Journey of Discernment

Individual Discernment | Step 1

To review the requirements to begin discernment in the Diocese of Los Angeles, click here.

In most cases, the actual commencement of formal congregation‐based discernment follows a period in which the individual alone has been engaged in discovery, typically taking up to a year, but encompassing a lifetime of signs, yearnings, and preparation. In those initial weeks and months, an individual’s path of discernment may seem obscure. The task of apprehending the nature of what is happening, and how to proceed, including the notion of speaking to others about emerging vocational inklings, initially may be confusing and daunting.

The journey of discernment is one that requires faithful responsiveness for each Christian since they are likely to encounter unique circumstances, questions, and challenges. For some, the journey may move quickly; for others, the process may be more gradual or elongated. Nonetheless, some general guidelines follow that may help shape the journey’s path.

Pray

Prayer, the means by which and through which we maintain communication with God, is essential. A rule of life that includes significant time to be with God so as to hear God’s desires is foundational to discernment of ministry. Because any kind of ministry is not a status to be pursued or acquired, but rather is to be understood as a mantle of service placed upon the shoulders of the recipient in response to God’s charge, time to distinguish the voice of the divine from the din of human endeavor is invaluable.

Test it out

How can one be sure theirs is a call to further ministry? How does one know God’s desire for their life? How does one know that what one is experiencing is a divine prompting? These are essential discernment questions. In addition to prayer, it is helpful to explore other avenues of interest to expand the mind and heart in multiple directions to find where any resonance occurs. Read Scripture and talk with clergy in one’s community of worship. Even while testing out other interests, one should continue to pursue the study of Scripture, church history, devotional writings, and other readings of spiritual or religious interest. If possible, one should find a means of giving life to this reading by means of a discussion group, or in conversation with the sponsoring priest. In addition to the readings, make an opportunity to talk at some regular interval with the sponsoring priest, who not only has personally experienced the discernment process, but also is capable of offering a confidential, supportive, and honest environment for exploration of one’s call. To find a list of books to aid in this step of discernment, click here.

Be active in the faith community

One should not retreat to solitude for discernment. While there are necessary times for solitude and quiet during the process, being active in one’s congregation may be the single most important factor in understanding one’s call. If possible, one should participate in as broad and deep a way as possible. This breadth and depth of service is helpful at many levels. Such service also allows one a chance to see and experience the widest range possible of parish life, test interests and skills, and provide a deepened sense of the life of the laity. If one should encounter or witness some negativity in the course of this service, talk this over with the sponsoring priest. But one should not be discouraged unnecessarily by it—negative things occur in Christian communities just as they do in other situations.

A note about Seminary

While a few individuals begin their process of discernment in the Episcopal Church with a Masters of Divinity (MDiv) degree already completed, most do not. It is strongly recommended that dicerners wait to enroll in an MDiv program until completion of the Diocesan Discernment Year (DDY), and only with the Bishop’s approval. It is acceptable for discerners to take a class or two at a local seminary to get a taste for the work and to assure themselves that they enjoy it and can succeed at it. For those who begin discernment having already obtained an MDiv, their transcripts will be subject to review and approval by the diocesan Examining Chaplains and the Bishop, and it is possible that further studies may be required.  It is important to note that completing an MDiv degree is not a guarantee of acceptance into the Diocesan Discernment and Formation process or of eventual ordination in the Episcopal Church.

Sponsoring Priest | Step 2

Anyone sensing God’s call in their life to some form of leadership in the church will begin by having a series of conversations with the priest in charge of their congregation. These conversations may last for several months and cover a wide range of topics from a spiritual autobiography, to a sense of call, to the concrete circumstances of one’s life that shape ministry possibilities. Confirmation or Reception in the Episcopal Church and an active presence in the congregation is assumed. For a full discussion of the requirements to begin discernment in the Diocese of Los Angeles, click here.

One should also seek out and regularly meet with a spiritual director other than the community’s clergy leader. This person can be a prayerful, discerning presence on the journey. The selection of a spiritual director is also an exercise of discernment: gender, faith tradition, and personality are just a few of the variables to consider. For more information about finding a spiritual director, click here.

For more instructions on the role of the sponsoring priest, click here.

Formation of Congregational Discernment Committee | Step 3

Once the sponsoring priest and discerner have concluded the initial exploration, and agree that further exploration of a call is appropriate, the next step is establishment of a Congregational Discernment Committee (CDC). Committee members (approximately 6-8 people) are appointed by the clergy person in consultation with the discerner and should represent the variety of congregational concerns.

