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The Making of a Pastor – Part 3

with 6 comments

<<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

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