The title of this post might be more accurately stated “Some Random thoughts on Discerning the Call.” I am writing this post in hopes that my experience thus far will be of help for folks who are also discerning a call to ministry. Though in many ways my experience will ground this discussion largely in the framework of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), my hope is that some of my thoughts will be general enough to speak to folks in other denominations as well. Much of this post is based on an e-mail I wrote to a friend who is also in the process of discernment.
As it stands, I am one step away from Candidacy. I have met with (and gotten the thumbs up from) the Committee on Preparation for Ministry in my Presbytery and will be going before presbytery in April if all goes as planned. That said, since ordination is the responsibility of the presbytery, this process will differ depending on what presbytery you are in. While the backbone of the process will remain the same, some (or many) of the specifics will change. There are some presbyteries that make additions to what the Book of Order requires on a case by case basis. There are others that have formalized extra requirements for all candidates. In most cases, it seems to me that the “extra” requirements are not anything you won’t have the opportunity to do at seminary, but they are specifically delineated and will hold you up from ordination if you don’t complete them. In some cases, the seminary requires some of the items for graduation so they are no brainers.
So far as what I have experienced going through the process, my session has not had someone under care for quite some time so most of the folks on session were not as familiar with the process. If there is a seminary in your presbytery, this will likely not be an issue as there will probably be LOTS of inquirers and candidates in these presbyteries! : ) As a result of the fact that my session was learning right along with me, initially my session and I walked through the process together. While some sessions assign a liaison before ever appearing in front of session (the first step in the process), my liaison was assigned after the session voted to endorse me as an inquirer. I have heard that some people select their liaison but in my case, she volunteered. Fortunately she is a wonderful liaison! I submitted my Form 1 prior to my meeting with session and got advice before submitting the document but did it mostly on my own. The questions on the forms definitely freaked me out (both for the inquirer form (FORM 1) and the candidacy form (FORM 5A)) but it seems to me that the forms are 1) a way to get an idea of your spiritual growth throughout the process and 2) to contribute to your spiritual growth throughout the process. Answering the questions has forced me to delineate my faith and as a result it has been strengthened. I became an inquirer in July 2008. When I was filling out my Form 5A in December 2009, I looked at my answers to my Form 1 and wanted to laugh. Having not been in the Presbyterian church for very long when I filled it out, I was grasping for straws when it came to the vocabulary to express my beliefs. This is something I still struggle with but being in the Presbyterian mecca of Princeton Theological Seminary has definitely helped. The forms are a way for session and the Committee to see who you are and not really to see if you can give the “right” answers. Granted this is as I see it and if you wrote something about how you took a pilgrimage to Disney to get closer to Jesus they might raise their eyebrows, but at this point, they want to hear your story and they want to get to know who you are. And when I say your story, I mean your faith journey and your sense of call thus far.
Having walked through the process thus far, it seems to me that there are two functions of the CPM: 1) serving as a gatekeeper and 2) serving as a support throughout the process. Sometimes their “support” may not feel that way, but being challenged, while not comfortable, is going to help with discernment just as much as the ‘atta-boys’ so to speak. I no longer feel as much of the ‘gatekeeper’ mentality going on but feel more support. I don’t think the ‘gatekeeper’ aspect of the community ever goes away, but after the committee gets to know you a bit, it will not be (or at least will not seem to be?) as prominent.
One thing I learned along the way totally changed the way I thought about things: you do NOT have to defend your call to anyone. There are various aspects of your story that may make you feel as though you need to defend your call, so you will need to talk about how those things have played into your discernment process, but again, you don’t need to defend your call. It’s not even yours really…it’s God’s call on your life. Or even God’s call on the life God has given to you to live. There will be folks who will help you discern what that might mean or look like, but ultimately if God is calling you and you merely have to decide whether you will answer. I don’t recommend running from a sense of call (just look at Jonah) but that’s an entirely different post.