Jane Williams, the recently appointed chair of the diocese’s Commission on Ministry, has a lot of experience listening for the spirit.
Ordained in 1982 as a pastor in the United Methodist Church, Williams worked as a pastoral counselor and therapist at several local schools and agencies before earning her PhD in counseling psychology at Lehigh University in 1994.
Along the way, she discerned a call to the Episcopal priesthood. “It took quite a long time,” she said, because her life as a young widow and single mother made it impossible to relocate for the courses in Anglican studies typically required of clergy seeking to transfer their ordinations to the Episcopal Church.
Finally, after preparing through independent study, Williams was ordained in the Diocese of Bethlehem in 1998 and served as priest associate at Christ Church, Reading until 2005, when she become senior chaplain and chair of religious studies at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, Tennessee.
She returned to the diocese in 2010, and today is associate professor of pastoral counseling and chair of the master of arts in clinical counseling program at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem. Last month, Bishop Sean Rowe appointed her to a one-year term as chair of the Commission on Ministry.
In her new volunteer position, Williams is leading the commission’s twelve elected members in designing new paths to be followed by those discerning calls to the vocational diaconate and the priesthood.
Her goal, she says, is to develop a process that is faithful to traditional discernment practices of scripture study and prayer, but also uses the best tools of psychotherapy, including career and psychological testing.
“I’m trying as best I can to bridge two different needs: listening for the spirit and listening for the call, and that call comes in a variety of ways for different people,” Williams says. “But at the same time, I want to be sure that the thing to which people are being called is the thing they think they are being called to. It’s very important that everyone, including the wider church they will serve, affirms the call. I want the process to be humane and transparent, but I want it to be sure the church and the person hear the same call.
“My position as chair of the department at Moravian Theological Seminary has taught me that sometimes you have to tell people that if they get into a particular field, it’s not going to work for them or their clients,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot about saying no as well as saying yes. With advice and counsel, we can also do that as the Commission on Ministry.”
The new process for discerning a call to the vocational diaconate is nearly finished, Williams says, and will be released to the diocese in the coming weeks. Next the commission, which will work in task forces and meet quarterly, will begin revising the path to the priesthood.
“The process will involve discernment retreats in the fall and spring led by spiritual directors who can help participants understand what discernment is,” she says. “They’ll go home with some homework about discernment and come back a month later to meet as a group with the same spiritual director to unpack what they’ve done. Then they’ll go back to the bishop and he’ll decide if they should go to a regional discernment group.”
Williams hopes that the new multi-step discernment process will help chart a balance between an individual’s call and the church community’s perception. “At times, the church has erred on one side or the other,” she says. “We’ve sometimes said ‘who are we to object that if someone has a call,’ or, at other times, we’ve been almost a tribunal saying ‘prove it to us.’”
For Williams, chairing the Commission on Ministry also provides yet another opportunity to discern her own call.
“We approach our task with a sense of trying to help everyone involved discover not only the nominee’s call but also our own,” she says. “As we learn about the person in discernment, we learn about ourselves.”
“We are called to curiosity, we are called to discovery.”