Saturday, October 22, 2022

Sometimes the "Crash & Burn" is necessary

The recent post on the Antiochian House of Studies offering (and the offering itself) online classes towards a seminary education elicited a lot of conversation. So, I'm going to throw out a few thoughts of my own.

When I was given a blessing to go to seminary, I did so with a job and children. As such, I took some classes online from an Orthodox seminary that offered a selection of their courses that way. The idea was that I would get a feel for the academic rigor of seminary classes and also lessen the course load when I went to seminary. I fully support this approach as it did provide both of those things. Additionally, I have often recommended the Antiochian's St. Stephen's Program to men who say they are interested in major orders. In short, I'm not opposed to online education as a part of the seminary journey. It makes a lot of sense.

When I went to seminary, I had a number of friends also in other seminaries at the same time. It's amazing how different all our institutions are and at the same time how remarkably similar they are. A consistent story at every one of those institutions was that men would come to seminary for only a few days, have some sort of breakdown, and leave. Other men would make it through much of the first semester, do no coursework and/or attend few services in the chapel, and then depart as well. Sometimes they left under the cover of darkness with unpaid bills and other times they flamed out in spectacular fashion decrying everything from professors, to brother seminarians, to the food.

Still other men brought their unconditioned passions with them. They were unable to free themselves from pornography and, in the extreme spiritual struggle that is seminary, found themselves powerless to escape its effect and left. And yet other men had assignations with the wives of brother seminarians and had to leave. Some men literally could not quit playing video games and, instead of writing papers, got high scores on their virtual leaderboards. They, too, were asked to leave. Some men came to seminary, simply didn't speak enough English to understand what was going on, and had to leave. If you can imagine a reason to exit seminary, it has probably happened.

You might say, "Well, maybe pick better men to go to seminary." And there is much to say about vetting men before we drop them into the deep end of spiritual warfare. In recent years the process of applying to seminary (getting parish priest recommendation, episcopal blessing, background checks, psychological exams, and all the rest) has gotten a lot more comprehensive. Really, so many men have found the application itself sufficiently daunting that they never send in their paperwork. As a result, fewer men that have no business going to seminary are making reservations with U-Haul to drive their possession up North. Still, a diocese can make educated guesses about worthiness and preparedness but never be right 100% of the time. 

Seminary is where you learn that exchanging ideas on topics you hold dear with others may (actually often does) result in discovering there are people who flatly disagree with you. It's where you meet odious men in lofty positions and discover that, while Christ is perfect, the Orthodox Church is peopled with fallible sinners. It's where you learn that some of your quixotic and naive impressions on how things will be when you are ordained bear no resemblance to the reality of what will be. These, and other lessons not in the seminary promotional brochures, are learned daily.

We frankly need men to go to seminary to suffer in some measure. Not suffering to suffer, but the pain associated with growth and gaining experience. Better that they go through the meat grinder a bit than their future parishioners endure trauma from untested men. Parishioners I speak to will recount things a priest said offhandedly to them in the '70s like it was spoken to them last week. They will remember when a priest snapped at them as altar boy with such ferocity that they never served the church again in any capacity. The cost of ordaining the wrong man is quite high. As such, many men even graduate from seminary and find that they never get ordained. The school lets them complete studies, but the bishop saw something he didn't like and those men never become priests. In fact, my bishop would not let a man enter seminary unless he knew he had a parish spot for him when he graduated three years later.

A man doesn't put his seminarian playing piece on the start spot of a board game and eventually complete the game unmolested. It's much more like Jumanji. He is tested at every stage of the process and often is surprised with what happens to him next. There are a lot more puckish and destructive monkeys involved than you probably dare imagine.

You might also say, "My priest never went to seminary and he's great." I'm sure he is. In fact, some of my favorite clergy never went to a formal seminary. None of the apostles went to seminary. The entire concept of a seminary is a novelty. And yet, if you were to ask these men if they would have preferred to have three or more years to study, serve, and find camaraderie with other men seeking to serve the Church, I would expect them to respond in the affirmative to a man. Simply because a thing can be done without all the requisite parts does not mean those parts aren't needed or wanted. Anyone who has ever had to change a tire, put together a piece of furniture, or any other task without the right tools understands the predicament.

There is no equivalence in a program entirely online. Even a program that has short summer in-person requirements is missing essential aspects of the seminary experience. Very little of the priesthood is writing papers or showing the back of your hand to Arians. It is a lot about swinging censers, dealing with conflict, growing a thick skin, and building a brotherhood that you will come to rely on for the rest of your life.

Yes, I fully support online education. I fully endorse an online education for those men who simply cannot pull up stakes and move to seminary for three years. But this should not become the new norm. And for those men who go this route I dare say more scrutiny should be applied to them, more personal pastoral and didactic attention by their parish priest and bishop should be provided, and the scant residency requirements currently in place need to be greatly expanded.

