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Aug 23, 2005



I hope you will share your leadership essay with us! This article resonated with me quite a bit, as a baby [transitional] deacon. I started the process seven years ago (at age nineteen) in a small, moderately conservative, rural diocese in Pennsylvania. I was the first and--thus far--only openly gay candidate in the diocese.

The psych exams were heinous. I spend hunderds of my own dollars having my head shrunk by diocesan-mandated psychologists of questionable merit. Somehow, I got through that part with flying colors. I can only cite brutal honesty and an attitude of fatality as my guides through that part of The Process.

I was never shown my psych evaluations, although they were sent to thwe bishop and (presumably) shared with the COM and the Standing Committee. I was on the cusp of ordination last fall as a senior seminarian. Then, the bishop got scared. He was afraid our diocese wasn't ready for The Gay.

Luckily, I was already a Candidate and had the bishop's guilt on my side. He transferred me to another diocese where I was ordained early last month. My particular story doesn't speak directly to the author's point, but it does speak to the needless precariousness of our "byzantine" process. There needs to be some balance we as church can strike so that we respect those who feel called to ordained ministry and still be make sure that they are appropriate and well-prepared persons.

If you aren't already serving on it, I hope you run for the Comission on Ministry!


I agree completely with this critique - especially with the sentence "My message to the Episcopal Church is un-therapeutically simple: Life is too short to waste that much of it in self-absorbed navel gazing." I honestly haven't noticed this stuff much in the parishes I've belonged to, though. If it's in the ordination process, at least it doesn't seem to flow to the membership.

I don't think the Presbyterians are doing any better in terms of "shrinking membership since the mid-20th Century," though. It's been across the board in the mainline Churches. And as far as I know, ECUSA has been gaining members during the 90s, in all regions.

I have been running into quite a number of secularists lately who speak in these terms - "self-actualization," etc. It's amazing to talk to them, in fact; when you bring up terms like "sin" or "redemption," they are almost physically repelled. It's sort of funny, actually; I'm blowing their minds inadvertantly, apparently.

I agree this is a bad method for religious people, though. I hate to ask, but is it perhaps happening because there are so many priests already?


BTW, in the comments section to that article, you find this:

"If the Episcopalians gave her a worse time than the Presbyterians, it's only because she gave them first crack at it. I had the same experience with the Presbyterians and am also switching denominations."

But I guess it's generally more fun - and more profitable! - to bash ECUSA in the press these days. Everybody's doing it, after all.

So I wonder, then, how widespread this stuff is. I have several friends who are going through the ordination process, and while they are frustrated at times, I haven't heard too many complaints. And people keep doing it. Perhaps this person - a Yale graduate - simply has a deeper sense of entitlement?

I do so agree about that "self-actualization" stuff, though. Ugh.

Tyler Simons

Wow. I had no idea. I'm only just starting out the process, and, well, I hope it's at least a little different in Chicago. I was worried before...

If it doesn't work out, oh well. They can't make me stop coming to church, can they? It should be interesting to see some of the reactions when they start to get a load of me... (Not that I'd swear at my discernment committee or the Bishop or anything. That'd be unprofessional.)

By the way, Mr. Salty, thanks for your blog. I like it.

Bill Carroll

No one likes the process. Some dioceses are better than others. Some are downright abusive. When we add more hoops to the process, the well connected, the lucky, and the stubborn seem to be the ones most able to get through. Not all of them are fit candidates for ordained ministry. Many are. Teaching in a seminary, I can tell you that the vast majority of seminarians I see are faithful people with considerable gifts for ordained ministry. As a group, they will do at least as well as any other generation in doing God's work. They will have some of the same problems as any other generation of clergy, and some will overcome these problems better than others. Their stories are often inspiring. What I am equally sure of is that many other faithful people, with many other gifts for ordained ministry, are scared away by the process.

What we need are more parishes and dioceses that are willing to take responsibility for doing the hard work of discernment. Too often, the extra hoops are a way for groups that should be able to say "yes" or "no" to pass the buck to some other person or committee. There is no reason why folks who should make it through shouldn't be ordained 4 or 5 years after becoming an aspirant. Too often it is more like 8 to 12. (I don't deny that it some cases a longer discernment is warranted.) But parishes and dioceses need to be willing to take responsibility for saying "no."


I wholeheartedly agree with Bill. The most common reason that The Process is either too long or too fickle is because the church doesn't like to say "No" to someone; and when it finally does have to say "No" it often does it in less than loving ways.

With seminary so fresh in my experience, it's easy to see the failings of The Process. There were a handful of loving, sincere people in school with me who probably shouldn't have been ordained. We all knew it, and so did the faculty. Sometimes (like all of us) they weren't so loving or sincere. And sometimes there were brave Christian souls on the faculty who did sit down with the problem children and address their issues in loving ways. The problem is that their dioceses wouldn't/couldn't say "No" to them in a loving way. So, either they get ordained or the diocese leaves it to the seminary to say "No." I've seen cases where wealthy aspirants were sent to a year of CPE in a bad program so that they wouldn't be able to finish it and thus be dropped out of The Process, simply because the diocesan structure didn'r know how to say "No."

