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Do we do a good job in discerning priestly vocations?

Do we do a good job in discerning priestly vocations?

Our item on why people don’t go to church is eliciting some heartfelt comments. This one from Ben Miller speaks to what he sees as problems in the way in which we discern priestly vocations. Miller writes:

I attended a recent ordination of someone to the diaconate. The priest, visiting to the Cathederal from the home parish of the postulant was the homilist. I sat totally absorbed in what he preceded to say. He explained that we do, in fact, live, in a post modern/post Christian world. He went on to state that being Christian is now no longer the norm and that the wearing of a clerical collar no longer commands the social status and respect it once did. In essence, he said that to be Christian today is countercultural. He then went on to state in more or less words how convoluted and excruciating the TEC’s process for discernment and recommendation for the ordained ministry was and how he thought perhaps it was more complicated than it should be.

As I sat there and listened along with everyone else, including the bishop of the diocese, I thought to myself how true. How very, very true.

Christianity started out as a countercultural movement and here it is again in our postmodern world in the same state it started out in.

Ignorance fuels the rejection of Christ’s Good News. Bureaucracy stalls the intimacy, and at times, blocks the love of God to others. Many good and worthy people have been turned away, not only from taking Holy Orders, but at the very doors of parishes and shunned at typical “coffee hour” following the average Episcopal mass. Why is this?

When one discerns for the ordained ministry in TEC, the entirety of one’s life is picked apart, analyzed and judged as being worthy of recommendation to the bishop for ordination. Is it any wonder that those who pass the strictures of said processes often act if they are somehow superior to those not “in the club”? Likewise, those who are rejected are often broken and many even leave the church, permanently. I’m not advocating a doing away with discernment processes etc, etc, as they do have a purpose. I am advocating a return to the simple message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus passed a fishing boat one day, He said to the men working, “Come. Follow me.” He didn’t say endure the Spanish Inquisition and then maybe I’ll think about letting you follow me.

I say all this because when I recently asked someone in a position of power on one of these committees where, aside from the empirical evidence gathered, what spiritual means of discernment were being employed for the selection of candidates. The answer I received was at best ambiguous.

It appears to me that many in the TEC are what one would call the bourgeois of society. Typically, well to do, highly educated, with a nice space of insulation from the broader more real oppression, suffering, hunger and injustice facing our world. Not everyone in TEC, but many.

If you don’t fit the profile, your ignored. The instances of snobbery and cliquishness I have encountered in a number of parishes in TEC is enough for the average Joe to start running for the nearest exit.

Often in the Christian church its like the parents eating its own offspring.

After centuries of harm done in the name of God its time for the healing and reconciling work of Christ to begin. It is by the grace of God, that many faithful remain, putting up with political and religious clichés, feigned spirituality from the church’s ministers and general lack of real meaningful interaction and dialogue between the congregation and clergy.

Is it any wonder people aren’t beating down our doors to join the church?

Jump through hoops and then maybe we’ll consider you is not the message of Jesus Christ. The message that I know is come to me ALL who are heavy burdened and I will refresh you.

Is it any wonder there is such a decline in “mainline” denominations?

I adjure you remain, you prophets, you who aren’t afraid to be countercultural, you who would stand up in the face of hypocrisy and legalism. God is calling us All to be His body. It is up to us to answer that call.


What do you think? My own sense is that we frequently ordain people who are clearly individuals of integrity on a deep spiritual journey, but who do not excel in enough of the things that a parish priest must do to actually help the church to thrive. Yet they are willing to serve, and that counts for a great deal.

How would you revise the ways in which we nourish and discern vocations?


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Jonathan Galliher

Ben Varnum, since we already have all those other bits, what’s the point of the Commission on Ministry? What benefits do they add that are neither profoundly dependent on having high quality people nor redundant or of poorer quality than could be achieved by some other means?

As for myself, I was in the ordination process from around 2002-2004. It didn’t go well and I never made it past the parish discernment committee. There were plenty of faults on both sides. Since then I’ve experienced both the monastic discernment process, and the informal discernment help that is on offer for those not in the ordination process. While the monastic process deserves quite high marks, what we offer lay folks is much worse even compared to what’s on offer for potential clergy.


Firstly, let me say I am honored that my editorial was featured in the fourth quarter highlights.

I am also pleased that my comments sparked such a lovely debate.

In regard to getting people “riled” up if that’s one reaction you are most entitled to your opinion.

I would like to address comments by Benedict Varnum specifically. Let me say that your use of the term “bounce” was written by you and not me. I can understand that the term “hoops” may elicit the game of basketball, but that was not my intent. Also, my editorial comments, to give everyone a better context, was a response to discernment and why people don’t go to church.

Yes, every Christian has a commission to ministry by their baptismal covenants, that much is true.

Also, there are most definitely ordained and non ordained ministries for every Christian. In fact, every interaction with another individual is an opportunity for ministry.

Again, some of the facetious comments made by some missed the mark on this totally.

I reiterate that discernment processes have an intended purpose, with obvious reasons.

