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Friday, June 13, 2008

Called or Collard?

I was talking this morning with a friend who will soon be going before the Commission on Ministry for Candidacy.

He's as nervous as a long tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

And, I don't blame him.

Not that I have any doubt of his call to ordained leadership. It's quite obvious to anyone who spends more than 15 or 20 minutes with him

Which is part of the problem.

As he describes the process in his diocese - which is fairly typical - the COM breaks into five or six small groups of three or four, balanced by clergy and laity. The person coming before them has just about 15 minutes to sit before them and answer their questions.

After that person has "made the rounds" the COM gathers together and discusses the person, carefully reviewing letters of recommendation, psychological evaluations, CPE and seminary records, and then, after a moment of prayer, a vote is taken. A recommendation is then made to the bishop to (1) grant candidacy, (2) postpone it until some concerns are addressed or recommendations are completed, or (3) to deny candidacy.

It's all pretty grueling - and, unnecessary.

I don't know a priest today who didn't go through a similar situation and declare it absolute insanity. And yet, there are priests sitting on COMs who said the same thing when they were in a similar situation and they never even raise a protest, much less a concern, about the process.

As I've said before, COMs have an impossible task. Most of them are good people who work very hard and are very well intended. Most of them have had no formal education or training in terms of discernment; neither have they been given much of an orientation to the process of spiritual discernment or heard an articulation of the qualities and characteristics of ordained leadership and how to interview someone to illicit responses that would lead you to authenticate the vocation.

It's no surprise then, to me, that we have ordained lots of people, wonderful, deeply spiritual, talented people, who are not leaders. Indeed, we've ordained some perfectly wonderful laity who are clearly called to ministry - just not ordained ministry. And, without the proper tools of or experience in discernment, well, let's just say, mistakes have been made.

The other problem is a dynamic of power. Members of COMs work very hard under less than optimum conditions and a process that is, in my humble opinion, not designed to elicit the information necessary to a decision making process. They make important decisions which lead to a recommendation. Some would say, ONLY a recommendation.

This can, and has in the not-too-distant past in my diocese, a very weird dynamic of power and passive aggression that puts the heaviest portion of the burden on the candidate.

Which is why he's more than a bit nervous.

"What's the question that causes you most anxiety?" I asked him.

"Oh, that's easy," he said, "It's this one: 'Why do you feel called - or, How do you know you are called - to ordained ministry?"

I agree with him. It's a difficult question to answer - made more difficult by the fact that it's an impossible task to respond to that in the last 5 minutes of the interview, when it's most likely to be asked, to people who are total strangers.

It's a lot like a total stranger asking someone who's engaged, "How do you know you're in love?" and whether or not you're allowed to be married depends on your response and your ability to convince the committee.

I was talking with another friend, also soon going before his COM, and he reminded me of Will Campbell - Southern Baptist preacher, liberal freak, and as he describes himself: "author of rare books". He says he knows they're rare, because he cashes the royalty checks. Books like "Soul Among Lions" and "Brother to a Dragonfly".

Anyway... He was asked why he did the difficult work of ordained ministry. Why he allowed himself to become so emotionally invested in the people and the causes that moved him. His response:

"Because I'm called, you stupid son of a bitch!"

Somebody give me an Amen.

UPDATE: BOTH YOUNG MEN ARE NOW CANDIDATES FOR HOLY ORDERS!! Thanks to all who offered prayers. Oh, and can I just say: WOO HOO!!


DaYouthGuy said...

My favorite line (in a totally wonderful post):

"...we've ordained some perfectly wonderful laity who are clearly called to ministry - just not ordained ministry."

I'm a lay diocesan employee. I'm a minister to young people. I'm a minister of the Gospel. And I hear no call to ordination. I've considered it prayerfully. I've looked at it logically (would ordination make me better able to fulfill my ministry?) And I don't hear it. I have several friends who are sure I'm "missing" it. The arguments been made that a call for me can raise up from my community (which I suppose is possible but I'm dubious).

I've considered that some clergy would take me more "seriously" if I had a collar. I know that some lay people would take me more "seriously" if I had a collar. I well know that my ego would be stroked by the fact that being a priest can put you center stage (I'm an actor in a former life. I confess it, I like center stage). And yet those all seem to be incredibly bad reasons to seek ordination.

So yes it's nice to see folks recognize that ordaining every lay person with a gift for ministry (while seen by many as a compliment) is in fact not the best idea.

Thank you.


the Reverend boy said...

Thank you for posting this. A lot of what you said has resonated with my own situation. I can't even begin to speak about the number of hoops I am being asked to jump through!

That being said, some of the things I have been asked to do have been very beneficial, and I am grateful for the time to work on some of these projects.

