Is It Wrong to Want to be a Priest?

clergy-brotherhood

Every so often I encounter the idea that anyone who wants to be ordained a priest—or, especially, a bishop—never should be. Such a man is probably a control freak, vain, naive, etc. People like that should never be allowed anywhere near the priesthood. St. John Chrysostom’s famous flight from ordination may well be referenced with nods of knowing approval. And certainly, a young woman who encounters a man like that should definitely not marry him.

But does this actually make sense? For one thing, it flies in the face of the Scripture:

This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. (1 Timothy 3:1)

Paul goes on to give a detailed set of requirements for what the bishop should be like. They all would apply quite well to the priest.

So, biblically speaking, someone who desires to be ordained may actually have been given that desire by God. He desires a good work, as Paul says. But what if he has been subjected to this memetic idea, and so when he is aware of this desire to do good within himself, he is being told that this desire actually means he should never be ordained? His desire to serve the divine services, to preach and teach the word of truth, to counsel and offer healing to the broken, to stand athwart the world’s darkness—all these things are, it seems, just vanity.

I recall that, when I was in seminary, we had a professor who engaged in much hay-making should any seminarian say out loud that he had been “called.” (“Really? Did your phone ring? Did God call you on the phone and say, ‘John, go to seminary’?”) But that raises the question. Exactly how does one tell the difference between a true calling and what is just vanity? Will someone who is actually called have any desire for the priesthood at all? Will he “hear” anything at all? Will he actually desire a good work?

According to this idea no one should ever desire ordination, such desires are just a desire for control, to lord it over the spiritual lives of others.

To be sure, there are men who want the priesthood precisely for that reason. They think that they know better than others, that they are qualified to give commands, and so of course they ought to be put in charge of other people’s lives. It only makes meritocratic sense. And this sense of what the priesthood is about is exacerbated in some quarters of Orthodoxy which maintain a “blessing culture,” in which the priest’s permission is needed for everything from going to confession with another priest to whom one can date, what job one can take or which house one can buy. This functions at various levels of intensity, but the key virtue there is obedience in absolutely everything. Obedience is certainly a traditional Christian virtue, but the virtue is extended to make the priest one’s master. The Christian is ultimately not very responsible for his own salvation. He has only to obey, and all will be well.

Of course, once you define the priesthood this way, then it will become more attractive to those who desire power over others. And it will also be hard to see the desire for the priesthood as anything other than the pursuit of control.

When I became aware of my own desire to enter the priesthood, it was not out of any wish for control. I don’t really like trying to make people do what I want. It’s too exhausting, and they don’t respond very well, anyway. And I am grateful that the “blessing culture” was not really anywhere near my formative experiences. I recoiled when I came into contact with that sensibility. Of course I wanted to obey my father-confessor, and while he is certainly responsible for me in a sense, I am the one who is ultimately responsible for my own soul. I have to learn to make my own good choices.

No, my desire to enter the priesthood was actually all about beauty, which is what propelled me into the Orthodox Church in the first place. I ached for the beauty of the liturgy and all the services, and I wanted to be right there in the middle of it. I gradually became aware of how the priesthood is also about bringing that beauty to other people, as well, and I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to bring others into contact with the God Who is supremely beautiful. I desired a good work.

I did not myself suffer from the temptation that the priesthood was the only way for me to be a really good Christian, though I have known men who seemed to function that way. The priesthood was, for them, a kind of advanced state of spirituality. But it’s not. We want priests to be good examples, but as I have sometimes joked, ordination may well be an impediment to salvation! One good reason for running from the priesthood is that it can be very hard.

Now, of course my vanity, pride, etc., were all mixed in with my desire for a good work. But what good desires are not mixed with such things for any of us? We’re sinners. But does our sin really taint everything so much as to make it all useless? Is the desire for the priesthood really totally depraved?

You can see where I am going with this, I hope.

