Which Come First: Office Or Character?

Reading through the most excellent comments on an earlier post on “closed source” and “open source” models of ministry I note, not all together happily I hasten to add, the prominence of the priest and his role in making or breaking the parish. I do not wish to minimize the importance of the priest–far from it in fact. But I do have a few thoughts that might help us, or at least me, come to a bit of clarity about the relationship between the priest and the parish.

First, and both Chrys and S-P have alluded to this, there is the question of the priest’s character. In the usual order of things, which is to say how we do things today, we trust the man because he is a priest. It is the fact of his ordination to priesthood that causes us to think and speak about the priest as trustworthy and a leader.

But this I think is exactly backwards.

We do not, or at least ought not, trust a man because he is a priest. Rather he is a priest because we trust him. Likewise the priest’s leadership role in the worship of God is his precisely because he has, or should have, demonstrated his able to lead the parish in the other areas of the Christian life. Let me explain.

Historically men were ordained to the priesthood not to serve parishes, but to counsel the bishop. It was the bishop’s responsibility to stand at the head of the community and lead the People of God in offering praise and sacrifice to God. When the Church gathered, all the orders of the Church, laity, deacons and priests, each in their own place (thus “orders”) stood together with the bishop around the Holy Altar. The priests stood closer to the Holy Altar and the bishop during the Liturgy as a reflection of his unique role in the Church.

This role was three-fold: First, in the early Church priests were the wise elders (presbyter, is Greek for elder) who served as counselors to the bishop. Second, by virtue of their demonstrated wisdom and mature counsel, presbyters assisted the bishop as governors of the Holy Church of Christ (the diocese). Third and finally, these wise counselors and experienced governors were also teachers who expounded the Word of God with power and authority (it is noteworthy that St John Chrysostom came to prominence as a preacher will still a priest in Antioch.

Before all else the ministry of the presbyter is to counsel, govern and teach. It is only as a consequence of his fulfilling these obligation that a man would be entrusted to lead the Church of Christ in offering praise and sacrifice to God the Father in the absence of the bishop.

While I am not in anyway opposed to the professionalizing of the clergy, it is important to keep in mind that the office as priest is first and foremost about character and virtue and not professional skills (no matter how important). This means that the priest must demonstrate that he is to be trusted not simply in a general sense, but specifically in his ability to serve as counselor, governor and teacher for the Church. The witness of a priest is first and foremost a personal witness and then, only secondarily, a reflection of skills.

This means that, to borrow a phrase from my young ministry days, the priest must “earn the right to be heard.’ Usually factors such as seminary education and subsequent ordination will get the man the benefit of the doubt since most of us respect education and the office of the priest. But these factors while important, and in the case of ordination essential, they are nevertheless external to the man and so external to his character and his personal relationship to the Church.

In our conversations about the priesthood we (laity and clergy alike) tend reduce the office to liturgy, so closely do we identify the priest with his parochial liturgical duties. For many priests and parishes this reduction of the priest to his liturgical duties is the preferred state of affairs.

Doing this however is harmful both for the priest and the parish.

Even when the model is not priest/spiritual, on the one hand, and laity/business, on the other, is a bad idea. The narrow identification of the parish priest with his liturgical role does not encourage the priest to grow and develop pastorally and professionally, much less personally. If all that I’m expected to do as the priest, if all I want to do as the priest, is to celebrate the services, then I will very quickly stagnate. Whether I find myself serving a parish with an active or minimal liturgical life doesn’t really matter. In either case I am left with a rather large void in my life that I will try and fill with something other than the development of the non-liturgical gifts God has given me.

For some that means more services. One real consequence, or at least temptation, is that the priest begins to confuse his liturgical function with who is really is. In this case the goal of the priest is to be confirmed in his liturgically based identity. When this happens the priest is likely to ignore, or worse, resent, anyone or anything that distracts him from his liturgical obligations.

Or, if liturgy isn’t all that important to the parish and no one has much non-liturgical use for priest, he’ll try and find other interests, typically social, to fill the void. Whether these social interests are ecclesiastical or secular doesn’t matter. With his social life becomes more and more important, as committee work and dinners become evermore fill his day, the priest is subject to petty vanities.

In either case the priest suffers. And with the priest, the whole Church, the diocese and the parish, also suffer; we suffer because we lose the gifts that the man brought to the priesthood. And we lose as well because, following the example of the priest, we begin to identify our own spiritual life with either an extensive cycle of liturgical services, or an unending round of social activities. And this assume that, unlike the vast majority of Orthodox Christians, we simply don’t walk away limiting our participation in the Church to baptisms, weddings and funerals.

