Hello! I am Jim Jelinek, and I serve with The Rev. Alan Neale at Trinity Church, Newport. This is another one of our daily meditations in the time of the coronavirus pandemic. We have focused a great deal on the pandemic and the self-quarantine it requires of us, and in the past two weeks on the crisis that has built up for years because of personal and institutional racism. Today and Saturday, because I need a break from all of that for just a bit, I want to focus on something else: the Ministry. On pages 256-7 in the BCP, we have three prayers For the Ministry which we pray four times a year on a Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. In order, these are: For those to be ordained; For the choice of fit persons for the ministry; and For all Christians in their vocation. We pray them in the first week in Lent, the week after Pentecost, early to mid-September, and the third week in Advent. I want to write about two of these, the choice of fit persons for the ministry, and for all Christians in their vocation. Pray with me the collect for the first of these.
Let us pray.
O God, you led your holy apostles to ordain ministers in every place: Grant that your Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may choose suitable persons for the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and may uphold them in their work for the extension of your kingdom; through him who is the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jesus chose twelve men to be his disciples, the first clergy of what was to become the Church. One was a traitor, one denied him, several were nowhere to be seen when he was arrested, and we might conclude that he was not a very good judge of character. On the other hand, they did not need to be very terrific when he was around, they relied on him to take care of every situation except for the one time he sent them out to roam the neighborhoods and the various towns and preach and teach and heal. They had some good success, but went back to relying on him. Then he ascended and for ten days they just hung around together, not seeming to know what to do with themselves and what they had learned. But on Pentecost they were visited and set on fire by the Spirit Jesus promised would come to comfort and empower them. They also thought that there ought to be twelve of them (many twelves in scripture—think of the 12 tribes of Israel, named after Jacob’s sons). Two men had been particularly faithful, Barsabbas and Matthias. In the Acts of the Apostles we read: “Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” [Acts 1:24-26]
You might think that casting lots meant that they prayed and voted and Matthias got the majority, but the other famous reference to casting lots was at Jesus’ crucifixion when the guards cast lots for Jesus seamless tunic. I think it was similar to rolling the dice.
Over the years the Church has developed a rather sophisticated way of doing discernment. If someone believes that he or she is being called into ordained ministry, the person is encouraged to talk with the parish priest and, if the priest considers this a good possibility, then a discernment group is formed to walk and pray with and for that person. In my parish we called these “the wrestling teams” with reference to Jacob wrestling in the night with either God or an angel. We chose people from various walks of life, and particularly those who were good at really probing and questioning, not to put down, but listen if the person was talking about genuine spiritual experience or perhaps was misreading his or her own hopes. We did buy into the notion that God was “messing around” with this person, and that it was likely some sort of call. The goal was to discern whether the person was called to priesthood, diaconate, or some specific form of lay ministry. The wonderful thing is that everyone involved in those discernment group was blessed by the experience, and some became so good that they served on other such teams or ministry training committees for seminarians. My parish had had a history of very fine clergy, both paid and volunteer, so a lot of people in the parish got they idea that they might really be called to and enjoy the ministry. And several were.
The reason we worked so hard is that several of us knew that if you are not truly called by God but somehow you get through and are ordained, you will be miserable, because you will not be likely to find servant ministry a very wonderful way of life—difficult hours, parish tensions, living with other people’s projections, and during most of my early and middle years of ministry, an income that didn’t compare to people in other professions with a similar amount of education and training. And most of all, I find this is a journey of trying to get myself out of the way, so that I can truly serve someone else with compassion and encouragement, inviting the other into a few spiritual growth challenges at times, and looking to see and affirm how the Holy Spirit is transforming that person right before my eyes.
I could tell you many stories, but I shall limit myself. One parishioner, Jack, who had a number of skills and was a wonderful harpist, was so beloved that we thought he would be a slam-dunk and it would be hard for anyone to ask probing questions. At first the team did not, and Jack wasn’t growing. He even decided to take a break for a few months—not a problem since there are no timelines to follow. When he came back the team pushed harder and Jack went to a deeper place. After a few more months, Jack told them one night that he thought he was really called to be a writer (he had already written some terrific pieces) and the group roundly chimed in with a “yes!” So we had a celebration of his new ministry. He was given pencils and pens, computer paper for printing and some other things that writers need. He was affirmed for what he discerned and who he is and he knew it.
When I became a bishop I was involved in the diocesan discernment, and we did two 3-day residential conferences a year to look at people whose parishes had affirmed them thus far and sent them to us. We had a large group of discerners, both lay and clergy, and the lay persons had all been on someone’s team in his or her own parish. The team for each conference was built from who was available and according to how many we needed. They had one on one meetings with the aspirants, group meetings, a liturgy they prepared, etc. My role was to come for the afternoon after the aspirants went home and listen to the team talk about each candidate and their recommendations. It was always a powerful afternoon. The team had seen the Spirit in each of them, no matter what the discernment was, and we could feel the Spirit working among us in our conversations. We all went home that day on a cloud.
After that, for those chosen for priesthood, we would talk about seminary, and for those called to diaconate we would talk about diocesan training. We did not stop discerning, but this next step is really about spiritual formation and learning the lore and skills one needs to be a good servant. If someone does not take this part seriously and become invested in it, then we definitely go back to discernment.
The prayer that I offered has in its title “fit persons” and in the prayer we say “suitable persons.” Those are pretty open-ended words, but it is so that we the Church do not try to find or make carbon copies of others in with call or formation. We want people who are healthy and not caught up in interior problems, not likely to abuse other people or take advantage of them, not given to fits of anger, etc. We look for people who can model Jesus’ loving ministry, knowing none of us is perfect. We look for people who work for the Gospel and not against the world. We look for people who look out for the good of others and the common good. We look for people who “take their lives to God in prayer.” Please note this prayer and use it from time to time. Amen.