Impediments and Advice on the Priestly Vocation

The following represents my own personal reflections and are not necessarily representative of anyone else’s opinions.  I focus on the UOC-USA because it is the Church I serve and the example I know best.  With some minor modifications, these probably work for other Churches and dioceses, as well.

Requirements for Ordination

The Church is the Body of Christ.  As such, all of her members are called to bring His healing and salvation to our suffering world.  No Christian is exempt from this work.  Everyone has a vocation in Christ.  For a small group of servants, this vocation expresses itself in the priestly ministries of the deacon, priest, and bishop.  Being a priest is incredibly fulfilling and brings manifold blessings.  A properly-trained priest who has given himself over completely to Christ and His ministry is a source of joy to his parish and a balm to the world.  But a poorly-trained priest, even one with a good heart and the best of intentions, can do a great deal of damage; and a well-trained priest who has not submitted himself to the love and disciplines of the Church can cause even more. 

This paper describes some of the ways that the Church protects her people from such misfortune and how she helps ensure that those called to serve are put on the proper path. 

Educational Requirements for Ordination

No amount of education at any seminary guarantees ordination.  However, the UOC-USA does have minimum educational standards that constitute necessary, but not sufficient, qualifications for ordination.

Candidates for the diaconate must have completed either a Master’s degree from St. Sophia’s or any other recognized Orthodox Seminary; the Antiochian St. Stephen’s Program (to include Summer residencies and projects); or the three year post-diaconal weekend program for late vocations at St. Sophia Seminary.  Graduates of non-Orthodox seminaries may be considered for ordination by augmenting their training with classes at St. Sophia Seminary.

Candidates for the priesthood must have either a Master’s of Divinity from St. Sophia Seminary, a Master of Divinity from a recognized Orthodox seminary augmented by classes at St. Sophia Seminary, or have completed both the Antiochian St. Stephen’s Program (to include Summer residencies and projects) and the three-year post-diaconal weekend program for late vocations at St. Sophia Seminary.  Graduates of non-Orthodox seminaries may be considered for ordination completing the three-year post-diaconal weekend program for late vocations at St. Sophia Seminary.

Impediments to Ordination

At some point before ordination, the bishop decides whether the candidate is suitable for ordination.  Impediments to ordination include both subjective elements – such as poor interpersonal skills, spiritual immaturity and general unreliability – and objective (i.e. “canonical”) concerns.  The measuring of both types of impediments is serious as it involves the spiritual health of both the candidate and his potential flock.  As in confession, complete honesty on the part of the candidate is essential (e.g. 1 Nicea 9 &10; II Nicea 2). 

A Note on Discernment, the Canons, and Economia

Ordination is not simply about the candidate’s relationship with God or about changing an individual’s attributes; it involves the entire ecclesia and it is through the candidate’s interactions with the ecclesia that the process of discernment takes place.  This begins when the candidate first talks with his parents, his spouse, his godparents, fellow parishioners, and his confessor about ordination; then continues as he talks and prays with other seminarians, professors, his spiritual director, and his bishop.  This process may or may not then consummate with the service of ordination when, during the liturgical “work of the people”, the bishop lays his hands on the ordinand and the people confirm his actions through the acclimation of “AXIOS!”  To reiterate, discernment is a work of the Church, performed by and within the Church. 

The application of Canon Law should be viewed as part of this interaction between the candidate and the ecclesia.  The application of Church Tradition allows the great fathers and theologians of the Church to be part of the discernment process.  The Orthodox Church is not fundamentalist when it comes to understanding and applying the Canons.  As with Scripture, she interprets the Canons within the fullness of the Faith and applies them according to the pastoral needs of the people.  It should thus come as no surprise that some of the Canons are not followed “to the letter”; in those cases,  economia (i.e. exceptions or dispensation) is granted so that the Faith may best be preserved and the salvation of the people best pursued.   