I propose that said processes are not perfect, should be open to correction themselves, and perhaps reformed to incorporate more spiritual versus empirical practices to conduct them.

Also, who gives the COM the authority to say who’s called and who’s not, as one writer questioned?

The one writer who stated that his bishop suggest he be a shaman is reprehensible. Do we want priests of spiritual caliber or CEO of major corporations?

I agree with others, separation of priestly duties from those likened to a CEO of a church is an excellent idea. This might even actually allow a priest to be a priest, instead of some entrepreneurial salesman trying to sell somebody something.

How many of our clergy are atheists and how many ordained are merely posers enjoying the merriment of a social club and the role associated therewith?

There were so many good points to most of the replies. It was very interesting.~Ben Miller

Benedict Varnum

Jonathan, I’m not clear whether you’ve been through a discernment process or not, but the process already includes the steps you’re describing: the first step is 6-12 months’ conversation with a known priest, who determines whether to undertake sponsorship of the candidate. In fact, many dioceses are encouraging their priests to identify the nominees, rather than have the nominees self-announce.

The process also calls for reports from seminary deans/professors, CPE supervisors, and often a psychological evaluator. None of these steps are done by committee. When the nominee has a standing relationship with a spiritual director, I’d be shocked if the diocese would not accept a letter from that person if it were offered. Many processes advise that the nominee have a relationship with a spiritual director or clinical therapist throughout, precisely because ordination is something that calls for bringing all of oneself to the table, which can require encountering, confronting, and sometimes changing our own imperfect parts. CPE is a strong part of this as well.

So, if the question is “Does the process have space in it for smaller conversations and relationships to weigh in?” the answer is, “Yes, that’s already there, and in abundance.” If the question is, “Should the process include Christian testimony and the ability to address theological topics in a way that is both personal and academic before a gathered group of members of the church?” my answer is, “Yes, that should also be there.” Many people actually find speaking to the committee to be an easier task than, say, completing seminary or the General Ordination Exams.

There seems to be pretty solid evidence in the life of the early church that proclaiming your relationship with God is fundamental not only to ordained ministry, but to Christian life (1 Peter 3:15 comes to mind immediately, together with much of the book of Acts).

I can also say that my process has been a gift to me, and not merely because it confirmed the outcome I had wondered about. Through the process I learned more about myself than I have anywhere else. I found my closest moments of relationship with God. I received a great deal of emotional care and grace from the commission on ministry in my sponsoring diocese, as well as the listeners who attended my postulancy interview retreat, the diocesan staff, the bishop, my sponsoring rector, and my parish discernment committee. I learned a good deal about hospitality and care from the examples they offered me.

Jonathan Galliher

Thanks for the citation Ann, I’m glad to know that my faulty memory didn’t lead me to make things up entirely even though I did connect the thought with the wrong name.

Bill, how can one process an emotional response without first recognizing and admitting what the emotional response is, without admitting that the emotion is real regardless of how well or poorly it is grounded in reality? The “should” questions and/or statements belong in the middle of the process not the beginning.

As for assessing a candidate’s spiritual life and their competence as a spiritual director, why would anyone in their right mind try to do any of that by committee? If one wants to know that a candidate has a spiritual life it would be more efficient to ask their spiritual director and/or seminary professors for a report. If one wants to know if a candidate understands the basics of the spiritual life well enough to teach others and provide basic spiritual and pastoral care, both should be covered in seminary between the class work and CPE with the candidate’s competency assessed as part of the training. Both of these are end-of-seminary questions not you’ve-expressed-an-interest questions by the by. Before seminary there isn’t much to ask beyond “Do you pray? Tell me about that. Pretend I’m just a friendly stranger.”

Really the only things the committee is better at is providing a check on the bishop to ensure that s/he is neither turning down good candidates without reason nor ordaining incompetent priests, and providing a chance for a few more people in the diocese to get to know the candidates.

Jonathan Galliher

Bill Dilworth

“Ben and Bill, if you don’t like the rape comparison complain to Paige Baker, she’s the one who reported up stream that some people feel so violated by.”

Paige reported; you affirmed. At any rate, the rape comparison is way over the top.

“Although it might behoove you to consider how appropriate it is for you to pooh-pooh the emotional response of others.”

I object to the comparison (“pooh-pooh” is your own minimizing characterization) partly from my own emotional response. If everything one feels is true and to be accepted without objection by the world at large, I’m not sure where that leaves us.

“That’s why it isn’t really appropriate to pry into a candidates spiritual life.”

It might be inappropriate prying if the person sought to be an accountant, or a doctor, or a bus driver. As it is, these are people who want (because in the absence of any verification of their call that’s what it amounts to) to exercise the role of pastor, teacher, priest – in short, to exercise a certain amount of authority and power over other people’s spiritual lives. Inquiring into their own spiritual life isn’t prying, but the Church exercising due diligence in the persons of CoM members.

Is it always done with tact and sensitivity? Undoubtedly not, human beings being involved. But that’s not a call for abolition so much as reform.

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