The Making of a Pastor – A Short Aside

Owen White, the Ocholophobist, has put forth a draft of a proposal for the process of clergy selection somewhat in response (I think) to my own Making of a Pastor – Part I article.

I agree with the general thrust of his proposal—greater maturity and development of candidates (later ordination) , more involvement at the local level, a fuller set of evaluation criteria—even as I disagree with some of the specifics (particularly the strong lay bias of the evaluating group). Any further comments I have will be presented later.

In reading that proposal, it occurs to me that my original post might be construed as a swipe against my own brethren in the priesthood. That’s not my intent. Please bear with me as I develop the series and speak of the weaknesses of our current process of preparation. Some of these weaknesses have profound implications, especially the issues to be taken up in the next article. A fair assessment will also speak of the strengths of our current system, and I’ll try to do that where possible. I don’t see a lot of strengths, though. We have strong pastors in spite of the system, not because of it.

I’m working on Part II of the Making of a Pastor now. Stay tuned.

9 comments on this post.
  1. Joseph Birthisel:

    I must say that for as much as I value guidelines that help insure good and ready people become priests, I think there is an unhealthy emphasis in his proposal to a group deciding whether a person is “called” to the priesthood. I rarely like the choices my parish council makes on even everyday matters and couldn’t (wouldn’t) countenance a parish group reviewing me before they stamp a ‘Blessed’ on my seminary paperwork. For as much as God calls us to the holy priesthood, I have to agree with Abbot Meletios when he says there is much value in a person who comes to him saying, “This is the life I have chosen.”

    Also, I don’t see much value in moving the age back. The lack of maturity in some is not a uniform character failing. I know people aged 60 less mature than the 16 year-olds I teach in Sunday school. Certainly I’ve been to Orthodox seminaries and thought, “Wow, he’s really going to be a priest in a year,” but I also think, “There is a lot of grace given to those who take up this work.”

  2. Steve Robinson:

    Father, bless. Not that Och’s suggestions will become Canon anytime, but I see a tension between what you (and the commenters) see as a “lay bias” and “clergy bias” when discerning potential clergy. The problem I see is there are clergy who beleive they are clairvoyant by virtue of their collar, and laity who think they should run the show. The reality is there are clergy who are to varying degrees incapable of discerning a potential priest (I’ve served under 4 of them), and there are laity who are just as clueless about what it takes to be a priest and not merely a parish council president. All things being equal and putting the best spin and intentions and qualifications on all participants of the process, I take Och’s suggestion to be a check and balance so no one person’s idiosyncratic experience or personal blindness to certain issues will let someone slip through the cracks, which very obviously has happened way to many times up until now and something has to be put in place BEFORE men get to seminary to try to discern their vocational aptitude.

  3. Fr Basil Biberdorf:

    Steve, God bless you.

    I re-read Owen’s proposal, and it’s not as biased as I initially thought. I am continuing to mull it over and will post any comments that seem relevant to the discussion.

    However, I want to say that it’s very, very hard to communicate the concerns that feed into a ministering, praying priest’s thinking. Some of it is spiritual, some confidential, some interpersonal, some a reaction to all of the above. Conclusions from this are not clairvoyance, even though the basis may not be immediately apparent to others either. A checks and balance system presumes a certain transparency that may not be (and should not be in several instances) present in the cultivation of clergy candidates.

    Personally, I think the men on the parish council SHOULD be a primary pool of clergy candidates. After all, they already serve as “elders” in at least a limited sense by virtue of their role in parish leadership. Which leads me to a thought I’m about to post as a quickie article.

  4. Owen White (ochlophobist):


    Obviously my post could have been better written, as it seems that I have left readers going in directions I never intended.

    I can’t decide if I believe that God never calls (as in speaks directly to the person) people to particular vocations, or if He only very rarely does so. In any event, I do know that every time I have heard a priest state, in standard Protestant manner, that God “called” him to the priesthood, I have winced.

    I do not mean for these dicernment groups to be discerning whether or not a man is called to the priesthood by God, that would be absurd. Their purpose is to discern whether or not a given man has the qualities required to be a priest, and whether or not it would seem prudent for him to pursue ordination. That’s it. As Steve suggests, I was looking for a method that is not “We are Church” power to the laypeople nonsense, nor does it rely solely on priests. If one is truly attempting to discern “the whole man” and his true reputation in the world and his command of those responsibilities he has been given, then it seems to me that both lay and priests should be involved.