The bishop is the pastor, servant, and leader of the local Church.  It is his sacred calling to pastorally interpret and apply the canons, not the candidate’s.  Bishops may grant economia in specific instances, but this comes as the result of their prayerful discernment for each case.  The fact that an exception was made in one  case (or even in many cases) does not mean that it will be made in another, no matter how compelling the case seems to be.  Economia should neither be assumed nor expected by applicants/candidates!

The Canons list the following as being  impediments to ordination (this list is not all inclusive):

Violations of faith

- Candidates for ordination must be Orthodox Christian men.  No heretic or member of a heterodox group can be considered for ordination.

- No candidate may be considered for ordination who, after baptism/conversion, has denied Christ or blasphemed His servants (Apostolic 62).

- The candidate may not be a member of any other religion or secret society (Trullo 34).

Violations of purity

- The candidate must either be (and remain) celibate or married to an Orthodox Christian woman, with this being each of their first marriage and their marriage being chaste (Apostolic 17 &18; Chalcedon 14; Trullo 6; see also Apostolic 61; Neocaesarea 8 & 9).

- The candidate must be free from the stain of killing, to include murder, abortion, assisted suicide, and manslaughter, whether intentional or unintentional.  This is true even if the act was legal (e.g. abortion or causing death in war).

Violations of practice and good order

- The candidate may not hold a job that would, in the normal course of his duties, lead him to violate priestly and Christian norms.  This includes jobs that would require him to carry a weapon, administer abortifacients, commit usury, or generally behave in a manner that is or might be perceived as being inconsistent with Orthodox Christianity or the priestly ministry (Apostolic 83; 1 Nicea 17; Laodicea 36; Chalcedon 3; Trullo 9 & 24).

- Clergy at every level are responsible to their bishop.  Candidates should not “shop around” for a bishop that is willing to ordain them or change parishes without the blessing of their bishop (e.g. 1 Nicea 5; 1 Nicea 16).

- No candidate may offer money, goods, or services in hopes of obtaining ordination (I Nicea 17).

- The candidate must run an orderly house, to include raising all the children living under his roof as Orthodox Christians (Chalcedon 14).

Considerations of age and time

- No one under thirty years of age, regardless of their maturity, should be ordained to the priesthood; no one under twenty-five should be ordained to the diaconate; and no one under twenty should be ordained to the sub-diaconate (Trullo 14 &15).

- Newly baptized Christians should not be ordained; moreover, it is best for candidates to spend some time at each clerical rank before being ordained to the next one (1 Nicea 2; Sardica 10).

If this list seems to set the bar unreasonably high (or at least higher than many of our candidates and priests are able to reach), remember that the Law serves two purposes: first, to instruct and guide us to perfection and second, to point out our need for Christ’s mercy and help.  It is only through His grace that we are called Christians.  None are worthy of anything good, but all are called to theosis in Christ. 

It is heartbreaking when men are so wrapped up in their lust for the priesthood that they lose their humility and gratitude for salvation itself.  I have even spoken with men who want to be priests so badly that they are willing to sell their soul (e.g. through apostacy) to achieve it.  Like Simon Magus, such have failed the first test.

Additional Considerations

While none of the following rise to the level of canon law or constitute grounds for automatic disqualification, they do constitute challenges to the candidate’s ability to serve as a member of the clergy and should be prayerfully considered and discussed with the relevant people (e.g. spiritual fathers, bishops, and wives). The priesthood is martyrdom enough on its own, adding additional “voluntary” stressors is imprudent and dangerous. 

Think of these less as “rules” and more as strong recommendations for setting oneself up for success (and avoiding failure) in parish ministry.

Financial considerations

- The UOC-USA has few parishes that provide suitable benefits to support a family without assistance.  Financial stress causes temptations within a priest’s family and can compromise his ability to serve his flock with love and objectivity.  Candidates should work out realistic post-ordination budgets well in advance to ensure their ability to support their families should they be ordained. 

- Priests should come into their ministry without debt, to include student loans.  Candidates with debt should pay it off before ordination.  There is no hurry to become a priest – the Church can wait and so can candidates, especially if taking extra time sets them up for success rather than failure.  In addition to paying off debt, candidates should consider building up a three to six month “emergency fund” as they prepare for ordination.  The combination of no monthly debt payments and the presence of a well-funded emergency fund will improve their ability to serve their flocks without reservation.

