by Fr. George Aquaro
I’ve known a lot of men who have deeply yearned to go to seminary. They can all describe in great detail how they felt ‘called’ to become priests, something they sometimes also refer to as ‘ministry’ or ‘ordination to the Holy Priesthood.’
But as we all know, just because you feel something very deeply, that does not make it right or true. All that a feeling tells you is that you feel something. Never forget that.
Most men who think about becoming priests think about the glamorous bits, like serving in front of the Holy Altar or providing wise counsel to those humbled by sin. The more mundane bits, like sitting through endless meetings or being patently ignored by most of the congregation, usually gets swept away with grandiose visions of being the next Elder Paisios or St. John Chrysostom.
I’m not going to tell you to go or not to go, but I am going to say that you need to double- and triple-check yourself before you go off to seminary. If you succeed at passing through seminary (which is almost guaranteed, but more on that later), and are ordained, there will be many people who will be gravely wounded by your failure if you pushed your way into Holy Orders without being honest about who you are and what you are actually there to do.
Being deposed is painful and humiliating not just for you, but for your family and the parishioners whom you once served. Your brother priests will also feel the anguish of seeing one of their own go ‘down in flames.’
So, here are a few things that I have learned along the way. Some of these things I did before I was a seminarian, while others I learned in the ‘trial by fire’ manner. Do I have an exemplary ministry to point to… hardly. I have made a great deal of mistakes and coasted the very shores ‘official sanction.’ Honestly, it is a miracle I’m still functioning as a priest.
More experienced priests will likely have a longer list, and you would do well to talk to the successful men who have served 30 or 40 years. They deserve your admiration and attention for surviving. Many of them were doing things I thought were the byproducts of laziness or incompetence. But, then I started to walk in their shoes and discovered that most long-serving priests as reserves of great knowledge and quite proficient.
Of course, if you are pig-headed and determined to get what you want no matter what, then just skip reading this. You know everything already, and nothing that I have to say will apply to you because you are ‘special.’ But, do remember that special people have special problems, and special problems are always much more difficult to deal with. This is why, as I have gotten older and past that need to be special, that I have yearned to be average. It is much easier to have a disease that is treatable ‘over the counter.’
Here is a list of 10 things to think about before you consider going to seminary:
1) Get a mental health evaluation
You may not be crazy for wanting to be ordained, but it helps to get confirmation on this. But, just as important is getting an outside evaluation on your personality characteristics. Going through such tests as the MMPI and other personality inventories can show you your strengths and weaknesses. If you do not know yourself, you are heading for big trouble.
The stresses of the priesthood are trying, both psychologically and spiritually, and both of these can wreck your body, your mind, and your relationships. The devil will also play soccer with your brain, and so you need to know which buttons the Enemy will push. You should also have a game-plan for stress relief, and don’t think that you are just going to pray your problems away.
It is very important to get an unbiased, outside opinion on your personality. We all tend to exaggerate ourselves, and that is a dangerous thing. We also tend to surround ourselves with friends who will not tell us the hard things. So, find someone who can tell you the most difficult things and then listen to what these things really mean for you.
2) Priests are for parishes
They say that a bishop has a one-track mind… all he thinks is ‘parish.’ He oversees the parishes of his diocese. That’s his job and it is what he will get judged for when we are all called to account. When a bishop sees a priest, he automatically sees that priest in one of his parishes, or he will see how best to avoid having that priest anywhere near one of his parishes.
A bishop is not really interested in things outside the parish. Your visions about teaching at the local college and serving just on Sundays are just absolute jibberish to him even when he nods in agreement and smiles. He has parishes to fill, and he will stop at nothing to push you into a full-time parish ministry if he thinks you will work there.
Sure, you can refuse, but then you become something of a ‘wasted’ effort for him. A priest who cannot serve in a parish is like a hammer without a handle. And, if he has no need for you, don’t expect his attention or any favors. He has a lot of other priests who are serving faithfully and are more deserving of his energy.
And, do remember that parish ministry always takes twice as much time as previously estimated. My phone rings twice as much on my days off as on the days where I diligently watch it, which is why I gave up planned days off. If you want to split your time between the parish and something else, parishioners will always demand the time that you reserve for something other than them.
So, you’d better be ready to commit everything to parish life, and realize that whatever life you have outside of the parish is secondary to the bishop’s concerns. He is not there to make you fulfill your dreams. Remember this, and all of your interactions with the bishop will go much smoother than if you think that he is supposed to respond to your opinions and fantasies. He has plenty of his own to keep him occupied.
Once you make that commitment, and then the parish cannot support you, then you may consider an outside job or commitment. That’s the natural way things work. Outside jobs are to support the ministry, not the other way around.
