogether as yet another ecclesiastical lemon. In many cases they have proved to be grim deterrents to young people exploring a call to the priesthood.

Forty years on, and I am convinced that the church needs to be much less passive about exciting young women and men with the possibility that God wants to recruit the energy and gifts they have precisely as young people, to re-invigorate the ordained ministry from within. We have superb potential leaders among our college age men and women-and younger! I was actively cultivated in my teens as a potential priest, and my discernment was taken really seriously. Are we singling out young people of every cultural and class background as potential priests? Are we willing to forge very flexible instruments of discernment and preparation that can train them in time to devote energetic and creative years to reshaping the life of our parishes? How will we create the "apprenticeship" situations for the young newly ordained that will stretch and deepen them and give opportunity for their creativity? With financial constraints thinning out assistants' positions, how will we make it a priority to incorporate young women and men into the pastoral life in ways which are healthy and inviting for them and their families?


Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiri- tual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba's, D.C.

Comments (12)

Martin Smith asks some good questions. I work with college students in my college ministry work, a few even who feel a strong call to explore ordained ministry. One student's bishop wants him to wait a year after college before attending seminary. But he's ready to start right after college, and I don't see why he should have to wait. I myself was delayed for a year in my own ordination process as a young person.

While I understand that there is something to waiting, not rushing, taking one's time, etc.--and I gained a lot from doing a young adult internship through the Episcopal Church before attending seminary--I think the church sometimes devalues candidates' own readiness, willingness, and vigor that they bring to their callings. I see nothing wrong with encouraging the eagerness in young adults, especially as our church continues to gray. And I'm sure I wasn't the only young adult who lost some momentum and passion for my calling in having to wait. Why shouldn't we encourage the energy and creativity of young adults passionate for a vocation who by canons are old enough to serve as lay leaders in their churches but must jump through a long and dizzying set of hoops before they can serve as ordained leaders?

Do we find our young people too liberal (politically or theologically)? Do we fear that they will change the church too much? Do we just like to talk about change and renewal and reformation without really encouraging it or acting upon it? Some churches and dioceses have acted very effectively in this way, and I have many young adult colleagues from seminary who are being greatly encouraged in their ministries. But I have no doubt that there is indeed more that we could be doing in this regard.

Martin, bravo! Full-disclosure: I was one of those mid-life career change priests, and I am grateful that I have a variety of experiences and skills that I have brought to my ministry. I'm a pretty good priest, I think, but I would doubt that I have anything like the level of energy and creativity that some of my younger seminary classmates had. I also worry that we devise a system of discernment and formation that is "one size fits all" and is based upon the prior experience of priests who went through the process decades ago. Different people should have different paths to ministry - God draws us to this work in God's time, not by some arbitrary chronological marker decided by a committee. I hope diocesan committees who have a role in discernment will recognize that a process that is made uniform simply for the convenience of the committee may not serve God's creative spark in potential ordained persons.

This also does require that transition ministry professionals who help parishes find gifted clergy (no matter what their age) will teach those parishes that not all candidates that might service fit a pattern of "male, 30 years old, married, 2 kids, a labrador retriever and a Volvo."

Some may be 25 year old single women. Some may be 45 year old divorced men.

Who knows! Why limit the gifts that God has distributed among God's people?

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YES! My own experience includes ordination to diaconate at 24 and priesthood at 25 (thirty-nine years ago), joining Presbyterian presbyters ordaining my mother after I'd been a priest for a dozen years and she was in her early sixties. She's still working in her later 80's, and pushing hard on our local Commission on Ministry when my congregation presented a half dozen wonderful aspirants including my twenty-something son. Later on the C.O.M. myself, I struggled with our formulaic, gate-keeping impulses - "too old," "too young," "authority problem?" etc. We were working to break out of an inherited agreement that good ordinands (in respect of age and vocational path) looked pretty much alike. No problem with LGBT, women, people of color, divorced, and other communally acknowledged diversity markers, but we seemed to want institutional team players with life experience. Thank God that our bishop was supportive of reclaiming lost ground and welcoming people who were moved by a wildly unpredictable Spirit and who were excited enough about visioning and serving in holy community that they might threaten us a little bit.

