by Gary Daynes
The Episcopal Church is challenged on many sides–its place in society is under question, its congregations are shrinking and aging, it is in discord about what it actually believes, it has lost its position of public influence, it wonders about its own relevance. It is also a vibrant entity–one where worship inspires awe, where the hardest questions are addressed with love, where every day in every parish people wake up thinking, praying, living, and serving in a framework shaped by the church and the Book of Common Prayer.
Given the severity of the challenges and the church’s vibrancy in spite of them, it may seem strange to ask the question that heads this essay. Or at the least, it is strange to give it a place of importance among all of the other questions that could be asked at this time. But the pathway to ordination assumes certain conditions in the church. Those conditions are disappearing. And so the question of the pathway to ordination is also a question about the church’s ability to imagine a future for itself, one that is true to God, to the gospel, to the body of Christ as it is, and to the traditions that make us Anglicans.
What does the pathway to ordination assume about the priesthood and about the church?
The most notable thing about the pathway is that it assumes stability–both in the size of the parish and the role of the priest. Only this assumption that could lead the church to think that an aspiring minister would go through discernment, the vocational diaconate, and at least three years (self-funded) in seminary before beginning to serve in a parish. To believe this is to believe that there is a stable role at the end of ministerial training, one that supports someone who has made this commitment, and that is best suited to a person with this sort of training.
These assumptions come from the mid-20th century. It was a time when church-going was widespread, when average parish size was larger, when the apparatus of the church was strong enough that the most important training for a minister was in the seminary (as opposed to in the classroom, the office, the home, the shop, the studio), when to be a minister was a career.
Linked with this historical context is a cultural one. The pathway to ordination assumes certain characteristics of aspiring priests–young, well-educated, seeking a full-time career in the ministry, financially stable (or adventuresome) enough to give up work for an extended period of time in order to enroll in seminary. It is simple to see how this view of the ministry favored men over women, urban over rural, and the prosperous over the poor, even while it did not formally exclude on the basis of gender, geography, or wealth.
And finally, it assumes a certain role for the priest, one where ministry is shaped by formal education, where a grasp of theology (broadly understood) is the primary (at least in terms of time and commitment) qualification for the ministry, and where parishes are strong enough to manage their finances, organize their outreach, provide their music, and act as the body of Christ.
Let me say three things about this set of assumptions. First, they served the church well. They were open enough to lead to the revisions in worship, in the gender of priests, in attuning the church’s social mission to the needs of (portions of) American society. Second, they have not always been the assumptions that shaped the ministry, as the history of the church, the story of Christianity’s origins, and the Book of Common Prayer’s approach to worship make clear. And third, they no longer align with the church’s challenges or the things that make it vibrant.
The church’s challenges and the pathway to ordination
The misalignment with the church’s challenges is the simplest thing to see. There are fewer parishes that can support a full-time minister, and even fewer that can support several full-time ministers. Therefore the career promise that would lead someone through the pathway to ordination is weaker than it was 50 years ago. The membership is aging, it is more diverse in race and class and it may not align with people who can go through the standard pathway to ordained ministry. And because of the diversity of the church and the numerical predominance of small parishes, it is likely that there will be more people called to the ministry whose life situations make it almost impossible to complete traditional ministerial training. This is true both for people who lack the educational and financial resources to commit to years of training without employment, and also to the people whose age and work mean that adhering to the call requires abandoning work, family, and connections–all commitments that serve the church well. Finally, the challenges of a contemporary parish demand financial, organizational, management, marketing, and community relations skills as well as theological training. The current system, though, does not acknowledge that an MBA is as important as an M.Div. in leading a church, if the church is thought of as the thing that extends beyond services on Sunday.
One may respond to these concerns in two ways. The first is to say that to follow the call to ministry has always been difficult, and that aspirants should be prepared to sacrifice nearly everything to accept it. This is true, and indeed, most of the priests I know have made that sort of sacrifice. Further, many aspirants are willing to do just that. The question, though, is whether the correct sacrifice should be experienced as spending several years in divinity training, or whether the sacrifices to be made are the biblical ones of a broken heart and contrite spirit. The second is to note that there are many ways for lay people to serve in the church, and so someone unable to go to seminary can serve the church deeply in other ways. This, too, is true. The Episcopal Church has expanded the role of lay ministers to the point where nearly all parish-based tasks can be completed by an unordained person. But still, the authority to officiate resides in the ordained, as does the accountability to God and the Bishop for the parish. The ability to jointly shape the practice and direction of the church adheres to the ordained. And the ability to guide worship in a way that brings the spirit to the service is in the domain of the ordained. For those called to these things, lay ministry is insufficient.
The church’s future vibrancy and the training of priests
If what I have argued is at all correct, the church may wish to shorten the pathway to ordination simply to maintain the status quo. Doing so would permit a larger stream of people to provide formal service in the church. It would also follow the behavior of nearly all other denominations who have created alternate pathways to the priesthood in an effort to serve the range of congregations that currently exist. And it would bring modestly more diversity to the ministry and leadership of the church.
The more important question is not about maintaining the church as it is, but instead about finding its way into a more vibrant future. It is this path-finding that would be well-served by more priests who come to the ministry through alternative means.
I am hardly the person to say what the future of the Episcopal Church must be, given my brief acquaintance with it. But it is possible to reason towards a set of futures, each informed by people who come to ordination by some other pathway.
