On the wall above the computer stand in the office afforded me at Trinity Church there are two framed pieces of paper. They represent well over five years of individual, familial and communal effort. These efforts include (but aren’t limited to) more meetings than I care to recount, moving three times within thirty-six months, three academic years of residential professional education, plus the investment of time and energy (plus big chunks of money!) by literally hundreds of people who all were a part of the journey called “the ordination process”. In less than a month, I will observe my ninth anniversary of ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Six months prior to being “priested” (to use the parlance of the trade), I had been ordained as a (transitional) deacon. So I am already well into my tenth year in ordained ministry — a life of service to the Episcopal Church and (hopefully!) to God.
There are plenty of denominations that do not require the formal education of their clergy. Many denominations have little, if any, regularized process in which potential clergy are examined (spiritually, psychologically, vocationally and plenty of other ways!) as rigorously as aspirants to Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church. In fact, these days, with a couple of clicks on the Internet and a $25.00 processing fee, anyone can get themselves “ordained” — complete with a certificate suitable for framing — in just a few short minutes.
In a frame, on a wall, in an office, one professional certificate looks remarkably similar to another. And for the record, in the entire time I’ve been doing this work, no parishioner has ever asked to see the “proof” that I’ve been ordained. Perhaps such certificates aren’t proof for curious parishioners anyway — maybe the only way the paper means anything is when the person whose name is printed on the paper takes the words on the paper to heart and does her/his best to put those words into practice in his/her daily life.
For whatever reason, this morning, I reread the verbiage in “the business end” of these two certificates. This is not verbiage made up on the spot — it’s actually the same for everyone, regardless of diocese, theological particularities or political leanings. After the preamble, which names the ordaining Bishop, date and location of ordination and the order to which I was ordained at the time, my name appears in bold lettering and then follows: “…of whose pious, sober and honest life and conversation, competent learning, knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and soundness in the Faith we (meaning the Bishop) are well assured; he also having in our presence freely and voluntarily declared that he believes the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and having solemnly sworn to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church…”
None of this language is about personal preference. All of it is about living a particular life of virtue, grounded in a particular body of knowledge (the Christian Tradition); conformed to a particular way of being “Church” (doctrine and discipline); all wrapped up with the personal agency involved in making a lifelong commitment “freely and voluntarily”, then sealed in an oath of solemnity. It’s enough to scare the hell out of me every time I read it.
And maybe that’s the point. Not necessarily to frighten/overwhelm me, but rather to remind me that this life of ordained ministry isn’t a career. It isn’t a profession. It isn’t about compensation packages and pension plans. In a world where the goal is having big goals, ordained ministry (in spite of all the high-sounding verbiage) is about nothing more or nothing less than living each day with the intention of embodying a way of being called “Christian” — living publicly, for better or worse, as a disciple of Jesus, while other Christians can choose (if they so desire) to keep as their faith/religious practice as private as possible. I know beyond a doubt I cannot always live up to the standards printed on those ordination certificates. I’ve failed too many times over the past nine-plus years to be convinced otherwise. But for today, I’ll give it another go — so that my life gives witness to Jesus; so that this vocation of ordination is more than a white collar around my neck and framed words on a wall.