In the end, I think this “pious” idea that running from the priesthood is one of the surer signs of a priestly calling is actually a form of monergism, which is the heresy that teaches that salvation is entirely God’s doing and makes no reference to the will of the one being saved. Thus, with this monergistic view, ordination is something that has to be done to someone who may even be actively resisting it.

But consider how this model works if applied to all the sacraments. We would get forced marriages, for one thing, something that is explicitly rejected by the text of the marriage service. What about baptism? We don’t ask babies if they want to be baptized, but we certainly ask adults, and the babies have their godparents to apply their wills on the infants’ behalf. And forced confession creeps me out. One could go on.

It is probably also worth noting here that we actually do have a historical example of what a priesthood looks like that is largely made up of the unwilling. As detailed by Gregory L. Freeze in his Russian Levites: Parish Clergy in the Eighteenth Century, the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church in that period and on up to the Bolshevik Revolution was largely made up of men from designated families, usually younger sons who were sent off into the seminary and the priesthood as a matter of course. As a result, the clergy became a professional class who may have had no special spiritual desires or even an actual belief in God. It was this kind of clerical corruption that the saintly Fr. Arseny complains about as being responsible for the revolution in Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. There were actually many seminarians among the revolutionaries, including Stalin himself. Among other things, they were rebelling against this levitical system.

Of course, an unwilling priesthood doesn’t have to go quite that way, but do we really want a clergy made entirely up of men who don’t want to be there? Could we even create such a thing if we wanted to? In the Russian Empire, that was easily accomplished because the law created this new tribe of Levites. In our own day, though, I think we would see radically depopulated seminaries, if we emptied them of everyone who went there of his own accord, leading quickly not to a clergy of obedient, humble men who are just doing what their confessors and bishops told them to, but leading rather to a dangerous clergy shortage. What clergy remained would be a servile bunch who had bought wholly into the “blessing culture,” convinced that the word of their father-confessors was possibly the word of God Himself.

Bleak, no?

Now, none of this is to say that everyone who wants to be ordained ought to be. We have confessors, bishops and seminaries (and yes, ordination review boards) whose job, among other things, is to weed out problematic candidates. They should definitely try to spot men who really do not desire a good work but rather desire something else. This memetic idea that running from ordination is good does have some truth to it. But it aims its critique at the wrong thing. The problem is not the desire for ordination. The problem is a desire for ordination that is actually a desire for something else, a desire for something that is not a good work.

I have seen many men who have gone from that desire for the good work to ordination and have done good work with the grace that God gave them. I have also seen some who desired something other than that good work who were nevertheless ordained and later crashed and burned. I have seen some who desired the good work who also crashed and burned. And I have also seen some who went from vanity to ordination to conversion in desiring the good work. There are no easy rules here. The question of whether to ordain someone is to make the best estimation, with much prayer, as to whether this man will in fact do good work with the gift he is given. And of course, deposition is always an option for those who get too far out of line.

As for me, I hope to continue to serve with clergy who love what they do, who want to keep doing it, who desire that good work. Why should it be any surprise if they felt that way before ordination?

28 comments:

  1. The “blessing culture.” Thank you for naming the neurosis. I am not a priest, but minor clergy. I also work as a guidance counselor of sorts in a local Christian college. I remember an old Protestant teacher of mine once said “in ministry, you cannot simply tell people what to do.” In advising students and my own peers, I have chosen to live by these words.

    And the idea that we might not be allowed to want what God wants for us has always struck me somehow as Kantian. The grace of the sacred mysteries should delight us, not make us morose. Otherwise I guess we’re all just pious Puritans in vestments.

