The Orthodox Leader

The Making of a Pastor – Part 1

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Tim. 3:1-7, NKJV)

If we are going to talk about leadership issues, one of the first things we should talk about are the leaders themselves, particularly how they are selected and formed. The passage above sets out clearly the list of qualifications for bishops (which can be equated with priests for our purposes). Every candidate for priestly orders should examine himself  with them in mind. More importantly, every candidate should be examined according to this list, because self-examination is insufficient.

Stated another way, these qualifications require external validation. The man’s own regard for himself, his family, and his motivations are interesting, but, ultimately, he must be deemed worthy according to the fruit he produces. A man can’t make a fully accurate self-assessment of these qualifications any more than he can declare himself to be “ridiculously good-looking” (with a nod to Zoolander). Not only does such an assessment take time, certainly more than a few months, it must be allowed to happen in the first place. Existing clergy and lay leaders need the opportunity to discover the men with the needed qualities for themselves, and to guide them to tonsured and ordained service within the Church in accordance with the measure of their gifts (consider Ephesians 4:11).

In sharp contrast, we Orthodox in North America are in the situation where most of our seminarians (i.e., clergy candidates) are self-selected. The would-be pastor thinks he would like to go to seminary, perhaps chats with his own priest, contacts the seminary, and then sets out to make seminary and ordination a reality, short-circuiting the entire discernment process. Think about it: the candidate obtains a blessing from a bishop (who may know the candidate barely, if at all) and recommendations from priests and coworkers because these things are required by the seminary application. In other words, the seminary does the evaluation of these credentials. Not only does this reveal the lack of in-depth familiarity with the man, it outsources the selection and approval process entirely!

The local church (diocese and parish) must make this inquiry first. How is the man’s participation in the parish and diocese, apart from attendance at services? Has he led other ministries in the parish? Has he worked closely with or on the parish council? Does he have a well-balanced family life? Is he exhibiting leadership, responsibility, and accountability in his employment or business?  (The Church can hardly expect a weak employee to be a strong pastor.) Is he known and respected in his community? The Church cannot make such determinations quickly, nor should she.

I’m not blaming the candidates, many of whom rightly judge their own qualifications and abilities, for this situation. Rather, we must look at the systemic structural weakness that delegates clergy selection to the individual (acting in concert with a seminary) and affirms candidates for the priesthood without due diligence and close acquaintance.  In an ideal world, pastors and parish leaders would be the ones to discover the pastoral qualities in a man and then to develop and encourage him to pursue ordination. This isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a casual, fast process. The very idea of “presbyter” (the technical term for a priest) implies that one is older, inasmuch as the word itself means “elder.” What’s the rush in most situations? (Actually, there are reasons for the rush, to be discussed as I go on.)

Taking a cue from our Lord himself (along with St. John the Baptist), canon XI from Neocaesarea (AD 315) sets an important standard: “Let not a presbyter be ordained before he is thirty years of age, even though he be in all respects a worthy man, but let him be made to wait. For our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized and began to teach in his thirtieth year.” Considering that adolescence often reaches well into the 20s in our time, I’d suggest that a slight upward revision of this requirement in practice (to perhaps 35 years of age) would serve the Church well.

Selecting a man of that age has some real benefits. It means that he will have had the opportunity to grow within his secular career, gaining both leadership and practical experience. It will attest that he is not pursuing work in the Church simply because there is nothing else he is willing or competent to do. He will have cultivated and demonstrated a stable marriage and home life, so that he enters the priesthood without the complication of recent nuptials and with the affirmation of a durable marriage. (This affirmation is underappreciated. The divorce rate among Orthodox clergy is embarrassingly high, raising numerous moral, spiritual, canonical, and leadership concerns.) All of which supports the image of the presbyter as put forth by the New Testament and the canons of the Church: that he serves only after being well-established in Faith and life.

Such a man, though, confronts a system that is neither prepared for nor readily accepting of him.

I invite your comments on these thoughts so far. More next time….

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[Revised slightly 15Jan10 10:21AM EST]

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Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

January 15th, 2010 at 12:01 am

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