Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fr. George Aquaro on recommending a man for seminary

This is the other half of Fr. George Aquaro's advice on seminary. The first installment has drawn a lot of attention and I expect this one to do the same. Enjoy.

Many of the priests who are reading this are probably more experienced in this area than I am. Hopefully, what I am writing will not leave them wondering how I could dare type such drivel. Others may also read this and think back to their seminary days and say, “Yeah, I’ve seen a few of those guys. They didn’t last.”

While bishops do the ordaining, and most jurisdictions have some kind of bureaucratic process where someone makes a file and stuffs it with paper, the truth is that the bishops rarely know much about the men they ordain beyond the observations of their parish priests, and, to some extent, their minders in seminary. The parish priest’s recommendation is by the far the most authoritative voice in the process.

The parish priest, then, is the real ‘gatekeeper’ to ordination. It is a truly rare occasion when a man will get ordained without his parish priest’s recommendation. It behooves us, then to carefully consider who we recommend. Here are a few things to think about:

1) Have you seen him really stressed?

We can’t really vouch for a man’s character until we have seen him really, really stressed. Stress brings out the worst in people, but it also brings out the truth. If we have not seen him under profound stress, then he has either not been in the Church long enough, or we do not know him well enough, to give him a recommendation.

We know how stressful ministry is, and we have seen plenty of our brothers crushed by it. We have survived, but we can’t assume that everyone else will. Everyone reacts to stress in a different way. We should have observed at least one time where this fellow has been pushed against the wall. How did he handle it, and what is his threshold?

Be careful of men who ‘medicate’ their stress with alcohol, food, or other behaviors that can become addictions if returned to again and again. If we know that he does not deal well with stress, then the priesthood is no place for him.

2) How does he handle disagreement?

Parishes are little arenas of interpersonal conflict. How an ordination candidate handles conflict is important. We have to know how he handles conflict and disagreement before we can vouch for his character to the bishop.

Does he run? We can’t recommend someone who is utterly conflict-averse. He will allow the most contentious people in his parish to run his life and the direction of the parish community. He must be able to say ‘no’ in a firm but kind manner.

Is he the ‘win at all costs’ kind of guy, who does not let go of arguments until he ‘wins’? That’s bad, too. He will end up managing his parish through intimidation and bullying. This is also bad if he looks down on people he disagrees with as ‘stupid’ or ‘uneducated’ or ‘insufficiently Orthodox.’ I’ve seen young men take the latter attitude towards even their own bishops. It is so crazy that it is almost funny. Almost.

Related to this is sentimentalism. A man who is overly sentimental will become overly attached to certain things that he can’t let go of. Sentimental people are dangerous in a parish, because a parish is constantly going through small changes to suit the circumstances of the community. Priests are also subject to transfer, and if the candidate cannot handle life without his ‘special requirements,’ it is better that he stay home and not go to seminary. Otherwise, he will fight with everyone to preserve his attachments even to the point of destroying a parish.

3) Do people like him?

We would think the question is about whether he likes people, but whether people like him or not is actually more important. Sure, a priest should get some kind of joy from being with his parishioners, but the real measure of a successful priest is whether parishioners sense that he identifies with them and loves them. Even an introvert can manage this.

However, there are plenty of people who are ‘outgoing’ in all the wrong ways. Perhaps they only like ‘certain kinds’ of people, like those of a particular age group or ethnic background. This is no good. Parishes need to be open to everyone, and so a priest really can’t exercise ‘selective good will.’ If we notice that the potential candidate only gets along with certain kinds of people, he will eventually drive out all those that he can’t relate to.
A priest who does not relate well with others will destroy a parish community. It is a prerequisite of the job from a common-sense approach. No, it does not say that in the canons but, seriously, who is going to go to church if there’s a creep up front? We can’t expect people to ‘get used to him.’ They won’t… they will leave. They will excuse many other personality quirks if the priest is likeable, but nothing can replace likeability.

Here’s another way to look at it: would you want him to visit you in the hospital? Remember, that’s something he is called to do. If we would not want him to comfort us in the midst of our own pain and suffering, we cannot expect others to.

But, in the end, the true measure of his acceptability is not whether we like him or not, but whether most people like him or not.

4) Would you let him date your daughter?

The question should be answered if we have seen him in a relationship at all. Again, if the answer is no, then we have not known him long enough. We can tell a lot about a man by the kind of woman he dates, and even more when we see him in a marriage.

Marriage is the test of a man’s courage (all of us married fellows agree on this), but also his compassion. Is he domineering, or a doormat? Both bode unwell for ministry. After all, men who bully their wives will likely bully other people, and the doormat will end up letting his wife or someone else run the parish for him.

