Discernment

Vocational discernment begins and ends with listening for the Holy Spirit, starting with the individual (or seeker) and extending into ever-widening communities of discernment. The essential question of discernment is, "What is God calling me to?" a question that seeks to understand how the seeker's gifts best serve the world through Christ. It is a question that must be answered in community and by community. We seek to affirm a seeker's gifts by listening for the Holy Spirit in discernment for Church leadership.

 

In the Diocese of Virginia, there are three main stages of vocational discernment:

  1. The Discernment Retreat
  2. Exploring the Church
  3. The Parish Discernment Committee

Or the Young Priest Initiative: Seekers in their twenties can apply to do discern with the Young Priest Initiative, a separate program from the three stage model above. 

Read Paths to Discipleship, for a broader outline of discernment and formation in the Diocese of Virginia. 

I. The Diocesan Discernment Retreat

To begin responding to a call to ministry, the seeker's priest recommends the seeker for a diocesan discernment retreat. Attending one of these retreats, typically held three times a year, is the first step in formally discerning what God is calling you to. These retreats are open to all discerning a call to Church leadership, not just to the priesthood or the diaconate.

When and Where:

Before or After the Retreat: Seekers are welcome to begin "Exploring the Church

How to Attend: The presenting priest sends an email to Ed Keithly and Vicky Bickel requesting that the seeker attends the retreat. This email can be brief; the priest just needs to say the seeker would benefit from attending the retreat, not give a full recommendation of how he/she feels the seeker is called to ministry. 

Cost: $200, which covers room and board.

What to Expect: A weekend in community with seekers from across the Diocese of Virginia discerning a call to lay leadership, the vocational diaconate, or the priesthood. The retreat is designed to give seekers tools for discernment and illuminate opportunities and challenges on the path ahead. Richmond Hill is an ecumenical monastic community and retreat center, which follows a particular "rhythm of life." The retreat is called a "diocesan discernment retreat" not because it's a retreat put on by "The Diocese" but because it's attended by seekers from across our Diocese, widening the perspective and discernment community of all attendees. 

II. Exploring the Church

Before or after the discernment retreat, but before the parish discernment committee begins, seekers will set out to expand their perspective of the Church beyond their own church’s walls and begin to imagine their own place in it. This work of expanding perspective will look different for each seeker, taking its shape from the guide below. We hope this work will bring seekers great joy as they explore Christ’s Church.  

This work will involve intentional and structured prayer, study, observation, conversation and writing, using the guide to Exploring the Church.

Guide: Exploring the Church

Taking the Next Steps After Exploration

Working towards expanding your perspective of the Church should take some months to complete. Once the seeker feels they have completed this work, they should have a conversation with their presenting priest to unpack what they have discovered, and discern with the presenting priest if the time is right to begin the next phase of discernment, forming a discernment committee.

If the presenting priest feels it’s appropriate for the seeker to take the next steps, two things should happen:

  1. The presenting should email Ed Keithly and Vicky Bickel requesting that the seeker be assigned a discernment facilitator and;
  2. The seeker submit a resume and a report to Ed and Vicky on the work you’ve done since the discernment retreat. 

III. Parish Discernment Committee

Getting Started: Following the discernment retreat and Exploring the Church (described above), the presenting priest may request that a discernment facilitator be assigned to train and work with a parish discernment committee. The presenting priest should email Ed Keithly and Vicky Bickel to request a facilitator. 

Foci of the Committee: What is the seeker’s relationship with God? To what kind of ministry is God calling the seeker? What are the seeker's gifts and what gifts are needed to serve as an effective lay leader, deacon or priest? What stands in the way of responding? What are the costs and blessings of responding? 

Forming the Committee: This committee should be formed in conversation with the discernment facilitator, so the committee should not be formed prior to the first meeting with the facilitator. 

The Process: There is not a specified number of sessions for the committee and seeker's discernment – it takes as long as it takes – but most discernment committees complete their work over one training weekend and four subsequent discernment sessions.

Writing the Personal History & Reflections: The seeker may want to begin writing their Personal History & Reflections (PH&R) following the template on the postulancy application webpages (diaconate application, priest application). The PH&R is not, strictly speaking, a part of the discernment committee process, but completing it concurrently with the committee's work will aid discernment. The PH&R will also be an essential piece of the postulancy application, and completing the PH&R by the end of the parish discernment committee's work will help prevent a delay if a call to apply for postulancy is discerned. It's recommended that the seeker read over the postulancy application webpages carefully so she can be an informed self-advocate in the process. Email Ed Keithly with questions about timing, and please CC your discernment facilitator. 

The Vestry's Role: The vestry and priest are trusted with the role of supporting and recommending the seeker for postulancy; this is separate from the parish discernment committee, which serves as a circle of trust where the seeker can articulate her call and speak honestly without fear of judgment.

  • As such, the parish discernment committee does not make a report to the presenting priest or vestry. The priest and vestry decide through their own work if they can support a seeker for postulancy, should the seeker wish to pursue ordination after working with the discernment committee.
  • The Bishop does not prescribe a particular process for how the vestry and priest make a decision to support a parishioner for ordination. Some vestries meet with the seeker, some find it helpful for the seeker to submit part of her Personal History & Reflections from the postulancy application (with financial history and other sensitive information removed). 

Next Steps: Formation for Leadership, Applying for Postulancy

  • Lay Leaders: Lay leadership can take many forms. In the Church, laity serve as teachers, chaplains, pastoral care givers, parish administrators, church communicators, spiritual directors, vestry members and much more. There are many opportunities for employment and education as a lay leader. More info on lay leadership.
  • Deacons: In the Diocese of Virginia, deacons are formed through the Deacons' School, a joint offering of the Dioceses of Virginia and Southern Virginia, which meets over nine retreat weekends spanning two years. All Deacons' School students are first admitted as postulants to the diaconate. More info on the diaconate and applying for postulancy.
  • Priests: In the Diocese of Virginia, priests are typically accepted for postulancy and then formed at an Episcopal seminary, where they spend three years in academic and practical formation. More info on the priesthood and applying for postulancy.
  • Religious (Monastic) Orders: Christians have a long history of living together in community, dedicating themselves to prayer, worship and service. The Episcopal Church has a wide range of religious orders, some traditional, some more contemporary communities. More info on religious orders.