It is important that the CDC members understand the role of the CDC in the larger context of the entire Diocesan discernment process.  It is the first, and a very important initial step in a longer and more intensive process.  The CDC should not feel pressured to answer all questions, and particularly, should not feel required to decide what particular order or type of ministry is right for the discerner.  There will be much more discernment work ahead for the discerner and the church to determine that answer.

These thoughtful, prayerful parishioners commit to be members of the CDC for approximately one year to support the discerner on their discernment journey for lay or ordained ministry. The composition of the CDC should include those who know the discerner well and others who do not. A discerner who is actively involved in a ministry outside the congregation, such as a hospital, prison or shelter, may wish to include someone who knows them in that context. Strive for a demographic representation of the congregation for the best chance of different perspectives and breadth of experiences.

If at all possible, the CDC should not include members of the Vestry or Bishop’s Committee.* In addition, neither the sponsoring priest nor the discerner’s spouse/partner can be members of the CDC. However, both the sponsoring priest and the discerner’s spouse/partner are encouraged to attend the initial training to gather a sense of the discernment process. All clergy are asked to excuse themselves from participation in the CDC as the importance of lay discernment in this process is highly valued. The sponsoring priest will provide ongoing prayerful support and conversation during the discerner’s time with the CDC, but it is crucial that the lay voice of the congregation be lifted up and the lay perspective represented clearly without interference or interpretation by the sponsoring priest, or any clergy who regularly speaks with the discerner.

*If a congregational CDC cannot be formed from members in the local setting, the sponsoring priest may discuss the possibility of a Regional Discernment Committee with the COM.

The CDC’s primary function is to provide a forum for exploring the discerner’s call. This exploration includes discussing the general meaning of ministry; looking specifically at differences in calls to lay and ordained ministries; reviewing the discerner’s life and spiritual history; and observing the discerner’s ongoing life and ministry within the congregation. The Diocesan Commission on Ministry should be consulted regarding training for CDC members. At least one member of the CDC must attend the Diocesan Discernment Informational Gathering with the discerner and the sponsoring priest; however, all other members of the CDC and the discerner’s spouse/partner are highly encouraged to attend.

Whatever ministry the discerner ultimately pursues, the CDC provides a context for growth, not only for the applicant, but also for the other members, which leads to growth for the congregation and the diocese at large. This growth is, in fact, the very proof that the team has succeeded in its work.

Because of the critical nature of the CDC’s role, its members should be prayerful people who care deeply for the Church, who trust in the Holy Spirit to guide the process, who are able to be open, honest, fair, and compassionate. Each member of the committee must be committed to respect confidentiality. What is said in this team discernment process is an issue of absolute confidentiality.

Attend a Discernment Information Gathering | Step 4

Sometime during the initial conversations with the sponsoring priest, both the discerner and the sponsoring priest, as well as any members of the congregational discernment committee (CDC), should attend a one-day diocesan informational meeting about discernment, called D.I.G. – Diocesan Discernment Information Gathering.  At this gathering, leaders from the Diocese provide a variety of resources to enrich the information about the discernment process. Congregations that make up The Episcopal Church in Los Angeles are so diverse that this gathering establishes a shared foundation and a common vocabulary. Discerners have a chance to converse with other discerners as well as members of the Commission on Ministry. The Bishop requires the sponsoring priest and at least one member of the CDC, usually the chair, to attend this event with any discerner from their congregation.  However, all members of the CDC, and the discerner’s spouse/partner are highly encouraged to attend.  Attendance at a DIG is required before the CDC begins its meetings.

**Note: this step is still in the development stage.  The Commission on Ministry plans to begin holding regular gatherings such as this soon.  Until that time, attending a DIG is not a requirement for proceeding on to the next step, however an official CDC training by the Commission on Ministry will have to take place.

Congregational Discernment Committee Process | Step 5

A CDC chair should be elected or appointed from among the members, whose role will be to manage scheduling and communications, and to guide the committee through the process.  It can be helpful to rotate responsibility for opening and closing prayers as well as taking notes.  The CDC should schedule themselves for regular monthly meetings, where all can commit to attend.  The meetings with the discerner present typically last one hour.  After that, it is customary to excuse the discerner so that the committee can take a half hour or so to reflect on the discussion and plan for the next meeting.

For a detailed discussion of suggested protocols for conducting meetings, click here.

While the above link contains a good amount of information and suggestions for conducting the meetings, it is important to note a couple of additional ideas here. In addition to the basic rule of strict confidentiality, CDC members also should approach this work with the attitude that this process is intended to be helpful to the discerner, the congregation and the church at large. Therefore, uppermost in their minds and conduct should be a sense of Christian love, justice and dignity for all persons. Trick questions or overly aggressive “interviewing” are counter to the aims of the process and can do untold harm to the discerner and/or members of the CDC. Remember, while being attentive and thorough, also relax and trust the process.  There will be times where the desire to come to a quick conclusion may prevent the committee from doing deeper work and waiting for the Spirit to lead, so patience and trust is important.  A mid-point check-in with a CDC mentor should be utilized to make sure the committee is on track and to resolve any other issues.  **Note: this step – CDC Mentor mid-point check in – is still in the development stage.  Until that time, it is not a requirement for proceeding on to the next step.

