March 14, 2007

“…These are thoughts, I think, best left to drift back to whatever place they came from, along with the memories that triggered them. Best for everyone, I think.”

So ended the post originally planned for this past Saturday. Upon waking that day, I had found my thoughts full of past experiences, people, and places associated with an eight-year journey and two failed attempts at being ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church – a journey I had abandoned five years ago. And as much as I tried to let the memories of those days, and the senations they aroused, drift back to where they came, the effort seemed futile. After feeding the rabbits and grabbing myself a hot cup of Joe, I went out back onto the patio, as I usually do, to enjoy my coffee in the soft, warm sun that greeted the day.

With the thoughts from my just-composed (but not yet published) post still filling my head, I started thinking out loud to myself about the face-to-face meetings I had had with the Episcopal bishops of Eastern Massachusetts and Kentucky, and their respective commissions on ministry, back in 1998 and 2002. (For those without experience in these kinds of things, commissions on ministry are a group of lay [i.e., non-ordained]) people responsible for overseeing the whole process by which candidates for ordination [they’re called “aspirants”] are vetted, guided, and nurtured through the ordination process in Episcopal Church dioceses.)

Without going into all the gory details, these meetings – the culmination of a year-long process filled with various hurdles that need no mention here – are part interview, part conversation; the result being a decision to accept or reject. If your calling is affirmed, you’re pretty much on your way to seminary and being ordained a priest. Alternatively, if you’re rejected, you’re out of the process – permanently. Done like dinner. Still want to pursue your calling? You go find another diocese and start from scratch all over again, with no guarantee the results will be any different. Commissions on ministry will seldom, if ever, affirm an aspirant’s calling without the bishop’s assent. After all, the diocese will be picking up the tab for his/her seminary education (a Master’s in Divinity degree), and the bishop will have the unenviable task of plugging the newly-ordained priest into the diocese’s parish system, for better or for worse, four years’ hence. So the stakes are extremely high. And while it’s true that no decision has been made (at least formally) prior to the meeting taking place, it’s pretty much a given that the commission already knows the bishop’s mindset; the meeting, then, usually serves a way to simply confirm to the commission’s satisfaction an inclination already present.

So there I was, sipping my coffee and contemplating over a vast distance my memories of those times, when I was reminded once more of one of the great frustrations I had had back then – the fact that, the particular form of ordained ministry I was being called to, the whole purpose behind my supposed “call” to the priesthood, always somehow remained just beyond my ability to comprehend. (After all, just because one is ordained a priest doesn’t necessarily mean they’re destined for parish work – that may indeed be how and where they end up, but there are a variety of ministries ordained priests feel called to: healing ministries, prison ministries, spiritual counseling, pastoral care, diocesan work, teaching – the possibilities and opportunities are vast.) For whatever reason, I had never come to know that feeling, had never felt a particular purpose or destiny behind my calling – even while I was having that calling affirmed by a slew of people, both lay and ordained.

The problem with not having a definitive answer to this question (if, indeed, one can call this “a problem”), is that bishops and commissions on ministry always seemed to want one. Whenever, invariably, the question would be asked, “What ministry out of your calling can’t you do right now that requires you to be made a priest?” [a trick question, BTW, since both you and they know the only real things an ordained priest can do that a lay person can’t is the “ABCs”: absolve, baptize, and consecrate, but that’s not the answer they’re looking for], I always replied with something to the effect that it was only by being ordained to the priesthood that God’s purpose for my life, dictated through this sense of being called, could be fully consecrated and made both whole and holy. I personally thought it was a good answer to such a difficult question (and it was a sentiment I truly felt), but to the bishops and the commissions on ministry, it never seemed to register or resonate. I could tell – a little nose scrunch here, a sigh or a shrug of the shoulders there – that they were looking for something more concrete, as if consecrating and making whole one’s holy calling wasn’t in and of itself sufficient. [Sigh.]

And not being able to say confidently and conclusively what kind of ministry I felt particularly called to, I thought, was what it all probably came down to in the end: the bishops and the commission members looking for some kind of vision, needing to know how you were going to be “plugged in”, where, and in the way, the diocese did its business. The heck with your calling, personal theology, ministries, and accomplishments; or being guided by the Holy Spirit; or wanting to unearth that hidden gem – it all came down to practicalities! Can’t say exactly the ministry you’re being called to? Sorry, too much work on our part, too great a risk to take – go figure it out for yourself somewhere else. I could tell this was the case from the “Dear John” letters I’d receive from the commissions, or in follow-up conversations with the bishops themselves. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the phrase, “I’m confident you have a calling, and it may even be to the priesthood, but in this [or that] diocese…”, I’d be a wealthy man, indeed.

And sitting in that chair last Saturday, alone with my coffee and my thoughts, I found myself replaying all my past grievances and frustrations to no one in particular…

* How could a diocese simply cut someone loose like I was – like others I know had been – as if we were some piddly little fishies judged too small to keep?

* Why such a focus on practicalities? What’s wrong with being a work in progress?

* What’s wrong with saying, “Look, we know we have something here; we may not know exactly what it is, but rather than make a hasty decision we might both come to regret, let’s try to find out together what God has brought us.”

* Why was I never given the purpose for my calling? Why was it always kept in the shadows from me, as if it were some great secret?

…to the point where all these frustrations and grievances, and all the feelings of failure, anger, pain, and inner turmoil crystalized around a single set of questions, which (I think) I kept mumbling over and over: “Lord, why did you call me to be a priest? What was the purpose, the ministry were you calling me to?”

And then, in a moment of revelation, the world around me changed forever.

Filed in: Religion & Culture by at 00:30 | Comments (2)
  1. Are you sure you didn’t write the serial movies that I used to watch??? We have to stay tuned until tomorrow????

    This idea of having to know exactly what God is calling you to do is just a committee’s way of weeding out the undesirables in the Episcopal church..(white, straight, normal, male). Peter and Paul and the other apostles didn’t know exactly what that were called to do at the get-go, only after time did they see their calling. They just knew they were called to be a follower of Him and a leader in His church. It may take years of discernment to find one’s true call, based upon what gifts He has given to you.

    Comment by Pete J — March 14, 2007 @ 6:47 am

  2. Well spoken as usual, Peter. I’ve often wondered if Jesus or any of his disciples could ever be ordained in today’s Episcopal Church. I think they’d be seen as intolerable zealots having a messianic complex.

    Say, come to think of it, that just stirred a memory – that’s what the Bishop of Kentucky accused me of having! I had forgotten about that… 🙂

    Comment by Doug Richard — March 14, 2007 @ 6:33 pm

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