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Running the Race

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Our parish is holding Vacation Bible School this week, with a theme of “Running the Race. Going the Distance.” The key Biblical passage is 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (NKJV)

The emphasis is, of course, on the spiritual life: characteristics of good athletes, a healthy spiritual diet, perseverance, focusing on the goal, and “the trophy.”

For clergy and parish leaders, however, this “race” always has some particular obstacles.

Obviously, there is the matter of personal spiritual life. The deceiver always lurks in the prayer corner to tell the priest, “You’ve already prayed today. You don’t need to do so now.” The deceiver sits at the desk, murmuring “But you’ve already spent time reading the Scripture when you prepared your sermon. Why not read something more fun?” Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

June 18th, 2013 at 7:51 am

The Entrepreneurial Mind

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Where to go from here?In his essay from a couple of weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal, Dilbert creator Scott Adams argues that business students (“B students” in his words) would benefit far more from classes in entrepreneurship than in the sciences, mathematics, and classics. While I disagree with the first paragraph (in the implication that some students don’t benefit from entrepreneurial thinking), the rest of the article has much to say about the value of developing entrepreneurial skills. I think an entrepreneurial mindset is absolutely critical for anyone in church leadership, clergy and lay, whether in an established parish or a mission.

With that in mind, it seems to me that there’s a one-sidedness in our Orthodox pastoral preparation, similar to what Adams suggests is happening with “B students.” It’s an imbalance that favors the spiritual and intellectual development of pastors at the expense of learning the value of financial sophistication, prudent risk-taking, leadership cultivation, conflict management, and the basket of talents commonly known as “people skills.” Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

April 27th, 2011 at 9:56 am

Leadership and Institutional Decline

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“And I will give thee into the hand of them that seek thy life, and into the hand of them whose face thou fearest, even into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and into the hand of the Chaldeans.” -Jeremiah 22:25

The rector at my parish gave the clerical staff an assignment earlier this week. We were to watch the following video (about 3 minutes long) and report on an aspect of our individual areas of responsibility or the Church in general in light of its conclusions. You can also read the full article if you like.

Watch the video or read the article, then come back to read the rest of this post.

The author, Jim Collins, posits five stages of institutional decline (again, read the article or watch the video for more):

  1. Hubris born of success
  2. Undisciplined pursuit of more
  3. Denial of risk and peril
  4. Grasping for salvation
  5. Capitulation to irrelevance or death

After watching the video or reading the article, I invite each of you reading this to report on an aspect of your church life (at whatever level, but not on other jurisdictions, or political units) in view of these stages. Is your chosen aspect already on this path, or is this something you don’t have to worry about right now? If your chosen aspect is at stage 3 or 4, what is the evidence of being there? If stage 5, what’s the evidence of that?

Again, this is a leadership blog, so professionalism and courtesy are appreciated. Please mention the aspect you’re addressing (“my parish,” “my diocese,” “our evangelistic work,” etc.) for everyone’s benefit.

Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

April 1st, 2011 at 10:24 am

The Making of a Pastor – Part 3

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

My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? –1 Corinthians 9:3-7

The previous article set forth, as briefly as possible, the financial costs involved with pursuing the seminary studies that several North American Orthodox jurisdictions require. Most candidates for the priesthood will spend three to four years in seminary, at a net cost to the seminarian of $15,000 – $30,000 per year (those with wives and children tend toward the larger numbers). These funds will, in most cases, come from loans, savings, or proceeds from the sale of a home (i.e., home equity).

This is a crushing burden, paid by mortgaging the future in one way or another. For those who borrow the funds, it is not unthinkable that they would leave the school owing $50,000 or more. (Repaying $50,000 at 9% for 10 years requires over $630 per month in debt service. Readers can plug in other numbers at Bankrate. ) Men who will typically not be compensated commensurate with their education will repay this. This will negatively affect their ability to purchase and maintain a car for family use, buy or rent a residence (if one isn’t provided by the parish), provide necessities for their children, fund a retirement account, and pay any costs associated with continuing education and development, among others, for a very long time.

Even with the incurring of debt (or expenditure of savings), the seminary period is still a meager life, which leads many seminary families to use public aid: health insurance and food aid (food stamps, WIC) in particular.  Privately purchased insurance is never cheap and is even more expensive in New York and Massachusetts, where SVS and Holy Cross are located. Thus, students pursue the options they can, with the seminaries looking the other way. (When I was at SVS, seminary officials actively facilitated registration in New York’s Family Health Plus insurance plan. Even now, after New York tightened eligibility requirements, I understand that enrollment in such plans is tacitly encouraged by the seminary. It’s also mentioned at the web site.)

However, participation in need-based public aid has two serious problems. First, these programs are intended (and promoted to taxpayers) as provision for those who can’t provide for themselves. But seminary students aren’t in this category! They’ve willingly left gainful employment in order to pursue advanced education. (If they weren’t gainfully employed, why are they good candidates again?) They’re neither laid-off, nor ill, nor disabled. They simply need a taxpayer subsidy in order to obtain the theological education required by the Church. Second, the use of government need-based subsidies by seminarians reflects an immoral transfer of the Church’s responsibility to the unchurched public.

