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Orthodox leaders cite shortage of priests

Thursday, July 29, 1999

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

While the Orthodox Church in America is attracting converts, it suffers from a priest shortage and a clergy morale problem, its leaders said yesterday during an open discussion at the church's All-American Council.

The Orthodox tradition allows married men to become priests, but few American men born and raised in the tradition are seeking holy orders. Of 100 students enrolled at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y., just one-third were born into American Orthodox homes. Others are former Protestants, Catholics and even New Age devotees. Still others are immigrants.

While more than half of the church's 13 bishops are converts, they acknowledged a problem and joined in yesterday's discussion at the weeklong meeting in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Some dioceses have salary requirements for priests, but many parishes refuse to abide by them, said the Rev. Alexander Garklavs, chairman of the church's pastoral care unit. He cited lay leaders who refused to pay the minimum because the priest's children were grown or because his wife worked.

Partly as a result, Garklavs said, an increasing number of priests prefer to work a secular day job and only moonlight in ministry. Or, if the priest's wife supports the family, he must follow her career from city to city rather than remain in the same parish for years.

It is not uncommon for parishes that lose a priest to wait years for a new one. The million-member church has ordained just 172 priests in the past 10 years and many of its priests are near retirement.

However, in a national survey of Orthodox Church in America clergy last year, low pay ranked only fourth on a list of frustrations. The first three were the laity's lack of participation in the liturgical life of the church, lack of spirituality, and failure to participate in adult religious education.

When priests feel that their ministry is unappreciated they "become stagnant and lose motivation and zeal," Garklavs said.

But he also called on the clergy to consider their own personal failings as a cause of the laity's alienation. In a profession where people regularly bow to kiss your hand it is easy to think yourself better than those you serve, he said.

In an effort to encourage older men to enter the priesthood, the Orthodox Church in America established a program with stripped-down educational requirements. Although this late-vocations program is popular, there are difficulties, said the Rev. Gregory Safchuk, its interim director.

Depending on the candidate's background and previous education, he is either required to spend two years under the tutelage of a local pastor or to write six seminary-level research papers under the direction of the late vocations office. Both types of candidates must pass a final exam. Further oral examinations are required if they choose to pursue ordination.

Candidates for this program need to be better screened, because too many of them are not suited for ministry, Safchuk said. The program has also been abused by younger men, or men without overwhelming family and job commitments, who see it as the easy route to ordination, he said.

Several delegates suggested that candidates who could not survive the financial rigors of the seminary would be unable to survive the financial rigors of parish priesthood. Currently, St. Vladimir's has about 20 married students with one to six children, said Constance Tarasar, a faculty member at the seminary.

"They are dedicated and they are under great hardship. If they can go through that fire, they will certainly be more understanding of their parishioners when they become the pastor of a parish," she said.

Archbishop Herman of Philadelphia, who is also dean of St. Tikhon's seminary in South Canaan, Wayne County, said parishes should financially support qualified candidates for priesthood.

"The church needs to look seriously at taking care of those who really want to serve," he said.

But many of those who enroll in the seminary don't come from an Orthodox parish, said the Rev. Thomas Hopko, dean of St. Vladimir's. In fact, some don't become Orthodox until after they are already enrolled.

For instance, two evangelical Protestants who were preparing for a missionary stint in Russia enrolled to learn more about Orthodoxy and ended up converting, he said in an interview.

Such problems are not insurmountable, and they are not unique to Orthodoxy, he said. Students at many Protestant seminaries enroll without knowing which denomination they want to serve, he said.

St. Valdimir's provides some field education for such students. But many learn the finer points of Orthodox liturgical traditions on the job, he said.

"The people help the priest learn the local customs or how to hold the candle at Epiphany. If the priest is humble, he will learn," Hopko said.

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