The Episcopal Church is one of the so-called liturgical churches, which means that we have preserved the ancient structure of a three-fold ordained ministry consisting of bishops, priests and deacons. At the same time, the Episcopal Church also affirms that all ministry is grounded in the sacrament of Holy Baptism and that “the church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.” (BCP, p. 855)
Within the community of the laity, bishops, priests and deacons are set apart for special roles within the church. But how does one get to be a bishop, priest or deacon in the church? The key word is discernment. Discernment is the process by which an individual in the context of Christian community seeks to hear, understand and respond to God’s unique calling. It is really important to remember that discernment is for everyone and that everyone has a calling. As St. Paul writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” (1 Cor. 12:4-6).
Discernment happens in many ways: in individuals, small groups and congregations. We are blessed in the Diocese of Michigan to have a year-long discernment program called “Exploring Your Spiritual Journey.” EYSJ offers members of the diocesan household the opportunity to work intentionally on discernment with trained mentors and a supportive community. It is open to everyone and is also a prerequisite for anyone who may be thinking of the possibility of ordination. It generally runs from September through June.
After EYSJ, those who are feeling called to ordination as a deacon or priest speak to their rector or vicar or priest-in-charge. If that person supports their continuation in discernment, they schedule a meeting with the bishop. If the bishop supports their continuation in discernment, they begin a six month discernment process within their own parish with a group of faithful and prayerful persons jointly selected by the person and the priest.
It is helpful to think of the entire process as concentric rings of discernment. In the Episcopal Church, the individual’s own sense of call is important, but it must be balanced and supported by the discernment of the whole community. This begins with the person’s priest, but expands out to include the bishop, the congregational discernment committee, the vestry, and diocesan bodies like the Commission on Ministry, the Standing Committee and in some dioceses the Examining Chaplains. All are praying, all are discerning, all are listening for the voice and presence of the Holy Spirit.
At the conclusion of the six-month congregational discernment process, the person may make an application to the Commission on Ministry for Postulancy. A detailed description of all the various steps and terminology can be found on the diocesan website at: [I’m thinking we could link to the COM process pages here.]
Normally at the time postulancy is granted, the bishop and Commission on Ministry talk with the person about a plan for education and formation. For those called to the diaconate, the diocese offers a program called the Academy for Vocational Leadership which meets for eleven weekends a year for three years. There are also requirements for field work and for Clinical Pastoral Education which often takes place in a hospital or other similar setting. You can learn more about the Academy at: http://www.edomi.org/academy/.
Those called to the priesthood are generally expected to attend an accredited seminary which grants an M.Div. (Master of Divinity) degree. Some students are able to go away to seminary for three years of full-time study, but be assured that there are other options. There are local ecumenical seminaries which offer classes on nights and weekends. And Episcopal seminaries like Bexley-Seabury are offering creative solutions like blended on-line and in person instruction.
The many steps of the ordination process can seem daunting and bureaucratic. It is really important at all stages of the process that key word: discernment. The whole process with all its concentric rings of community are all aimed at the same goal—to hear clearly God’s call. Hearing a “no” can be a true blessing in disguise as it opens the door to explore another avenue of service. Hearing a “yes” does not mean that discernment is over, for discerning God’s purpose and guidance is a lifelong process.
Whatever your situation, may you be blessed in hearing and responding to God’s call in your life, knowing and developing the gifts you have been given by the Spirit, and growing and bearing fruit as you serve God in the communion and fellowship of the Church.