DISCERNMENT PROCESS | BEN GARREN
John Allin was the twenty-third Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church, who served in that office from 1974 to 1985. The biographical notes of his ministry up to that point are not unusual for a priest of his era. While in college he discerned that his primary vocation was to ordained ministry, and upon getting his undergraduate degree, he went immediately to seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood at the age of twenty-five. He then became a bishop at the age of forty and, at the age of fifty-three, became Presiding Bishop. There is general knowledge that he oversaw one of the greatest times of transitions within our denomination, as it was during his tenure that we ratified a new Book of Common Prayer and began to value the vocations of women to ordained ministry. A transition that is generally overlooked, however, is that which occurred with regard to our ordination process. By the time Bishop Allin left office in 1984, the pathway that he took towards ordination had all but disappeared. After the Second World War and into the early 1980s, active discernment to ordained ministry and leadership in the church was part of our youth programing. University Chaplaincies were essential centers for discernment and Church Camp counselors were actively recruited by bishops to consider applying to seminary. The church actively wanted to discover primary vocations: teenagers and young adults who already felt a potential call to ordained ministry. The reality of this is seen in the ordination records from 1960 to 1980, when 70% of all those ordained were under the age of thirty-five. Now, secondary vocations -- that is, individuals who discovered their call to ordained ministry later in life -- were definitely part of the process at this time, but accounted for only 30% of all ordinations. Furthermore, the majority of these secondary vocations were discerned between the ages of 35 and 45. This means that 90% of clergy were under the age of 45 when they entered their first year of ordained ministry during these decades.
Things began to shift, in a number of ways, after the General Convention of 1979. One resolution from this Convention that stands out is 1979-C001: Initiate Programs in Ministry to the Aging. Part of the resolution reads: “Resolved, That the Episcopal Society for Ministry on Aging cooperate with theological seminaries, colleges, universities, campus ministries and other appropriate agencies to implement programs to equip Clergy and Lay leaders with knowledge and skills to strengthen their ministry to the aging”. This resolution shows the established mindset of the previous decades: campus ministries are linked with seminaries as spaces that are actively preparing individuals for imminent leadership in the church. The pressing question however, becomes one of who is serving whom. There is a shift here from a mindset that asks “how can older generations foster the faith of younger generations?” to one that asks “how can younger generations support the faith of older generations?" Lifelong formation is an essential part of the ministry of the church and our ministry leaders need to be able to provide robust programming for all age groups. There is nothing inherently wrong with Resolution 1979-C001, and young adult and campus ministries should be raising up leaders for all forms of ministry. This resolution stands out, however, because after it passed, our ordination process shifted from ordaining young leaders prepared to do ministry with the aging to one where we ordained the aging and assumed they were prepared to do ministry with younger generations. As the oldest members of Generation X began to graduate college in the middle of the 1980s, the age demographics of who we were ordaining shifted dramatically. An obvious variable for this shift is the ordination of women. The Church Pension Group recognized this in their 2003 State of the Clergy Report: “One great unknown is whether the pattern of mid-life ordinations, which rose significantly with the entry of women into the priesthood, will continue.” They wondered “If the current high rate of mid-life ordinations is a time specific phenomenon, linked to the reservoir of women who were unable to fulfill their call to the priesthood when they were younger.” (5-6)
The pressing question here is whether the only variable in play was the overwhelming need for us to provide justice for individuals whose call to ordination had long been ignored or if another, potentially highly problematic, variable was also at play. The 2003 CPG report continues, noting that if this is not simply about the ordination of women, “then when the 55 to 70 age segment (often referred to as the ‘Silent Generation’) retires we will have close to a mono-generational priesthood of Baby Boomers. Such a scenario would be unhealthy for the church, and not simply because the retirement of the Baby Boomers would create an acute clergy shortage, but because the Church will lack the variety of perspective on the world created by a multi-generational clergy”. (6) When we look at the reality of what occurred in the decade from 2000 to 2010, we see that the unhealthy scenario that CPG feared in its 2003 report played out. It is critical to note that in the four decades from 1971 -- when the Baby Boomer generation began turning 25 -- through to 2010, when they began turning 64, their age demographic has always been the one from which most ordinands have come.