For a long time there was a policy that anyone - not just younger persons - who applied for ordination had to do an "internship" (unpaid of course) before being admitted to the process. There did not seem to be trust in the local community who presented the person to the bishop in the first place. It was also a way of saying no without actually having to bite the bullet.

Let me just say --with trepidation and in a limited way because I don't feel safe to say more while I am still in the ordination process, and it already feels very risky to write a response at all-- that the problem is not only with encouraging and nurturing younger people. It is also with welcoming middle-aged people who may have vast ecclesial, ministerial, and other experience but who do not fit the cookie-cutter mold we unconsciously or consciously apply when we think "clergy."

It is inaccurate to say that older aspirants are more welcome than are younger ones. Many older aspirants (and postulants, and candidates) grow even older as the hurdles (the same "long and dizzying set of hoops" mentioned in this essay) erected before them multiply. And multiply. For years.

Martin Smith asks: "Do we find our young people too liberal (politically or theologically)? Do we fear that they will change the church too much? Do we just like to talk about change and renewal and reformation without really encouraging it or acting upon it?" Fair enough. and excellent questions. But this can be said also of (some) middle-aged people in the ordination process.

I agree very much with you, Martin, about the need for attentiveness to the wild and blessed Spirit of God and the need not to thwart vocations to ordained ministry. But this warning applies across the generations.

The problem is less generational and more that while we (I mean we in the Episcopal Church) wring our hands about the need for new blood,for diverse cultural and ministerial experiences, for leaders with the courage and creativity to nurture new forms of church (cherishing tradition and finding ways to help incarnate it anew), we do not, when people show up embodying all of these qualities, welcome them and their gifts with enthusiasm. Too often we are frightened of them or try to mold them into what they are not.

There are also cultural and racial dimensions to this issue. Cultural styles are a major factor in this still White- and Anglo-dominated church and in its ordination process, and we still have much to learn and ponder in this area. The Rev. Stephanie Spellers (Diocese of Massachusetts), who spoke at our diocesan convention (Diocese of North Carolina) last January at the invitation of our Bishop, asked (among many thoughtful questions) whether when we worry about "throwing out the baby with the bathwater" we really know --and take time to ask ourselves -- what the baby really is. (And the following questions are mine.) Is it a particular kind of institutional maintenance? It is an acceptable level of Anglo-ness? (In the way people speak, in the music they love, in the forms of community they embody and are gifted at sustaining.) Or is it, as Stephanie observed, the Anglican gift of incarnating the Gospel in the vernacular in the full sense?

These cultural observations may sound unrelated to your original point and to my related first point. But they are not. They are part of the same problem.

I am not denying that there are *also* generational issues to which we need to attend. As a campus ministry associate, spiritual director, and college professor, I spend a lot of time with young adults, some of whom yearn to bring their energy, ideas, and other gifts into church ministry, whether in our church or in another faith community. What I do think is that the generational issue is part of a much broader and deeper complex of issues. I hope that I have, however awkwardly, begun to describe a little of what I have both experienced and observed.

Jane Carol Redmont

Long ago when I was in the process, I was required to wait a year. At the time, most applicants from our diocese were young, even though most of my seminary colleagues were second career folks. The reason I was asked to wait was pragmatic, and was bluntly stated. Good people with a sense of vocation were educated and ordained, and yet still left the priesthood after ten or twelve years. The year waiting was to make sure we could make a living if we found ourselves leaving the ministry. For the younger candidate, that might still be a good idea.

I still continue to be concerned less about the age of those experiencing a call, and more about lack of foundation. Age and greater experience are no guarantee of better background - basic knowledge of Scripture, familiarity with and formation in the liturgy - with more time there is more opportunity.

Marshall Scott

Sometimes it seems like that TEC "Welcome" sign has an invisible footnote: "... but wait."

