Friday, August 17, 2012

Commission on Mediocrity

In the early 1970’s the Rector of St. Thomas Church-Whitemarsh near Philadelphia, was the chair of the committee to draft the diocesan canon for the new Commission on Ministry.  After some time working on it, he said to me that while he thought the commission idea to include more people in the discernment to ordination process had some merit, he also strongly thought that having so many people involved would eventually create “a committee mentality.” He predicted that real genius in leadership and creative eccentricity would be removed with a bland  human production line of mediocre clergy emerging in many instances.
Some years later when on the staff of Lyman Ogilby, Bishop of Pennsylvania, I became the coordinator for him for the ordination process and liaison to the Commission on Ministry and seminaries. Because of the human and chronological stagnation that had developed,  created by the mess of the COM canonical process, the Diocese had an active list of about 130 people “on the book” toward potential deacon and priest ordinations! Seemingly no one was stating a solid “No” or “Yes” to people until years of interviews, studies and committee meetings had passed. Of course, few young people were waiting around for some answer, and the number of older and suspiciously persistent second career personalities proliferated! I heard occasionally the pathetic notion that if nothing else, “I could be ordained and work for the Church!”
So I developed a pre qualifying process starting with a very able psychologist who tested and interviewed people at the initiation of the aspirant after identifying themselves to me.  They made their own appointment with the psychologist and paid for the process, the report of which was sent to me.  In turn I would review the reports with the Bishop as needed. We would then decide what would get shared with the individual in an interview with me. The aspirants were promised a ninety day turn around by me so they could get on with their lives. With this pre qualification process in place, the Bishop actually knew what he was potentially getting,and the COM no longer was inundated with very unprepared people.  As my prime goal for the aspirants was for them to be empowered to move on confidently to or away from possible ordination and/or to some other ministry, I  was grateful to find with few exceptions that people did get what they needed in a caring and timely way. I also offered a workshop for the pre qualified aspirants to learn how to take charge of and have a high quality discernment interview, which also benefited the COM.

COM’s are generally overwhelmed with too many aspirants who are at best modestly equippable for any professional level ministry. It has got to be so gummy and passive that the Dean of the cathedral in Jacksonville, FL raised the  interesting question on Facebook as to whether anyone can say “No” to someone seeking ordination, a decidedly non-Anglican ecclesiology! (I am not saying she advocated this position.)  From fearful priests who just cannot bring themselves to say no to the flinty old senior warden (My memo to the clergy told them to send these people on to me so I could give them their answer protecting the priest from possible angry retribution.), to timid personalities on COM’s and poor  psychological testing and interview processes, to bishops who seem to think that there is scoreboard in heaven for how many people they can get ordained, we have a Church fat on clergy and lean on congregants.

What is the answer? Well, to start with, all bishops/dioceses should consider a partial or full moratorium on all ordinations and lead by figuring out what the real and godly professional needs are within the jurisdictions. And then forget “ordaining for the larger church” nonsense! Let the seminaries go as Harvard’s President, Nathan Pusey,  had said needed to happen in his 1968 report. (Yes, over forty years ago. . . ) In other words, at least for a while, just say, “NO!”  


  1. Ron, this is a terrific article. With our system so bogged down with people and no jobs for many of the priest candidates when they get out, we must begin to say no now. COM is no better, perhaps even worse, than the old system where the Bishop, Rector and Vestry made the decisions. Another thing. COM has become a systemic failure due to the incessant red tape coupled with, as you say, a reluctance to say no. Good work.

  2. Ron, great article. Interesting you should mention the 18 month study headed by Harvard University president Nathan Pusey and sponsored by the Episcopal Church Foundation. For those unacquainted the results of the study:

    Pusey said there was no shortage of clergy in the Episcopal Church; he pointed out that we had over 10,000 clergy for 7,500 parishes and missions. (Note: today we somewhat more then 6000 parishes and missions and over 18,000 clergy.)

    The study demonstrates, Pusey said, that we gained our surplus of clergy by lowering academic requirements for admission to the priesthood. He noted that 60% of our seminarians graduated from college with grade averages of “C” or below. A large percentage of then, Pusey concluded, would not have been accepted by law, medical, and other graduate schools. In fact more than one-eight of our clergy do not have a college degree. One-third of the clergy in the Episcopal, again according to the study, have not completed a seminary course of study.

    There is no evidence to support that any of these markers are any better now and most of us know that, if anything, things are worse. Certainly the various Commissions on Ministry have failed to live up to their purpose as Ron points out.

  3. Great essay and important topic. Bishop Budde in Diocese of Washington D.C, put a moratorium on ordinations in her diocese this past year for exactly the reasons you outlined. When I came into the discernment process in LA, the bihop always reminded us that ordination does not equal a guaranteed job. Indeed he was right. Every diocese has a different discernment process. Every bishop ordains with different criteria and giving different messages to aspirants, postulants and candidates. There is no unity in the process. Some bishops will only ordain young people under 35, some only if they have a job for a priest after ordination, some for the whole church and so on. I recently said on Facebook the most difficult activity I ever experienced was finding a clergy job in TEC. The second most difficult activity is the discernment process. Both search and discernment share many common process characteristics and systemic deficiencies. A good process I believe is one that is transparent and where diocese meets the candidate on a human level. In a healthy discernment there should be no surprises, but rather a mutual discovery of where the Spirit is calling a particular person. Discernment takes training, patience and humility not authority.

    Thanks for your insights!

