Formation for Priesthood

I was ordained to the Sacred Order of Priests in the Episcopal Church USA in December, 2007.  It had been a very long time coming.  For much of my adult life, I sensed God's call but resisted, denied, and bargained with it.  It was this last strategy that seemed most effective; I would simply add another lay ministry to my portfolio, until I started referring to myself as the "wearer of many hats" in my parish and diocese.

Truth be told, I often thought about seminary during those years (mostly in Massachusetts).  I had a number of friends who were either seminarians or on the faculty/staff of the local seminaries, particularly the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge and the Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Newton Centre.  The "Process" in the Diocese of Massachusetts was very intimidating at that time, and that was one of several excuses I used to set thoughts of seminary aside for a little longer.  I suppose I was hoping to outlast it.

20 April 2001:  Struck by the "Celestial 2x4"

I returned home to Colorado in 1997 to "reboot" my life, as I separated from and later divorced my wife of 24 years.  I settled in a town home in Fort Collins and landed at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, largely on the strength of the preaching by the priest who was then the Vicar.  The parish family was very welcoming, and I stayed and got involved (though not to the same degree as I had in Massachusetts) in various lay ministries.

Professionally, the move was more challenging.  I'd had little difficulty finding a software engineering position as I moved west; my new employer even paid for my relocation.  The Denver job market doesn't pay as well as Boston did (big surprise), but I hoped that it would also be significantly less expensive (it isn't).  The economic "bubble" burst and companies started belt tightening.  They also became a lot less gracious in their dealings with their employees.

I commuted 80 miles each way from Fort Collins to Denver; the VanGo vanpool saved a lot of wear and tear on both myself and my car for a monthly cost comparable to gasoline ($1.25/gallon at the time).  Where my previous employer (the OSF Research Institute in Cambridge, MA) actively encouraged telecommuting, my Denver employer (ADIC) did not.  ADIC merely tolerated the daily schedule (7am - 4pm) dictated by van ridership.  That, plus other issues, contributed to my departure in 2000.  My next employer was a startup that supported both my van pool schedule and my occasional need to telecommute; alas, they fell on hard financial times and my team was eliminated.

It was that layoff that served as my wakeup call (aka the "Celestial 2x4 across the forehead").  I had to accept that my career had passed its peak.  The two people closest to me each said, "It's time you paid attention to that calling of yours."  They spoke within two hours of each other, and without prompting.  That's very hard to ignore, even while grieving my loss.

There were other coincidences, each indicating that God was engaged in a "full court press" to get my attention.  My Rector (St. Andrew's had called him first to be its Vicar, then grew to parish status) had asked me a few days earlier if I would lead Sunday worship a fortnight hence.  He and his wife were going to visit their daughter in Omaha that weekend, and he had been unable to find a supply priest to cover the service.  I was happy to do so, even though I wondered at the time how I would find the time to pull together a decent homily.  I was laid off the following Friday.  That certainly proved the adage, "Be careful what you pray for -- you just might get it!"

Starting "the Process"

About a month after my layoff, I met one morning with my Rector, Fr. Jim Paul.  His visit to his daughter had been good, and he was describing her parish as the blend of a black congregation and a white congregation that took a new name instead of combining names or choosing one over the other.  Our conversation rambled a bit over my job search, how the service I led had gone, and how I was feeling.

At some point, the discussion turned serious.  We drifted into the conversation (about entering the ordination process).  I admitted that it was time for me "fish or cut bait."  (I actually used a more colorful expression, but I'm sure you get the drift.)  As we hugged and I went home, I felt that one great weight had been lifted from my shoulders, to be replaced by the greater weight of the Process.

Each Episcopal diocese (there are about 100 of them across the United States) has its own version of "the Process," but the national canons are specific enough that they have a lot in common.  The Process is subject to modification from time to time, especially as different bishops take the helm.  I'll describe the Process that was in effect in the Diocese of Colorado when I started.  It has subsequently been revised, but most of its elements are analogous to other locations.

The diocesan web site provides full details of the current Ordination Process.  [CLICK HERE]

Summer, 2001:  Aspirancy

Following both ancient tradition and canon law, the Process is broken into three phases:  Aspirancy, Postulancy, and Candidacy.  This first phase is one of discernment, during which the Aspirant works with others inside and outside the congregation to articulate and validate his/her sense of calling.  In many cases, the calling is to something other than ordained ministry, but there is always a calling to service.  [Click here for my own journey.]

I first met with the Commission on Ministry (CoM), which serves as the Bishop's council of advice with regard to the ordination process, in May, 2002.  They did not feel that I was yet ready for Postulancy at that time, so they suggested several things that I should address before returning to them.  My second meeting was in August, 2003, after which I was recommended for Postulancy.

12 January 2004:  Postulancy

Once all the "heads nod in unison" to affirm a calling to ordained ministry, the Bishop may admit the Aspirant to Postulancy.  That's the largest single hurdle in the Process; from there on, it's mostly a matter of doing the work to be ready for each of the subsequent steps.  Bishop O'Neill admitted me as a Postulant in January, 2004, shortly after his institution as the 10th Bishop of Colorado.

It is during this phase that the new Postulant begins formation, usually at an Episcopal seminary.  The normal path is to earn a Master of  Divinity (M.Div.) degree, which is a three year program.  Episcopal seminaries usually require their applicants to either have been accepted as Postulants or to have their bishops' explicit permission to apply.  Though I had gathered information about seminaries during my Aspirancy, I couldn't get serious until I had actually been admitted as a Postulant.