It will be interesting to see in the coming years what the results are of this new form of seminary education. I'm sure there will be adjustments and augmentations and the like. Will online education because the norm? Will it die out as a failed experiment? We can check back in ten or so years and find out.


  1. Excellent, excellent reflection! Thank you.

  2. I add a hearty "Amen!" The only option that I see that is viable besides a seminary education is for a candidate for holy order to study online and then spend a year or two in a solid Orthodox monastery to be formed and learn spiritual disciplines and spiritual warfare over their passions.

  3. If the Church is to grow, we need clergy. Let's take my little parish for an example. Every one of us is a convert. Each man is an adult with an established career and family. There is no young man in our parish, at least not at this time, who could be considered. But there are men who may be wonderful clergymen who could benefit the Church if they could complete their studies without abandoning their careers, uprooting their families, and living in poverty while studying for the priesthood. Then, we may ask them to go back to missions that can't pay for a full-time priest. We need a different way of thinking about growing the Church in America. If Seminaries are novelties, perhaps it's time to grow past it as the default way to train clergy.

    1. "...We need a different way of thinking about growing the Church in America...perhaps it's time to grow past it as the default way to train clergy..."

      Yes. However, in defense of our host and within the *status quo* thinking, or more accurately within the status quo *ontology* of Orthodoxy within western secular culture (I call it Immigrant Orthodoxy - converts and all), our host is spot on.

      In other words, Bishops/Priests/Deacons, and for that matter lay leadership (parish boards, etc.) are not *leaders* per se, rather they are "conservators", keepers of what has been handed down to them, keepers of the peace of their communities and preachers of the Gospel (the Gospel as interpreted through the lens of post Constantine Orthodox Tradition which itself just assumes a Christendom - the people and parish are situated in a "Christian" village/culture).

      So everything we do, the rhythm of the parish life and the intellectual/theological/spiritual thinking and action (i.e. praxis) behind it is not only inward looking, or perhaps more accurately looking at its own counter cultural (which of course the Gospel is) assumptions about what it means to *be* Orthodox on a parish/communal level, but the whole program of spiritual/theological formation found within our Tradition, hierarchy, and seminary spiritual formation is designed (and is quite effective at) creating this "conservatorship" - doormen who do a job for a building that is built to a specific size/shape/function.

      Rod Dreher makes this important point when he argues for a "Benedict Option"; the hierarchy (i.e. bishops/priests/deacons/most lay leadership) of neither Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant church's are going to be the *source* of leadership of the Church in and for a post-Christian and aggressively secularizing culture.

      It's not that they don't want to, but they can't (for most of them quite self consciously) because they are *bound* (as if in chains) to Immigrant Orthodoxy and all that it entails. It does not matter that Immigrant Orthodoxy is a manifest failure (e.g. there should be 3.5 million Sunday going Orthodox in NA if half of the children of immigrants were formed in the Faith, the reality is there is a mere 180,000 on any given Sunday - and that includes converts!), Orthodoxy in wester secular culture is just clinging to flotsam trying to breath.

      Orthodoxy clerics/leaders respond to this in various ways, noting how some are saved in the status quo (I have no doubt), a reflexive "remnant" justification, It's God's will as all things come from Him, etc. In there own way and from very real and important perspectives it is all true and even good. Yet, it still is a defense of the status quo, itself a praxis and ontology built in and for a Christendom that no longer exists. In a decade how many Sunday going Orthodox will there be? 140,000? 100,000?

      It could be said that the only acknowledgement of all this among Orthodox intellectuals is found among the "liberals/progressives" (e.g. the current GOA archbishop), except theirs is not a real recognition, just a willingness to accept certain secular (mostly anthropological) assumptions and then haphazardly cram them into the "Tradition". I would take an lethargic, even ossified "Gospel" and "Orthodox" praxis over this devilry in any age.

      I say all this Tizzidale to indicate just how difficult it will be to "grow past" the status quo. Probably Orthodoxy will have to suffer much more, get significantly smaller, and God knows what else. I probably won't live to see it, but my daughters might.

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  5. I would not propose that this program should replace the traditional seminary experience. But it could be an invaluable asset and supplement to those small seminaries, who lack accreditation, to enable their students to earn advanced degrees.

  6. If the OCA was smart, they would have St. Tikhon's do a similar style program. It would help with costs and support the brick and mortar seminary program.

    1. They did have classes available for remote learning and may still. I took some of them. Instead of another program, maybe let students going to SVS or STS or St. Herman's take some classes there and then go to their seminaries. No need to duplicate what AHOS is so good at.