Friday, May 11, 2018

The GreatMartyr Euphemia Orthodox Theological Academy

After I posted here recently on the opening of the GreatMartyr Euphemia Orthodox Theological Academy, several people had questions about this new Orthodox resource. I, too, had questions and so was delighted that Fr. John Peck (dean of the Academy and rector at All Saints of North America Orthodox Church, Sun City, AZ) was gracious enough to answer a few of them.

GreatMartyr Euphemia Orthodox Theological Academy is an institution of higher learning under the jurisdiction of the Vicariate for Palestinian/ Jordanian Orthodox Christian Communities in the US. The Academy offers a two-year program of study (offered in English and Arabic) leading to the Diploma of Orthodox Theological Studies (Dipl. O.T.S.), and a one-year program leading to a Certificate in Preaching, and advanced courses for clergy and laity which qualify as Continuing Education Courses, both offered in English.

The mission of GreatMartyr Euphemia Orthodox Theological Academy is to serve the Orthodox Church by preparing students for service to the Church. As the only theological academy within the Vicariate, the Seminary welcomes applicants not only from the United States but also from abroad, thereby serving its mission to serve the Church in all corners of the world.

What's the history behind this effort? How did you get from a nascent idea to where you are today?

This is all covered on our Academy website, but allow me to sum it up: Beginning in the mid-1990’s, the administration of our jurisdiction (the Vicariate for Palestinian and Jordanian Orthodox Christian Communities in the US) has worked diligently for the improvement and spiritual nurturing of the Orthodox Christian faithful in its parish communities by way of missions, established parishes, the ordination of clergy, youth camps, etc. It soon became clear that spiritual education among Orthodox Christians in the Arabic language specifically, was lacking in the extreme. Opportunities to serve these Orthodox faithful abounded but administrative and clerical resources could not keep up with the growing need.

The arrival of Archimandrite Damaskinos Alazrai into the Vicariate allowed for aggressive growth in the area of Orthodox education and spiritual formation of the faithful. Immediately, an annual Bioethics Conference was established for each spring, with an annual Spiritual Retreat every October. Once the mission and vision of Archimandrite Damaskinos was communicated to us, the natural outcome was the founding of GreatMartyr Euphemia Orthodox Theological Academy; an internet-based Orthodox learning institution capable of serving the Orthodox faithful nationwide, and even worldwide, in both English and Arabic, and hopefully additional languages in the near future.

How does this differ from existing Orthodox resources in the US? To be more blunt, some might say, "We already have X, Y, and Z. Why do we need this?"

First of all, let's just say it - competition breeds excellence. But also, we aren't really competing with theological seminaries because we don't exactly have anything like this. We are not aiming for the future seminary student or the guy who needs another masters degree. This isn't another masters program in theology for future clergy or wannabe theologians. This is an undergraduate level program thoroughly grounded in the Tradition. And it is offered in English and Arabic.

This is ideal for the Orthodox Christian who is far from a local parish, who is a kind of satellite, and wants to do more than nothing to help build up the body of Christ, and grow the Church where they are.

Diploma grads will all have the materials necessary and ready for New Member classes, Catechumen classes, Baptismal preparation, Interior life instruction, and more, so that even if they are starting a satellite mission from scratch, they can hit the ground running with what is necessary for good solid instruction. It's a good beginning to prepare for the underground church as well.

You're not only providing English-speaking instruction, but, uniquely, you're also offering Arabic language instruction. How did that come about?

The Vicariate is a jurisdiction specifically of English and Arabic speaking people – Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis. Many of them – a great number – cannot afford $10,000 per semester to learn more about the faith. Our program delivers it for substantially less. There are a multitude of Arabic speakign men and women with a burning desire to serve the Lord and his Church, and to learn more and deepen their own Orthodox faith in a very profound way. But guess what – they can't leave home, and they have little or no income.

We not only have an excellent foundational Diploma program for them, we have started a scholarship for them – the MESSIAH Scholarship Fund (Middle East Student Scholarship in Academic Honors). If you really want to make a difference for Christians in the Middle East, help build up this Scholarship program. Our entire 2 year Diploma program can be completed for $5000. That's 4 semesters in two years for $5K or less.

It's the best deal in Orthodoxy, and we have worked very hard to make it so.

Who do you see taking advantage of this Academy? Who are the ideal students?

We are aiming for the person burning with desire to learn more about their faith, the homeschooling mom who needs more knowledge and help; the devoted father working a full time job but who needs to raise his children to have FAITH, and is the very reason he labors so long and hard; the Sunday School teacher, the Adult Ed instructor, the catechist, the Bible study teacher who want a broader, more indepth background for practical instruction, and it is ideal for the man who wants to go on to ordination and serve the Church as a deacon.

The ideal student is any Orthodox Christian high school graduate or person educated enough to handle challenging undergrad work - the man or woman who has a strong desire to deepen their faith by learning more about Scripture, History, Theology, Liturgy, Spirituality, and Pastoral practice – The Orthodox Tradition - with a desire to go on and teach, preach, and proclaim the Gospel to strengthen their own spiritual life, their own home parish, and the ministries of their own church. It doesn't take a PhD to do mission work. It takes action, practical knowledge, a love for Christ strong enough to serve others, and living strongly within the Orthodox Tradition. That is the person we have created this course for.

What should we look forward to down the road? Any projects or plans on the horizon?

Yes, indeed. I'm very interested in the training for, and establishment of, satellite missions anywhere and everywhere, especially in light of current events. We are at an exceptionally dangerous time as Christians, and preparing for the worst needs to be done, but we should talk about those things at a later date.

