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Journey of Discernment

Individual Discernment (typically six months to one year)

In most cases, the actual commencement of formal congregation‐based discernment follows a period in which the individual alone has been engaged in discovery. 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 s/he is 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 his or hers is a call to further ministry? How does one know God’s desire for his or her 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 one’s clergy person. In addition to the readings, make an opportunity to talk at some regular interval with the clergy person, 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.

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 clergy person. But one should not be discouraged unnecessarily by it—negative things occur in Christian communities just as they do in other situations.

Sponsoring Clergy

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.

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 help in finding a spiritual director, contact:  Stillpoint or CenterQuest.

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

Attend a Diocesan Information Gathering

Sometime during the initial conversations with the sponsoring clergy, both the seeker and the sponsoring clergy, as well as any potential members of the congregational discernment committee (see below), should attend a one-day diocesan informational meeting about discernment, called D.I.G. – 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. Seekers have a chance to converse with other seekers as well as members of the Commission on Ministry. The Bishop requires Clergy to attend this event with any seeker from their congregation.

**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, it is not a requirement for proceeding on to the next step.

Formation of Congregational Discernment Committee

Once the sponsoring clergy leader and seeker conclude the initial exploration, 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 seeker 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 seeker.  There will be much more discernment work ahead for the seeker 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 seeker on their discernment journey for lay or ordained ministry. The composition of the CDC should include those who know the seeker well and others who do not. A seeker 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.

CDC members cannot be members of the Vestry or Bishop’s Committee.* This presents a conflict of interest.  In addition, neither the parish clergy or the seeker’s spouse or partner can be members of the CDC. Both 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 parish clergy will provide ongoing prayerful support and conversation during the seeker’s discernment, 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 clergy leader.

*If a congregational CDC cannot be formed from members in the local setting, the Clergy 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 individual’s call. This exploration includes discussing the general meaning of ministry; looking specifically at differences in calls to lay and ordained ministries; reviewing the seeker’s life and spiritual history; and observing the seeker’s ongoing life and ministry within the congregation. The Diocesan Commission on Ministry should be consulted regarding training for CDC members. If possible, it is highly recommended that potential members of the CDC attend the Diocesan Discernment Informational Gathering.

Whichever ministry track the individual 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.

Congregational Discernment Committee Process

A CDC facilitator 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 seeker present should be about one hour long.  After that, the seeker is excused and 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 individual, 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 seeker 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.

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 seeker’s gifts and weaknesses – or “growing edges”. Rely on the clergy person for direction regarding the reporting of any confidentiality issues. 
  • What characteristics of leadership has the seeker 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 seeker demonstrated his or her:
    • 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
  • Suggestions for ministry direction: what lay or ordained ministries seem especially suited for this seeker? Note: it is not required at this point that the committee identify which order of ordained ministry should be pursued if ordained ministry is their recommendation.  The information that the congregational discernment committee provides is an essential and unique contribution to the larger process – there is still much discernment work at the diocesan level to resolve these questions.  The CDC’s recommendation is not considered the final recommendation for the seeker; it is the first, important step.
  • Any reservations or issues to be resolved should be voiced in the report as well. Is there anything that might hinder or prevent the seeker from serving in leadership? Note:  these should not be disqualifying issues, rather items that should be considered for a formation plan as the seeker continues through diocesan discernment.

The summary is to include the reflections of the entire committee. Its purpose is to provide the seeker with honest insights into his or her 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 seeker, it is provided to the sponsoring priest who may or may not share the results with the bishop’s committee or vestry.  The COM is available to CDCs and sponsoring clergy to be pastorally available at this time to best support the seeker.

If the committee concludes there is a call to leadership, it will suggest ways the individual may best serve the church. It may be that the call to leadership is satisfied in the opportunities available at the congregational level. This is to be celebrated, perhaps with the Form of Commitment to Christian Service (BCP, 420). If it is determined that the leadership call may extend beyond the congregation in some way as a lay or ordained leader, the clergy leader works with the seeker to apply for the diocesan discernment process. 

When the governing body agrees on behalf of the faith community to be involved in the seeker’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 (which is shared equally by the seeker, the congregation and the diocese), and some financial aid while the seeker is in seminary.

The governing body’s support is the final step in the originating faith community’s discernment process before the seeker is scheduled for an interview with the Bishop. At a later stage of the individual’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 with the Recommendation Form in the initial application packet. The application packet must be completed at least two weeks prior to the interview with the Bishop.

Interview with the Bishop

The interview with the Bishop must be scheduled by the sponsoring clergy leader. Appointments for Seekers/Leadership Discerners should be scheduled with the Bishop Diocesan’s office.

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

The purpose of the interview is to give the Bishop an opportunity to evaluate the seeker’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 seeker will be referred to the Office of Formation to begin the application process that will lead to attending Diocesan Discernment Retreat with the Commission on Ministry.