3) If you can’t obey, then don’t try to play
Obedience is central to the priest. He has no real authority beyond what the bishop grants him, and what Despota giveth, Despota taketh away. As a priest, you are a servant of the Most High through His instrument, the bishop.
This means that when he says jump, you say ‘how high?’ as you are jumping. This also means doing things you hate or even profoundly disagree with. If you can’t manage to violate your own opinions about the ‘right way’ to do things, then don’t give the Priesthood another thought. The bishop has the canonical right to manage his parishes, and if you interfere in his ministry, do not expect him to be pleasant. He’s done your job and his for longer than you have done yours.
You can disagree with him in private, but you’d better obey in public. And, that also means by carrying out these tasks without making a big scene to show your disapproval. If you obey, your bishop will later on take your opinions seriously, but he won’t in the beginning because, after all, you’ll be a ‘baby priest’ and we all know that they are the ecclesiastical version of a puppy.
Some priests will protest and say that the bishop’s demands are unreasonable and that they have a right to disobey. Some can even point to major disobediences that they have done right under the bishop’s nose. This is because
a) experienced priests know how to bend the rules, and
b) experienced priests know that so long as the parish is healthy, the bishop will be far more tolerant of disobedience than he will if the parish is unhealthy or the priest is messing up.
New priests can afford to get the reputation of being rebellious. If you get this label, you will end up getting moved from bishop to bishop, and assigned to communities that are totally dysfunctional (i.e. waiting either to be closed down or to receive a real miracle-worker). Now, if you are into fixing broken communities, then go ahead and disobey.
4) You are there to serve these people
While this may be glaringly obvious, it is a major problem that new clergy wrestle with. Usually, immature priests try to implement their visions on their communities without first actually getting to know the people. And, getting to really know the people can take years, because they will not immediately share their secrets with you just because you wear black.
This means that you have to be patient and deal with the parish as it is when you get there, rather than busying yourself to make it more like something you envisioned in seminary. When you immediately launch into a big plan to change things without knowing the people, then they will get the distinct impression that you either don’t respect them or do not even care about them
Then you won’t be serving them at all.
Most of the time, serving the people is not about hearing confessions and serving the Holy Mysteries. It is about keeping the roof from leaking and the people from killing each other. If you can actually get your parishioners to like each other, you will have done a might act.
Many priests like to think about implementing ‘ministries’ and ‘parish activities’ and ‘more services’ without first getting to know the people and what they need to grow. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to parish life, so get that delusion out of your head right now. People are different, both as individuals and as communities.
If you must change them before you can love them, then you are not cut out for parish life. You have to love them first, and be willing to love them even if they refuse to change, because most of them will not change and will fight any kind of change tooth-and-nail. You must love them as they are, warts and all. Love is the only thing that really changes people.
5) Don’t take yourself seriously
The more serious and rigid you are, the less likely you will be able to receive sound advice and change your tactics to better suit your situation. New priests are just like anyone else who is new at something: awkward. The best thing to do is acknowledge this awkwardness.
Start being humble right now. You don’t have to know everything or be perfect to be a Christian or an effective priest. If you are one of those people who can’t stand being wrong, then you had better fix that before you consider ministry. No amount of study or time in seminary will take away the fact that when you walk into your first parish assignment, you are doing your job for the first time. It will be ugly, so have your apologies ready.
While our culture is overly informal, and the Church is not a place for frivolous informality, there is a difference between being rigid and being guarded. You can never let all of your guard down, but neither should you always be on the defensive. Be compassionate: parishioners don’t need to know all of the priest’s problems, but you can let them know that you have experienced suffering not unlike their own. The details matter little. Rigid priests try to look like nothing’s wrong, and dysfunctional priests spew nothing by their unresolved issues all over the floor. You can let people know you know their pain, but leave it at that.
That means getting help when you need it. Find a confessor, and get counseling if you need to. It is important that you model for your parishioners how they should also deal with their problems. You can be an example to them in this regard. If you act like you have no problems, then the parishioners will not know how to deal with their own. They certainly won’t trust you, because they figure that you won’t understand them at all.
6) People will like you for what you do, not who you are
Parishioners don’t care about your opinions of yourself. They care about finding an end to their suffering. Don’t expect them to appreciate anything about you that is not directly related to what their needs are and what you are doing to help them. Not even being a priest. After all, there are good priests and bad ones. You won’t be their first.
They do not care as much about how many degrees you hold or facts that you have memorized, as much as they are truly concerned as to whether you love them or not. Let’s not forget, the only thing the Church offers people is Love, and a Divine one at that. You must love them through your actions.
