If someone were to ask me what tools I would recommend having for entering a discernment process, looking back on my own journey, I would suggest tools that are intangible and tangible. I would include an open heart, an inquisitive mind, the courage to ask lots of questions, the wisdom to know when to listen, paper, pens, pencils, and crayons (colored pencils, markers, whatever you like).
Discernment in any form is a journey. I never expected to enter a discernment journey for ordination to the priesthood. I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and there were no female role models for an ordained life. When I began my journey, I had been an Episcopalian for over 20 years, had a female clergy give my father last rites, and had seen many female clergy share their ministry, I didn’t imagine that being a priest was something that God would ever call me to.
Yet, when I look back on my life, I saw the seeds on the path. A passion for caring for others, a desire to study and share God’s word, and lots of curiosity about life and a love of sharing stories to name a few.
After my initial experience of call, I spoke to my vicar. He suggested that I find a spiritual director. That was one of the best decisions that I made. Upon meeting with her, I realized that I couldn’t even find the words to share the mystical experience that I had. She gave me some homework. She told me to ask other clergy what their call to ministry was. I am grateful to those who shared their stories with me. Those initial conversations were very helpful.
Conversations would be the river that would flow throughout my entire discernment process. I had conversations with Spiritual Director, my Vicar, and a clergy friend who shared a book group with me exploring different books on ministry, other clergy, both female and male, and trusted friends. As I entered seminary I would find support from teachers and my fellow classmates.
Throughout my seminar career, I continued my lay work in liturgy development, lay pastoral care, altar guild, Sunday School and the choir. In all those areas of ministry I was able to develop as a teacher and more importantly was gifted by the many stories people would share with me.
I kept a journal of meditations, prayers and the long road of experiences that occurred during my discernment. My journals were a close friend as I wrote about the many joys I experienced, and the frustrating times when I felt that I had hit a roadblock in understanding where God was leading me. Those along with the pictures from my sketch pad helped me to process the many feelings that I experienced. Those recordings of my personal time were valuable as I would look back on them later in my journey. I continued to see metaphors and more seeds of where the Holy Spirit was leading me.
The next big step in my journey was sharing my call with the Commission on Ministry and Bishop Mark. I walked the journey with them for several years and I got to know several members very well. They were the Commission Chairs and my liaisons. They helped guide my process, asked pointed questions to reflect on, challenged me in ways that helped me grow.
One of the things that I enjoyed during that time was writing my Ember Letters to Bishop Mark. Sometimes it was tough getting started writing a letter but once I started there was always so much to share. I treasured the personal responses that he sent back to me. It meant a lot to know that he took the time to read all the letters, respond to them and then check in with me about things I shared whenever I saw him. I saved every letter he wrote to me.
After a few years I started my field placement. The focus of my discernment journey moved into how I would spiritually and practically live out my call in the church and in the world. I treasure the opportunities that I had and great conversations reflecting on how the work I was doing was impacting the church that I was serving in. I draw on those experiences in my ministry today.
Discernment is not just a process that one enters because they feel that they might have a call to ordained ministry. Discernment is a way for both lay and ordained people to process the different opportunities and paths that life presents. The actual process of discernment will vary based upon the situation and the individual, but what ever way one chooses to discern, listening and sharing are very important parts of the journey.
Be open to listen for God in the words of others, in the breeze, in nature, in music, and in your heart and be courageous enough to share your journey with trusted friends. The time of discernment will also vary from person to person. It’s not a race, it happens in God’s time. Know that God will guide the way; trust in God’s direction. Even when things might get overwhelming, as they sometimes will, let your faith be the open door that God will walk through, creatively revealing the direction that is uniquely meant for you.
May your time in discernment open new doors and present ways to serve God that will be a blessing to others and help you understand the gifts that you have been given and how to use them. I pray that yours is an inspiring time with God.
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.