Retreat with the Commission on Ministry

The Retreat is designed to allow the Commission on Ministry and the seeker 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 seeker brings to the discernment and formation process for ministry.

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

Sample Interview Questions for the Discernment Retreat:

Topic | SPIRITUALITY: DISCERNMENT OF CALL

The seeker should have a clear sense of call; feel at home with the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church in all its diversity; and see worship, prayer, and scripture as an integral part of their lives.

Suggested questions in this area:

  • Can you perform your ministry without being ordained? Why not?
  • What are your present commitments?
  • Are you overworked…too busy? Not busy enough?
  • Are you feeling rushed to do or complete your task/journey? Do you feel in a hurry to get on with it?
  • Do you have an image or vision of your potential ministry?
  • What are the benefits of your course of action? What are its risks or hazards?
  • How will your course affect those close to you? Have you explored how they feel about your course?
  • What are your feelings? How intense are they?
  • Is the course that you are considering motivated by zeal…by love?
  • Do you have goals, long‐range and short‐range?
  • How long have you wanted to do this? How do you know?
  • Does Scripture shed any light on this issue?
  • What do you perceive to be the needs of the community/Church? What do those needs suggest to you?
  • Are you trying to be obedient to God? What if God says no?
  • Are any stories from your life related to this issue?
  • How important is Scripture to you?

 

Topic | INTELLECT: PREPAREDNESS FOR FURTHER EDUCATION

The seeker should be intellectually competent and prepared for further study and challenge to their already acquired knowledge.

Suggested questions in this area:

  • Have you taken any exploratory course work in theological studies? What was it like?
  • Is seminary study financially feasible for you?
  • Have you given thought to how you would finance your theological education?
  • What if you became ordained and could not find a paid position in the Church?
  • If the Commission on Ministry were to recommend three years at a residential seminary, how might you respond?
  • How would you feel about going back to school?
  • Are you prepared to juggle a full‐time job and graduate school?
  • Would a year of Anglican Studies be enough further education?
  • Tell us about your college years? Have you completed any graduate work?
  • What do you read? Can you share a book you’ve read for pleasure in the past year? for intellectual stimulus or knowledge?
  • What do you think would be the most difficult aspect of seminary?
  • What do you think are the greatest hopes and problems for the contemporary world?

 

Topic | EMOTIONS: INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS IN MINISTRY

The seeker should be psychologically sound and demonstrate insight into their own emotional issues. They should be good stewards of their bodies and their health.

Suggested questions in this area:

  • Does your kindness and affability make you vulnerable to manipulation by others? Do you feel obligated to do this? Do you feel that it is your duty? Is this expected of you?
  • Will you resent doing this?
  • Does your need for love or desire for approval unduly influence you?
  • What are your instincts? Impulses? Inclinations? What are their sources?
  • Are money, glory, or reputation factors in your decision?
  • What people have influenced you in your perception of call? How?
  • Are physical problems (for example: recurring headaches) trying to tell you something? Is God trying to tell you something through them? Might they be limitations on your leadership ability?
  • What do you do for physical exercise and recreation?
  • Is there an image that describes how you feel? Or how it would feel? What color does it feel like?
  • If you were to paint a picture of your situation, what would it look like?
  • Have you had a serious illness or have you been hospitalized in recent years?
  • Do you have a history of abuse or addiction? If yes, what did you do about it?

 

Topic | AUTHORITY/MORALITY: LEADERSHIP IN MINISTRY DEVELOPMENT

The seeker should strive to pattern their lives after the example of Jesus.

Suggested discussion questions in this area:

  • What is your attitude toward authority?
  • In what ways do you ascertain right from wrong?
  • Are you aware of the criticism and rejection Church leaders often receive? Could you handle this? How?
  • What values do you hold most dear?
  • Are you aware of the adulation Church leaders often receive? How would you handle this?
  • What do you think “honesty” means in today’s society?
  • Do you see pastoral care as a part of your ministry?
  • Do you see yourself as a “servant?”
  • What would you describe as the most pressing moral issues facing the Church and society today?
  • What are the needs of society as you see them, and how do you think the Church can address them?
  • Are your abilities commensurate with the demands of leadership in the Church?
  • What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?
  • How do others perceive you?
  • Do the people in your faith community experience you as a leader ? How do you know?
  • To what extent does your sense of call come through your faith community?

 

Topic | ABILITY TO MOTIVATE AND BUILD

The seeker should strive to help congregations to grow, and have the ability to work in new areas and motivate others.

Suggested discussion questions in this area:

  • Tell us about a time when you motivated others.
  • Give us an example of a program you have built.
  • Do you see yourself as a motivator or builder?
  • How would you go about introducing new ideas or programs into your faith community?
  • Can you tell us about a time when things were difficult in a program you were leading and you managed to turn it around?
  • How do you go about calling others to assist you in your work?
  • Have you accomplished something of which you are particularly proud?