At times, I muse upon the fact that we're all waiting for the Second Coming and very occasionally, I wonder whether the Lord will be back before that footnote gets erased. Mostly, without offering to interfere in God's scheduling, I pray not. But then, there are those very trying days when I imagine the Lord arriving to announce, "... and for My Anglican followers, you guys can stop waiting now."

A year-long wait allows the world to make its' offer and the newly graduated, aspiring priest to embrace it or not. Given the current world economy, I'm doubtful of its' usefulness other-employment-wise, but it still relates to matters of marriage, family, and future... and youthful impetuousity... and mature regret. But does it serve the Church? Do the time-honored and perhaps time-worn "hoops" and "hurdles" serve God? Do they form the basis of the tools of good ministry? Do we see evidence of their obsolescence? Is it time for greater flexibility?

Sufficiency in simplicity without abandonment of necessity has been our tradition, and it's given us a Church of wondrous vigor, intellectual strength, and spiritual integrity which we want to see upheld in each generation of clergy. Yet it's not uncommon to see a fine Episcopal priest, gifted with the ability to convey a brilliant concordance of millenniae of church history and philosophy struck silent by the far less educated yet habitual quoter of Chapter and Verse. It has all the pathos of watching "Jesus vs. The Sanhedron," and it's equally rigged by human reliance on perceived displays of "authority in writing" rather than true appreciation of genuine understanding and spiritual depth. Observing it, we all see that... and sigh.

Yet is the church stuck in the Sanhedron's role when it comes to handling calling and vocation?
To some degree, it seems so.

While a year to consider the seductions and honest offers of secular life may benefit the candidate who's barely left the nest, it's a left-handed monkey wrench for the older aspirant. Likewise, the mature candidate who's survived the church's long trek to catch up with their calling probably isn't the ideal prospect for a youth ministry to adolescent crack babies whose hyperactivity has caused them to be easy marks for drug gangs, while the newly graduated candidate offers real potential as a part-time assistant in that mission even while still in seminary.

When we address questions of methodology, especially those which have arisen over time and developed out of changed circumstances, we are invited to reconsider our foundations and recall how time and change brought TEC into being. We should not flinch from remembering how serving as a voice of reason has served the Communion and TEC. Nor should we be shy about applying reason to the questions.

Greater flexibility can only be achieved by cooperative interaction between individual discernment committee members, individual mentors - both assigned and occasional, staff of prospective seminaries, and inquiring, interested diocesian bodies led by an engaged, interested, actively supportive episcopate. The process was originally intended to be individualized, and the bones of that structure remain.

Perhaps what we need is to flesh them out again.

Dear Cyberia - I hope that this is your real name. We require that in comments. If there is some reason of personal safety that makes it impossible - sent us a note. ~ed.

I'm glad for this conversation. Second pass, watching the conversaton unfold and I'm thinking our 'process' often presents itself as a hazing. I've made a couple of passes here at writing personal stories and the stories I've heard from colleagues young and old about the welcome (or lack of it) we received before and immediately after seminary. I'm finding it hard to write the stories (even my own very old one) without framing them as grievance rather than grief, and without wondering whether my friends would want their stories told (even if I'm careful to cover identity). I think the grief is that our scrutiny of ordinands and of the newly ordained is charged with skepticism and suspicion. Though we intend something quite different the aspirant, postulant, candidate and newly ordained person often hears and feels something that amounts to,
'too spirited' (too much Spirit?),
idealistic,
naive,
self-absorbed, and ultimately
"may not be a reliable institutional loyalist."
It feels as if we're testing vision and passion with time-honored cynicism, like refining gold with cyanide.
How much of our current disconnect from our society, how much of the graying of our church, how much of its becoming less rather than more reflective of our nation's new cultural and ethnic diversity, comes from the training in organization, bureaucratic procedure that we call a discernment process? How much of our loss young participants comes from a generation and a half of saying to potential young leaders that people of 'your age' don't yet have anything to contribute to the spiritual life of our communities?