We need to learn how to say "No" in a loving way, not just for the sake of The Process but for the sake of The Church.

Bill Carroll

I really do believe that its not a question of discerning whether someone has a call but of discerning what the call is. It seldom feels good to enter a process and be told that one has a call to lay ministry. Not necessarily because one feels that lay ministry is not real ministry, but because one wouldn't have put oneself forward if one didn't deeply want to be a priest or deacon, for good reasons and/or bad. The ideal (which won't always happen) is for the aspirant and the COM or parish discernment committee to come to an agreement that this person in fact has an exciting call as a layperson and should not seek ordination.

In my own case, the discernment process took about 12 years. Mostly, because I moved around a lot, since I first began to feel called. In my case, I think that all 12 years were necessary for me really to be formed. The formation process never really ends, but I'm a better priest because of how the process went. In my exit interview with my ordaining diocese, I observed that there were some roadbumps and things I'd like to have had happen differently, but in general I think my diocese handled things very well. None of the horror stories that I heard from some of my classmates. Not to say it wasn't frustrating at times.

I have never, to my recollection, been present when the seminary faculty did not recommend a senior for orders. I'm told that on the occasions when they have done this in the past, the diocese often goes ahead and does it anyway. I am encouraged that I have seen how carefully the living, breathing human beings handed into our care are treated and how many safeguards are built into the system to keep one person's bad impression of an individual from ruining an evaluation.

I would personally favor a small COM, made up of priests, deacons, and lay people (perhaps 2 from each order for a total of 6), handpicked by the bishop with advice from the Standing Committee. I would also favor mandatory rotation off the committee after a three year term, perhaps renewable for a total of six years. Standing Committee's role at postulancy and candidacy interviews, as well as final ordination vote, should be limited to assessing any canonical impediments to ordination. Recommendations from the COM and seminary faculty, both of which should take into account input from CPE and field work supervisors, should be before the Standing Committee, which should trust their judgment. In general, "no" should be said as early in the process as possible. If someone isn't made a candidate, it should be because he or she was discovered to have grave character flaws or psychological issues, including issues with his/her own authority as a pastor, during seminary. It may well be that outside consultants, perhaps persons from another denomintion or diocese, should be present at COM meetings as non-voting members, to help promote objectivity.

John wilkins

thanks for the praise,tyler. During the process, do everything on time, get all your supporting professors to write letters to the commission, and do what people ask you to do. Smile when they screw you. I believe that Chicago has changed for the better since when I was there.

I think that the ability to sing, to have a sense of humor, and to work with others crucial to the parish priesthood. I don't know of a single talented priest who doesn't have the latter two. The first is personal preference.

Bill's comments are spot-on.

John Wilkins

There is a woman who came out with a book regarding her father's process in the Episcopal Church. I forget the name. She was on the radio recently saying that becoming a priest was harder than becoming president. Can't remember it off the top of my head.


"Do You Hear What I Hear?" by Minna Proctor. Very good book.


Thanks for your blog, Salty Vicar, and for your insights on how the role of priests can and ought to differ from that of therapists. I'd love to read that essay when it's done.

mason terry

Ms. Robb-Dover’s article on the SOMA website brought back a flood of memories.
I wish her the best. I hope switching denominations will help but my own experience leads me to doubt that it will. Until confirmed as an Episcopalian in 1993, I was an active Presbyterian and had entered the local Presbyterian seminary in the spring 1987 fully intending to seek ordination as a Presbyterian pastor. However, hearing about the flaking that our local presbytery (Presbyterian-speak for diocese) was meting out to my fellow seminarians chilled my ardor. Because of my involvement in various ways in the affairs of the national church, I became aware that this flaking was all too common. Liberal seminarians were hazed by conservative evangelical Presbyteries, and conservative evangelical students were hazed by liberal ones. Those with no strong theological biases or leanings got flaked by both. All seminarians who were candidates had to undergo psychological evaluations. I was too old to put up with that stuff—or the personalities involved in our presbytery as I knew some of them personally. Since I already had a successful career in another profession and was an ordained Presbyterian Elder, I jettisoned the idea of ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Two years later, I began a move from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to the Episcopal Church that ended with my confirmation in early 1993. In the years since, I have served as a member of the vestry of my parish and twice as diocesan council delegate. I have served on three discernment committees for Episcopalian seminarians and two search committees for subordinate clergy for our parish. After my disillusionment with the Presbyterian process, I never approached the Bishop about becoming a postulant and am not now ordained to Holy Orders. Still I continued and finally finished in May 2001 that seminary degree that I had begun in the spring of 1987. Nothing in the intervening years, however, altered my initial impressions about the Presbyterian process—or for that matter the Episcopalian one. In this diocese the Episcopalian process is as bad and cumbersome as the Presbyterian one. Over and over, I heard both Episcopalian and Presbyterian seminarians groaning about the arbitrariness and vagaries of the process. My impression was that of all denominations, the United Methodist seminarians had a better deal. Although lengthy, theirs was a far more humane and better designed process.

