What to do about a bad priest?

Since secular work, house blessings, and kids’ school projects have conspired to slow down the next segment of the Making of a Priest, I thought it might be worthwhile to point out that St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) addressed the question of “What to do about a bad priest?” well over a century ago. (Many thanks to Fr. Justin Frederick for translating the original.)

Read it: What to do about a bad priest?

As you work your way through it, consider St. Theophan’s counsel in light of many reactions today to poor leadership. Readers are invited to weigh in in the comments.

4 comments on this post.
  1. Mat. Donna Farley:

    The priest St. Theophan’s questioner describes is not actually what I would call a ‘bad’ priest….just not a very good one. He is perhaps to be pitied for being burdened with a vocation for which he seems to have no gifts.

    Now, if instead of this rather poor priest you have a priest who abuses parishoners in any of various ways, or causes a scandal in the church and wider community by immoral or addictive behaviour…then we are talking -bad-, and the need for some action by the hierarch beyond exhorting the parishoners to pray. The difficult job of confrontation is hard enough for parishoners to do with the priest in authority over them in the case described by the questioner; to confront a shepherd who is behaving as a wolf is a job for the over-shepherd(bishop) and not for the members of the flock.

  2. Trudy Ellmore:

    I’d have to agree with Mat. Donna. I wouldn’t describe this priest as “bad.” I also agree with Mat. Donna’s definition of “bad.”

    Being still new to Orthodoxy I still am not clear on proper protocol when one has a ‘bad’ priest who must be removed and disciplined. In light of recent past events on two American jurisdictions, the hierarchs don’t seem to know what to do with a ‘bad’ priest or have dealt with him ineffectively.

    Were the situation ideal, I would expect the parish council goes to the Dean who then goes to the Bishop who gives his guidance which the council carries out with the Dean’s help.

    At this point I don’t have much faith in that process though.

  3. Fr Basil Biberdorf:

    I’m already on record as to what I think needs to be done with the kind of “beyond bad” priest you mention. See http://orthodoxleader.paradosis.com/2009/11/30/9/ .

    Again, I’m not as interested in scandal as I am in leadership. We suffer all the time from council-clergy conflict, lack of focus, lack of spine, backbiting, etc. Many times the kind of priest Theophan describes finds himself becoming a weak leader, unable to lead because he has no spiritual vision. I’ve seen parishes wither under such leadership. To that end, I think Theophan has something to say.

    Trudy, regarding the process you describe, I’ll say up front that your process SHOULD be what happens. However, not all deans make the wisest decisions in their own sphere of leadership.

  4. fr anthony perkins:

    Let me speak a bit on handling the “bad priest” in the sense that St. Theophan seems to have meant.

    I am a priest that lacks discernment, is occasionally careless, and has only begun to comprehend the “things of God” (much less the ability to share them in anything more a “limited” and “truncated” way).

    Not only do I benefit from the prayer of my parishioners, there are spiritually discerning folks here that provide helpful guidance. I don’t mean the ones who just point things out (every priest probably has many such “teachers”!) – I mean Christians with pastors’ hearts. This is one of the things that I like about my board, as well: they provide sound advice and guidance.

    I am sure that didn’t just happen on its own: unlike the complainer in St. Theophan’s conversation, people here DID learn from my predecessors; as a result there is a mechanism in place for helping even a bad priest (such as myself) become somewhat serviceable.

    I dare say that most priests would love to be in this situation (of having wise parishioners with a desire to help). Unfortunately, the ratio of complainers to helpers is pretty high. If you want to be a helper, St. Theophan’s advice is great. It is easy to take advice from someone whose prayer book and knees are worn by something other than just time!

    FWIW, I am trying to train these helpful folks up (as well as identifying new ones) to help me and all the “bad priests” that eventually follow me (no time soon, please!).

    -fr anthony

    PS As for priests that are really bad (like in Fr. Basil’s post “Eli’s Road” – I couldn’t agree more. And it would be great to see loopholes that allow priests to pop-up in other jurisdictions disappear. Chambesy and (Lord willing!) administrative unity will help a lot here. They won’t be able to solve the problem for quasi/uncanonical groups, but even this has a certain logic to it.