This last point represents a critical failure to honor our Christian obligations. St. Paul asks, “who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock?” making clear that ministers of the Gospel are to be cared for by the faithful. Should it not also apply to those preparing for such ministry? After all, the mandate for residential seminary education comes from the Church. Indeed, we must ask with St. Paul, “Who goes to war at his own expense?”

Worse, the use of public aid often continues past seminary. While I mean no disrespect to my brethren who have chosen this option, the problems above exist in the same way among active parish clergy. The biblical qualifications for ordination, particularly having “a good testimony among those who are outside” (1 Timothy 3:7), bear on this situation. Who respects a welfare king? Why did the Church establish him on his throne?

The financial situation into which we thrust our seminarians and clergy leads to a debilitating cycle of dependency. Candidates study at seminary, impoverish themselves to do so, trade self-respect for public aid, make financial and family choices few laymen would ever be expected to make (Can I afford to send my children for swim lessons, or braces? Can I take a vacation not associated with a church event?), and find themselves manipulated by others due to the precariousness of their situation. The last item may be a surprise, but it’s true. Many clergy desperately need every penny of income, giving a ready means of ensuring compliance and control, whether by the laity or by clerical superiors. (In the OCA, we’ve seen how this has been used to punish and reward clergy over the past decade.) None of these make for a strong, vibrant, flexible, and open-minded leadership.

Revisiting issues raised in part 1 of this series, the men who undertake these labors are often self-selected. Some of them go not having counted the cost  (Luke 14:25-33, which merits further discussion on its own). Others go because of a calling, entering into the life in a spirit of obedience. Yet others do not go because they see that there is no way to meet the twenty thousand with ten thousand. We would benefit from finding a way to lead the best of these men into Christ’s ministry by affirming the vocation when it is seen and by tearing down this commitment to a life of indebtedness and enslavement that is far, far more than a life of austerity.

This is not just an issue of finances, but rather cuts to the core of leadership. If candidates for ordination are to “rule their own house well,” (1 Timothy 3:4) how is that possible if our own Church requirements result in a mix of financial concerns that leave these men tottering on the edge of disaster, enslaved to money. It’s different from the enslavement of the rich man, but it is enslavement nonetheless.

Next time, I’ll talk about some possible solutions. Your contributions to this discussion are appreciated.

Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

February 11th, 2010 at 10:41 pm

The Making of a Pastor – Part 2

with 12 comments

<<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.

Read the next segment >>

Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

January 31st, 2010 at 10:58 pm

The Making of a Pastor – More Reactions

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A  friend of mine, Mike Fulton, a seminarian at Holy Cross has given his own response to the first article in the Making of a Priest series along with the Ochlophobist’s suggestions. (Note that I give credit to Owen White for making those suggestions but have my own reservations about them.)

At one point he says:

All of this has been proposed with very good intentions on bringing men who are better qualified/prepared and also to limit ecclesiastical corruption, some of which may come in the form of simony and nepotism.

My own desire is to emphasize the former, as a matter of leadership. “Worldly experience” such as developing a (secular) career, building a marriage, and managing responsibilities (family, children, work, house, etc.) is valuable inasmuch as it gives clergy a basis for leading as clergy: “if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?”

Michael also says:

However, what I have learned from being at seminary and speaking to priests is that no amount of bureaucracy, papers, proposals, councils, psychological batteries, interviews, etc. can prepare or ensure the preparedness of candidates to the priesthood. You teach a man the best that you can, a bishop places his hands on the guy’s head, and you hope that the Holy Spirit does the rest.

Indeed, we pray and trust that the Holy Spirit will supply that which is lacking (as the bishop prays in the ordination). However, we cannot deny the synergy that must exist between man and God. If it were purely a matter of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul would have had no reason to write 1 Timothy 3, for the drunk, the adulterer, and the greedy would all have their deficiencies corrected as a matter of course.

I stick to my assertion that we would be better off holding rather more strictly to the age requirement of Neocaesarea XI: “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” (emphasis added). Certainly the Fathers of Neocaesarea knew of young men who were mature beyond years, but insisted they wait. In 1 Timothy 4, St. Paul tells the new pastor Timothy and his flock, “Let no one despise your youth,” even though Timothy was about 40 years old at the time! Some wisdom is brought only by experience.

It’s also important to remember that being a presbyter (specifically as a parish priest) is a different thing from being a prophet. Consider Aaron and Moses. Think on John the Baptist as compared with St. Peter.

I’ll encourage readers here to read Michael’s comments and weigh in (here or there, your call).

Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

January 28th, 2010 at 1:44 pm

The Making of a Pastor – A Short Aside

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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.

Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

January 19th, 2010 at 8:56 am

The Making of a Pastor – Part 1

with 14 comments

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….

Read the next segment>>

[Revised slightly 15Jan10 10:21AM EST]

Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

January 15th, 2010 at 12:01 am

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