 

Topic | CONTAGIOUS PERSONAL FAITH

The seeker should demonstrate spiritual depth, a questing prayer life, a sense of God’s presence in his/her pilgrimage.  They should be able to help others to grow and develop in faith

Suggested discussion questions in this area:

  • How do you view the ministry of the whole Body of Christ?
  • Can you tell us a little about the difference you perceive between the ministries of laity and ordained persons?
  • What is your understanding of the ordained minister’s central task in pastoral care? (Solving other people’s problems? Giving answers? Helping one come to a resolution of one’s problems?)
  • Describe an experience where you had to explain something of the Christian faith to a child.
  • What would you like us to know about your personal relationship with God?
  • What is your experience of the work of the Spirit in your life?
  • Can you describe to us the difference between a priest and a deacon in the Episcopal Church?
  • What are some of the ways in which you share your faith with those closest to you?
  • Tell us your favorite Bible story. What is your favorite hymn? Do you have a favorite prayer?

 

Topic | DEVELOP, EDUCATE, & DISCERN THE LEADERSHIP OF OTHERS 

The seeker should demonstrate the ability to listen and to hear others and the ability to raise up others as leaders. They should have strong educator skills. and possess the ability to learn and continue to learn.

Suggested discussion questions in this area:

  • What is your favorite thing to do in Church? Tell us about a book you are presently reading.
  • What was school like for you? Did you enjoy it?
  • Have you ever been challenged on some point of theology or anything you may have said in a class or a sermon? How did you handle it? How did it make you feel?
  • How extensive is your collection of books? Tell us what you read for fun?
  • Have you had opportunity to teach or train others? What was that like? Did you enjoy it?
  • How would you describe your teaching style?
  • Do repeated questions on the same topic annoy you?
  • Do you enjoy talking about yourself?

 

Topic | RISK TAKING

The seeker should possess the ability to take risks in the most creative sense of this concept. They should have the capacity to persevere in difficulty, and have resilience in adversity.

Suggested discussion questions in this area:

  • Tell us about a time when you took a big chance. Did it pay off? What did you learn?
  • Give us an example of something you really love to do.
  • Describe your favorite place to be.
  • Have you ever failed miserably at anything? Would you mind sharing that with us?
  • What is your experience with persons outside your culture?
  • Have you traveled a great deal?
  • Describe something that you have worked really hard to do.
  • What do you want us to know about your home?
  • Can you tell us what makes you laugh?

 

Topic | GENUINE INTER-PERSONAL AWARENESS

The seeker should be able  to direct, guide and support those within their community, based on a deep awareness and integration of personal skills and identity (including limitations).

Suggested discussion questions in this area:

  • Can you tell us something you really love to do?
  • Describe for us your favorite person.
  • Tell us about a time when you thought you recognized a real leader. What was that person like?
  • What does it feel like to work with people you admire?
  • How would you describe your own leadership style? What things do you do to call others to ministry?
  • What does ordination mean to you?
  • How do you think your friends will treat you differently if you are ordained?
  • Tell us your favorite story about yourself.

Diocesan Discernment Year

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

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

At the DDY parish, the clergy leader will appoint a new congregational discernment committee (CDC), keeping in mind the same qualities in the members as described above for the original seeker’s CDC.  It is likely that none of the CDC members will know the seeker well, and this should result in new insights for the seeker.  The DDY parish leadership should provide ample opportunities for the seeker 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 seeker, as well as both the sponsoring and DDY clergy, and then submitted to the COM. The clergy leader prepares a DDY report, and the seeker prepares a DDY self-evaluation, and together with the CDC report, these are submitted to the Diocesan Commission on Ministry for use in the Next Steps Conference.

Instructions for Mentoring Clergy at a DDY parish can be found here (To come soon).

DDY Observation Report Guidelines can be found here (To come soon).

Next Steps Conference

Like the Diocesan Discernment Retreat, this conference is designed to allow the Commission on Ministry 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 seeker for a specific lay ministry; recommending Postulancy, pending the approval of the Bishop and the endorsement of the seeker’s home congregation; 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.

Individual Formation Plan

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

For those in the lay leadership process, about halfway through the completion of the formation plan, the person will be invited to meet with the COM to share about their progress and how their vision for ministry is taking shape. For those in the ordination process, about halfway through the completion of the formation plan the Postulant will interview with members of the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee.  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.

Final Recommendation

After the formation plan for those pursuing lay leadership is completed, the COM, Standing Committee, and the Bishop meet to review all information and decide if planning for a service of commissioning for lay leadership is appropriate at this time. For those pursuing ordained leadership, the COM, Standing Committee, and the Bishop meet to review all information and decide if the Candidate will be ordained. Both candidates to the Vocational Diaconate and the Presbyterate (priesthood) are ordained as Deacons.

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