I've shared with you my own frustrations, particularly on the "how am I ever going to pay for it all" front, and I have to admit there have been times lately when I wonder "why am I so intent on persuing this? i can do a lot of good in the church and quite frankly, in the industry i'm in now, i could contribute more financially as a layperson than i could as a priest who fully tithes!

But noooooo ... I have to pursue this thing that is known as a calling. And as much as I've tried to fight it, the reality is there is no other fulfilment like doing the work of advancing the Kingdom.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You are most welcome, Jay. My Missioner for Youth and Young Families is clearly called to this work. He is not called to ordained ministry - even though there are lots of people in the diocese who want to "collar" him.

He resists out of absolute clarity of his vocation.

However, I insist on paying him at deacon's rates because he is doing a diaconal ministry.

It's complicated, isn't it.

RevBoy, on the other hand, your persistence in the face of logic to the contrary is one form of affirmation of your call.

It IS insane, isn't it?

FranIAm said...

What an interesting post- all quite different from my world. Not that I would know what ordained ministry is in that!

I was actually thinking of the lovely Reverend Boy when I was reading this, so glad to see him weigh in.

David said...

Just a thought Elizabeth...
If your two friends in disccernment would feel comfortable with your readership having just their first names, maybe the date(s) of their interview(s) imagine the incredible circle of prayer we could surround these great souls with?
They've lot my love and prayers already


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

David, and a lovely thought it is, but I fear I these two are so anxious that it would be made worse by having us pray for them by name.

Yes, please do pray for these two young men in the coming weeks.

You know and I know that God knows.

David said...

ok folks
how about we call them 'Elizabeth's buddies' and claim for them in the name of Christ Jesus a joyous and blessed discernment.
just a thought...


Kirkepiscatoid said...

I am reminded when, as a 17 year old seeking to be chosen for a full ride scholarship to my undergraduate alma mater, being asked, "What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?"

My answer: "I don't know."

All eyes looked aghast at me. Finally one asked, incredulously, "YOU DON'T KNOW?"

"Nah. Not really. Can I tell you what I'd LIKE to be doing 10 years from now, I think? Sure. Could something happen in my college career to make me do a complete 180? Sure. Can I tell you what I think I'd like to be doing as a college graduate as best as I can tell right now? Sure."

Then I looked directly at the woman who asked the question and leaned forward, squinted, and said, "Well, what are YOU going to be doing in ten years?"

"Well, uh, uh...but we asked YOU."

I got the scholarship.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you for praying for my two friends. I know they will appreciate it. Kirke - great story. It's amazing what can happen to good people who don't have a lot of power anywhere else in their lives and are given some - or, are used to having all the power. The situation is simply fraught with opportunities to abuse power.

Caminante said...

Sort of like the parish discernment committee -- in a major university town -- telling me that I needed to get out of academia for some time and then come back to them. Five out of the six had some connection to the university as professors, lecturers or administrators. Uhuh. Of course that was 20+ years ago so maybe things have changed? :)

The one major concern I have is how do we recognise the true narcissistic personality who can wreak havoc in a congregation? Our parish discernment committee said 'no' to someone who was unable to form relationships and who would have done much damage if ordained. I still think there needs to be some form of discernment.

And, yes, I am always sad in a weird way when a talented and committed lay person gets pointed into the ordination process.

Suzer said...

I must have lived in the South too long, now, because when I first read the title of the post, I thought it was going to have something to do with collard greens! ;)

(And that's not meant to reflect on the high quality of the post, of course!)

Anonymous said...


Would you agree that part of the problem is the emphasis on priesthood when people consider a calling, rather than an equal emphasis on priesthood and the diaconate.

Perhaps wonderful, talented lay people are pursuing priesthood when they are called to the diaconate. If the diaconate were not often perceived as a lesser ministry, a transitional state, perhaps more people would find the ordained calling that fits them.

I noticed that your piece spoke of ordination and assumed your readers would know that was ordination to the priesthood. You're probably correct in that regard. But the diminution of the diaconate and consequent distortion of the 3-fold ordained ministry of the Church has probably done more damage to to our catholic life than all the COMs combined.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Woo Hoo from here too on the good news!

You are right on all counts, Elizabeth. It amazes me how people can be deluded that they can really tell who deserves what. I see this on the admissions committee for the osteopathic medical school here. I listen to the committee members brag on their "pet formulas", "stock questions," etc.

I take a different approach. I figure they are "pre-screened" to a degree by their GPA/MCAT score/they wanted to apply. I try to ask open ended questions that bring out "who" they are...things like "When you sit around and fantasize about being a doctor, tell me who you see." "Tell me the incident in your life where you felt you were as close to feeling what it feels like to be a doctor." Stuff like that.

I became a lot calmer as a med school interviewer when I stopped listening to the know-it-alls on the committee and decided that this is a matter of my awareness that I am just a vehicle for the natural forces of grace and discernment to happen.