Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome – Part 2

E.A.S. in Vocational Discernment

by Ken Howard

Today’s post is the second of a multipart series on Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome
Click here for last week’s post

Last week we began a discussion of Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome (or E.A.S.):  an emerging, infectious, but poorly understood pathology afflicting an increasing number of churches. E.A.S. occurs when the body of the Church turns against its own, perceiving healthy agents of corrective change as threat to “the way things are” and activates the organizational immune system, which then expels those threats from the organizational body. Like its human namesake, Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome drives churches to screen out of their leadership and its followership the very people who could bring life-giving, health-renewing change, while screening in those less likely to bring the discomfort that change – especially healthy change – inevitably brings with it. E.A.S. is slow-moving and almost unnoticeable, but is very frequently a systemic slide into death. The result of untreated E.A.S. is a church that would rather die than change

But what are the signs and symptoms of Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome and how do we learn to spot it before it becomes terminal?

Perhaps it would help to share some real life examples of how E.A.S. functions in various church organizations and processes.

Ministry Discernment

Before entering seminary, most aspirants to ordained ministry are required to go through a process of “ministry discernment” – usually conducted by a body called a “Commission on Ministry” (C.O.M.) or equivalent. As is symptomatic of ecclesiastical bodies experiencing E.A.S., the way Commissions on Ministry function is often at odds with their stated purpose. Their stated purpose is generally “to help aspirants discern whether they are experiencing a call to ministry.” In other words, they are supposed to function as a “screening in” process. But a C.O.M. suffering from E.A.S. often functions instead to intercept a call already experienced by an aspirant, subtly reshape the aspirant’s sense of call into something that fits a familiar mold, and “screens out” (or holds back) those aspirants whose sense of call is too resilient to be molded.

Think I’m exaggerating? Talk to anyone who came to a C.O.M. experiencing a call to bivocational ministry. It took one colleague of mine with a bivocational sense of call seven years to convince her C.O.M. to recognize and approve her bi-vocational calling. Reflecting on her experience, she described it as being, “Like a seven-year long proctological exam by committee with an industrial size flashlight.” Myself, I learned (painfully) to describe my bivocational sense of calling in words that sounded less bivocational, and waited until after ordination to start down the bi-vocational road (a journey that would take more than a decade). Most of my fellow aspirants either repressed their “outside the mainstream” sense of call or simply gave up.

Next week: How E.A.S. functions in seminary.