By the Rev. Dr. Christopher Corbin
This post is the first in a series on Vocation in the Episcopal Church
I initially experienced God’s call to ordained ministry in a quite dramatic way. My earlier plans to become an orchestral trumpet player had increasingly given way to an anxious vocational haze. Then, one October night during my junior year of high school, the idea that I was supposed to be ordained appeared before my mind. This thought not only appeared with a clarity bordering on an audible voice, but also brought a profound peace that immediately washed away my built-up vocational anxieties.
Naturally, the first person I told was my father—himself an ordained United Methodist elder. Once he cautiously accepted the idea of my call, we started discussing my formally entering the discernment process. I distinctly remember one of his first pieces of advice: “You’ll need to explain clearly why you can’t see yourself doing anything else.”
My father was just being prudent. Years of shepherding others through the church’s labyrinthine ordination process meant he knew where the dead ends lay. Over time, though, aspects of this approach have come to trouble me. Rather than discerning whether the Holy Spirit had in fact spoken to me, the Church was focused on figuring out whether this was my truly fulfilling career path. This experience happened in the United Methodist Church, but having now gone through the Episcopal process in a variety of capacities — participant, husband, friend, diocesan consultant, advisor — I can say that this mentality pervades our process just as much.
However, despite its prevalence among mainline churches, this outlook reflects a rather recent understanding of vocation, reflecting a post-1960s culture. Philosopher Charles Taylor characterizes our time as an “Age of Authenticity” marked by a widespread “expressive” individualism. Expressive individualism promotes the idea that humans have unique natures and that the highest goal of human life is discovering, living into, and expressing those natures. Larger institutions become suspect as potential agents seeking to enforce conformity and eradicate individuality.
Forms of this expressive individualism have existed among intellectual and artistic elites since the Romanticism of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it was not until after World War II that a “simplified expressivism,” encouraging people to “find yourself, realize yourself, release your true self,” began permeating everything (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007], 473-4).
In this context, the discernment principle of “only go into ministry if you can’t see yourself being happy doing anything else” assumes that each individual has a “right way to be” decided primarily by whether it will lead to happiness as self-fulfillment.
I believe this expressive-individualist understanding of vocation harms the church. I say this not from naïve romantic nostalgia. I’m under no illusion that there was a uniform sense of vocation characterizing all ordained ministry before the 1960s, which has now been disrupted by expressive individualism. I recognize that the push toward a more educated clergy resulted as much from Renaissance and early Enlightenment cultural shifts as anything else (and I find that shift helpful).
But an expressive individualist model of vocation not only transforms, but contradicts, traditional understanding of Christian calls to ministry. Regardless of whether a call from God was first recognized by an individual or a community, the call was historically understood as coming externally from God. Expressive individualism, though, emphasizes our self-fulfillment rather than faithfulness to God.
Furthermore, as the name implies, the emphasis is placed on the individual rather than the community. Communal discernment easily comes to be seen as an oppressive obstacle conjured by the institutional forces that stifle self-realization. This perspective places prospective ministers in a hostile posture toward the church rather than helping them see themselves as working toward the mutual edification of the Body of Christ.
We also cannot overlook the concrete, negative effects of this understanding of vocation. It often impedes highly qualified people from advancing in the process. Many qualities desirable in clergy also prove helpful in fields like non-profit work, academia, law, business, or other public service, all of which can provide fulfilling work.
Likewise, this individualism disadvantages those from non-Western backgrounds. Among the people of the L/Dakota tribe with whom I work, I have been told that discernment often begins with a communal experience of an individual’s gifts. People from such communities are less likely to enter the formal discernment process if a prerequisite is having a strong sense of internal call, and, even if they do enter it, they are not likely to describe a call that conforms to the expressive individualist template.
Perhaps instead, we should understand a call as someone being gifted, willing, and needed. The first thing to ask is whether a person can perform the functions expected in the ordination vows or at least demonstrates a capacity to acquire these skills. This ability to learn and grow is fairly crucial.
For example, while pastoral care is an expectation of priestly ministry, discerning bodies often base their decisions on a person’s ability to provide excellent pastoral care. This can lead to older members of such groups preventing young adults from advancing because they cannot see them as pastoral care givers, thereby depriving the church of who-knows-how-many excellent teachers, liturgical leaders, and, yes, pastoral care givers.
The next question is whether people are willing to serve as ordained ministers, with “willingness” understood expansively. When we consider willingness, a proper motivation is essential, based on faithfulness to furthering God’s work in the world rather than a desire for recognition, authority, or self-esteem. All the same, “willingness” must be expansive enough to include both those who strongly desire to serve the church through ordained ministry and those who have the necessary skills but need persuasion.
Finally, the church should evaluate whether there is real need for someone’s ordination. Need becomes a critical consideration especially when looking at local formation programs, which often exist to provide non-stipendiary leadership for specific communities. In such situations, people should only be put forward for ordained ministry when there is a real need for such ministry in these places; ordination should not be a means of “rewarding” or “honoring” those who have diligently served the church. Ordained ministry is vital to the life of the church, but such actions devalue the importance of lay ministry.
I am under no impression that such changes will be easy, nor that they will solve every problem with discernment and ordination in the Episcopal Church. However, understanding call as the intersection of gifts, willingness, and need realigns our practice both with the historical church and with the actual expectations of the ordination liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer.
Moreover, this approach need not eliminate strong conviction of internal call as a consideration, but it does prevent it from becoming the sine qua non of demonstrating that call. Instead, it become one among many ways of demonstrating willingness to become an ordained minister, with willingness itself as only one third of what needs considering.
The Rev. Dr. Chris Corbin is the missioner for transition and leadership ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota, doing work in local formation and continuing education, communications and graphic design, congregational development, and transition ministries. He recently published a book with Routledge entitled The Evangelical Party and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Return to the Church of England.