It is clear that more is at play here than the ordination of women. To understand what went wrong, we have to go back to when John Allin was Presiding Bishop and ask what other variables might have developed that so drastically changed the reality of our discernment process. During an Executive Council meeting in February 1977, with regard to the future of ordained ministry, the Presiding Bishop stated, “I believe the future demands a proportionate reduction in the number of those who receive their total stipend from the organized Church.” What this means, by implication, is a shift in emphasis towards secondary vocations, whereby the church searches for individuals who already have a stable career and income, who can then take up the tasks of ordained ministry. By contrast, individuals who sought out ordained ministry as youth and young adults would depend upon the church for their principal stipend and thus, within this mindset, were no longer as desirable. This was one small part of a comprehensive plan to renew the church called Total Ministry. The renewal of the vocational diaconate was one component of Total Ministry that has served the church exceptionally well, though we are far behind where this plan desired we would be with regard to the valuing of lay vocations. The expectations for priestly ministry within Total Ministry, which included the Title III Canon 8 non-stipendiary Clergy experiment, never came together. The hope was that clergy would be employed part time to lead worship, provide pastoral care, and organize formation opportunities, while the pragmatic realities of running a non-profit and maintaining a building would be in the hands of lay professionals, paid and volunteer. This hope did not become a reality, and instead of transitioning to second vocation clergy who would continue working part time in their original professions and part time for the church, we simply shifted to second vocation clergy who work full time for the church, taking care of both spiritual and worldly realities of running a congregation. The Council for the Development of Ministry were the visionaries organizing Total Ministry. This was the working group looking at the internal changes needed to implement Venture in Mission, whose goal was to expand the work of the Episcopal Church in previously underserved communities. Total Ministry and Venture in Mission were prophetic actions taken up by our church. Neither were brought to full implementation, and the critique here is, in large part, of what occurred amidst their partial implementation. We have already looked at one example of this: the plan to shift to second vocation clergy, whose principal stipend came from outside the church, resulted only in eschewing primary vocations for secondary vocations without changing any methods of church employment. Another issue arose in how these organizers hoped to engage the issue of “oversupply” and “undersupply” of clergy. This is a problem that remains unresolved within the Episcopal Church, and has to do with our disproportionate allocation of clergy in regard to the needs of the church. We have certain geographic regions with an oversupply of clergy that are considered highly desirable, and other regions that experience an undersupply of clergy that consistently have positions waiting to be filled. Their plan was for each diocese to take care of its own. We see this idea expressed in the 1979 report where it states that “where ordination is deemed necessary, we recommend that it take place only when there is a specific cure or position… which would not be filled without this ordination”. The solid starting idea here was that we would only ordain a person once they had been successfully called to a position needing an ordained minister. However, the shift that the church experienced in the 1980s was instead that we started focusing more on whether or not a position needed an ordained minister than whether or not a person was called to ordained ministry. General Convention requested that each Diocese assess the potential positions they had available for individuals entering into their first year of ordained ministry and then seek out ordinands for those specific positions. As a result, the question became less “is this individual experiencing a call to the priesthood?” and more “is this individual potentially called to the specific type of first year positions we will have in this diocese in three to four years?”. (AA-180) If properly implemented, it would mean that a diocese with a large number of aspirants would only ordain the minimum needed to fill their staffing needs and thus, potentially, no longer have an oversupply problem. That is, however, the only aspect of the problem this mindset has in any way “solved”. Geographic regions with an undersupply of aspirants and clergy have continued to experience that undersupply. Dioceses that experience an oversupply of aspirants, and have an oversupply of clergy, inform aspirants that there simply will not be any paid positions for them when they graduate seminary. As if the needs of the greater church simply did not exist. Often, a major problem that arises is convincing dioceses with an oversupply of aspirants and clergy that open positions for ordained ministers do exist in the greater church. In the church structure that such a mindset has produced, entry level positions for a twenty-five-year-old priest with limited work experience has become a luxury item. A diocese has to choose to maintain a position for that type of aspirant instead of working to maintain an ordination process that values that type of aspirant. When a diocese chooses to no longer maintain those positions, and when no parishes decide to look for those types of individuals to be their curates, then suddenly there is no reason to engage the potential calls felt by any of the youth or young adults of the diocese. We don’t have any positions for such individuals, so we don’t need to concern ourselves about them or their potential calls. The manner in which congregations view their youth and young adult members is