The Orthodox Leader

The Making of a Pastor – Part 2

<<Read the previous segment (if you haven’t already)

For this second article, I want to set aside the matters of the previous one and lay the groundwork for a discussion of the next aspect of clergy formation: the money.

I remind readers once again that I write from my perspective as a priest in the Orthodox Church in America, a graduate of two seminaries (the most recent of which is St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary), a husband and father, and an experienced professional software developer. Adjustments in my financial analysis are needed according to jurisdiction and diocese, but the main points still stand.

As a quick background for those unfamiliar with clergy education, the largest American Orthodox jurisdictions—the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the Antiochian Archdiocese, and the Orthodox Church in America—all require new priests to hold a Master of Divinity degree or a very near equivalent. Customarily, the M.Div. requires three years of study (four years for GOA students). The typical load is 15 hours per term, plus regular attendance at chapel services (two per day at SVS), a duty (e.g., grounds maintenance), fieldwork at a parish, hospital, or nursing home, and, of course, homework and studying. For seminarians with families, one must also budget necessary time there, in order to keep one’s house in good order.

The three seminaries that train most of the Orthodox clergy in North America are Holy Cross in metro Boston (GOA), St Vladimir’s in Yonkers, NY (OCA),  and St Tikhon’s in South Canaan, PA (OCA). All three presume that students will enroll in residence full-time for the duration of the program. That’s three to four years of minimal or no income for the seminarian and his family, unless the family situation allows for his wife to be employed. Spousal employment has been inconsistent – wages, distance, availability of work, commuting costs,etc. – among the seminary families I’ve known. (Before proceeding, ask yourself a quick question: how much would it cost for you and your family to live where you live now, if you were to cut every major expense and eliminate every debt?)

What does this cost? Well, believe it or not, calculating a precise number is something that would make an accountant blush. A lot of numbers get pushed around in order to allocate soft dollars and reduce the net cost to the seminarian. However, using numbers from SVS and Holy Cross (as representative examples), the following chart gives a very rough idea of the annual cost:

Student type


Other expenses


Single seminarian




Married seminarian




(Notes: “Other expenses” include housing, food, health and automobile insurance, along with books and incidentals. Some numbers were given as 9-month figures, which I converted to 12-month for the comparison.)

Wow. I corresponded with students from several jurisdictions to get their perspective on the situation. What students actually pay varies, depending on the limited scholarships administered by the seminaries and the particular diocese or archdiocese that sends the student. Nearly all of the Antiochian students given a blessing to pursue seminary studies receive a scholarship from the Antiochian Archdiocese for tuition costs plus a monthly stipend of $600 ($7,200 per year). Most GOA and OCA seminarians receive little financial assistance from their respective dioceses, with one notable exception in the GOA.

In the end, a married seminarian could expect to be responsible for $15,000 to $30,000 of his total expenses for each year he is in seminary. For seminary families where neither the student nor his wife is significantly employed, especially when children are present, these funds must come either from savings or from privately arranged loans. This, of course, leads quickly to the depletion of savings and proceeds from the sale of a home, or just as quickly to the acquisition of large amounts of debt. While much of this debt is in the form of federally-backed student loans, at least a few students use personal credit cards for this purpose.

To manage these costs, many students (those with families in particular) turn to public aid, particularly for health insurance. While I was attending St. Vladimir’s, married students were explicitly guided to sign up for the publicly-funded New York Family Health Plus insurance plan. Changes in eligibility requirements in New York have altered this slightly, although, as of the time of this writing, SVS’s web site still suggests the use of Medicaid by seminary students. Further, some seminary families also elect to register for WIC and food stamps.

The preceding paragraphs provide a picture of the basic situation. While  I’ll soon have a critique and more discussion of the significance of the data, I encourage readers to think about this information and what it means for the Church and for the men who undertake seminary study.

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Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

January 31st, 2010 at 10:58 pm

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