Yesterday evening I had a dear friend of our call me to ask me about serving as a spiritual director as she began to seriously explore the call to the Episcopal Priesthood. As a Navy chaplain and Army Chaplain before that I have had many young men and some young women approach me about spiritual direction or advice as they contemplated preparing for the ordained ministry. These men and women have come from many Christian traditions as well as some from non-Christian religions. I consider this to be a privilege especially because almost all come from traditions different formerly Anglo-Catholic and now Old Catholic tradition. Thus I feel honored to be able to participant in each of these individuals journey.
I do not take this responsibility lightly; the journey that these men and women are embarking is often fraught with risk and often painful. Thus I really try to listen to their story listening carefully to their individual experience of God as well as how that experience relates to life, other people and their faith community. The reason I do this is because I have had so many friends be chewed up and their ministries ruined by unscrupulous people and uncaring religious organizations while attempting to follow what they feel is God’s will for their life.
Since I believe in truth in advertising I make no bones about what I believe but also respect and hold holy what people bring to me. Thus I am careful to listen to them and be as helpful as possible without pushing them in any direction. I have seen too many people manipulate others when they are in such a state and the results are seldom good. Since I know I don’t have all the answers that such decisions should not be entered into quickly and without the input of the person’s own faith community. So I encourage them to work with their local church or faith community as well as denomination and work to help them make those contacts.
This is important because people that feel called to ministry can be vulnerable to many unscrupulous people regardless of their faith group. There are some groups that will gladly ordain people for a substantial financial remittance and continued financial servitude. Of course such organizations will provide an “ordination” certificate or a “license” to preach many times without ever having met the individual. Some groups have “seminaries” which issue “Divinity” degrees. Unfortunately many of these “church” schools are unaccredited degree mills. Most provide no real theological training or preparation for the demands of ministry. The ordination certificate may provide some covering to the aspiring minister so they can perform weddings and have an IRS 501.3.c tax exemption. Some might get to pastor a church under the umbrella of the “ordaining” organization. However many times the degree is not worth the paper that it is printed on and the ordination is no more than a means to extract money from them. Unfortunately I have lost count of the ministers that I have met who have had this kind of experience.
Even worse are the times that well meaning and sincere people end up being spiritual and sometimes physically or sexually abused by those in spiritual authority. This happens across the theological spectrum and is not simply isolated in the “fly by night” ministries that operate on a “for prophet” basis. Many men that trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood over the past half century have recounted many horrible experiences of abuse at the hands of their superiors in major and minor seminaries and sometimes even after ordination. Many of these cases are recounted in excruciating detail in the media and in court cases.
Thus when a man or woman approaches me for advice or even spiritual direction I am careful to know the responsibility that they place in my hands and am careful to hold their trust as if it were a baseball bat personally autographed by Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. Some people might say as if were a Faberge Egg or the Pink Panther Diamond, but I know what is really valuable.
My advice to those that come to me is always given with great caution. Since I have a great amount of experience serving with people of many faiths in addition to my own unique spiritual pilgrimage I value those that I have worked with and their faith, some have even helped save me from myself. One in man in particular helped save my career when I was a young Army Chaplain. Lieutenant Colonel Rich Whaley, a chaplain from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints saved my military career when I really lost control of my temper at the Army Chaplain School. I could list many more that helped me through good times and bad, seminary professors and chaplains almost all of which were of different denominations than me. They were men and sometimes women who cared about me who held my faith holy and who interceded for me sometimes with people and often to God.
As such I am careful to do the same for those that seek my counsel regardless of their beliefs. I am fortunate. I have seen a number of these people go on to successful careers as military chaplains or in civilian ministry within their denominations. I have also advised those that like me had grown beyond their denominational background or ha a progressive shift in their beliefs that cause them to feel that they must move to a new denomination. In those cases I am extra careful because I never want to even give the appearance of prostylizing, or for those unfamiliar with the term stealing sheep from someone else’s flock.
My advice to people seeking to enter the ministry, especially the chaplain ministry can be boiled down to these points.
* Take your time to discern the call. Many people rush into ministry only to find that it is not for them and in the process often end up hurt and disillusioned.
* Rely on trusted advisors that are willing to spend the time and walk with you during the discernment process. Don’t rely on pastors or others that promise to support you but in reality are too busy to take the time.
* Don’t rely on “cheerleaders” who simply tell you what you want to hear, and there are a lot of these people out there.
* Find people in your denomination that have experience in the type of ministry that you feel called that are not from you local church who can be objective.
* Seek out people from other traditions who have experience in the type of ministry that you want to enter. Often the latter provide more objective advice than those close to you and by getting to know them you can also get to know the kind of people that you will work with in your desired field of ministry, especially if you want to serve as a chaplain.
* Try to attend a resident seminary. I admit that it is possible to get a good academic theological or Biblical education in non-resident or online programs provided that they are rigorous and accredited by a real accrediting agency with actual standards. There are numerous “accrediting” organizations that are simply fraudulent and many “Bible Schools and Seminaries” claim such accreditation.
* Find a program that actually works with you and your faith group to provide spiritual formation. In fact the formation aspect is often lacking in many well accredited resident seminaries but is most often absent in non-resident or online programs.
* Find a spiritual director that will walk with you through your education and formation. Some denominations will help you in this but many smaller churches are either unable or unwilling to do so, particularly those from the Evangelical tradition which focuses more on preaching.
* Make sure that your academic program is balanced between Bible, Theology, Church History Pastoral Care, and Homiletics. Practical courses like evangelism and program management change with the wind and are often more about the marketing and packaging of a product. I had a friend in seminary who claimed that his Master of Divinity had a shelf life of 5 years. Of course if you focus on transitory method driven courses you will have a dated education because someone else will come up with something new a few years from now. If you focus on the balance that I talk about your education will never become dated. In fact it is those can be built upon where the others, well you’ll find those books in what you give to Salvation Army or Goodwill in a few years.
* Take the time to reflect on what you learn and what you experience.
* Finally do the basics. Study your faith, its scriptures, theology and traditions. Pray and maintain relationships with fellow students as others preparing for ministry.
And when all is said and done remember that “it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
One more thing. you need to really love ministry and the people that you serve. If you are in it for money, fame or to make a name for yourself you will suffer shipwreck. If you don’t have love and joy nothing else I have said here will help you.