Support the Café

Search our Site

Making it hard for young people to explore a priestly vocation

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.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Joseph Farnes

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.

Murdoch Matthew

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.

Paige Baker

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?

tobias haller

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.)

Donald Schell

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?),



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?

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café