My work involves assisting people in what we call the discernment process, which asks “Am I called to Ordained Ministry?” People often want to know a good way to discern an answer to this question. I’ve adapted some material that I’ve written for use in our diocese, that may be helpful. This article doesn’t deal with seminary studies. It assumes you have either completed them, or will do so.
Lay Ministry and Ordained Ministry
The vast majority of Christians are called to ministry as laity, and a few are called to ordained ministry. Anglicans retain the ancient three-fold pattern of ordained ministry, the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon. From among the laity, some are called to the order of deacons and some are called to the order of priests. From among the priests, some are called to the order of Bishop.
Deacons bridge the gap between laity and the clergy, and between the needs of the world and the ministry of the church. They are called to sacramental, liturgical, and pastoral care ministries, especially ministries of compassion in the community. Specifically, the Deacon assists the Priest in worship and administration of the sacraments, cares for the poor, the sick, and the outcast, and assists in pastoral care. The order of deacon is not a lesser order than the order of priest. Instead, it is a specific calling that has its own focus and purpose.
Priests are presbyters, or elders, who lead congregations and ministries, or assist other priests in leading, by providing a ministry of Word and Sacrament on behalf of the Bishop. Candidates for the priesthood are first ordained as deacons (called “Transitional” Deacons) in order that they might begin their ministry in the role of a servant, and be tested.
The diocesan Bishop leads the diocese as Chief Pastor, and the Bishops in Council lead the whole church. The Bishops and the Archbishop maintain visible communion with Anglican churches across the world, as well as maintaining fellowship with other faithful Christian churches.
We are ordained not for ourselves, but in order to serve. Those aspiring to ordained ministry must, therefore, show a sense of personal call which is then confirmed by the laity and clergy of their local church, with the Bishop making the final decision. They must be examined in order to determine their preparation and fitness for leadership and ministry. And they must have a specific ministry plan that requires ordination to the order to which they aspire.
Anglicans across the world continue the ancient pattern of episcopal succession. This means that our bishops were consecrated in a continuing, historic laying on of hands that goes back to the time of the Apostles. When one of these bishops ordains a deacon or priest, he is connecting them to this historic, apostolic succession. We also recognize that other traditions ordain people to the ministry of the Gospel but not in historic succession. Yet we still ordain these persons, because we believe that we are adding to that ministry through ordination in apostolic succession.
The Discernment Process
Discernment is an open process. Even though you should be confident in your own awareness of your sense of calling to some form of ministry, be open to the possibility that you might be called to lay ministry instead of ordained ministry. You will want to be confident of God’s calling, and if that calling is not to ordained ministry, then your Rector and discernment team will help you find your calling as a lay minister. Keep in mind that each diocese may have a different order for this process, but all include these aspects. And keep in mind that the Church is also doing discernment to see if they see the same calling that you do.
We are a sacramental community, so membership in a local church is the only way we can truly be prepared to minister within that community. In the local church, you have the support and relationships needed to follow a solid path of discernment. It is important, also, that you remain within that same local church during this process.
This local process begins with a meeting with your Rector. You will discuss your sense of calling, and meet regularly to discern together before any decision is made about a formal discernment process. Your Rector may want to meet over a long period of time, or may ask you to get involved in ministry first. Please be open to this process, as this is the key relationship you will have during discernment.
You will then meet with a group of lay people to talk, to pray, and to see if they can confirm your call to ordained ministry.
Why do we do this? From the early days of the Church, laity affirmed the call to ordained ministry, as did the clergy, thus preventing the clergy orders from becoming a self-selected body. In Acts, we learn that the Apostles asked the laity to, “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” This pattern is also found in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” and “and let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.” Therefore, the role of lay people in your discernment process is extremely important and sacred.
This process will allow you to talk honestly about your life, your ministry, your relationships, and your passions. It will also be focused on whether you are in a good place and time in life to begin ordained ministry, or have had the proper training. Ordained ministry is challenging, and you should be well prepared for it.
Keep in mind that you should be discerning a call to either the vocational diaconate or the priesthood, but not both at the same time. If the lay discernment committee refutes a call to priesthood, you should not switch immediately to the deacon track. Instead, you should wait one year and initiate a new process of discernment toward the diaconate. The ministry of a deacon is not a secondary option, but rather is a specific calling. It should never be treated as a “consolation prize” for those who are not called to be priests.
If your call to ordained ministry has been affirmed by the local church, at this point usually the Diocese works more directly with you (some diocese or networks reverse this order a bit). We are discerning the your particular place of ministry, preparation, and fitness for ordained ministry.
Ordained ministry is a lifetime calling. It is imperative that you prayerfully consider this commitment, which goes beyond our current ministry role and binds us to a sacred order of ministry for life.
The Holy Spirit will show us, together, if a calling to ordained ministry is present, and the timing is right for ordained ministry to begin. The aspirant must sense a “vertical” call from God to ordained ministry. But there must also be a “horizontal” call from the local church and diocese to the candidate. When both of these come together, we are assured of God’s calling and step out in faith to serve.
Photo: © Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk