I have spent this past week in one of the rites of passage for Episcopal seminarians: meeting with diocesan committees who are considering whether to recommend me for candidacy, a stage in the discernment process of people preparing for the Episcopal priesthood. (I have been a postulant for two and a half years.)
This meant going back to Northern California, my place of birth and where I have lived nearly all of my life, after spending the summer in New Haven working a variety of part-time jobs. So vacation was on my mind, but first, I had two meetings to attend: the first with my Diocesan Commission on Ministry in Davis, CA, and the second with my Standing Committee at the bishop’s office in Sacramento.
It’s hard to capture for those who haven’t experienced this what these meetings are like. (I should say here that I have no idea what these meetings are like in other dioceses; I can only comment on my own.) They are not at all like a job interview, where the interviewers are looking for a certain type of person and background, and the person is looking for a good fit with the interviewers and their organization. The interviewee may even wish to present herself as someone fit for the job. Rather, in my experience, these meetings have been occasions for my committees to ask me how I am doing at seminary and what my current thinking is about my progress and my sense of vocation.They spend most of their time listening.
They ask fairly open-ended questions and let me wander around them for a while. (Or maybe that’s just how it goes in my meetings….) In any case, the upshot of my two meetings is that the committees recommended to my bishop that I be made a candidate for Holy Orders, and he agreed, and so now I am a candidate.
Seminarians frequently like to post on Facebook, “I’m a postulant now!” or “I’m a candidate!” or “I’m getting ordained this Friday!” And all of these are very good things. But for me, the reaction to these milestones has been very similar to the way I feel when someone hands me a cup of Gu or Gatorade during a marathon: I have a sense of feeling supported and encouraged, even patted on the back, and then urged on. I don’t exactly feel elated because I haven’t arrived at the end of the race yet. (And while, at the moment, ordination to the priesthood feels like the end of the race, I am betting that if that day comes, I will still have that feeling of being at the watering table and needing to go on.)
Don’t get me wrong: I am very glad, just as I am very glad when I reach the Gu table during a marathon. Reaching a stage like this does motivate me to go on. It is also an incredibly positive experience to receive encouragement and support from these committees. Perhaps I am lucky that my diocese considers these committees to be pastoral, listening, discerning bodies. I understand that some seminarians have a very different experience. But how many professions can you think of in which people check in on you every so often to see how you’re progressing?
The thing is, candidacy is not exactly an achievement, especially since candidacy is still considered a stage of discernment about one’s call to ordained life. It’s a confirmation of the work I have done so far to fulfill requirements and to discern my call, but it’s not a prize, an award, a singling out for one’s performance.
And I like that, actually. I like that the church doesn’t act so much like the rest of the world in this matter. It reminds me so much of the way Jesus interacted with his disciples, urging them on, supporting them, but not applauding them for their efforts. I think his final words to his disciples could be summarized as, “Keep going. Later you may eat and drink.” (Luke 17:7-10).