Ms. Robb-Dover mentioned the requirement for psychotherapy for postulants and candidates. I am surprised that she has not encountered similar requirements in her presbytery in Atlanta. Episcopalian Bishops, commissions on ministry, Executive Committees and Standing Committees are not unique. Both Presbyterian and United Methodist candidates have to undergo similar indignities. The extent seems to vary from place to place, but Ms. Robb-Dover’s observation that therapy has replaced spiritual direction seems well taken. Thanks to their Puritan heritage, Presbyterians have never been into spiritual direction and have easily capitulated to secular psychotherapy as a substitute. Unfortunately, too, insurance is one of the reasons for this denominational turn to psychological evaluations and therapy. Because of the frequency of clergy misconduct and sex abuse claims over the last thirty years, insurers want to make sure that candidates have been screened for sexually deviant tendencies before affording coverage. So, guess what? Bishops and presbyteries either force candidates to endure this psychological process or they don’t get coverage. In the mind of some, the more the better.

In closing, here is my word to all seminarians disillusioned and frustrated with the process: Consider your calling! Have you really been called to ordination as clergy? Maybe God is calling you elsewhere. That finally was my conclusion. You have been ordained through your baptism. You do not need the Bishop or commissioners from your presbytery to lay their hands on you to live out your calling.


Well, this article certainly can give someone in discernment a nightmare. As I await approval from the Vestry, with high hopes and enough anxiety to fill a beer barrel I am at last glad to hear that NY is better than CT. But whatever way it irons out, I am an Episcopalian and I will not "jump ship" to become a priest - or in the Presbyterian Church, minister - elsewhere. For me it matters...for me there is a difference...and I shall stick with my slow, and sometimes frustrating, church!


I very much agree with your last statement, Mason Terry. I've just about decided that my calling is simply to be a dedicated member of the Church. I think there's a lot of important work that ordinary members can do - maybe things that no one else can.

I hope so, anyway.


(I'm wondering, too: Maybe all the psychological testing is a good thing, then, since there haven't been many problems with Episcopal priests?

And maybe it will all come back to a more reasonable level once people start to understand what works in this area? It is fairly important.)

Reverend Ref

"The Process." Two words that usually strike fear into any sane person. While at seminary, I heard it all, the good, the bad and the ugly. Mine was squarly on the shoulders of "the bad." Not ugly, but not good either. The one thing that got me through it all though was my firm conviction that this is what God wanted me to do.

I like Bill's idea of a small COM that uses all of the available resources, including outside input to keep it objective. Let's face it, personality issues to crop up. I was faced with a COM of about 13. Other than personality issues, the biggest issue (as I saw it) was that the COM saw themselves as the Holy Gatekeepers -- "Who do you think you are to want to be a priest?"

You would think that with all of the abuse that people take in the name of discernment, those of us who have survived would find a way to make this process better. Maybe the fear of change is bigger than I thought.

Oh, and Salt . . . I can't sing.

Bill Carroll

The psychological testing is essential. I did a full MMPI and an interview with a psychologist. The same psychologist did another interview after CPE and seminary, with the CPE report in hand.

The key is to get trustworthy people who have the best interest of the seminarian and of the Church at heart. They also have to have a sense that they are not calling a rector or looking for a finished product. (They are looking for signs of a call.) A group of six should be able to do this. Of course, the system that I laid out assumes that the bishop and Standing Committee are healthy enough to designate a group of six. In many cases, this is just not true. So we're back to square one.


BTW, it takes 5-7 years for most monastics to get to their professions of final vows, too. If that helps at all....



You all have been so enlightening to hear from! By the way, I wholeheartedly endorse psychological screening and corporate discernment in the church as means by which we weed out psychos and the un-called/non-ordainable. I do have a problem, however, when the church allows the therapist to hijack/disrupt the whole discernment process in cases where there are no real psychological abnormalities. And, I would like to suggest that there is a larger spiritual reality behind this process, too. You've heard the saying, 'The devil is in the details'...

J. C. Fisher

ended up “going Presbyterian,” to a church that has a much more efficient and accountable system of polity.


Pshaw, Kristina!

The glory of episcopal polity is that all your problems in the ECUSA "Process"---which seem very real, IMO---can be squarely laid at the feet of your (then) bishop, and nowhere else.

If the Therapeutic Gospel is run-amuck among COM's, blame the bishops who allow it!

JCF: becoming more depressed about the Process I've entered, this year, by the second . . .(Must.Have.Talk.With.Bishop.About.It! *g*)

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