In February of 1998 I attended the required (and dreaded) “Discernment Weekend.” This weekend begins Friday night and ends Sunday afternoon and is the “final” step in the discernment process toward postulancy and ordination. (well, almost final step). I was attending with my friend K, the one who lived down the hall and had become my good friend. She and I were so excited and anxious as we drive to the retreat center. I was certain they would hear a call in her, it was so apparent! But me, well, who knew?
We arrived early Friday evening and checked into our rooms. The weekend basically looks like this: Friday night group gathering, introductions, and group activity. This is followed by evening worship and “social time.” Saturday begins with morning prayer, breakfast, and a group activity (role playing as the aspirants are observed by the psych listeners – ours was a clergy support group is discussing what to do with a couple who want to marry in the church, the bride to be is a prominent member but her fiance does not come to church – what do you do?). Then we begin our one on one listening sessions. These entail four sessions, an hour each, with an academic listener to determine if we could handle seminary; a priest listener to determine if the call sounds priestly, a a psych listener to help determine if we were healthy (this on top of a battery of previously taken psych exams, personality tests, and a screening with a psychiatrist); and a lay listener who was listening for a lay ministry call. In between we broke for lunch and then ended the afternoon with another a group activity observed by the psych listeners (this one was a personalized question for each of us, mine was, “What does the ‘peace’ of Christ mean to you?” oy vey)… Saturday night we each met with the entire team of listeners for final questions and a chance to clarify anything we may have said or not said. Sunday morning was breakfast, a few hours off (we all went to the local zoo), a “community” Eucharist, and then our one on one sessions with the listeners to get the results.
My team of listeners were really great. They asked questions and listened and after each session I walked out of the room thinking, “I have no idea what they heard or what they think.” Which told me they were really listening, discerning, and not coming to any conclusions. However, by the end of the evening, given their line of questioning, I was certain they were hearing a call to lay ministry.
Ny team of listeners were great, the other team was having serious issues. On this weekend we had two teams: each team was comprised of 4 aspirants (those being discerned) and 4 listeners plus a group facilitator (who helped the listeners with their questions and concerns) and a chaplain (who helped the aspirants).
But, by Saturday night it was evident that something was wrong with the other team. I took a late night walk with my friend and another woman on that other team…it seems that one of the listeners was “putting words in their mouths” and “coming to conclusions that were the listeners’s and not the aspirants.” It was a horrible case of “projection” – this one listener was projecting their own issues onto several of the aspirants on that team.
The chaplain for weekend tried to intervene. But by Sunday afternoon, when we each got our results back from the listening team – “yes we hear a call” or “no we don’t”, or “we hear a call but you aren’t ready yet….come back in two years” – I felt as if we were in a vortex of disaster. Three of four on that other team were told no, or not yet. And in two of the cases it was clearly a bad call…even we knew that!
Now, as I said, my team of listeners were great. Of the four aspirants on my team I think two of us were told yes, one was told come back in two years, and one was told no. The one who was told no (not me), agreed that they were correct and was relieved. Myself and one other person were told yes. I was stunned, of course, certain as I was, that they were discerning a call to lay ministry – when instead they were asking questions to rule it out. So, I was elated.
But my friend K was not. She was on that disastrous team. That weekend ended up being historic in the diocese. The fall out was huge, three hurt people, unjustifiably hurt. The end result was ultimately good – the entire process was re-vamped. I have served as the facilitator on three of those weekends and think that now the listeners are well trained and prepared to do a good job. The facilitator is usually a priest/social worker, who is skilled at hearing issues of projection etc. So, a much better process came out of it.
But also, thanks be to God, two of the people from that other team eventually healed, went on a second weekend, and were told yes. Both are great priests now. I don’t know what happened to the rest.
This was my first experience of the Church as an agent of hurt…my first experience of the Church as a very human entity, deeply flawed. But it was not my last experience…for soon I would come to know that first hand – as the projection of others impacted my process. That would come about 6 months later.