By Andrew McDermott
Learning that a shortage of priests is a serious problem threatening the welfare and future of our Orthodox Church undoubtedly has caused considerable concern in many people. With me this alarming news immediately sparked some serious, earnest, but generally ineffective thinking about what could be done. Soon my reflections were only brief and occasional. Unexplainably most of them ended picturing myself as a priest — something quickly dismissed with an inward smile as humorous and a whimsical flight of the imagination. Eventually, without conscious effort, my thoughts on this vital problem became frequent, lengthy meditations on duty and reward, and the element of humor gave away to serious self-examination of personal interests and qualifications.
As a result, for some time now, I wish I were a priest because the Church needs priests, the rewards are so very great, the work interests me, and because of the perhaps immodest opinion that I am reasonably well qualified, except for training.
The purpose here is to interest others in the priesthood by pointing out rewards and duties that attract me so strongly to this highest of callings open to married men. Of course interests are for the individual alone to evaluate, and qualifications mainly will be left to those better able to list and explain them completely and accurately. I do however plead that all pious, intelligent, ambitious men curb their modesty enough to prevent their being too quick in deciding they are not qualified. Like explaining qualifications, the final judgment of them in each individual is the right and duty of others specially charged with such responsibility.
The rewards of an Orthodox priest and his family are both spiritual and material. It is important to realize that this statement can be made about very few occupations, and none of the others offer even a fraction of the spiritual rewards. Also, non-material (but invaluable and very real) benefits enriching the lives of a whole family are infrequent and small (usually non-existent) in most of the other vocations.
It is freely admitted that material rewards are greater in many of the other vocations. However, even if you insist on being “practical,” happily more and more Orthodox Americans and Canadians are facing up to their duty of providing satisfactory material rewards for their clergy. (At least I believe this is generally the case in and around Detroit, Mich.) As a result, today most rectory families have comfortable homes and can afford to maintain a standard of living that compares favorably with that of an average family. Compensation and financial security in general continuously are improving too. Finally, a pastor’s being almost entirely free of concern over the possibility of complete privation for his family is a strong material inducement. Even in the severest of business depressions it is inconceivable that his family would have to do without at least a life sustaining amount of food, clothing and shelter. Such dire hardship has been and could again be the lot of people in other, more lucrative professions.
Most important — the spiritual rewards are very great. Even though they are far more important than material rewards, I am at a loss to list and describe them or to any way convey clearly my estimate of their immense value. I can and do reflect on the awe, joy, and satisfaction of participating so fully in the sacred services, administering the sacraments, teaching, counseling, and comforting. However, much the same as the Holy Mysteries confessed by the Church, I believe that the nature and worth of spiritual rewards defy being accurately and fully explained to another. Because of implicit faith alone that the spiritual rewards themselves would repay me and my family many times over for any demands made on us, this bright promise is the foremost reason I wish I were a priest.
Although material compensation and security have been discussed first, these actually rank third in importance as inducements for me. Depending on my frame of mind, sometimes the spiritual rewards must compete with a sense of duty as the most important reason I wish I were a priest. Whether it ranks first or second, fortunately this matter of duty does not go so far beyond the limits of language and human understanding, although it is possible to fall into faulty thinking on the subject.
Duty can be summed up in general by stating that a man is doing his duty if he is truly Christian to the fullest extent in every phase of his life. This certainly implies a great deal, but rather in brief, I think we can agree this to mean he regularly attends church and receives the sacraments; he supports parish and other worthy groups financially and with active participation he is a law-abiding citizen. If he is married, he is a kind, loving, faithful husband.
If also there are children, he is raising them Christian — happy, fair, and well-adjusted; he will make a sincere effort to prepare them to be worthwhile adult members of society. Much more — but finally, he provides the financial means for all this doing some sort of honest, worthwhile work.