Bishops’ don’t ordain wives. They ordain men to the priesthood, and they expect the priest to run his personal household in a respectable and decent manner. Many failed priesthoods ended because of the priest’s wife, and that is directly linked to his choice of her and how he treated her (in most cases). So it is vital that any candidate, if he is not already in healthy marriage, at least exercises good judgment with the women he dates and how he treats them.

If he does not seem interested in dating or women, then we may want to look deeper. There are a host of possible reasons, and not all of them are bad. Beware of the ‘false monastic,’ the young man who tries to live a monastic life without a monastery. It is a dangerous game of self-will, and we should urge him to either find a monastery or get some professional counseling to deal with whatever is impeding his ability to form relationships.

He cannot deceive himself into thinking that monasticism without a monastery is possible. Monasticism is hard enough even within a monastery, and a near impossibility outside of it. What relationships provide, either within marriage or the monastery, is day-to-day accountability. He will need this accountability when he is assailed with the temptations that come with the priesthood.

You think I am exaggerating? Just look down the road at the Roman Catholics.

5) Does he have interests other than church?

Many priests recommend a man for seminary because he is always at church. He never misses a service, and seems totally focused on the Orthodox Faith. Yes, those are important things to note, but does he have a life outside of the church? What are his other interests?

People can become ‘obsessed’ with the Church and with religion. This is not the mark of genuine piety, but a pathological problem that should be treated. His life outside the Church is just as important as his life in it, and we should know his entire world before we recommend him.

We all know that our hobbies and non-parish interests often save us from the crushing stress of ministry. We ought to make certain he has his own healthy vents and distractions before he enters ‘the arena.’ Hobbies also help us relate to people outside of the church context.

Even if we don’t recommend him, if we care about him, we should help him to find his life both in and out of the parish walls.

6) Does he have a spiritual life or just a thought life?

Americans are not spiritual people by and large. They crave spirituality, but we live in a very materialistic and, at times, intellectual context as Westerners. Spirituality is one of the hardest things for us to grasp. Very often, we confuse either our thoughts or our emotions with genuine spiritual experiences.

A priest who only thinks is no priest at all. He is not a ‘struggler’ but a ‘thinker.’ Seminaries emphasize thinking because that’s all they are really set up to do. When I was in seminary, the Dean stated to us plainly that it was the bishop’s duty to know whether we were spiritually formed or not. The school could only provide an education of the intellectual variety.

So, the men who graduated and were ordained had to rely on their spiritual condition that they entered seminary with. If we recommend a man, he will go down this same chute. Is he ready? Is he on a path of spiritual development, or is he just into the intellectual bits of the Faith?

We all know that temptation is not combated with thoughts as intellectual problems are. If he is not armed to take on the devil, he will crumple. That preparation for spiritual warfare must begin before seminary. Before we recommend him, we must be certain that he is on the right spiritual path.

Does he know his passions and their causes? Is he aware of his temptations and weaknesses? Is he asking for help from you and others who are spiritually advanced?

Be wary of the potential candidate who is always thinking. In a parish, there is a time to think and a time to do. If he cannot take action because he is lost in thought, his parish will fall victim to the ‘wolf.’ When leading people, we have to be able to react on their timing, rather than only on our own. If he can’t respond to problems without long periods of analyzing and agonizing, he would do better in some other form of ministry.

7) Does he know about the Church other than your parish and you?

Many young men go to seminary having little experience of the Church outside the high walls set by the parish priest. Nowadays, there are more parishes and monasteries to visit, and there are lots more things to see on the internet, but this does not mean one has a wide experience of the Church.

We priests are often guilty of being a little ‘greedy’ with our people. We don’t like them roaming too far from our ‘help.’ We certainly don’t want to lose them as members. And, the way our jurisdictions are organized, each parish is a hermetically-seal capsule of pledging members that only support their own parish and nothing beyond it (this is changing, but slowly).

So, we do not usually encourage young men to explore the Church more fully before we send them off to seminary. When they get to seminary, they discover that there are many different ways our Faith is expressed on the local level. However, there are those who become overwhelmed with find the ‘one right way’ to do everything, and then tune out the rest.

When they get to the parish as new priests, they immediately try to implement their plans hatched in their dorm rooms at seminary. They may try to replicate your parish (the only one they really experienced), or some Franken-parish they dreamed up. They will tend to ignore the actual people and conditions they are in. Disaster ensues.

Seminarians need to be accepting of differences and flexible in their approach to the Church and her parishes. They will only get this when they see the varieties even within a single diocese. We should make sure that any seminarian we recommend has that larger experience, so that he will not be locked into a single ‘mode’ of looking at the world of the Church. Narrow and inflexible men make lousy priests.

8) Is he able to admit that he is wrong?