When the committee has concluded its process, a report to the parish governing body is prepared.  It should include the following:

  • The length of time the committee has been meeting and the number of meetings held
  • A basic overview of the format and process used in the meetings
  • An overview of the members (i.e., “four of the six knew Martha previously, two did not. Two are teachers, one a lawyer, etc.”).
  • Some of the issues discussed, without revealing too much information that might be considered confidential.
  • Something about the discerner’s gifts and weaknesses – or “growing edges”. Rely on the sponsoring priest for direction regarding the reporting of any confidentiality issues.
  • What characteristics of leadership has the discerner demonstrated and how? Consider both the qualities of desired leadership listed in this document, as well as concrete examples of leadership witnessed in the life of the congregation.
  • Joys and concerns about this person as a result of the discernment process.
  • In what ways has the discerner demonstrated their:
    • Christian commitment and spiritual development, stability, and maturity.
    • Understanding, experience, and exercise of baptismal ministry
    • Personal self-care and health
    • Healthy relationship to Christian community
    • Understanding of lay and ordained ministry roles
    • Observation of gifts for a particular order
    • Willingness to be obedient to the authority and leadership of the bishop
  • Any reservations or issues to be resolved should be voiced in the report as well. Is there anything that might hinder or prevent the discerner from serving in leadership? Note:  these should not be disqualifying issues, rather items that should be considered for a formation plan as the discerner continues through diocesan discernment and formation.

The information that the congregational discernment committee provides is an essential and unique contribution to the larger process – but there is still much discernment work at the diocesan level to understand the discerner’s ultimate ministry role.  The CDC’s recommendation is not considered the final recommendation for the discerner; it is the first, important step.

The summary is to include the reflections of the entire committee. Its purpose is to provide the discerner with honest insights into their gifts and skills for ministry as a lay leader, priest, or deacon. It is to be sensitive, honest, and thorough, including areas for further growth and personal development. After discussing the summary with the discerner, it is provided to the sponsoring priest who will share the results with the congregational governing body (BC/vestry).

If the committee concludes there is a leadership call extending beyong the congregation in either a lay or ordained capacity, the sponsoring priest works with the discerner to apply for the diocesan discernment process.  Otherwise, the sponsoring priest may help the discerner explore additional lay leadership opportunities within the faith community.

When the governing body agrees on behalf of the faith community to be involved in the discerner’s preparation for further ministry, this may include financial assistance during the process. This assistance could entail such things as a background check, the canonically required psychological evaluation, and a psychiatric evaluation prior to ordination; the cost for each of these items is shared equally by the discerner, the congregation, and the diocese.

The governing body’s support is the final step in the originating faith community’s discernment process before the discerner is scheduled for an interview with the Bishop. At a later stage of the discerner’s process, the governing body will again be asked for its recommendation.

A copy of the CDC report is sent to the Diocesan Office for Formation and Transition Ministry, along with the Recommendation Form in the initial application packet. The next step (Step 6 – Interview with the Bishop) discusses what documents are required from the sponsoring congregation and the discerner in order for the interview to be scheduled.

Interview with the Bishop | Step 6

After the Office of Formation and Transition Ministry (OFTM) has received the report and letter of recommendation from the CDC  and the letter of support and committment from the sponsoring congregation’s governing body, the OFTM will contact the discerner.  The discerner will be asked to provide various documents and complete initial forms.  Once the OFTM has received these requested documents, they will initiate scheduling the interview appointment with the Bishop’s Office and the sponsoring priest.

The interview includes the discerner, the sponsoring priest, and a warden (or another lay leader if the discerner is sponsored by an institution) from the discerner’s faith community.

The purpose of the interview is to give the Bishop an opportunity to evaluate the discerner’s call to ministry based on the nature of the faith community’s discernment and the ministry needs of the Diocese and the Episcopal Church. If the interview is favorable, the Bishop will instruct the OFTM to invite the discerner to attend the Diocesan Discernment Retreat with the Commission on Ministry.

Retreat with the Commission on Ministry  | Step 7

The Retreat is designed to allow the Commission on Ministry (COM) and the discerner an opportunity for conversation and discernment in a relaxed manner. Commission members use the retreat environment as an opportunity to determine the individual potential, qualities, skills, talents, experience and education the discerner brings to the discernment and formation process for ministry.