This last requirement is the one most closely related to the Church’s problem, and in it is to be found a good explanation of why there is a shortage of priests. Faulty thinking arises here if doing one’s duty means only that the work is honest and worthwhile. I believe that this work (regardless of what it is) also must make the best possible use of one’s interests, intelligence, skills, and talents. In applying only some fraction these precious gifts of God, particularly in earning a livelihood, I believe a person is guilty of neglecting a most important duty.
The occupation that provides a man’s livelihood often accounts for more than half of his waking hours. This is his career, his service to mankind for the glory of God. This is what gives him a personal identity more than any other one thing. In his vocational career above all is where he is obligated to — deserves to use his God-given faculties as fully as possible — for love of his fellow man, as an example for his children, and for the fullness of his own life.
The square peg in a round hole is a widespread and age-old affliction of society, and I admit there are usually sound reasons that keep men out of occupations better suited to them. However, some of these men should be and almost as many could be the priests our Orthodox Church needs. With enough interest, ambition, and courage most of them could find the means to set aside now seemingly insurmountable obstacles. A special few might need and deserve some unusual extra assistance from others.
I doubt that any occupation is not a mixture of advantages amid disadvantages — of pros and cons. However, even aspects of the priesthood that might appear unattractive on the surface are really ones that can provide a man some of his greatest satisfaction. Also, any man who aspires to the priesthood must be realistic about these so-called “cons,” admit their existence, see in them vital duty and intriguing challenge, and even be eager to deal with them, confident of the fine rewards they offer.
A pastor’s becoming quite intimately involved with the sorrow, suffering, depression, and difficult personal problems of others is an inescapable part of his work — something usually not too tasteful to those not genuinely suited for the priesthood. At one time or another almost all (if not all) of his congregation will go through periods of considerable emotional stress, and in most instances he will share their lot to the degree necessary for him to furnish the comfort, counsel, and support it is his duty and desire to provide.
He must be able and willing to lay aside his own cares, become one with them in their troubles, yet almost miraculously remain objective enough to provide the wisdom and strength they need.
This is truly a noble duty, and having put forth sincere effort to do it well, the satisfaction would have to be profound and lasting. It also follows that such special duties as these require something special of the men discharging them. Yet no man who is suited otherwise should disqualify himself because he fears he might not be capable of enough sympathetic feeling and thus not be able to involve himself enough emotionally to be effective and fully accepted as a comforter, protector, counselor, peacemaker, or whatever is needed.
At the other extreme, a man should not consider himself unsuited to such duties on the basis of believing himself to be too sensitive, too easily moved, or too demonstrative. I don’t believe either of these extremes in themselves automatically disqualify men who for every other reason should be priests.
It is impossible for me to visualize a divinely gifted and called man being too sensitive or too much the opposite; too objective or not able to be objective enough. Rather, I am certain there are places in the ministry for many very different types of men, even including these extremes.
What then is the source of the “something special” that is so necessary? Again I fall back on my faith — faith in the sacraments here. I have faith that special grace is added through Ordination and that a part of this additional grace is that “something special” needed — an extra measure of wisdom and strength mysteriously provided at those times when a priest must have them to be the Good Shepherd his calling demands him to be.
Another “con” could be attributed to certain persons that probably are to be found in every parish and the problems they create. These are the well-meaning but too helpful and misguided, the non-reasoning critics, the reactionaries, the lazy, etc. There are times when they menace a parish’s unity and progress to some degree and can cause the waste of a considerable amount of time much better spent in other ways.
Here is challenge — to combine humility, tact, and resourcefulness and then use them with the patience yet firmness of a wise and loving father. The problems here are actually petty more often than not but seldom seem so to the people involved. By the nature of the trouble they cause there is a good indication they need the Church more than most people, so a most rewarding sense of accomplishment certainly would come out of dealing effectively with the problems they create.