  2. Thank you, Father Andrew. I greatly appreciate your perspective on the matter. A burgeoning desire to attend seminary has arisen in me over the last few years. The first draw was a continuation of my academic pursuits- I am a Classics MA student – so that I might marry my studies with my faith. At first, when asked about ordination, it was more of a “well, I don’t know about that” kind of thing, but lately I have felt that I do indeed want to be ordained. I have struggled to some degree with how to think about this “desire”- is it vanity to “desire” ordination? Is it prideful to think this way rather than to “answer a call”? Or is it rather good to “want” to be ordained? I mean, if you are doing something with no desire to do it, and there is no love, and just because you are told or forced, then is it not fruitless? St. John Chrysostom and others certainly have come to mind. Thus I thank you again for offering your perspective, and not just your own but that of Scripture. Thank you also for your illuminating podcasts and sermons!!

  3. I remember being told by a priest that no one should seek the priesthoood especially if there is something else that they are trained in or good at. And maybe that is good advice. How many of our great priests were those who did not seek it? I can think of three off of the top my head: Sts. Augustine, Ambrose and John Chrysostom. Granted, they were exceptional people to begin with, but there has to be a great degree of humility present in any candidate especially since at the last judgment priests will be called before Christ to answer for distributing His Body and Blood. I know personally that I would recoil in horror at such a prospect.

    I have known many converts or potential converts to Orthodoxy who want to do so because they want to become priests. That should be a cause for alarm. Yes, there are review boards and bishops have the prerogative to deny anyone, but shouldn’t there be a red flag or alarm automatically triggered when anyone desires this before they are even communicant members of the church?

    1. I think that that’s largely true, but at the same time, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a catechumen being interested in the priesthood. Former clergy from other confessions are probably the most obvious example.

      It actually came up with me, though I wasn’t that serious about it for some years. Either way, probably the best way to deal with that issue is just to make it so that new converts have to wait. And some jurisdictions have specific policies in place about that.

      Mind you, someone who makes a promise of ordination a condition for conversion probably does have a significant problem.

      1. Why then do Orthodox almost automatically ordain clergy from heterodox confessions upon their reception into Orthodoxy without even having go to seminary? Don’t those priests have as much to learn as those laypeople?

  4. >>I did not myself suffer from the temptation that the priesthood was the only way for me to be a really good Christian, though I have known men who seemed to function that way.

    I think, in this throwaway line, you caught another big trap that people get caught in – perhaps not all the way to priesthood, but the idea that the natural progression for pious men is to get put in a dress eventually. Women, they kind of get neglected in that calculus. It’s good to want to read in the Church or be a deacon (etc) but it’s not the only way to serve God or the only gift or the only way to be a good Christian.

      1. Agree wholeheartedly. Some men have been tonsured readers who do not read well and who do not chant at all. Giving them a clerical rank for helping is unnecessary and, frankly, a devaluing of the office.

  5. It seems that in the ideal three have to agree for the ordination to happen: the man, the bishop and the people: perhaps we should add a fourth, his wife. It is possible for the ordination if there are only two who agree, though this could be problematic.

    In Xp
    Dcn Alexander

    1. Some jurisdictions actually require the wife’s signature before ordination. If she doesn’t consent, nothing happens.

      As for the people, well, how does one ascertain that? I know much is made of the “Axios!” at ordination, but liturgically that actually happens after the cheirotonia, so it’s a little late for an “Anaxios!” to have any critical part to play.

      And which people does one ask? The ones where the ordination is happening, the ones at the parish he’s going to be assigned to, the full diocese, etc.? This seems very difficult to manage logistically. Certainly, I can imagine the ordaining bishop wanting to have a decent sense if there would be a lot of objections.

  6. In Canada, we have an interesting ceremony: when a new “speaker of the house” of commons is elected, he is “dragged” to the chair of office by the other members of parliament. He must show reluctance to serve because as somewhat of a go-between of the sovereign and the commons he could, in the past, have lost his head literally. I think there is a bit of similarity here!

  7. The same question should be asked re: any vocation in life whether it’s priesthood, monastic life, marriage, remaining single in the world. Too many people aren’t all that mindful when it comes to such things. They do something all too often because they crave the ‘glory’ and importance, or because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done in our family.’ Re: the priesthood or other ministry. People claim it’s a ‘servant’ position but in reality it’s a position of power, and people are attracted to power. Maybe if the priesthood or other ordained ministry was played up to be so glamorous and important, people wouldn’t be so keen on doing it? Just a thought.