Consider, for instance, a future where the church thinks of itself as a collection of small parishes, enlivened now and again by a few large ones. If small scale is taken as the norm rather than a symbol of decline, then the key question for the church is how to heighten the vibrancy of small gatherings of saints. That invigoration will rely on priests who have or can create deep connections with local communities. Currently such parishes are staffed by part-time priests, by missioners, or by retired clergy, all people whose connection to place is limited by the circumstances of their employment. But what if it were simpler to ordain local people and let them serve bivocationally? Doing so would make the priest an on-going presence in the local community and would make it possible for small parishes to afford a dedicated clergy-member. What is more, having a coterie of bivocational ministers would restore the presence of a form of ministry dating to the early church.
Bivocational ministers would also invigorate other forms of church structures–church plants, for instance, or house churches, or churches in nature or on the streets, or churches with ministries attuned to certain sorts of people–refugees, the mentally ill, the homeless. I dare say that there are members of the church today whose orientation to worship, careers, and connections situate them perfectly to experiment with alternative church structures in a more aggressive and purposeful way than is currently happening.
The list of opportunities emerging from a different pathway to ordination could be extended. Consider, for instance, the thirst that many people have for traditional liturgy and music. Right now, those things tend to exist in secondary worship services of larger parishes. But what if there were a morning prayer church whose worship was structured by time of day rather than day of the week? Or a church given fully to choral evensong, or contemplation, or common prayer? Or consider the evangelical possibilities for itinerant ministers, or the possibilities of having ordained Episcopal ministers who can give their service to social change, to community organizing, to the revitalization of neighborhoods on the margins, to the reassertion of a faith-filled vision in the grayness of public debate. Consider the opportunity to extend Episcopal schooling, now largely the domain of the privileged, to a broader range of students in a broader range of places. And consider the crying need for Episcopal media outlets to help shape the public discussion on culture, the arts, politics, and the characteristics of a good society.
It is true, I suppose, that in each of these cases the laity could lead. And it is also true that the church is making forays in many of these directions at the diocesan or higher level. But it is certainly true that vigor in any or all of these directions relies on people who are called to serve there. A shorter pathway to the priesthood, then, is among the simplest, least costly ways that the Episcopal Church could explore its possible futures, testing the power of God’s call in the lives of people who are prepared to go in strange, frightening, and beautiful directions.
What would a shorter pathway to ordination look like?
I have focused throughout this essay on the potential value of a shorter pathway to ordination. It seems, then, that I ought to propose a way to shorten that pathway, while ensuring that priests are still prepared to serve, and that vibrant futures for the church are possible.
Here are a few thoughts in that direction:
- Vocational discernment should be more focused, even if that takes longer. The current approach to vocational discernment is not superficial but it is vague since it points only to a choice: does the aspirant have a genuine call and, if so, to the priesthood or the diaconate? A more focused approach to discernment would help aspirants identify the components of ministry and the godly matters to which they are actually called. A person would come through discernment, then, with a more focused sense of calling–to minister in a small parish, or to revive the hymns of Charles Wesley, or to lead congregations to financial sustainability. A more focused discernment allows more clarity for the aspirant. But importantly, it also allows a more intentional, custom pathway to ordination.
- Ministerial training should provide credit for prior learning, and not just in theological areas. Currently, time in the pathway to ordination is reduced if the postulant has prior college-level theological training. If one’s calling is clear, then the applicant should be able to demonstrate that they already have skills that prepare them for their ministry and reduce the time between discerning a call and ordination.
- Ministerial training should be competency-based. Locating training in the seminary means locating it in the American system of graduate education. This system is flexible in the ways that teaching takes place, but rigid in the time it takes to measure learning. But if an applicant has a clear calling, and if the church knows the skills necessary for that calling, then applicants could move as quickly as they demonstrate competency. One might move slowly in pastoral care, quickly through financial management, and return several times to liturgy before being ready for ordination. Another may move ahead on an entirely different timeline.
- Training in the ministry should continue well past ordination. No training is sufficient to actually prepare someone for their work. This is true outside of the church, and it is true within. Acknowledging this fact requires the church to provide ongoing ministerial training and permits it to place incompletely formed ministers in service. It puts an emphasis on the mentoring of new priests and on the routine evaluation of their learning, performance, and fulfillment of their calling.
None of these things guarantee an improved corps of priests, of course. Many of them make ministerial training more difficult for the aspirant and for the trainers. Embracing this approach might, in fact, create a two-tier system of priests: those with traditional training and those coming to ministry sideways.
Uncertainty into the pathway to ministry may be a good thing for the church, for aspiring ministers, and for the work of God. The Acts of the Apostles is, among other things, the story of uncertain pathways to ministry forming the early church. Some were called by the body of Christ, others by Christ himself. Some gave themselves to prayer, others to serving widows, others to itinerancy. A few were theologians, some were preachers, some had other gifts entirely. Men and women prophesied and preached and loved each other and God well. The works of God were widely seen. I am not arguing that it was the variety of paths to ministry that sparked these things. But it is the case that they were tangled together–the one supporting the other. Our day, too, may be a day thirsting for that entanglement.
Gary Daynes comes from a family that has been Mormon since there were Mormons. He and his wife Kristine were confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 2015. He is the senior warden at St. TImothy’s Episcopal Church in Wilson, NC and the Provost at Barton College.