How to Write a Kickass Ember Day Letter

Greetings, my fellow Episcopalians!

So you’ve been admitted to postulancy for Holy Orders. Congratulations! Time to get to work brainstorming your first Ember Day letter.

Ember Days are special occasions when the church is invited to pray for all those preparing for a life in ministry. If you yourself are preparing for a life in ministry, and by chance you have picked the ordained kind, Ember Days seem like they should be a chance for everyone to dote on you. Nope! Instead, they are a chance for you to do a little extra work.

By canon law, if you are in the ordination process as a postulant (step 1) or candidate (step 2), you are required to “report” to your bishop four times a year — during, you got it, the Ember Days. I will just go ahead and tell you when they are, because as far as I am concerned there is no earthly way you could guess.

The Ember Days roll around four times a year, on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following:

  • Ash Wednesday (late winter/early spring)
  • Pentecost Sunday (late spring/early summer)
  • Holy Cross Day (always September 14)
  • St. Lucy’s Day (always December 13)

During the Ember Days, your bishop will pray for you, or at least pretend to, and you will return the favor by writing her a letter. What should this letter say? The canons, so eager to make you write it, don’t really help you out with that part. If you are seeking ordination as a deacon, you are expected to reflect on your “academic, diaconal, human, spiritual, and practical development”; if a priest, just your “academic experience and personal and spiritual development.” I guess practical matters are a lower priority in the priesthood.

Nonetheless, for both spiritual and practical reasons, Ember Day letters are worth taking seriously. From a spiritual standpoint, they are a chance to pause and reflect on how God is working in your life. On the practical side, they are a chance to demonstrate both your spiritual maturity and your writing ability to your bishop, who will surely be sharing her impressions of you with your future employers.

Okay, so what should you write in it? Here’s what I would want to read about if I were your bishop, which, thankfully, I am not.

1. Major and minor life updates (how you and your family are doing)

Are you getting serious with someone you’re dating? Newly engaged? Newly pregnant? Thinking about applying for a PhD? Taking a semester off from seminary to care for a new baby or follow your spouse abroad for work? These are all things your bishop will want to know about, and you want her to hear about them from you.

That last part is doubly true for the bad stuff. If you have failed a class, been asked to leave your field education site, or been arrested for a DUI, your bishop WILL eventually find out — the church is an incredibly small place — and, trust me, you want to bear that bad news yourself. Don’t let gossip and hearsay tell the story first.

It is also nice to share the small stuff — a hobby you’re into lately, something cute your kid just learned how to do, how your parents are, what your spouse or partner is doing these days and how they’re liking it. Unless your bishop is a real dirtbag, she is truly at least a little bit interested in who you are as a person, and she will want to know about your life. Remember, she was a pastor once too.

2. Ministry updates (how you are involved in your church or other faith communities)

Are you preaching once a month at your field education site? Leading a student group on your seminary campus? Contributing devotionals to d365.org (you should!)? All these things are part of your life in ministry, not just a lengthy prelude to your ordination. They will show the bishop how you are already leading in the church, and give her a sense of where your heart is. Also, if you’re working part-time as a children’s minister, and a church in your diocese will soon have an opening for a curate with experience in children’s ministry, why not give the bishop a reason to have you in mind?

3. Formation updates (including, but not limited to, your academic work)

If you are a student right now, this is the place to list the classes you are taking, and maybe mention which one you like the best, one interesting thing you read or discussed in that class, and why it mattered to you. Whether you’re a student or not, this is also the place to include reflections on any formation-y stuff you’re doing at the moment: field education, CPE [Clinical Pastoral Education], anti-racism training, Toastmasters classes, whatever.

3a. Reading updates (what you’ve read lately that wasn’t for school)

An addendum to the formation update: optional but always enjoyable! What books, essays, articles, or devotionals have captured your interest lately? How did you come across them? What did you learn from them that was unexpected or surprising? You can learn a lot about a person from how they think about what they read.

4. Spiritual updates (how your prayer life is treating you)

Which prayer practices are meaningful to you right now? Are there any Bible verses or images or metaphors of God that have had particular resonance for you lately? As you get more involved in the life of the church and see how the sausage gets made, what questions or struggles are coming up for you? Has there been a recent moment when you’ve felt especially close to God?

… and that’s all I know about Ember Day letters. Godspeed to you! I’m praying for you, even if your bishop isn’t.

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