The Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer asks us, “Who are the ministers of the Church?” and answers, “The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons” (BCP 855).
We as a diocese are called by the Canons of the Episcopal Church to provide “for the affirmation and development of the ministry of all baptized persons,” to promote the “understanding that all baptized persons are called to minister in Christ’s name,” and “to identify [the baptized’s] gifts with the help of the Church and to serve Christ’s mission at all times and in all places” (Canon III.1.1).
One way the Diocese of Virginia lives into this mandate is through vocational discernment. Here, you’ll find the guidelines and responsibilities for presenting priests to help their parishioners discern a possible call to the ordained vocations.
Defining the Presenting Priest
The presenting priest is the rector, interim rector, priest-in-charge or vicar of the congregation the person in discernment is a member of. If there is no rector, interim rector, priest-in-charge or vicar, an associate, assistant rector, or another priest associated with the parish may fulfill this role. A deacon can act as presenting priest under extraordinary circumstances, with permission from the bishop and under close supervision from the canon’s office, as long as there is also a priest involved in the process who can sign the necessary letters of Vestry support.
The Vestry’s Role
Whenever a letter of support of a vestry is required, the letter must be signed and dated by at least two-thirds of all the members of the vestry, at a meeting duly convened, and by the rector or priest-in-charge of the parish, and attested by the clerk of the vestry. Should there be no rector, priest-in-charge or vicar, the letter shall be signed by a priest of the Diocese acquainted with the person in discernment and the parish (Canon III.5.2.c).
There can be some anxiety surrounding the vestry’s role in the process, especially in larger parishes where the vestry may not be personally acquainted with the seeker. The canon’s office is always available to offer guidance to presenting priests and vestries on best practices in such cases.
The presenting priest moves the person in discernment and formation from one step of the process to the next. Canonically, this is the essential role of the presenting priest. The specific steps and the specific roles of the presenting priest are as follows:
Discernment Retreat – The presenting priest writes an e-mail to the canon to the ordinary, with a copy to the adult vocation officer, recommending that a member of the congregation attend the retreat. This typically follows a conversation between the priest and the person who is experiencing what may be the inklings of a call. At this early stage, the priest simply attests that the seeker would benefit from attending a retreat. The priest is not asked to state whether he or she believes the aspirant is called nor to provide a reference or recommendation; presenting priests may ask that an invitation to attend a retreat be sent to anyone he or she believes would benefit, whether that person senses a call to ordained ministry or lay ministry.
In order to equip the seeker with essential tools for discernment, we recommend that the presenting priest nominate his or her seeker for the discernment retreat as early in the process as the presenting priest is comfortable doing so.
Parish Discernment Committee – After attending a discernment retreat, we ask the seeker spend some months in prayer and reflection. If, after that time, the seeker continues to sense a call to ministry, whether lay or ordained, he or she speaks with the presenting priest. If the presenting priest supports the seeker in continued discernment, the presenting priest writes an e-mail to the canon to the ordinary, with a copy to the adult vocation officer, asking that a diocesan spiritual discernment facilitator (DSDF) be appointed to work with the priest and seeker in setting up a Parish Discernment Committee. The adult vocation officer will then arrange for a DSDF to work with the seeker and parish.
The Committee meets with the seeker for a time to discern with him or her in community. The presenting priest is not a member of the Committee and does not attend meetings. Because of the vestry’s role in the process, vestry members should not be members of the committee either, as this may set up a dynamic where the aspirant feels he or she is being vetted, which is not the purpose of the Parish discernment Committee. We find it is a best practice that the committee not be formed prior to first the meeting with the DSDF.
The Application Process – After the work of the Parish Discernment Committee is complete, the seeker should meet with the presenting priest to share what he or she experienced. If the seeker senses a call to ordained ministry, either as a deacon or as a priest, and would like to apply to enter the formal formation process, he or she must speak with the presenting priest. If the presenting priest supports the seeker in continued discernment, the priest writes a letter or e-mail to the canon to the ordinary, with a copy to the adult vocation officer, asking that a member of the appropriate committee – the Committee on the Diaconate or the Committee on Priesthood – be appointed as a contact person to assist the seeker in the process of applying for postulancy. Once a call is discerned, the seeker becomes an aspirant, the name given to those applying for postulancy.
We do not typically recommend that a seeker/aspirant enroll in seminary before he or she completes the formal discernment process. However, an aspirant may apply to seminaries and for postulancy concurrently. An aspirant should discuss the timing of these applications with his or her contact person.
Postulancy – Before postulancy may be granted, the presenting priest signs the vestry letter of support. The priest also writes a letter of recommendation. The presenting priest accompanies the aspirant to the postulancy interview, along with the aspirant’s spouse, if applicable, and one or two people from the vestry, discernment committee or congregation.
Candidacy – Before candidacy may be granted, the presenting priest signs the vestry letter of support. The presenting priest may choose to write a letter to the Committee on Priesthood, Standing Committee and bishop at this point in the process. The presenting priest does not accompany the postulant to the candidacy interview.
Ordination to the Diaconate – Before a candidate may be ordained as a deacon, the presenting priest signs the Vestry letter of support.
Ordination to the Priesthood – Before a deacon may be ordained as a priest, the presenting priest signs the vestry letter of support.
Adult Vocation Officer
800-DIOCESE ext. 1015
Ed serves as adult vocation officer, working with the Rev. Canon Patrick Wingo on matters pertaining to ordained and lay ministry. Ed manages the ordination process, provides advice and support to the Commission on Ministry and its committees, and helps guide future priests and deacons through the formation process. He is exploring ways to place a renewed focus on vocational discernment and leadership formation for lay people, with a particular focus on assisting in the expansion of young adult ministry.
The Rev. Canon Patrick Wingo
Canon to the Ordinary
800-DIOCESE ext. 1024
Pat serves as canon to the ordinary and is responsible for assisting and supporting the bishop in areas of episcopal ministry, including the discernment and formation process, congregational development, and disciplinary matters.
Updated April 2013