Thanks, Martin, for the important questions. My perception is that the discernment has been shifted too much to the diocesan offices and Commissions on Ministry, and that more needs to be done to encourage discernment and support at, in, and through the parish. I've seen too many good candidates presented and rejected by COMs for quite frivolous reasons; and I've seen bishops (wisely) act contrary to the COM recommendations. Why have such a painful system that doesn't work well? It isn't just a matter of efficiency (though there is that!) but the hubris that seems to think a small group of folks can determine in a couple of interviews over the course of a day or two what a parish cannot do over a period of years!

In my perfect model, I would commend internship still -- at another parish of a different worship or cultural style, if possible -- but can the diocesan level "discernment" for the flawed thing it is.

(Of course, this means equipping parishes for discernment, including the ability to say No if it really is No. But if a handful of parishes in each diocese could be devoted to priestly formation, as hosts much as parishes serve for seminarian field placement, young (or older) vocationers could spend a time of focused discernment in that setting after the initial Yes from their home parish.)

I've seen too many good candidates presented and rejected by COMs for quite frivolous reasons;

I've had a number of friends go through the ordination process--both to the vocational diaconate and to the priesthood.

Almost all of them have described the process as abusive--more than one has told me "I feel violated."

I have been shocked by the questions they have been asked by COM members--questions that would be illegal in any corporate setting and some of which have profoundly violated the candidate's sense of safety and boundaries. To my knowledge, no other member of the COM has ever stepped in to say "You are out of line" to another person on the committee. Candidates do not feel they have the ability to refuse ANY question or demand by the COM, no matter how demeaning or abusive, because that group has the ability to say "God hasn't REALLY called you, so run along now" if they do.

From where I sit, the process is more akin to fraternity hazing than anything that Christians ought to be involved in. Should we REALLY require our candidates to go through psychological abuse in order to prove that they are "worthy" to be ordained?

You probably know the old joke: What do Lesbians bring to their second date? A U-Haul. Another occurs to me: What do keen young Anglican converts desire after Confirmation? Ordination.

At least I went through that. The priesthood seemed to offer the full scope for realizing what I was coming into the church for. (I saw the diocesan psychologist and the bishop, and was told to cool it.) More than the question of discerning vocations, it seems to me that the larger issue is, What is there about the way we do church that invests so much attention and glamour in the priesthood? In practice, a parish priest is running a small business on uncertain income; and a diocese has only so many paying jobs to fill. Mystifying the office and the process confuses matters. If this seems an unduly secular view, well, the present discernment process is a bureaucratic horror. Tobias Haller suggests relying more on parish congregations for the development of vocations. Minus intrusive prying questions, that might be a start.

Having come from a tradition where men (and only men) are ordained to priesthood at age 12 (the LDS/Mormon Church), I wonder if we should tend to the other direction- ordain MORE people to it who have gifts and focus LESS on the 'seminary' education because, frankly, all of the baptized should be well-raised in the faith. Given that Episcopalians are generally converts who CHOOSE the faith, there's no reason that they shouldn't be given a great variety of tools to think theologically and spiritually. Or do we rush to have another convert? Do we rush to baptize/receive and slam on the brakes for ordination? I'd think that the indissoluble incorporation into the Body of Christ and His Royal Priesthood should take much more time of reflection and preparation than ordination for priesthood.

We may focus so much on molding ordinands and postulants "in our own image" who seem 'priestly'. It becomes an elite club because so few are let into it because there are not as many full time clerics as there used to be due to budgetary constraints. That I understand, but then perhaps we need to shift from priesthood-as-career? Maybe we need to look at more volunteer clergy, especially in rural America or in small parishes which cannot afford a priest (or does that worry salaried clerics who fear they may be replaced?). And why should a small parish be stuck with just one locally-ordained cleric? Do we think we dilute the priesthood?

With MORE clergy, we could be given many different models for priestly / diaconal ministry.

Maybe St Ambrose could serve as an example that sometimes gifts are found in unlikely places: he was baptized, ordained a priest and consecrated a bishop all in the same week. Unthinkable! But the people (not the Commission on Ministry) saw that he would be a very good servant of God in the ministry of bishop.

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