I considered four Episcopal seminaries, but quickly narrowed the field to two.  Once I visited the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest (ETSS) in Austin, I could sense that this was the place to which God was calling me.  In the interest of "due diligence," I also applied to Seabury-Western in Evanston, IL.

The admissions processes at both seminaries include a personal interview on campus.  My ETSS application was running a bit ahead of my Seabury application, and I met with the Director of Admissions and an interview committee in May, 2004.  By the end of the interview, I had been offered a place in the Class of 2007.  I accepted without a moment's hesitation.  This is the place!

The Process is much less complex for Postulants as they move toward Candidacy.  We're required to continue Spiritual Direction throughout the Process, and beyond ordination.  At the time, I was supposed to be assigned a Priest Mentor, but the CoM was otherwise occupied; with their permission, I recruited a priest I knew from Cursillo who was also a recent ETSS graduate.  As the Process has continued to evolve under Bishop O'Neill, a "Liaison" to the Board of Examining Chaplains was appointed to monitor my progress.

I was considered for the next step, Candidacy, in October of 2006.  By then, I had completed two years of study and received my "Middler Evaluation" by the seminary.  I had spent a full year at my field parish assignment, working somewhat more than the five hours per week that is required.  I had also completed one unit (400 hours) of Clinical Pastoral Education, serving as a hospital chaplain at Boulder Community Hospital.  My interview with the Commission on Ministry went well, and the Bishop admitted me as a "Candidate for Ordination to the Transitional Diaconate" on October 4, 2006.

4 October 2006:  Candidacy

The canons of the Episcopal Church USA require a minimum of six months each as a Postulant and as a Candidate.  The practice of the Diocese of Colorado is about two years as a Postulant, and about eight months as a Candidate.  The Candidacy interview with the Commission on Ministry is intended to confirm that the applicant is on track for ordination.  S/he remains a work in progress, but by that point the diocese will have a sense of how s/he will turn out.

The main events during Candidacy are the General Ordination Exams (GOEs), which I took in January 2007, and graduation on May 15th.  The GOEs are a big deal; they cover all seven of the areas of study required by the canons and the Diocese of Colorado took them quite seriously as they evaluated my readiness for ordination.

9 June 2007:  Transitional Diaconate

Continuing a tradition of the undivided Church (before the Great Scism between East and West in 1054), Anglican priests are first ordained as Deacons.  The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions do likewise, but most other Protestant denominations do not.  There is a debate within Anglicanism about direct ordination to the priesthood (affirming the Diaconate as a distinctly different order), and I will confess to some ambivalence.  Though a deacon may be less useful within a local congregation than a priest would be, my belief is/was that I should pass through the diaconal phase and that I should be as truly a deacon as possible during that time.  Within two months, I connected with St. Clare's Supper, which is truly a ministry of service to Denver's homeless and working poor.  Years later, I remain deeply involved in that ministry, as both priest and deacon.

Bishop O'Neill ordained me as a Transitional Deacon on June 9, 2007.  I was still searching for my first "cure" (clerical position) as a Curate (junior assistant in a parish) or as the Vicar/Deacon in Charge of a small church at that time.  Four of us completed our MDiv degrees in the spring of 2007, which is fewer than in recent years.  That should have worked to our benefit, because there aren't very many parishes in the Diocese of Colorado with the resources to hire one of us.  This was a journey of faith; I believed that God would lead each of us to connect with congregations where we could both serve and grow.

In fact, there was only one Curate position open in the diocese at the time we were ordained.  One of our number chose to pursue doctoral studies at his seminary, leaving three of us to apply for it.  I wasn't offered that position, but I took the chance that something would open for me when I returned to the diocese after graduation.  As it turned out, I was needed to serve as the Coördinator and Secretary of the 120th Diocesan Convention in October.  I also connected to two parishes in Denver, which provided both an altar at which to exercise the liturgical side of diaconal ministry, and a real-life setting for the servanthood portion.

8 December 2007:  Priesthood

After six months as a Transitional Deacon, I was ordained to the Sacred Order of Priests in God's One, Holy, Catholic (universal), and Apostolic Church.  I began to serve as a Supply Priest (much like a substitute teacher) for congregations in Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Dillon, and Kremmling as I prayed for a placement as a Priest-in-Charge or Vicar somewhere.  I had once observed that exactly half of the 116 congregations in the Diocese of Colorado are along the Front Range (from north of Fort Collins to south of Trinidad), while the other half are not.  I could have landed anywhere, and Colorado is a very large place (104,094 square miles).

My prayers were answered at about the same time my sojourn with the Office of the Bishop came to an end.  I moved on to become the Priest-in-Charge of St. Charles the Martyr Episcopal Church in Fort Morgan, Colorado.  Priests-in-Charge are appointed for up to three years, after which they and the congregation discern their mutual desire to make the relationship permanent. 

In our case, we did not.  I have since become a Bi-Vocational priest, returning to my profession in Software Engineering while serving as a supply priest/pastor to Episcopal and Lutheran congregations in Northeastern Colorado and as a Priest Associate at Trinity Episcopal Church in Greeley.

As the Bishop pointed out to us at our ordination, formation is a life-long process.  We are continuously being formed into the priests that God has called us to be.  Please pray for each of us as we do so.