  4. Would love to hear more about the Harvard study. When was it done? Also how many people know those numbers cited - 10,000 priests for 7500 parishes and 18,000 for 6000? Those numbers should be in every seminary catalogue!

    Joe Duggan

  5. Joe, Goodthunder can give you more detail. I know that the study had just come out in 1968 as Pusey was a well know fixture in Cambridge at the time as he had just retired from Harvard as President. The study inspired the less than successful merger of Philadelphia Divinity School with the Episcopal Theological School in 1973. I was the student representative with Dean Guthrie from ETS when we, General Seminary and PDS started the conversations in 1970. We all were trying to be faithful at the time to Pusey's conclusions; however, the merger process was so new and pioneering for seminaries that a number of very serious problems were built in to the final design and weakened the new entity (EDS) permanently financially. Only a few years later was added the new seminary, Trinity-Ambridge, PA in reaction to the perceived liberal orientation of the other schools. So the net result after the Pusey report was no actual change in the number of seminaries!

  6. Joe, the study referred to is: Ministry for Tomorrow, Report of the Special Committee on Theological Education , Nathan M. Pusey, Chairman, Charles L. Taylor; Director of the Study (New York: Seabury Press, 1967) The data quoted came from Dr Pusey’s speech at a testimonial dinner for John E. Hines, then Presiding Bishop, and reported in Leaven, which is a publication of The National Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations, dated November 1996. The point being that for over 40 years we have known of the crisis in clergy preparation and leadership. Sort of like the Liberty ships of WWII – quick to turn out but a huge number of them sank.

  7. Ron, I would challenge your assertion that Episcopal Divinity School was permanently weakened financially by the terms of the merger only on your use of permanently. Even in the world of finances nothing is permanent.
    The discernment process in WNY has for decades had two discernment committees before postulancy is considered. One is in the person's parish; the other is in another parish. As staff for the COM for a few years, I found that this process worked and after leaving that post I argued against refusing to allow someone to be looked at by the second committee. What that second committee did was provide an assessment that was less likely to be influenced by the home parish's reluctance to appear unsupportive of a friend. Even with two committees the initial process can be completed within a year and can provide the aspirant with significant help in sorting out a vocation.
    My wife served on two home parish committees for one person. The first time around the person thought that she might have a vocation as a deacon, but in the process it became clear that she didn't. Later the person asked to be considered as a possible candidate for the priesthood. The committee worked with her and decided that she just might have such a vocation. In time she went to seminary and was ordained and is serving a parish faithfully.
    I agree that we need to be willing to say no much earlier. I recall a few times when it was only at application for candidacy that the needed no was said.

  8. This was a good read. As someone in the "process" I would have to agree with moving aspirants through quickly. I came to my process from a diocese that would not ordain me but nonetheless thought another diocese would ordain me. I also don't fit the church's traditional/normal model for the ordination process in that I went to seminary without having a diocese - bad idea. Now that I have a diocese I am in a holding pattern for candidacy. It is a frustrating process for some especially if you don't have a bishop who is willing to work with you. Also seminaries are degree granting institutions that in the business (sorry for the harshness) of perpetuating themselves. If you asked which seminaries would be willing to close and merge with another seminary I think you would get nary a response. The same goes for closing parishes that are on the downturn. I am eager for the church's turn to looking at being church in the 21st century. The old models,the old nostalgia for martini sipping rectors aren't speaking to a world that is looking for God but in the manner we are currently not offering.

    P.S. Nothing says hire me in the real world like an M. Div.

  9. Perhaps a more radical thought. And for the sake of transparency let me state up front I am a member of the Standing Commission on Ministry Development for TEC.

    What if COMs actually worked on what their title claims? Because right now they function as a Commission on Ordination. If a person is interested in ministry in the church our setup clearly points them toward ordination. As has been stated over and over not everyone is a candidate for ordination. BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN THEY AREN'T CANDIDATES FOR MINISTRY! We give lip service to "Ministry of All the Baptised" but our practice clearly indicates we don't think in those terms at all.

    Yes this would in some ways expand the portfolio of the COMs (I can feel the collective shudder)but it also seems clear that the current model for COM isn't working anyway. Why not move to a model that helps ALL the members of the Body of Christ move into their ministry? In that way we should be able to at least decrease the less qualified candidates (less qualified for whatever reason)that will need to go through the more complicated path to ordination. That should allow that process to work more efficiently and with a better "product".

  10. Jay, thanks, as well as to all responders. But specifically to you, as I remember, the Diocese of PA initially tried to fulfill that function but declined into ordination processing. Again from my experience, the pre qualification process did in fact help direct some people immediately into other ministries, one of whom was within a year the comptroller of another diocese as a very competent lay person. Until a diocese forces itself to stop the whole COM process in its tracks, then they will passively continue as ordination processors (and I mean that as harsh as it sounds). Either in another article or in the comment section, as a result of some really bizarre anecdotes now coming my way, I must note on how cruel and distorted some COM processes have become. How about ordaining a quadriplegic who has no voice, can hardly lift their head and has limited manual ability to type on a computer, successfully becoming a deacon from a very prominent parish!!! This is just one insane story I have come across.

  11. John Guest, longtime priest and evangelist from Sewickley, PA used to say that COMs were best at weeding out leadership. Having observed Episcopal clergy in four dioceses, for the most part I agree with him.

  12. John Guest lead in establishing Trinity seminary next door to him in Ambridge, PA. Have no idea about their present viability.