Anglican Watch

Episcopal church needs to tighten clergy selection/retention process

The Episcopal discernment process is broken

For many years, observers have noted the problematic Episcopal discernment process, which too often produces persons unsuitable for ministry. That begs the question: what are the problems with the discernment process? And how might the church improve the process?

For starters, far too many dioceses, parishes, and discernment committees are reluctant to give a hard no. That’s understandable, as it can be devastating for candidates who are told, “We don’t feel that you are called to ordained ministry.” 

At the same time, the process begins and ends with the bishop diocesan. Given what a mixed bag the episcopacy is, this is a problem. Far too many bishops are feckless, arrogant, indifferent, and even abusive; it follows that those they select for ordination often share the same attributes.

Nor is the process particularly rigorous. Five hundred-word essays? Softball questions about grace and forgiveness? Not exactly the sort of thing to dissuade those who go to seminary for the wrong reasons.

So what are those wrong reasons? Retired Arizona bishop Kirk Smith puts it well:

Many individuals pursue seminary education for the wrong reasons. Seminary is not a place to “find myself,” or “get closer to God,” two common responses when I asked students why they chose to enroll. Parishes and diocesan commissions on ministry must take greater responsibility in selection. There appears to be a temptation to “promote” individuals who may not be suitable for ministry up the discernment chain, passing them along from rectors to discernment committees, then to commissions on ministry, and even to bishops, who — often against their better judgment — then send them to seminary. The seminary, often dependent on the tuition income generated by students, is for its part motivated to ensure their graduation. The crash doesn’t come until these graduates assume their first positions in parishes.

But even before candidates arrive at seminary there are issues. For instance:

  • Postulants must complete medical and psychological testing. But the results go to the bishop diocesan, and he or she has wide latitude in what they overlook and what they treat as a bar to ordination. Thus, we have a single point of failure, and there’s no guarantee that a bishop won’t sign off on someone he considers to be a friend or insider.
  • Similarly, the support of a candidate’s parish is an essential part of the process. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but family systems being what they are, prophetic voices are unlikely to come forward in many parishes. Thus, at a time when the denomination desperately needs agents willing to change the status quo, the discernment process is a powerful force to prevent change.
  • As for requirements that the standing committee will interview the candidate, those are a waste of time. No standing committee out there will overrule its bishop; if anything, it is more likely to talk up the bishop’s decision.

Retention issues loom even larger. Few dioceses or hiring entities impose psychological and medical testing requirements once clergy are hired. Even fewer impose requirements when transferring canonical residency. Thus, clergy ordained before psychological screening may never face additional scrutiny absent indicia of an emerging mental health or impairment issue. (Nor is the church’s track record reassuring on these issues.)

Another significant gap is the lack of a central clergy disciplinary database. Past proposals, which have been brushed off, would only flag substantial issues. And while this would be a helpful start, the small indicia of a looming problem would never be tracked. Thus, complaints involving allegations of bullying, spiritual abuse, domestic violence, misuse of funds, impairment, or other warning signs that suggest additional scrutiny never see the light of day.

As a result, the most egregious violators usually stop short of all-out criminal conduct. Combine that with the church’s inherent clericalism and the tenured nature of many clergy positions, and abusers become impossible to dislodge.

In terms of solutions, Anglican Watch recommends:

  • More significant evaluation of aspirants by third-party testing services.
  • Reduced reliance on decisions by bishops diocesan.
  • Greater rigor at the parish level, including clarifying that declining to move forward is an acceptable, sometimes preferable, goal.
  • Implementing a national database for all clergy disciplinary complaints, including those in which a complaint is made and dismissed, and requiring that it be reviewed by the bishop and standing committee for all new hires, even within the same diocese.
  • Imposing regular impairment, mental health, and physical testing requirements for all active clergy.
  • Eliminating the notion that rectors can only be terminated with the consent of the bishop.
  • Adopting and implementing standards to address domestic violence, impairment, and non-sexual abuse.
  • Implementing a nationwide ethics hotline.
  • Developing an alternative Title IV intake process when bishops diocesan sandbag Title IV complaints.
  • Holding bishops accountable for refusing to follow Title IV requirements.

Will these changes address all the issues with the discernment process? Certainly not. 

But they are an essential start for the many changes that need to happen if the Episcopal Church is to survive.

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