Forming and choosing new priests

I sit on the Board of Trustees of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and we’ve devoted considerable time in recent meetings to the question of what kind of priests the church needs in this era of its life. This is of more than a little interest to me as, God willing, I may one day be one of those priests.

So I found the resolutions submitted to this summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church interesting in this regard. By my count, there are two that propose changing what candidates for the priesthood should be trained in. (You can see the text of these on this page.)

  • A071 changes the language regarding inter-cultural training. I’m not sure I see the force of this resolution other than to specify what groups priests should know about. (The resolution does seem to leave in place the implicit assumption that priests will be white Americans and they need to know about these “other” groups.) The explanatory text says seminarians aren’t receiving enough training in this area (which is likely true) but the solution to that is more money for seminaries, I think, not changed wording. Berkeley sends lots of people overseas and into other inter-cultural settings. The school needs more money to make sure everyone has that opportunity.
  • A072 adds a requirement that new priests be trained in “the practice of ministry development and evangelism.” The resolution makes no reference to the existing (and, in my experience, neglected) canon that requires training in “missiology and mission theology” (III.5.g.3), which seems to be of at least overlapping interest. The resolution also crams in as many popular buzzwords as possible—”storytelling” “building capacity” “engaging God’s mission”—and, in its list of resources for evangelism fails to mention the Bible.
If the Episcopal Church—and mainline Protestantism in general—is, as we continually hear, truly at a point in which everything needs to be re-considered as we build the church of the future, surely that includes the priesthood as well. Just as we are (hopefully) considering church structure from the bottom up, I think we should be considering the formation of new priests in the same way.

This seems to be what resolution A148 accomplishes when it calls for establishing “a committee to initiate and coordinate a Churchwide conversation regarding what essential learnings (knowledge and skills) The Episcopal Church expects its candidates for priest and deacon to have at the time of ordination.” Although I have a default suspicion of committees and commissions, I find this to be a pretty good idea, particularly if it succeedes in initiating a truly churchwide conversation.

But I think A148 doesn’t go far enough. When we talk about the future priests of the church, I hope we talk about how they are chosen as well, not just how they are trained. The current system of picking priests begins when people decide they are called to be a priest. There is then a lengthy process of testing that call within the church. One result of this is that since the 1970s, when the current ordination process really came into being, the number of priests ordained each year has stayed steady even as the number of Episcopalians has declined precipitously.

What if we began the process of choosing priests not by letting applicants initiate the process but by actively recruiting those we thought had the gifts the church needed? To some extent this is true already: I wouldn’t be a deacon were it not for people who actively encouraged me to go to seminary and enter a diocesan discernment process. But I think we can go farther in this direction. Rather than making priests of people who say, simply, “I feel called to be a priest,” I hope we can shift the conversation in the direction of “The church is need of these particular talents/gifts/experiences and I believe I can provide them because close friends/mentors/advisers have told me so.”

It is clear that the choosing and training of the church’s ordained leadership is as much in need of review as the church’s structure. I hope A148 passes and I look forward to the fruits of its labours.

One thought on “Forming and choosing new priests

  1. Donna Gerold

    You are spot on in reminding us that the church’s ordained leadership is “called out of community” rather than an “individual’s call of the heart.” One of the many purposes of a Christian community is to love, nurture and raise up one another out of the community. We rarely see ourselves as others see us. Community discernment will go a long way in identifying what the church and the world are yearning for.

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