- Priests should come into their priesthood with the kind of skills and work-ethic that will allow them to support their family with little remuneration from their parish.  Most of our priests are “bi-vocational.”  The worker is worthy of his wages, but St. Paul was a tent-maker.

- All of these financial considerations are multiplied for diaconal candidates as deacons are given, at most, a small stipend for their service. 

- No one should consider becoming a priest because the economy is bad, he has fallen on hard times, or he cannot find a job in his preferred career. 

Personal considerations

- The priesthood brings stress to marriages; more stress than a troubled marriage or a reluctant Pani Matka/Dobrodika should be expected to bear.  Candidates need to be honest about the ability of their marriages and spouses to handle this.

- The priest is always under scrutiny and stress.  Mental illnesses and addictions do not disappear with ordination.  Breakdowns and lapses can scandalize and divide parishes.

- Physical ailments do not disappear with ordination, either.  Candidates should make sure that they are physically ready to handle the isolation and physical stress of the priesthood.  It is a sedentary job where the temptation is to work 24/7 and skimp on rest and re-creation. As a result, priests often suffer from “diseases of civilization” like obesity, type-two diabetes, and hypertension.  Candidates who are overweight or in poor health should correct their conditions and the habits that led to them before ordination.

- Bishops and priests are looking for men who would be good shepherds for people they love and good colleagues for themselves.  Gossipers, conspirators, political ideologues, bigots, and complainers do not make good guides or colleagues.  Priests need not be saints, but they should be trying really hard to become perfect. 

- Related to this, candidates must have a strong spiritual life, to include regular confession, a daily prayer rule, and the peace of the Holy Spirit.

- Orthodox services witness to and participate in God’s eternal beauty and the harmony of His creation.  The priest’s leadership of these services should be both agile and euphonious.  Candidates should develop their eyes, ears, bodies, and voices accordingly.  A clumsy or tone-deaf priest is a distraction and inhibits the growth of his community.    

Parish life

- Candidates should be tithing members of their UOC-USA parish, attending all her services, and participating in her Mysteries on a regular basis.

- Candidates should immerse themselves in parish life as part of their preparation.  This does not just include service in the altar, at the kliros, and in the choir (although each of these is important!), but also service on the parish board, in the UOL, on committees, as teachers, and as volunteers at parish functions. 

- Candidates for the priesthood should have demonstrated their love for and loyalty to the UOC-USA, her people, her priests, her bishops, and her culture.  A familiarity with the Ukrainian language is useful and candidates should work to master sound liturgical pronunciation in both English and Ukrainian well before ordination.  Saying portions of one’s daily prayer rule in both English and Ukrainian will help.

- Candidates should be mission-minded evangelists no matter what type of parish (e.g. ethnic, convert, mission, mixed) they hope to serve.  They should be ready to seek and create opportunities to introduce people to Holy Orthodoxy and deepen the faith of their parishioners who are already Orthodox.  The Church does not call priests to serve as caretakers or docents in her parishes, she calls them to evangelize. 

- Candidates, and especially “late vocations” should be consistent members of a single UOC-USA parish.  Some people who take their academic theology or national culture more seriously than their life in Christ move from parish to parish looking for the place that “does everything right.”  Candidates should be serious about their service to their bishop and his flock.  The candidate who is so devoted to the priesthood that he shops around for the perfect bishop or parish is like the man who loves marriage so much that he divorces his wife to find a better one.

- The above is especially true for those who jump from jurisdiction to jurisdiction looking for a bishop who would be willing to ordain them.  This is far outside the norms of good canonical order and a sure sign of the candidate’s lack of spiritual maturity and commitment. 

An article by Fr. Anthony Perkins

Source: http://www.orthoanalytika.org/2013/09/10/some-thoughts-on-the-priestly-vocation-impediments-and-advice/