Thursday, October 29, 2015

There is a Deep Flaw in How We Select Future Clergy

When it comes to selecting new ordained leaders for the Church, the current Commission on Ministry System needs serious re-thinking and changes. 

In 1971, the year I graduated from Seminary, the Episcopal Church put in place a system to assist Bishops in the selection and screening of potential clergy.  These Commissions on Ministry (COMs) were intended to be advisory to Bishops and Standing Committees.  I think it is clear after over 40 years that this system has largely failed in helping the Church recruit, select, and train clergy.  TEC is 1/3 the size it was in 1971 and while the Commission on Ministry System is not the primary reason for this, I would contend that it is a major contributor.  Here are some of the issues that I have observed over the years.   

1.      While intended to be “advisory” to the Bishop, in most Dioceses the Commission is de facto the group with the authority to approve aspirants to enter the ordination process.  I can count on one hand in 40 years the number of times that I have seen or heard of a Bishop taking the advice into consideration and decided differently.  

2.     There is research that shows that a committee recruits toward the bell curve of the life experience of its members which explains one of the major reasons why the average age of seminarians continues to go up even with efforts by many in the Church to provide younger generational leaders.  This factor alone could explain the aging of our denomination and the inability we have to reach younger people. 

 (This “unspoken bell curve” speaks to other issues besides age.  For example, in the mid-nineties, and with the Bishop’s permission, I gave the COM of our Diocese the DISC profile (on leadership) and compared this to aspirants who were accepted.  The DISC normative profile of the COM and those of the Aspirants matched.  When we gave the DISC profile to our Church planters, we found they were all a considerably different from the COM and the DISC material suggested that they would be predictably most likely to be viewed negatively by those in the normative profile.  No wonder the Church has so few willing Church planters in ordained ministry.    It might also suggest why so few clergy are able to do revitalization of declining congregations.) 

3.     When the Diocese of Dallas decided to recruit younger aspirants, the Bishop and Standing Committee were forced to by-passed the COM system and in most cases the Bishop directly recruited the people to accept the challenge of considering ordained ministry and actively directed them toward their theological education. Today, Dallas has a remarkable number of outstanding younger ordained leaders. 

4.     Since the ordination process with seminary is often 5 to 6 years long, aspirants have little continuity with a rotating membership.  This contributes to the aspirants often feeling that they are seldom fully accepted and often have to face continuing re-examination by such commissions. 

5.     Commissions on Ministry almost never recruit or challenge younger leaders to consider the ministry as a vocation.  Many tell aspirants that if they “can do anything else in life and be fulfilled than they should do that and not apply for ordination.”  In other professions, people are charged with recruiting the brightest and the best to accept the challenge of entering that profession.  

6.     Almost all people entering the ordination process today are second vocation people.  The argument is that such people have seasoned life experience and therefore will be better leaders more effective in leading congregations and who will be less likely to behave badly.  There is no evidence to support these claims as compared to the past.  

7.     There is evidence to suggest that the people most able to take risks and very difficult assignments that demand sacrifice are in their twenties or older than fifty-five, while those most concerned for their financial package, benefits, and self-care are those in their 30s and 40s especially those who have families.  In other words, we find many new ordained people are low risk takers. 

8.     When leaders of the Church are challenged over the COM system, they almost always respond with “But it is so much better than what we had before.”  Yet few today can tell us what we had before or point to objective evidence that this contention is so.  It appears that clergy who go through this system or like hazed fraternity or sorority candidates who after the hazing are committed to requiring it of those who follow after them.  (Perhaps this explains why many clergy will admit privately that their COM experience felt abusive.) 

9.     In the old system, we had examining chaplains whose task was to assure that the candidates had received an adequate education.  Candidates were examined on content.  COMs tend to focus on more nuanced psychological and personality issues.  There is tremendous emphasis on subjective issues.  

10.  In the COM system there is often tension between the Standing Committee and the COM with a lack of clarity of their roles in the ordination process.   

11.  In the history of the Church, the consistently more effect methods for recruiting, supporting, and developing new clergy are the Mentor model and the Order Model.  In the Mentor Model, the mentor provides support for decades (such as Paul and Timothy) and in the Order Model, the Community provides such mentors and teachers for a lifetime (such as Patrick and his fellow missionaries to Ireland.)  

12.  Almost all Seminaries today claim that they are “Preparing future leaders for the Church.” In most situations this is merely marketing.  No other profession believes that a three year academic experience prepares professionals for leadership.  As one former Navy Captain who entered the ministry explained to me, “When I went to the Naval Academy it was clear that I was being trained to become an Ensign and that the Navy would teach me how to command.  When I went to seminary, I realized that everyone expected us to be able to Captain a ship of almost any size once we graduated.”   

It is true that some Dioceses have made modifications and adjustments to the COM system to try and correct some of these issues, but we need much more radical re-thinking of this method.  In my next blog, I intend to make a few suggestions to improve both our recruiting of younger leaders and our training of newer clergy. 



  1. In my more cynical moments I refer to COM as the "Commission for the Prevention of Ministry" and note that these committees are very good at that job. My encounter with the COM in my process was in the mid 1970s and it seemed the group then didn't entirely know why they existed. Having served on a COM in the early 1990s I don't see any real hope of reform within. I also doubt that any reform that made it through the GC would be anything other than the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs. So what would make a bishop desperate enough to expend the political capital in pulling COMs out of the ordination process?

    1. What "should" make them desperate enough is closing all those churches and losing all those members.

  2. Kevin:

    The best models I found in my experience was mentoring clergy and engaged bishops. In my first setting, I had both. My clergy mentor followed up weekly in a re-invisioned curacy. My bishop called every two weeks and prayerfully supported me.

    I had no adversarial COM, but when I served on COM, we were constantly told that we were raising the next generation of rectors....wrong! We raise missional leaders ifvwe wish to survive, not people who fit into the old mold. COM just perpetuates a broken system. I would love to see a recovery of the examining chaplain.

    I was once told that COMs were filters to make sure the church did not steal candidates from the draft. Second career clergy were past draft age, hence the shift to older clergy. I at least had the conviction to go move to a different diocese where the bishop actually wanted younger clergy. I had previously been told by a bishop to "go out and get some resl life experience and we could talk about seminary in five years." (I was 25) I fear too many would just can the whole idea.

  3. I know many young leaders who were discouraged from even trying