Before you think about seminary, you must first be spiritually healed enough to love others. If your impulse is to judge and condemn, then do not even bother to ask about seminary. You will only make things bad for yourself and for others.
To return to the previous point, parishioners know when you are doing something to ‘fix’ them because you don’t like them. The key to ministry is encouraging the people to want to change, and then they will ask you to help them. When you respond to their needs, they see that as love. It is a long process to get people to want to change, so a big part of loving is waiting.
People know this, and they have the highest regard for those who waited for them to become willing. This is the hardest single part of being a priest: watching people suffer and waiting patiently for a moment of willingness.
7) Get a non-religious hobby
Satan’s hobby is religion. That’s because his real job is far darker. As a priest, you cannot have reading religious books as your pastime, because that is part of your job. You will need moments of escape from stress of parish life and religion, which is what a hobby provides.
Do not think that every waking moment will be devoted to perfect prayer, because it will not. We all need to pray and study, but we also need to relax at times.
Parenting is important, but that is also not a hobby. It is important to spend time with the family, but you will also need another way to blow off steam without falling into immorality, the temptation to which will be your constant companion if you become a priest.
There are lots of hobbies out there. Just walk through an art supply shop or the tool isle of the hardware store. You may try three or four before you find the right one, so just keep trying.
If you are going to identify with your parishioners, then you will need to experience their world. Take off the cassock and make friends with non-Orthodox. It is good to be around people who will not judge you the way your parishioners will.
8) Don’t get a priest to mentor you, get three or four
Every experienced priest has his strengths and weaknesses. By getting more than one advisor to help you in your spiritual development and discernment, you are less likely to overlook a serious problem. Advice is good, and more advice is better.
If you do fall down the rabbit-hole and are sent to seminary, it is important to know your bishop’s priorities and preferences, then find priests that he respects to model yourself after. You may find a well-respected priest to mentor you who, while being successful in every other way, is constantly at odds with your bishop. He will likely give you advice that is good, but will set you on the same path of conflict with the hierarch, which for your ‘newbie’ status can spell disaster.
Most ‘successfully rebellious’ priests took years to get to where they are now, and chances are they did none of what they do now when they started. If you try to start off mimicking their behavior, you will find yourself quickly kicked to the curb.
9) Seminary experience is indispensible, but the education is nominal
Seminaries are employment opportunities for faculty, and so they are not in the business of alienating their clients, the bishops. Bishops send ordination candidates to seminaries, and want them sent back in reasonably good shape and prepped for ordination.
That means that the bishop has largely made up his mind that you are a candidate just by approving your application. The seminaries know this and generally don’t try to interfere with the bishop’s decision without his permission. That means that if you give seminary a halfway decent effort, you will pass. Grades are not what you should be looking at.
Seminary is a great time to get rid of your idealism. You will find that what you thought were cut-and-dry theological questions were far murkier and ambiguous. You will also discover that there is more than one way of doing something in the Church
The most important thing to do in seminary is test your own moral mettle. When one of your classmates is struggling, will you help him? Will you learn to drop your rigid opinions and be open to explore the fullness of Orthodoxy in its many ‘flavors?’
Seminary is not about becoming the smartest guy in the room. That’s the professor’s job. Your job is to examine yourself, both in terms of your beliefs, but more especially in terms of your character.
10) Knowledge and morality are different
There’s a popular belief that the more you know, the ‘better choices’ you will make. Well, that’s absurd: smart people have the same temptations as uneducated people do. The difference is that smart people are better at hiding their tracks… most often times from themselves.
Immorality is not treated by education programs. People know when they are sinning, and if given the chance to reflect on themselves, they will admit they know that something is wrong with what they are doing.
The same is true of you: just because you go to seminary does not mean that you will be a better Orthodox Christian. In fact, seminary and ordination can lead you far away from God if you depend on knowledge to justify your actions rather than the fruits of the actions themselves. So, if your sermons are full of facts, but put everyone to sleep, then your sermons are ‘immoral,’ because your job is not to lull people into a stupor, but awaken them to God’s love.
Knowledge of the Faith is important to help encourage people to be united to Christ and be transformed, but memorizing religious facts is not the same as theosis or repentance or even genuine conversion. God rewards mercy and compassion, not how many books you have read or how many Fathers you can quote.
There are more things I could add, but these are the big ones that I have had to deal with in my short time as a priest. If I were to summarize it all, it would be to say this, ‘Stay humble, and you may survive being a priest.’ Pride and arrogance are our temptations and our enemies.
Do not be in a rush, and God will open the right door when the time is ready.