So what is the way out?

It is a return to the primacy of character. Not simply the character of the priest, but of each and every single person in the parish. The problems, the temptations, and failures facing the priest are not his alone. They are common to the whole human family and especially to the Church.

To overcome all this, requires leadership and providing this is the first challenge of the priest. His character is tested by how well he is willing to place the riches of the Tradition, and the real power of his office, to the work of transforming lives.

For good or ill, the priest leads by example. Either he leads the parish to salvation or leaves them in stagnation. To lead them to salvation however requires that he place himself on the line, that he understand that his office buys him only a polite “hello” and a moment of time.

After that, what he does is dependent on divine grace and his own creativity.

But that I will leave for another time.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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4 Responses to “Which Come First: Office Or Character?”

  1. s-p Says:

    A good essay on the conundrum of authority. If a man is selected (ordained) by a Bishop, we must assume the Bishop’s judgment of his character and person is such that he is worthy of respect and obedience etc. Unfortunately I know enough seminarians and priests who somehow slipped through the “goofy detectors” and are serving and will serve in spite of their peer ratings both during training and after ordination. My take on it is that eventually the crisis of confidence will not be in the priesthood but in the heirarchy for letting so many marginal men into ministry who prove to be too dysfunctional to fulfill either the role of “counselor to the Bishop” OR priest/sacramentalist/liturgist/adminsistrator of parish life. If the Bishops knew men well enough to ask themselves “Would I take serious spiritual counsel from this man?” I think we would see fewer ordinations and longer testing times for new converts and aspirants to Church ministries.
    It is going around that Bishops are looking at psychological testing for candidates and transfers because of issues that surface AFTER a man is serving them. In the abscence of having a personal relationship and taking feedback from people who have dealt directly with a priest what else can they do? I see SOME benefit in testing to unmask SOME issues, but it doesn’t give a sense of how any issues are played out in specific situations and roles a person might fill, especially in pastoral fields.
    Chicken or the egg? Do we trust first and learn to distrust, or should we distrust and make a man earn trust when our Bishop has deemed him trustworthy enough to make him a Father to our community? Hard question because the “stuff” flows uphill on this one.

  2. Fr. Gregory Jensen Says:

    S-P, your observations are right on target–especially about how we risk a crisis of confidence if we continue to ordain men without sufficient consideration. Psych evaluations can certainly help us weed out SOME man who are not fit for the priesthood. But this is very different from saying that the men not weeded out are fit.

    And you’re right as well, we do find that men are ordained who are not fit for parochial service. Rather then work to correct the deficits, however, we seem to prefer to transfer them.

    It really does come down, in the final analysis, to whether or not we are willing to know each other. Not just bishops and seminarians–but each of us. We are so willing to live together in our parishes like strangers. Too often we treat the Church, above the Chalice, and one another, like a one night stand–we’re just there for what we want and don’t even learn each other’s name.

    But it really can be different if we want it to be different. This is the promise of Christ to us. And this promise gives me at least some hope for the future. Our growing conflicts in the Church are birth pangs I think. I don’t know, in detail, what is coming, but it will be I think a great renewal for us here in America, and flowing from the US, to the rest of the Church.

    In Christ,

    +FrG

  3. Donald Says:

    Fr. Gregory,
    Father Bless!
    One would certainly suspect, or rather earnestly hope, that it is character which is the criteria used by our hierarchy when choosing to ordain men and women to either Holy Orders, or to the Angelic Ranks as monastics. Understandably, errors in judgment may occur, and certainly do.
    It seems to me however that it would behoove those of us who are laity or minor clergy to trust that, by and large, the Bishop has exercised due diligence in their evaluation of a potential candidates character.
    Having said that, I must certainly say that I find myself in agreement with s-p, that we in the Orthodox Church tend to, at times, rush people, whether that be to the priesthood, or through their catechumenate.And as s-p again rightly notes, it seems that psychological testing, whether pre or post ordinal are bound to be of limited effectiveness since, imo, they tend to be rather static indicators in what is truly a most dynamic milieu.
    The whole process is indeed a bit of a “sticky-wicket”, if you will, as it has been throughout the Church’s existence. It seems that in the end, we need rest on the promise of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, that He would build His Church, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

  4. Fr. Gregory Jensen Says:

    Donald,

    Your last comment is right on the money: We need to rest in the promise of Christ to His Church. This certainly does not exempt us from doing our due diligence with candidates for holy orders, or adult catechumens for that matter. But I do think that possible part of the problem is that we have come to trust more in ourselves then in Christ.

    +FrG


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