No doubt most clergymen would like to be free of those details of parish management that could and should be attended to by laymen. Like me, probably most prefer to be only a pastor in the strictest sense (certainly this is a full-time job) and not have to be too concerned with any “non-priestly” details except as a casual overseer and occasional advisor. However, I am realistic enough to face the fact that for some years to come most pastors must expect to be combination business executives, chief fund-raisers, treasurers, bookkeepers, stenographers, publicity men, mail boys, assistant janitors and gardeners, part-time repairman, etc.
For quite awhile this was another “con” as far as I was concerned. However, once again faith reassured me and provided me a different viewpoint. This new, broader perspective showed this matter like all the others to be unattractive only on the surface, and that the satisfaction of doing what must be done would be enough to compensate for the extra time and effort. This faith even provides confidence that again mysteriously I would be provided a surprisingly keen interest in and the energy to do (within the limits of my skills) whatever had to be done for the good of the parish. Probably all of us at times have found or remembered verses from Holy Scripture that are particularly related to some special problem or event in our lives.
Sometimes passages that warn, comfort, inspire, or command make the startling impression that they are addressed to us in an especially personal way. Any qualified man who in any way senses as personal such words of Our Lord as
“You have not chosen me. I have chosen you,”
should give long, serious, constructive thought to becoming a priest. Pious, intelligent, industrious men who find a personal nature in the command
“Follow me and I will make you fishers of men,”
should make a great effort to leave their nets (hammers and saws, drawing boards, stethoscopes, law books, students, plows, etc.) and prepare for the Orthodox ministry. Such men who are especially moved by the plea are especially moved by the plea
“Feed My Sheep”
should become the priests our Church needs so urgently.
Young men aspire to be physicians, teachers, counselors, social workers, and business managers. Instead of taking all of their training at a college or university, why not take the latter part of it at a theological seminary and become a bit of all these instead of just one? Many different ambitions can be redirected and guided toward being even more fully satisfied by a career in the ministry. The welfare and future of the Orthodox Church here in America and Canada depends on more young men awakening to the incomparable satisfaction to be found in a priestly career and then redirecting their ambitions accordingly. I pray for this, including the petition that some older, career-settled men also will respond to the call of duty and find the desire and means to change their occupations to that of priests.
I have long since found the desire but not yet the means. This is disheartening, but my rather lengthy struggles to make priesthood training possible has made me realize that there is much more involved than desire, qualifications, and loyalty, even when these are combined with strong pious and humanitarian motives. This is a calling to be approached with both courage and fear —the courage to undertake that which is fearful, great and sacred responsibility — something a few of each generation must do. Equally important,
I think there must be an uncommon need — a need to give in an uncommon way.
Perhaps my being unable to solve the problems that stand between me and seminary training only proves that after all I am not really qualified for such fearful responsibility or have no uncommon need. I beg of all men in similar circumstances not to be hasty in coming to a like conclusion and then abandon all hope and effort. I find it more comforting and cheering not to admit defeat and being unsuited while continuing to trust that providence will intervene before I am too old and further bless me with added wisdom and courage, a different means to my goal, the special help of others, or whatever else might be necessary to make this greatest of dreams a reality.
At one time, whenever pondering the sacred nature of the responsibilities, the physical, mental, and emotional demands, and the time and energy required to prepare for the priesthood, I often prayed as Our Lord did —
“that this cup pass from me.”
Besides wishing for many other reasons that I were a priest, a haunting sense of guilt that somehow I’m neglecting a great duty brings this prayer to mind only when occasional doubts about my worthiness arise. “That this cup pass from me is not what I really want. I don’t want to be like the servant in the parable of the talents who buried what his master had entrusted to him.
Instead, like all of us, I want to earn that greatest of tributes —
“Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
How certainly a man (and his wife and children too) would earn this tribute by serving God well through the ministry!
The men who answer the urgent plea of our Church will be fortunate and happy that they did. So will their families. They will be able to “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad” more fully and lastingly because of choosing the most charitable and richest of all earthly lives. Surely, too, they could rightfully expect greater eternal blessedness and joy for there would be special meaning for them in God’s promise
“great shall be your reward in heaven.”