Ask Ambrose: The Role of Seminarians in Field Education

Seminarians serving Communion

Q: This Fall a seminarian will begin serving with our parish.  How do you understand the role of seminarians in the liturgical leadership of our church? Would you treat a seminarian strictly as a lay person, or do you prefer to see them in more of an almost-ordained role? Do you recommend they prepare the altar, read the Gospel, and fill other roles usually filled by deacons (we do not have a deacon)? How do you recommend avoiding confusion of the orders of ministry while also providing the learning opportunity seminarians need?

A: Ambrose (at your service) thinks that this excellent and conscientious question, like all of the most interesting questions, is a matter of navigating competing goods. On the one hand, it is crucial to honor the distinctions and purposes of the orders of ministry, since their clear performance and clear catechesis around them nurtures the church’s self-understanding of its service of God’s mission. On the other hand, it is important to contribute as much as we can to the preparation of persons for the orders of ministry to which they are called.

Notice I said one was crucial (the integrity of the orders) and the other important (the preparation of the seminarian). As someone who was called to be bishop when I was not seeking ordination (nor even baptized at the time!), and still managed (I say ever so humbly) to do reasonably well at the whole thing, I am inclined to think we get a little neurotic these days about people being hatched fully formed into ordained ministry the moment they step off the shore of seminary formation.

It’s also worth pointing out the hidden message we send about the significance of the diaconate when we let seminarians “practice” being deacons in a live congregational setting while we would never let deacons “practice” being a priest by presiding at the eucharist before they are ordained priest. Says a lot, I fear, about how much we value the diaconate, despite our lip service. (The same criticism, mutatis mutandis, goes for the use of lay persons, against the grain of the rubrics, preparing the table in the absence of a deacon.)

My own answer, which may never win the day in this era of rather haphazard ecclesiology, is that people do not need to do the role of the deacon until they are deacons. My reasoning is based on the principles above – the crucial importance of honoring the orders and the particular importance of deepening our respect for the diaconate. Joined to those principles, and strengthening my answer, are the following pragmatic arguments:

  1. Generations of us went through this process and did not deacon before we were deacons. We functioned as deacons, and later as priests, perfectly well, after being ordained to the purpose.
  2. All Episcopal seminaries teach some form of a liturgics course, usually to seniors, in which they practice the diaconal role. (Obviously, if your field ed seminarian is ordained early, she can and should function as a deacon in the field setting.)
  3. There are so very many things priests will eventually do in the parish for which the theoretical foundations are laid in seminary but which cannot themselves all be practiced in the seminary setting (there is already so much we must do!), to which the field site can contribute by giving the seminarian practice. Seminarians could:
  4. plan and lead a reflection session for the vestry as they consider with the Rector some point of policy or new practice;
  5. learn how to teach classes, honing pedagogy as well as growing into their own authoritative voice;
  6. Catechize adults, children, or the families of infants preparing for baptism;
  7. plan and lead some form of public engagement by the church;
  8. deepen skills in pastoral visitation or pastoral conversation in the office;
  9. take a leadership role in some aspect of the weekly or monthly staff meeting;
  10. Work with the altar guild to understand the particulars of the weekly support of liturgical practice;
  11. work with the Rector or staff member(s) responsible for week to week administration, communication, and parish organization;
  12. enter into liturgical planning;
  13. not to mention, play the regular roles of lay leadership the liturgy calls for.

This list could go on, and Ambrose suspects you could add richly to it, subject to scheduling, the background experience of the seminarian, and the character and size of the field site.

Ambrose will conclude this necessarily lengthy answer with the following: if the supervisor absolutely insists that the seminarian must act like a deacon before she is a deacon, at the least, consider delaying this until the seminarian is in the last weeks of placement. By this point, at least the seminarian will have begun to grow in their self-perception of appropriate authority, and the congregation will have had time to come to think of the seminarian as something other than another lay member of the assembly.

Thanks so much for this very good question. Blessings on you and your supervisee.