I began to think that I might be called into the priesthood at a very early age. There are pictures of me dressed up in robes, from the dress-up bin, performing a burial for one of our family pets. Before me on a makeshift lectern is the Book of Common Prayer. I was 12.
People explore their ministries at different points along their journey. However, statistics show that most begin wondering about the work within the church at the same age. The reason why I became a priest is multidimensional but clear. God placed a call upon my heart to work for him and to work for his church. The church affirmed the calling; predominately through the men and women, laity and clergy in my life and later by the commission on ministry and bishop. Clergy serving as directors of summer camp sessions were essential along this journey. And, lastly I decided to follow and listen to Jesus.
The Rev. Laurens “Larry” Hall (Chair of the Commission on Ministry from 1984 to 1999)says you are a priest by the grace of God and you will be a priest by the grace of God. Father Hall is correct. We are called by grace and by grace we undertake our ministries. It is the church’s work to discern the order of the ministry and to help discern the manner in which it is undertaken over the years.
But there is a stumbling block within our system. The problem isn’t with the ordination process but rather with the confirmation process. Today when someone is serious about ministry we send them to a three year program of rigorous study at either a seminary or our Iona School for Ministry. In the first centuries of the Christian movement if you were serious about Jesus you went to a three year program of rigorous study and preparation. Deacons, priests, and bishops were the discerned outgrowth of ministry undertaken. These orders were created and people undertook them for the sake of the life of the community and direction of the mission of the church. One had to fulfill every other minor order in the church before ordination: doorkeeper, lector, exorcist and sub-deacon.
We need to do a better job at preparing people to follow Jesus. We must return to a preparation that allows everyone to find their place in the church. In my mind there are several essential ingredients to solid preparation for the adult journey of faith within the Episcopal tradition:
- Biblical literacy – what is in the bible, its history, and key passages
- Jesus literacy – our church’s basic understanding of his life and ministry
- Church historical literacy -- with a focus on the first councils, creeds and reformation
- Spiritual literacy -- an understanding of the many different forms of spiritual practice in our church
- Liturgical literacy -- understanding of our prayer book and sacraments with particular attention to Baptism and Eucharist
- Stewardship – basic stewardship principals
including spiritual gifts discernment
- Mission literacy – the evangelical work of the church to transform lives, and to share the good news of Christ in word and action.
Shaping and forming young adult and adult Christians is not just a matter of curriculum. It is the interweaving of people’s stories with the story of Jesus and our church that deepens our life of faith.
There are many ministries from evangelist to catechist, from altar guild to acolyte, from Christian formation team member to prayer minister. The work of the church is varied and God is sending us people to undertake our work. God provides for us every gift and every person needed to grow and build the kingdom of God. When we are focused on the Gospel, our numbers are added as well and we are able to do more and to reach out into the world more.
The danger is to believe that discernment and the varieties of ministry (more than can ever be described in church law) are limited for the privileged few. We must recapture a sense of abundance. The harvest is ripe, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers.
I believe God is also sending us and working on the hearts of those who are to be our future deacons, priests and bishops. Are we listening to them (no matter what age) and taking them seriously, partnering with them, helping them to become disciples, and ultimately raising them up for an ordered life?
This work of preparation of all the faithful and the specific work of preparation of the future clergy is formation that depends not upon the diocese or the clergy. It depends ultimately upon all the people of God.
Formation and the disciplined life of the Christian have to be intentional, life-long development. By God’s grace we take steps into this Christian life. We also must be intentional and deliberate not to squander that grace and instead use it to partner with those around us (young and old) to help them find their way along Christ’s journey into wholeness.