I will say this – in our jurisdiction, we require future clergy to take the Academy program AND THEN to submit to an onsite program of mentorship and formation for the diaconate and the priesthood. It's a more traditional Orthodox formation program, and it has to be accomplished onsite either in Arizona or California, but should be well worth it. The guided readings and study are intense, and the 'on-the-job' training will have an intensely spiritual and liturgical aspect to it. Ordinands will be expected to complete the traditional spiritual retreat following their ordinations, celebrating divine liturgy daily for at least 7 days, in the case of the deacon, or 40 days, in the case of a newly ordained priest. Diaconal and Priestly formation are critical to accomplish well, so we aren't taking any chances with this. We're going 'old school.'
This isn't a program just for men. The website seems to also be inviting women to enroll. What place does this have for women in particular and for the Orthodox home - the "domestic church" - more broadly?

Correct. We have many women applying. Some are teachers, some aspire to monasticism, some are homeschooling moms who need more tools to teach with, and some are just long time servants of their parish who want the ability to help out more. Exactly the kind of people we want to teach! And we encourage it so much that we have given a significant discount for spouses who wish to take the same courses together. It's a 70% discount, and the spouse still gets full credit. We can't do much more to encourage participation for applicants, but we are trying.

We have kept the tuition as low as we can. Imagine cohorts of moms, Sunday School teachers, catechists, Bible teachers, choristers all with solid Orthodox theological and moral foundations in their theolgical education. It would transform the Church. Let's do it.

Is there any effort underway to get other jurisdictions to endorse or "recognize" what you're doing (maybe to augment church school teacher formation or for other purposes)?

Not officially. I mean, we aren't calling up bishops and asking if they will accept the diploma or classes, but we do have applicants who aspire to Holy Orders, future monastics, and we have clergy who have already signed up. Some already have their bishops approval, and we find this a good sign. Mostly we believe the quality of the coursework, and the practicality of the instruction will speak for itself and be recognized in due time. We have some excellent scholars on our Academic Advisory Committee, and that also will help keep the program quality and value high, but not impractically difficult. This isn't a Masters program. There are plenty of those around to choose from.

What I excited about is our Diploma graduates will have all the materials they need to teach a New Member Class, a Catechumen class, a Baptismal preparation class, and more. If they want to serve the Church, serve their local parish, or start a satellite mission, they will be ready to hit the ground running.

You don't require people buy books. I still have memories of being a seminarian and scouring websites for a deal on this or that title while hoping it would arrive before classes started. Are students provided PDFs, access to websites, or how are they accessing the materials?

That is correct. All texts and materials are delivered electronically. What we cannot provide as a PDF (text or coursepack) we provide as a link (sometimes you just can't get permission to pass out someone else's work!), so that students have digital access to everything needed for the courses. I do like a physical book, but sometimes it is not always feasible. A student in Uganda, for example, might desire to have physical books, but could not afford to buy or ship them. Our applicants from Uganda don't even have computers, and we are trying to find a way to help them get some so that they can complete the program. It's a lot to juggle, but this is why we are establishing scholarship programs, and seeking donations. Our goal is that everyone who wants to take the program can do so.

This is especially close to my heart. I spent 13 years applying to seminaries, and always being accepted, but never being able to afford to do it. I mean, afford it at all. I even had one seminary secretary tell me “If you don't have $20,000 in the bank, don't bother.” That was a cold dose of reality. When I finally did get to seminary, I did so by selling everything I owned, and working furiously to complete the program. I, and the entire team at the Academy, do not want others to experience this difficulty at all. We are doing what we can. We ask others interested in our mission to do what they can.

We have many Arabic speaking students from the Middle East, and we have established a scholarship fund just for them. It's called the M.E.S.S.I.A.H. (Middle Eastern Students Scholarship in Academic Honors) Fund. The interest generated by our Arabic language programs is exceeding our wildest expectations. These students are eager, and dedicated to serving Christ and his Church. And as I mentioned, if someone wants to study, we want them to be able to. Those interested in helping middle eastern Christians ought to seriously consider investing in this Scholarship Fund, because we need the help! It can change the face of the Church in those areas.

Thanks for your time in answering all this. God grant you strength for the work ahead and blessings for the boon this resource will be for His Church.

Father, thank you for the opportunity. We've spent a lot of time narrowing down the needs of the Church which are not being widely met, and doing everything we can do to serve those needs. Things are getting dark in our society, and as Fr. Alexander Webster says, it's a dangerous time for Christians in America. But where darkness abounds, grace superabounds. We are excited about the future we see in our students.

We are going to make sure they are more than ready to serve.


  1. we have holy cross, christ the savior, st vladimirs, st tikhons, st sophia, st hermans, st stephens, holy trinity, st savas, all of whom lack critical mass and are financially strapped plus some part time pastoral schools -- i just cannot see the need for another, especially one that uses a foreign language -seems like the days of gregory adair and the three hierarchs seminary are alive and well-- this just not pass the sanity test

    1. Robert, if you actually read the interview, we make no bones about not aiming at the same demographic, and not offering the same program as all the schools you mention. The fact that they are financially strapped is not our concern. Arabic language instruction is in great need, and looking at the grammar of some online Orthodox posters, English instruction is in great need also. Luckily, applicants from more than 12 countries do see the need for it. Besides competition should breed excellence, not starvation.

  2. so that "Academy" is more of a online learning platform than a real academy?

    also, neither Peck nor Hardenbrook sound much Palestinian

    1. mike, hence it is an 'online' Academy offering online courses to students who can go 'online' - and while we aren't Palestinian or Jordanian, like most of our brother clergy, surely you don't think every Greek Orthodox priest is Greek, do you?