    1. People claim it’s a ‘servant’ position but in reality it’s a position of power, and people are attracted to power.

      In reality, I’ve never known a priest who experienced the priesthood as power. People may think that it is powerful, but it’s really more about crucifixion. If someone’s looking for power, the priesthood is the last place he should look. He will be sorely disappointed.

    2. Let me just say, as a non-priest (actual priests have a tough time responding to this kind of stuff because it gets perceived as just more “abuse of power”), that having seen poor, humble priests get torn apart by pompous laypeople lecturing them on their “abuse”, that this is a really dangerous attitude. I have been astounded by how many people I’ve spoken to say horrible things like “priests are all power-hungry” and even “every priest I’ve met has been out to get me.” People who think like this need to listen to what St. John Maximovitch said during his period of false accusation and total alienation: “I am alone in all of this.” And do some introspection. The devil absolutely loves to wreck the lives of our clergy.

      Because so many people depend for their spiritual food upon priests, there is extra spiritual pressure on them from the diabolical. I’m not talking about bombastic manifestations, I’m talking about the creation of attitudes like this which will alienate them precisely when they most need empathy, friendship, and communion with others. Perhaps we ought to read about what happened to St. John Maximovitch and St. Nectarios and ask ourselves whether we really would have been on the right side of all of this. Clergy can go into deep depression all the while their parishioners turn their nose up at them and lambast them for their alleged arrogance.

      Sorry. Carry on.

  8. My first posting of the comment didn’t quote right. I think it’s something in the HTML.

    *******

    “I don’t really like trying to make people do what I want. It’s too exhausting, and they don’t respond very well, anyway.”

    Yet you spend all day on Facebook arguing with people. For someone who believes so strongly in localized culture (and I’m generally inclined to agree with you, though I doubt it’s Holy Apostolic Tradition), you sure like the attention of people from across the globe.

    1. It is true that I like to engage on Facebook as part of what I do. That’s not about control, though. Wouldn’t work, anyway. 🙂 What I’m referring to in my post isn’t about debate or engagement, however, but a particular kind of parish culture.

      As for localism, I am of course a big fan of it and try to practice it as well as I can. I don’t see any contradiction between developing local relationships and using social media, however. One can do both. Indeed, a lot of my use of social media is for interacting with people who are local to me in ways that help to keep the connections more frequent. Social media is great for pastors, who now can connect with parishioners every day of the week much more easily than before. And yes, I do like to connect with people all over the world, as well. I’ve lived in 23 different homes spread across close to 10,000 miles, so I have friends in a lot of places whom I miss. And I like making new connections, too.

      Thanks for your concern!

      1. Well-answered. Frankly, I was expecting something more hotheaded. Some of these priest bloggers can’t take people disagreeing with them.

  9. Father, have you done other writing on the “blessing culture”? I would like to better understand what you mean by it.

    1. No, I don’t think I’ve written on this before.

      What I’ve observed is this idea that the father-confessor / spiritual father must be in nearly every aspect of the believer’s life, essentially ceding control of almost any significant decision to him. I’m actually aware of situations like I mentioned—his permission is required to buy a house, to send children to a particular school, to buy a car, to take a job, etc. It’s not just about advice when needed but about permission for just about everything. It’s a micromanagement of the Christian’s life.

      1. Not only that, but it’s a trait of a cultish/spiritually abusive church. This should not be encouraged. 😛

    2. I read one humorous list of ‘things Orthodox folk say’, and what the speaker actually meant, with one item which was more or less:

      “I have a blessing to do X” = “I have no responsibility for how it turns out.”

  10. Father Bless!

    Great article Fr. Andrew. I am grateful that you took the time to address this topic.

    Kissing your right hand,

    Subdeacon Daniel Franzen

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