Admitting we are wrong is hard. It requires humility that our world often discourages. The world fills us with fear, and we cope with it through Pride and a rigid insistence that we are always correct.

Priests know the importance of repentance. We not only need it in our own lives, but we are also called to model it for our parishioners. A priest who cannot admit he is wrong and ask for forgiveness teaches his people hardness of heart. Does our candidate have a hard heart?

New priests and old priests alike make mistakes. We have all had those difficult phone calls or meetings with the bishop. Most of us have experienced those incidents where we did something wrong and were called to account. Most of us also know that an apology goes a long way with bishops. Bishops are not in the business of firing us, especially if we have lots of experience and are still reasonable functional.

If our fellow is one of those ‘I-am-never-wrong’ types, we should do eevryone a favor and let him stay home. He will only embarrass himself, annoy his congregation, and eventually get kicked to the curb if he can’t examine himself and be honest when he screws up.

9) Can he follow instructions?

Here’s another one that is hard for a lot of young people these days. They get so pumped up on their school’s ‘self-esteem’ program that they see no need to listen to anybody.

Humility is the theme here, but also impulse control: can he stop himself from doing what he really wants to do? If he can’t then he is going to get in lots of trouble. Priests are often required to take actions they would prefer not to, or hold back with the knowledge that taking the action we want will get us in trouble.

Seminary can fill us with idealism, but the truth of the matter is that in the parish, the bishop makes the rules. If he can’t follow the rules, the bishop will boot him from the parish. We’ve all seen examples of that.

One thing to look for related to this: does he have ‘daddy issues’? Priests not only try to act as ‘father’ to their parishioners in the sense that they think a father should be, but it is human nature to treat authority figures with a degree of ‘fatherly deference.’ If a man has had a bad relationship with his father, chances are he can develop problems with ‘authority figures.’ In the Church, that means the bishop.

The bishop is the bishop, not a ‘daddy replacement.’ His role is different, and we have to be healthy enough to see the difference. A candidate for ordination should be able to follow the instructions of his hierarch without it dredging up pathological behaviors.

This means you may want to discuss your potential candidate’s job history as well as family of origin. You’ll note the red flags if there are any, like frequent firings.

10) Is he a whiner or a quitter?

We all whine, and are tempted at times to quit. Most of us stop ourselves before it gets too far. If a man can’t stop himself, then he won’t be a very successful priest.

Priests are expected to operate under adverse circumstances. We are not always well-paid, nor are we universally well-respected. We have parishioners who may flat out hate us because of some priest back in 1974. Some of us have bishops with noticeable character defects that burden us.

Life is hard. Whiners make it harder because they can’t stop reminding themselves and us of how soft they are. Yes, whiners are soft. This means they won’t guard the sheep because they are too busy going on about their problems. The Church does not need more effeminate guys trying to be in charge but hating the responsibilities that go with it.

The Orthodox Church does not have ‘male priestesses.’ Our men are real men, and our women are real women. Those who refuse to ‘man up’ under pressure and instead whine like children with scraped knees have no business in the Priesthood.

Quitters are another problem. They can’t handle being flexible, and so they abandon their post even before the boss can fire them. Some actually engineer their failures (usually through whining). Steer clear of the man who storms off from unpleasant situations or gives up on commitments when they go sideways on him.

In conclusion, we all know that this list could be longer or more detailed. The truth is that not only will God judge us for the men that we recommend, but also our brethren. We should always be cautious that, in preparing a young man for seminary, that we are not engaging in a self-cloning experiment. A candidate does not have to look or act like me in order to get my recommendation. To be honest, I’m still wondering how I got ordained to begin with, but that’s another tale.

What’s most important is that the men who begin that long process of being prepared for ministry have the ‘right stuff’ to begin with. Seminary can educate, but it can’t change a bad character. Character can only change through suffering, and real suffering is hard to ‘stage.’

We should also never confuse ‘opportunity’ with ‘treatment.’ Giving a man ‘another chance’ without treatment means that he will only do it again. If a man has a treatable problem, he should be healed before seminary. Do not expect the problem to go away over time. Most wounds infect if left raw.

There are many joys in the Priesthood for those who were prepared for it. The ultimate preparation is repentance and the realization that none of us are worthy, and yet somehow we still permitted to serve.


  1. Fr George, thank you so much for this reality-based, very spiritually sound counsel.

  2. I knew Fr. George "way back when". Frankly, I wouldn't have ever dreamed he would write something this profound. Glory to God. Thank you Father George, I've been saying the same stuff for years but no one listens to a guy without a collar.

    1. Uh-oh, S-P. Look out! Your collar envy is showing. :-) (Don't feel too bad--you know, most of the time people are only pretending to listen to the guy WITH the collar! Most of us really think we're the ones who know best.)