the final issue that needs to be addressed. Congregational involvement in the discernment process is now considered ubiquitous. This is one of the most successfully implemented recommendations of the 1979 report from the Council for the Development of Ministry. “We recommend that Commissions on Ministry provide for more responsible parish involvement in the selection process. It is at the parish level that aspirants need to become aware of those functions of ministry which require ordination and decide whether their vocation is to ordained or lay ministry.” (AA-181) While the value of this idea is, I believe, evident to everyone, the inherent problem, however, is not. What congregations are prepared to give a teenager access to power such that they can become aware of the functions of ministry which require ordination? Can we expect any congregation to take as seriously the vocation of a twenty-year-old that a decade ago was doing crayon art in their children’s ministry program as they take the forty-year-old who a decade ago was their senior warden? They can look at the forty-year-old, put them in clericals, and see them as a priest. If the congregation does the same with a twenty-year-old, they see a kid in a costume for a pageant. As the decades have continued, and fewer congregations have experienced a clergy person in their twenties, or even their thirties, the ability to envision an individual in their teens as a member of the clergy has all but disappeared. As our priesthood became ever more mono-generational, it has become ever more difficult for congregations to view anyone except baby boomers as clergy. When teenagers would consider going into the priesthood they too often would be told to look into being a doctor, a therapist, or some such. The idea of a young doctor or a young therapist made sense to our parishes, when the idea of a young clergy person had become nonsensical. We transitioned from asking “Which young adults can we see being a priest after several years of formation?” and began asking, “Who can we see as a priest now?” We stopped focusing on whether or not a person has a call to ordained ministry and started focusing on which ministry positions needed an ordained person. We became concerned with how we will fund ordained ministers and lost interest in the process of forming youth and young adults for ordained ministry. Importantly, a key hurdle the church was striving to overcome was our failure to value the vocations of women, yet our current reality is that the Episcopal Church has fewer than a hundred women under the age of 35 in our priesthood altogether. A key element for addressing this gender imbalance, and other issues of discrimination in our ordination process, is addressing our age discrimination. The advocacy work done by the church over the past decades has drawn a diversity of young adults with robust vocations, lay and ordained, to ministry, but our inability to value young leaders often makes their time with us short-lived. This is the result of well intended plans, meant to rebalance a problematic system being partially implemented. The result is a series of unintended consequences that the Church Pension Group appropriately describes as inherently unhealthy. To be clear, Presiding Bishop John Allin and the members of the Council for the Development of Ministry were prophetic leaders of our denomination that need to be lauded now and into the future. Total Ministry and Venture in Mission represent an ethos of being a church that we need to return to; one that has the potential to guide us into the next decades of ministry. In 1979 when our General Convention passed 1979-C001: Initiate Programs in Ministry to the Aging it fully expected that our youth and young adult programming would be forming individuals to go directly to seminary and be ordained in their late twenties and early thirties. This is not an attempt to cast blame, but assess what adjustments are needed in order to live into the vision these leaders provided us. The critical adjustments are simple in theory but monumental in implementation. We need our youth and young adult programing to prioritize vocational development for lay and ordained ministry in the church; and our ministries with the aging to prioritize the acceptance of such leadership. We need our Bishops, Standing Committees, and Commissions on Ministry to maintain discernment processes for the needs of the greater church, not just the positions and charisms of their particular diocese. And we need our congregations to be in full compliance with the non-discrimination canons of the church when it comes to what individuals they are prepared to send forth and receive as ordained ministers. If we are going to expect individuals to take up both ordained and secular positions in order to have economic stability, then we need to assist them in discerning both vocations equally. This will, across the board, require a completely different mindset than the one we have been working with over the past forty years. We are in a position right now where we are about to face an acute problem of not having enough clergy, even amidst the general decline of the church, upon the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation. As a church, we are suffering because we lack, with regard to both lay and ordained ministry, a perspective of the world derived from multi-generational leadership. How our clergy, congregations, commission on ministries, and standing committees engage our youth and young adults with calls to ordained ministry in the church over the next decade will have an overwhelming impact on the sustainability, the survival, of the Episcopal Church for future generations. Ben Garren, Tuscon, AZ The Council for the Development of Ministry (Rep.) (1979) The Blue Book. New York, NY: The Episcopal Church. Council Brought Up to Date on Venture Program. (1977, February 17). Episcopal News Service. The State of the Clergy 2012 (Rep.). (2012). New York, NY: Church Pension Group. The State of the Clergy 2003 (Rep.). (2003). New York, NY: Church Pension Group.