    Parish Councils are often horrible. I have been in parishes where they were horrible, and I am now in a parish where the parish council functions well, and under a very competent priest. I think it safe to say that in the AOANA, the OCA, and GOArch there is systemic problems with regard to administration, often on the local, diocesan, and Synodal levels (not always at any level, but often enough). Some would retreat into a sort of Skete approach to Orthodoxy – set up our compounds around those clerics we think are holy, and let the rest of Orthodoxy go to hell. Honestly, sometimes I wonder if that isn’t the best approach, though I know it is an approach that has been taken to extremes in American Orthodoxy – extremes which have been worse than the problems such folks were seeking to avoid. I think that surely we can come up with certain “safety nets” as it were, by which we can at least mitigate some of the standard problems we see in run of the mill average joe American Orthodoxy. Hence my suggestions, which I had hoped to communicate were suggested ideas, not some sort of demand for reform. It seems they are not too popular however.

  5. Steve Robinson:

    Fr. Basil, Father, bless.
    I agree that the discernment of someone for the priesthood should not fall into a “group therapy” model where EVERYONE should hear a man’s confession. On the other hand (this is a real situation), if the only time a priest basically sees and interacts with a man is behind the iconostasis and in confession and never sees him in social settings, interacting with his wife and kids outside of the Church grounds and coffee hour, he does not know the man except as PERHAPS a zealous ambitious poser. He cannot know if he has depth, integrity or the “personality” for priesthood from limited ecclesial exposure. And I’ve brought that up to priests regarding men I (and others) knew outside of the church parking lot… These were situations where the community knew more about the aspirants than the priest did but were essentially ignored. The strength I saw in Owen’s proposal was that it would not be so easy to ignore such input. That said, none of this is to usurp the Holy Spirit, but assumes the work of the Holy Spirit in a conciliar process, much like the selection of the deacons in Acts 6: “Choose ye out from among yourselves men of good report and bring them before the Apostles…”

  6. Fr. James Early:

    Long waiting periods between an initial expression of interest in the priesthood and ordination would certainly cut down on (though not completely eliminate) the ordination of men who are unfit for the priesthood.

    My question, however, is this: would such long waiting periods chase away some whom ARE fit and even (dare I say it?) called by God to the priesthood? Related to this, would they exacerbate the much-talked-about shortage of priests in North America? Would not many parishes and missions end up being without pastoral leadership?

  7. Fr Basil Biberdorf:

    Fr James, I’m definitely not suggesting there is no inner call. Rather, I’m insisting that the inner call (by God) be validated by an external one. As for the shortage of priests, I’ve heard this a lot. However, I just don’t see the shortage. There are a lot of missions out there wanting a priest, but those that get their financial and spiritual acts are only rarely left wanting, at least from what I’ve seen. Is there any contrary evidence?

  8. Fr. James Early:

    Fr. Basil,

    I didn’t mean to suggest that YOU think there is no inner call. However, it seems that at least some in N. American Orthodoxy downplay or even deny the existence of such a call.

    And I totally agree that inner calls need to be validated by external ones (after all, I came out of the Southern Baptist tradition, where it seems like every other person is “called by God” into full-time ministry, and there are virtually no external checks and balances on such “calls.”).

    Regarding the shortage, I think it is only present in certain jurisdictions and certain dioceses. I can think of one in particular. I can say for certain that there is definitely *not* a shortage in DOWAMA (Bp. BASIL’s diocese) in the AOANA–quite the contrary, in fact. But I still wonder if ten-year-long waiting periods might exacerbate existing shortages and perhaps even cause some where there are none currently.

    (Again, I know that YOU haven’t advocated such long waits…but some of your commenters have. I’m throwing this concern out to the whole group).

  9. Mat. Donna Farley:

    Dear Fathers et al., I do not think we need fear a long waiting period or other ‘obstacles’ will chase away suitable candidates– possibly the opposite, in fact. In our pre-Orthodox youth, when my husband & I approached our Anglican priest to be married, he told us that he always tried to talk couples -out- of getting married– and sometimes succeeded! He figured if he could talk them out of it, that was probably for the best…..I think he was on to something, and that the same might well apply to candidates for the priesthood.