22 April 2024

We need to talk more about vocational discernment, and pray

We must talk more about vocations, write Fergus King and Rhys Bezzant. Picture: Janine Eastgate

Fergus King, Rhys Bezzant 

21 March 2023

Many of you have encountered the old saw which explains why nothing much ever happens: 

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have. 

If you haven’t – congratulations. If you have – you will be aware of how it often surfaces in church life. The issue of raising up the next generation of vocational ministers is no exception. We have a pressing need to communicate the gospel to the next generation around Australia, and an alarming number of vacant parishes in Melbourne. We are at a crisis point. 

When we talk about vocations and ministry education, let’s start with a simple, but challenging, fact made beautifully clear by the Orthodox bishop John Zizioulas: “Baptism is the ordination of the laity”. By that he meant that we are all baptised for the work of mission and evangelism, none of us has been baptised purely and simply for our own sake or salvation. Once we start from this realisation, the question then becomes, “What is my vocation – what is God calling me to do?” Pause for a second. Have you ever asked yourself that … or have we been too busy praying for others to be sent? Important though that is, it can be a way of dodging our own call. “Here am I, send him or her”. 

Read more: For parishes on the outer edges of the diocese, finding a new priest is a challenge

Now that the idea is in front of you, I would ask you, what have you done to foster that vocation, by thinking about how the gifts which God has given have been identified and developed, or ignored and squandered? Please, remember, as Christians our gifting is a given.We can spend an awful lot of time waiting for God, when the real question is: “What am I doing with gifts given to me since baptism?”, not “O Lord, when are you going to…?” This is a great delaying excuse, there is nothing quite like being able to blame the Almighty for our inactivity. After all, isn’t being a scapegoat what Jesus is all about? 

Now, let’s ask ourselves about all those wonderful programmes for ministry and Christian education the parish provides, and whether we have ever used them. And ask ourselves how often as a Christian community, we talk about ministry, evangelism and the part we might play. 

Once we have registered the demand that baptism places upon all of us, we then must turn our attention to discerning if we have a vocation for a specific ministry, such as the diaconate or the priesthood. It is important that such conversations are part of the fabric of our church life. Everyone needs to take part, lay people, lay ministers, theology lecturers, priests and bishops. Without these conversations, those gentle nudges and prompts of the Holy Spirit, which bring people into the places where discernment is tested, may never take place. How, to put it brutally, will folk know they are called, if they have no clue what the call sounds like?  

Openness to talk about vocation and the encouragement to consider vocation are crucial within the church. We would do well to be less reticent in our discussions, set aside our more softly-softly approach. Many of us who have come to ordination are able to look back and see how the gentle but persistent encouragement, listening and conversations, with peers and elders helped us come to a sense of a calling to a specific ministry.  

Read more: Clergy shortage, biblical marriage on Melbourne Synod agenda

However, sometimes a reluctance, modesty, fear or sense of unworthiness may creep in. So maybe a few more pro-active steps should follow. If you think you may be called to vocational ministry, talk to your minister or priest. Ask parish clergy to assist in liturgy, worship, outreach or pastoral tasks. There is nothing like “taste and see’ to explore whether there is more to be done. Or, you could even talk to faculty at either Ridley or Trinity Colleges. Both of us are used to talking vocation and ministry. Its what we are here to do. You might even read look at some of the recent books on ministry, like Stephen Cottrell’s On Priesthood, or Michael Bennett’s Do you feel called by God?, or biographies of ministers, priests, or missionaries. See how you react – do they inspire, challenge, encourage, or ward away? 

Once a call has been discerned, ministry education looms large. This can take many forms, but whatever the form, students should leave with a deeper appreciation of them, a greater sense of awe and wonder about God and His love for creation, and a bit of fire in their belly.  

But of course, specialised ministry is not necessarily academic: not all academics make good ministers, and not all ministers are academic. History gives us an example. St Jean Vianney (1786-1859), the Curé d’Ars, was never a great theologian, but was canonised for his pastoral gifts. Anyone who has been involved in ministry formation has encountered candidates who struggled with formal training, and are still ordained. Any prudent understanding of ministry education needs to recognise that hearts are every bit as important as heads.  

If heads and hearts are both important, so, too, are knees. The late Eric Mascall, who taught for many years at King’s College, London, pointed out on several occasions that theology is done both in the study and at the prie-dieu, or prayer desk. His remarks providing a fitting conclusion for this piece: both ministry vocation and education ultimately are grounded in prayer, in the business of speaking, listening and engaging with God, allowing ourselves to be led into ministry by Him.  

When prayer shapes vocational discernment and ministry formation we reach the point where we say with Isaiah, “Here am I, send me”, not “Here am I, send him or her”, and that holds good for every baptised Christian. 

The Reverend Dr Fergus King is the Farnham Maynard Lecturer in Ministry at Trinity College Theological School, University of Melbourne, and Director of the Ministry Education Centre. 

The Reverend Canon Dr Rhys Bezzant is Senior Lecturer in Christian Thought at Ridley College, Dean of the Anglican Institute, and Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. 

Adapted from a piece originally written by Fergus King for St James’ Connections, August-September 2020. 

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