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Discernment stories: I never saw it coming

Jill Singleton with two guests at The Lighthouse, which she helped establish to provide temporary housing and resettlement for asylum seekers after released from detention.
The Rev. Deacon Jill Singleton
Jill Singleton with two guests at The Lighthouse, which she helped establish to provide temporary housing and resettlement for asylum seekers after released from detention.

It’s more than fair to say, “I never saw it coming,” especially because I was not raised in the church. But God has a way of finding us, and in my case, he finally got my full attention from, of all places, a mosque in the Middle East.

On my first night in Amman, I was jolted awake out of a deep sleep by the “Adhan,” or call to prayer, that made its way to my otherwise silent bedroom. It was during these nights over the two-year period I lived in The Middle East that I entered into a conscious relationship with God. As I lay awake listening to the prayer, I was enchanted by the image of 1.8 billion Muslims (nearly 25% of the world’s population) getting out of their warm beds in the middle of the night to get down on their hands and knees to give thanks to God. Invariably I’d take stock in my own spiritual life, and consider how and when I was honoring God’s grace and abundant blessings in my own life. Sometimes I’d feel small and ashamed in front of God for having failed to honor his presence in my life, and at other times I was overcome with joy as I felt the healing presence of his love and the power of our mutual yearning for relationship with one another.

Upon returning to the States in 1994, I started attending my local Episcopal church, and it was there that my discernment journey began and continued over a 10-year period. In 2004 I became Head of School for All Saints Episcopal Day School, and the elegant joining together of my spiritual and vocational lives led me to feel that God might be calling me to ordained ministry. My first inkling occurred while assisting with an Ash Wednesday noonday service. As people lined up to receive their ashes and to remember that they are dust, and to dust they shall return, I was reminded of my nights in Jordan, only this time the image that came to mind was the 2.2 billion Christians around the world (nearly 31% of the world’s population) who would take time on Ash Wednesday to remember the miracle of our life in Christ. I felt honored and humbled to play a small part in creating the context that helped others connect with God, and to experience the profound mystery of being as insignificant as dust while also being sacred vessels of God’s love for one another.

Initially, I thought my call was to the priesthood, and engaged in a series of ongoing conversations with a number of clergy and trusted friends. As part of this process, I attended one of the Diocese’s discernment days, and it was there that I learned about the Diaconate and came to believe that it was to this order, and not the priesthood, that God was calling me to explore and discern.

I was blessed with a challenging yet supportive discernment committee that asked deep and probing questions about my faith, motivation, strengths and challenges, and helped me to discern in my heart whether I could fully commit the life of a deacon. During this busy time, the courses, internships, and conferences with the Commission on Ministry played a huge role in my process, and I am deeply appreciative of and indebted to so many individuals who supported me along the way. There were several times I considered giving up altogether due to insecurities and frustrations with the imperfections of the church and myself, and at one point I even heeded the advice of my spiritual director and took a two-month hiatus from the church altogether as a test to see whether my call was authentic. The absence was long and painful, but provided the clarity and conviction I needed to continue.

Discernment is not easy. It forces you to explore and confront the recesses and caverns of your shadow self, and to fully own the many sinful and unpleasant aspects of your imperfect being. But as Jesus promised again and again, it is precisely in these places of pain and darkness that we find God’s loving light and the miracle of resurrection. And the wonderful thing about discernment is that it never ends, yet beckons you deeper and deeper into the mystery of God’s grace and love.

If you think God may be calling you to a form of ministry in the church – whether ordained or lay – know that while the discernment process may not be easy, it will certainly change your life in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. And you definitely will not walk any journey of discernment alone, but will recognize God’s face in the many people who will emerge to support you on your path. And whether your journey results in ordained ministry or not, opening yourself to God in this way will bring much-needed light into the world.

This series is designed to encourage others to be open to a similar call, and, to some small extent, demystify the ordination process. If you think you might be called to ordained ministry, or are interested in what is involved, please visit the Commission on Ministry page.