By the Rev. Jonathan Mitchican
The priesthood is a great blessing, but it is also one of the hardest things that I have ever experienced. When I was discerning my calling to the ministry in my early twenties, I visited with an older priest in the diocese who told me that if there was anything else I could possibly do, I should go and do it. I took some offense at the time, thinking that he was just trying to scare me away, but looking back now, I realize that he was trying to express to me something about the ministry that is hard for those who have not been on the inside to understand.
The priesthood is a cross. Much like the cross upon which Our Lord hung, it is made beautiful and glorious by God’s use of it as an instrument of grace. But that grace comes through suffering, not in the absence of it. Anyone who seeks to be a priest must be willing and even eager to suffer for the sake of the Lord’s calling.
If you sense that God might be calling you to the priesthood, here are four things that I recommend you take to heart:
1) Discernment is about God, not about you
Many people enter into the ordination process already convinced that they ought to be ordained and therefore unwilling to entertain any other possibilities. Some people hop from place to place for just this reason, unwilling to take no for an answer. In truth, the path to discerning a call is not about how sure or not you are of what God is telling your heart. Discernment is about recognizing that God works through His Church to feed His sheep and to make His will known. A good discernment process will not just focus on whether or not you should be a priest, but rather on discerning exactly what it is God is calling you to do and be, whether that includes ordination or not.
There is nothing glamorous or sexy about the priesthood. It is a difficult gift. Individuals can convince themselves of almost anything, but the Church discerns a call to the priesthood. If the Church discerns that you are not called to the priesthood, the wrong response is for you to say, “I guess there is something wrong with the Church.” The right response is to say, “Well then, what has the Church discerned my calling to be?” All Christians have callings from God, and lacking a call to ordination is not a black mark. There are far more lay saints in heaven than ordained. The Church would be in much better health today if she had more capable lay leaders and less purple fever.
2) Choose your seminary well
Becoming a priest is not simply about learning a lot of stuff. It is about being formed. One of the greatest gifts that my seminary experience gave to me was a sense of priestly identity that was forged as much in the routine of daily prayer as it was in the classroom. Choose a seminary where you can be formed in the orthodox faith, not just taught it. Make sure that there will be lots of opportunities for hands-on ministry, especially parish internships. When it comes to the academics, though, make sure you spend as much time as you can learning theology, particularly the theology of the early Church Fathers. Do not just learn about theology. Learn how to think theologically. Take systematic theology. Then take it again.
There is a popular notion today that seminarians should be taught all the practical stuff that they will need when they get into the parish setting, like how to read a business ledger and manage investments, basic psychology and counseling, how to run an effective meeting, etc. These are all skills you will need to develop, of course, but there are other places you can learn them. Only a good seminary can give you a theological education. If you are grounded in the Fathers, the rest will work itself out.
3) Pray the Daily Office
Anglican clergy have been praying Morning and Evening Prayer privately for centuries. As an Anglican priest, you will be expected to pray the Daily Office, whether privately or as public worship. You should start now.
The Office gives you a space in your day, every day, to bring your concerns before the Lord. Once you are ordained, it will provide you with the daily opportunity to pray for all the people who have asked you to pray for them. But most importantly, by praying the psalms each day and repeating the words from Scripture that the Church has forged into well-worn prayers, you are daily being washed in the Holy Spirit, renewed in your sense of Christian mission, and united with the Church throughout the world and throughout history.
4) The Eucharist is your life
The calling to priesthood is essentially a calling to the Holy Eucharist. While priests are called to do and be many things, the call to celebrate Holy Communion is unique. Almost everything else you do as a priest could be done by a lay person. Celebrating the Eucharist is different.
All Christians are called to have Holy Communion at the center of their lives, but as a priest, you will be called not just to be fed there, but to feed the sheep that God has entrusted to you. Anyone discerning a call to priesthood should begin by discerning whether or not you have a call to the humble service of being an instrument by which Christ offers His Body and Blood to His people. If you are not called to the celebration of the Eucharist, you are not called to the priesthood.
The process of being trained and formed for priesthood can be exceptionally daunting. It differs greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and even from diocese to diocese. In many cases, unfortunately, it is something to be endured, rather than something enriching and enlivening. But if it is God’s will for you to be a priest, He will shepherd you through that process, no matter how difficult it is. Trust in His leading.
Fr. Jonathan blogs at The Conciliar Anglican.