During these conversations with the discerner, the COM will want to understand how the discerner’s theology and spiritual practice is rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus, and how the discerner’s deepest joys and sorrows, family of origin, and other life experiences have formed them as a leader.  Does the discerner understand the orders of ministry in the Episcopal church in a realistic, demystified, and unromantic way? The COM will want to hear how the discerner is a gatherer who builds community, who can deal with conflict, break down barriers, and promote healing in the church and the world.  What steps does the discerner plan to take, or has the discerner already taken, to become multi-lingual and comfortable in a diverse and multi-cultural diocese?

Based upon the commission’s recommendation the discerner will be assigned to a new congregation to begin the Diocesan Discernment Year.

 

Diocesan Discernment Year | Step 8

The Diocesan Discernment Year (DDY) provides the discerner a time to engage in the actual practice of ministry in a faith community other than their own, enabling additional spiritual growth, leadership and problem-solving opportunities.  The Commission on Ministry (COM), in consultation with the Office of Formation, and the Bishop will choose a congregation that will expose the discerner to a faith community that is different from the discerner’s home congregation.

Prior to the DDY time, the discerner will be assigned a COMpanion, a member of the Commission on Ministry who will guide and accompany the discerner through all the remaining discernment steps.  The discerner will also meet regularly with the cohort of other DDY discerners at the same stage of their discernment process.  Both the COMpanion and DDY cohort are valuable sounding boards for the discerner as they experience DDY ministry.

At the DDY congregation, the mentoring priest will appoint a new congregational discernment committee (CDC), keeping in mind the same qualities in the members as described above for the discerner’s CDC in their home congregation.  It is likely that none of the CDC members will know the discerner well, and this should result in new insights for the discerner.  The DDY parish leadership should provide ample opportunities for the discerner to serve in worship, teaching, outreach, and other community ministries.

The DDY CDC should follow the DDY Observation Report Guidelines and prepare a similar report at the time the DDY is concluding. The report is shared with the discerner, as well as both the sponsoring priest from the home congregation, and the DDY mentoring priest. The mentoring priest prepares a DDY report, and the discerner prepares a DDY self-evaluation, and together with the DDY CDC report, these are submitted to the Diocesan Commission on Ministry for use in the Next Steps Conference.

Once the sponsoring priest has received the DDY reports and shared them with the sponsoring congregation’s governing body, the governing body should deliberate and decide on whether to nominate the discerner to postulancy.  This nomination needs to be received by the COM before the discerner can be invited to the Next Steps Conference.

Instructions for Mentoring Clergy at a DDY parish can be found here.

DDY Observation Report Guidelines can be found here.

Next Steps Conference | Step 9

Like the Diocesan Discernment Retreat, this conference is designed to allow the Commission on Ministry (COM) and the seeker an opportunity for conversation and discernment in a relaxed environment. The goal of this conference is to articulate next steps in the leadership formation of the seeker. Possibilities include but are not limited to: developing a plan for equipping the discerner for a specific lay ministry; recommending postulancy pending the approval of the Bishop; further exploration of monastic life; or, in the event that there is not yet shared clarity about the nature of the leadership call, on-going discernment with continued diocesan accompaniment.

Note: the COM must receive the nomination for postulancy from the sponsoring congregation before the discerner can be invited to attend the Next Steps conference.

Individual Formation Plan | Step 10

The formation plan is tailored to each person’s particular combination of gifts, education, and experience. If lay ministry has been identified, components of the plan may include theological education, ministry training, or internships. If ordained leadership has been identified, components may include seminary education, resulting in a Master of Divinity degree, a program of Anglican Studies, a Clinical Pastoral Education and Field Study experience, and/or independent tutored study.

Candidacy Interview | Step 11

For those in the ordination process, about halfway through the completion of the formation plan, and once CPE is completed, the postulant will be invited to meet with the members of the Commission on Ministry (COM) and the Standing Committee to share about their progress and how their vision for ministry is taking shape. The formation progress is reviewed with the postulant, and the postulant is asked to share new insights they may have gained into their vocation and growth opportunities. Based upon the commission’s recommendation the bishop may outline further formation steps and may name a person a Candidate.

It is important to note here that completing an MDiv degree is not a guarantee of eventual ordination in the Episcopal Church

Final Recommendation | Step 12

After the formation plan for those pursuing ordination is completed, the Commission on Ministry (COM), Standing Committee, and the Bishop meet to review all information and decide if the Candidate will be ordained. Upon this approval, candidates for the Vocational Diaconate are ordained as Vocational Deacons, and candidates for the Priesthood are ordained as Transitional Deacons.  Transitional Deacons exercise their ministry for a period of about six months before their final ordination into the Priesthood.

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