What Is Sound Human Formation and Why Do We Need It?

Sound human formation, Pope John Paul II writes in Pastores Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day), is important not only for the “proper and due growth and realization of self, but also with a view to the ministry.” So what does he mean by the phrase “sound human formation”?

It is important, the pope argues that priests be

balanced . . . , strong and free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral [and for Orthodox clergy this often means as well the weight of familial and professional] responsibilities. They need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word, to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially, to be balanced in judgment and behavior (emphasis added).

All of this is contained, John Paul argues, in the words of the Apostle Paul when he writes to the Church at Philippi, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Reflecting on the Apostle’s teaching, he continues: “It is interesting to note that Paul, precisely in these profoundly human qualities, presents himself as a model to his faithful, for he goes on to say: ‘What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do’ (Phil. 4:9).”

Thinking about this I can’t help but wonder how many of the clergy (myself included) can appropriately present ourselves as models to be imitated? To take only one example, the work of a parish priest is often demanding. More often then I think we would prefer to think the cost of the demands of the priesthood have a deleterious effect not only on the priest’s physical health (think of the number of overweight priests you know) but also as a consequence of his emotional and spiritual well-being.

Beyond the obvious negative effect on the priest’s health, ministry—or more accurately, the expectations the priest, his bishop and his parish have for him—often has a harmful effect on his marriage and family life. Though it is not openly discussed, unhappy marriages are not uncommon among the clergy. Nor is divorce unheard of. Clergy wives and children often bear the cost of their husband’s and father’s ministry.

And, as I said, these are just a few examples. If in fact clergy are, like St Paul, to be examples worthy of imitation, then we need not demand that Father and his family to keep up a good front or pretend that everything in their personal lives is rosy. No, what we must do instead is work to make sure clergy and their families have the preparation and support they need. Part of this is for all of us, clergy, their families, bishops and congregations to have reasonable expectations for what a married priesthood can, and cannot, accomplish.

We need to do this not only for the sake of the clergy and their families but also out of a sense of our healthy self-interest, for our own well-being and the well-being of our parishes and dioceses.

One sign that not all is well in how form our clergy is the overall health of our parishes. Not only in convert communities but more generally I have often encountered in Orthodox parishes a harsh, polemical attitude. His Eminence, Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk in a recent interview (“A Mission in the World”) offers us an illustration from parish life of how poor human formation might adversely effect the need to build “bridges linking Orthodox parishes to the outside world.” He asks, “Currently what happens to a person who enters an Orthodox church [in Russia] for the first time out of curiosity or inner dissatisfaction or in search for the truth?” Answering his own question he says that,

At best no one will say anything to him. He will be given an opportunity to stand and listen to the service, to look around, etc. But, coming in touch with God’s grace through the atmosphere of the church, he may come to feel something. And he will come again and, later, again. Then he will begin searching for books. In this way, gradually, through self-education, he will get involved in the life of the Church. It is a very long and not easy way. A person will have to surmount his own numerous barriers separating him from the church world – barriers psychological, cultural and linguistic.

Sadly, the best does not always happen. Instead, “a newcomer coming to a church from the street will encounter just plain rudeness. He could be scolded by the babushka who serves behind the candle box. She might condemn him for making the sign of the cross in a wrong way, for standing at a wrong place, for wearing wrong clothes, etc. And after coming to church two or three times, the person will lose any interest in coming back.”

These types of exchanges are not limited to the Church in Russia they are common also in the States and almost de rigueur in online forums. Visitors are often ignored, but just as often they are greeted with hostility. At times the hostility is ethnically based. Just as frequently however visitors are “greeted” with theological tracts meant not simply to explain the faith but proselytize, that is to undermine their commitment as Protestants or Catholic Christians.

This is all simply to highlight that both in traditional Orthodox countries and here in America we need, to return to Archbishop Hilarion, “to break this mechanism of alienating people from the Church or merely expecting that they will turn up and surmount all the barriers on their own.” To do this we must “create a system that helps people without much church experience to get involved in church life gradually.”

While part of this is no doubt catechetical, much of what must be done is more properly the work of spiritual formation and has a necessary psychological component. In any event it is important to realize that the “resources of clergy alone are insufficient to do it. We need active lay people. Our task is to mobilize the laity for proactive missionary and educational work. It is not that nothing is being done. There are people who do things. There are many who work in this area, helping the clergy to bring people to God. But we need a completely different scale of welcome.” (emphasis added).

This does not mean that the clergy have no role, or that their role will diminish in the Church. But it does mean that the role of the clergy will, necessarily change. For this change to happen, “depends. . . on the personality of the priest and the ruling bishop.” He continues that this means laying aside the typical Orthodox tendency to vacillate between passivity and polemics both of which lull the “lay people and clergy [into thinking they can] rely on the proposition that ‘we bear witness to the truth of Orthodoxy by the very fact of our existence’.”

This is simply false and my believing that “the task of bringing new people to the Church will be unfeasible.” If as Orthodox Christians “we do not use aggressive and importunate methods of mission” this “does not mean that we must simply sit and wait doing nothing until people themselves come to us.” But whatever might be their disadvantages for mission work, personally passivity and polemics do not challenge me, do not call me to examine my own heart or challenge me to look at my own behavior and character and how they effect (for good or ill) how (or even if) I present the Gospel.

If, as I would argue, we are all of us to be a bridge to Christ, and if this work is a personal work and not simply the application of technique, then I must be properly formed for this work. But, to repeat what I have said above, none of this is possible if we do not see to the proper human (and humane) formation of our clergy.

