Reframing How We Think Of The Priesthood In The 21st Century

The priesthood . . . it’s a significant office whether one is Catholic (Eastern or Roman) or Orthodox (Eastern or Oriental).  Those ordained to the office are typically called “father,” referencing that they are to be, like St. Paul, a father in the Gospel to their parishes.  Yet, in too many churches, there are two errors that are often made:  the priest is to fulfill a particular vision of “piety” and the priesthood is an entrance into holiness that others cannot attain.  Both are misguided, even if popular.

With regard to the first, the vision of “piety” often includes: poverty, or at least low income, constant availability, frequent serving of services, a concern for the trappings (cassock, beard, publicly worn prayer beads and black clothing) and placing his family (at least if Orthodox or Eastern Catholic) below the needs of the parish.  In short, the priest is to adhere to a lay perception of the monastic ideal even if not living in a monastery.  How this plays out will vary based on the parish and context.  I know Roman Catholic priests who put in insane hours each week.  I also know what Orthodox clergy are typically paid and that some jurisdictions think 1-2k/month is adequate.  Goodness, I know of a bishop who thinks it’s a real improvement that in one parish his priest is paid a few hundred dollars, sleeps in a classroom of the dilapidated church building, and bathes in the boiler room in a cattle trough purchased at the local feed store.  That last might be a bit extreme, and could say more about that particular bishop and parish than anyone else, but sadly the $1-2k isn’t.  Nor is it unusual to expect that the priest will offer services throughout the week, even if it is very very difficult to work around an outside employment and children’s activities or very very sparsely attended when accomplished.  All of this is paired with the usual microscope that priests are under (for every lay person has an opinion–OK opinionS about his/ her priest and/or priest family).

The second problem might function as its mirror opposite.  An Orthodox priest-blogger has recently shared with us a piece wherein St. Nikolai Velimirovic argued that the priesthood is the greatest honor and the means by which the priest has come into contact with the “eternal source of Grace.”

Although I think the reposting is well-intentioned, and St. Nikolai possibly meant only to speak to the blessedness of ordination, his words went too far (at least it did for us in our theological context–perhaps there was warrant for them at the time he spoke them).  The priesthood is not the greatest honor.  The greatest honor is to Christ first and all the baptized second.  The priesthood serves the baptized.  The greatest sacramental honor is to receive Christ, is to be baptized and receive the Eucharist.  That is the greatest honor and it is something inherently open to all.   The priesthood is sacramental and is special, but it’s not the Eucharist.

Ironically, these two misguided views of the priesthood can reinforce one another.  Clergy themselves are often quite guilty of it.  So, a priest or layperson identifies the priesthood with the poverty, with the never ending services, with placing the priest’s family’s needs second to the parish, and in order to help compensate, in order to help justify the priest’s situation in life, over-inflates the sacramental nature of his priesthood.  I think this is a real temptation for some clergy.  Or, it can go the other way, the priest or layperson might view the priest in an idealized, sacramental way, and so believe the only way that could be fulfilled in the here and now is to show a willingness to live in poverty and serve to the detriment of the priest’s family, and to be under the microscope of the parishioners.  In its sickest form, lay people might believe the hyper-sacramental fluff and therefore feel justified (and take glee in) making the priest operate as an underpaid hireling.

In the end, neither approach is good.  The priesthood is not a pretext to familial poverty and the priesthood is not the greatest means by which one can encounter God’s grace (for that is already open to every baptized Christian in the Eucharist).  What we need is to reframe how we look at the priesthood.

So, lest I end only on saying what we should “not” do (with the apophatic, if you will), let me suggest a few things we “should” do (the cataphatic, if you will):

  1. See the priesthood as flowing out of the priesthood all believers already have with regard to their standing within creation.  The Church is to creation what the Levitical Priesthood was to Israel.
  2. Understand that the priesthood functions to facilitate entering into the depth of God’s grace–that the priesthood serves the purpose of entering into Thanksgiving (Eucharist) together as a community with God.
  3. Realize that priests have families and responsibilities first and foremost as heads of their households as much as any other baptized member of the church.  This will mean reconsidering their salaries but also respecting their time.  If done truly, it will mean ceasing to judge them with our “parishioner microscope,” if you will.
  4. Accept that the priest’s authority comes from Christ and to the extent that the priest adheres to the Gospel, not to the extent that the priest fulfills some wish/desire/agenda we have (be it political or religious).
  5. Allow for a freedom whereby priests feel they accept or resign a call without guilt.  If a priest has been a full time priest for ten to fifteen years but wants a new career, and resigns the parish, let us not judge.  He has not rejected the call of “the eternal source of Grace.”  This is no small matter, either.  If a priest went to the bishop and gave him a resignation as rector of a parish and asked not to be transferred to another, what would happen (at both the deanery and parish levels)?  Ask yourself that.

These five points are not all encompassing.  There is more that could be said, but if we are going to see Orthodoxy and/or Catholicism thrive in the 21st century, reframing how we think of the priesthood must be part of that.  The alternative might survive, but sadly could do so all too easily for the wrong reasons.



4 Responses

  1. michael plekon

    Your five suggestions above are very much in the spirit of the New Tsetament understandings of church as community of the baptized, as the baptized as a royal, prophetic and priestly community, and of called & ordained ministry as service to God and the community, with reciprocal responsibilities, accountabilities. Nicholas Afanasiev’s great work, The Church of the Holy Spirit (UND Press, 2007) shows the shape of the church of the first 4 centuries as ruled by love and service and much more in the spirit of the NT than it became later on, with imposition of imperal law and the sense of the clerical caste.

  2. Peregrinus

    If I may chime in as somewhat of a priest-layman half-breed (read: minor clergy): I am a Reader in a booming storefront parish – we have had an active catechumenate for three years now, and the parish has more than doubled in size since I first started attending back in 2012. We are 95% adult converts. Needless to say, the atmosphere is all very post-Protestant.

    However, on the pro-side, this makes for a vibrant culture of volunteerism. Yet whereas the priest is well taken care of, or so I gather from our monthly finance reports, a lot is expected of the congregation which I cannot help but feel is excessive. As minor clergy, I often feel quite lost in the mix – services depend on me as well, but I also have a family and a full time job. At risk of sounding mercenary, maybe a stipend would justify my serving in vigil tonight while my wife stays home with a teething infant, but alas. No thanks. It’s all a recipe for burnout.

    I agree we all need to have realistic and humane expectations of our priest, and vice versa. It takes more than a priest to run a parish: choir directors, deacons, altar servers, etc. I think your second point touches on this, especially as it considers priesthood in the context of the worshiping community.

    I will confess, I just vented a little. But thanks for your refreshing post!

    1. Your comment is fine and I think more than merely venting. You raise a good point: what of minor clergy or choir directors, those whose work is needed in order to perform services? I think a stipend is fair but almost never going to happen on the Orthodox side and I suspect are underpaid on the Catholic side. Frankly, if I were a chanter or some such in Orthodoxy, I’d use my lack of stipend as a starting point for considering my freedom. Your priest should be protecting your situation and rather than demanding that you be at all the services, help others see that it’s unrealistic for you to be. He should also be watching out for burnout. Lay burnout is real and it happens and clergy need to be aware of it, just as clerical burnout is also real (though that’s a different topic for another day). Do what is realistic for you and your family. Don’t sacrifice them.

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