An acquaintance of mine was ordained in the Episcopal church last month. She’s a warm, lively person, probably around the age of my mother, who despite not knowing me well stopped to give me a hug the night before my comps defense. The path to ordination is a long one, with a lot of requirements along the way, and even for me as an outside observer it was kind of exciting to see someone finally make it to the end of it.
I remember when I first learned, perhaps around the age of eight or nine, that in other churches people chose to seek out ordination. This was explained to me as part of a lesson on the Fifth Article of Faith, and was somewhat startling information– I hadn’t realized that things were done differently elsewhere. I was left with the impression that there was something a bit shady about people who would make such a choice; after all, wouldn’t someone have to be rather presumptuous to select themselves for such a vocation, rather than allowing God do the choosing?
What I didn’t realize, of course, was that the idea that clergy are “called of God” is hardly unique to the LDS faith. Where generally we differ is in our belief that the call comes mediated through others in positions of authority, rather than directly to the individual herself or himself. (And, of course, in the fact that most LDS “callings” are temporary.) But the latter method is not without parallel in Mormonism–missionaries, though ultimately called by the Church, initiate the process themselves. Perhaps the most apt comparison would be the situation of sister missionaries, in which there is no blanket injunction to serve but some individuals feel inspired to do so.
I can understand feeling suspicious of someone who aspires to ecclesiastical office, and I’m not unsympathetic to the notion so common in Mormonism that if someone seeks after a particular calling, they’re probably not the person who should have it. It’s true that I’ve encountered people seeking ordination who’ve left me feeling uneasy. But this hasn’t happened often. On the whole, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the strong sense of vocation among the many of my friends and acquaintances who are ordained or on the way there. I’m impressed by the amount of study and practical work and time spent in discernment that I’ve seen people put into this. I rather admire them; from what I can see, the work of a pastor is often quite exhausting.
I find that those of other faiths are frequently more fascinated by how our church is run than by any of our unique theology. They often express surprise and even a bit of horror that we throw bishops into their jobs without training. They also often express admiration for the way in which the system of callings in a ward gets lay members involved–which, from what I hear, is an ongoing challenge for many congregations. Such conversations have given me greater appreciation for some of the strengths of how things are set up in our church (e.g., I think there’s something to be said for having people who work in a variety of careers serve in leadership positions). But they’ve also raised difficult questions about some of its costs (e.g., having bishops do forty hours a week of church work, on top of forty hours a week at another job, seems to exert a rather heavy toll on their families).
I’m still sorting out my thoughts on the question of professional vs. lay clergy. But I do believe that God calls people in all kinds of ways, to do a wide variety of things (and not only in the explicitly “religious” sphere.) And I’m grateful for the Catholic priests, the Mormon bishops, and the Protestant ministers who have in various ways helped me hear more clearly the voice of God in my own life.