Until then, and as always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, they are actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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  • http://nothinghypothetical.wordpress.com/ David

    I attend a very small parish and have attended a couple of large parishes nearby so my experience in this is small, but in three of the four cases the priests are overworked. I remember a few months back, my priest’s wife was away visiting relatives so we invited him over for a home-cooked meal and some company. We thought, with his wife gone, he’d be want for company.

    It was quite a surprise that even in such a tiny parish, he had several appointments each day, all week. He was able to make our dinner without trouble, but he was hardly “sitting around in the evening without much to do”.

    We are additionally lucky because we have a deacon (unheard of in the larger parishes around us) and a deacon monk who visits. (surely there is something special about our little parish that we are so blessed!)

    I cannot imagine what the GOA priest with a parish of maybe 200 adults is doing to handle the mess (though he always seems in good cheer). On top of that they are building a new building! How can he possibly pastor that many people?

    Perhaps it is not so much that we should expect to prepare amazing priests, but that we have far too few priests and deacons.

    My previous tradition had (this is typical for a similar congregation of 200) a preacher, 3-5 elders, 5-8 deacons and some minimum expected participation from every adult male.

    Perhaps that is too many, it is certainly too many to pay, or even provide Church funds for all their duties (the deacon in charge of the facilities often had to purchase garden hoses and the like himself, my father who did the Church bulletin for 10 years never sought reimbursement from the treasury).

    You wouldn’t have to have phenomenal persons if you have a group of men (and though not ordained, women) who leaned on each other and built each other up in service of the Church. Even if a parish only had a single priest, if he had a couple of deacons, a few readers and a parish council that spent more time working and less time meeting. But more than one priest is certainly in order in most cases.

    At least then the priest could be free to focus on the unique duties only a priest can perform. It’s sort of like the positive trend I’ve seen in better hospitals. The doctor is only there for what you need a doctor for. If a nurse can do it, it’s delegated. If a less qualified person can do the work, they take the load off those who bear a greater burden.

    I truly sympathize with your topic here. It’s not fair to take a balanced person and then deliberately put them in a highly unbalanced environment and expect them to “fix it”.

    I think you are partly saying that. So if it’s not too bold I’ll say how much I enjoy when I feel on the same page with you. I really do appreciate your blog more than my posts might appear. Being a critical thinker shouldn’t always mean being a negative thinker. :)
    .-= David´s last blog ..Bobby McFerrin =-.

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  • http://nothinghypothetical.wordpress.com David

    I attend a very small parish and have attended a couple of large parishes nearby so my experience in this is small, but in three of the four cases the priests are overworked. I remember a few months back, my priest’s wife was away visiting relatives so we invited him over for a home-cooked meal and some company. We thought, with his wife gone, he’d be want for company.

    It was quite a surprise that even in such a tiny parish, he had several appointments each day, all week. He was able to make our dinner without trouble, but he was hardly “sitting around in the evening without much to do”.

    We are additionally lucky because we have a deacon (unheard of in the larger parishes around us) and a deacon monk who visits. (surely there is something special about our little parish that we are so blessed!)

    I cannot imagine what the GOA priest with a parish of maybe 200 adults is doing to handle the mess (though he always seems in good cheer). On top of that they are building a new building! How can he possibly pastor that many people?

    Perhaps it is not so much that we should expect to prepare amazing priests, but that we have far too few priests and deacons.

    My previous tradition had (this is typical for a similar congregation of 200) a preacher, 3-5 elders, 5-8 deacons and some minimum expected participation from every adult male.

    Perhaps that is too many, it is certainly too many to pay, or even provide Church funds for all their duties (the deacon in charge of the facilities often had to purchase garden hoses and the like himself, my father who did the Church bulletin for 10 years never sought reimbursement from the treasury).

    You wouldn’t have to have phenomenal persons if you have a group of men (and though not ordained, women) who leaned on each other and built each other up in service of the Church. Even if a parish only had a single priest, if he had a couple of deacons, a few readers and a parish council that spent more time working and less time meeting. But more than one priest is certainly in order in most cases.

    At least then the priest could be free to focus on the unique duties only a priest can perform. It’s sort of like the positive trend I’ve seen in better hospitals. The doctor is only there for what you need a doctor for. If a nurse can do it, it’s delegated. If a less qualified person can do the work, they take the load off those who bear a greater burden.

    I truly sympathize with your topic here. It’s not fair to take a balanced person and then deliberately put them in a highly unbalanced environment and expect them to “fix it”.

    I think you are partly saying that. So if it’s not too bold I’ll say how much I enjoy when I feel on the same page with you. I really do appreciate your blog more than my posts might appear. Being a critical thinker shouldn’t always mean being a negative thinker. :)
    .-= David´s last blog ..Bobby McFerrin =-.

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  • http://truthspirit.wordpress.com/ Ben

    I HIGHLY agree with David. For all the things that my previous tradition got wrong, these are two areas that they got it very right. In my previous church there were ~1500 congregants (800 roughly on any given sunday)(roughly the size of a large Greek Parish). They had 2 head pastors, 3 youth pastors, 1 marriage pastor, 1 childrens pastor, and 1 urban missions pastor. All of those were paid. As well, there were roughly 30 or so elders and 40-50 deacons, all of which were assigned a specific part of the church.

    When I hear about a married priest who runs a parish of this size by himself, I think “ARE THEY CRAZY!!!” One of the pastors at my old church quit ministry and bought himself a ChicFillet (?) because it was too stressful on him and his family. Doing that kind of work is not healthy.

    I really think that we ought to be ordaining more deacons, who stay deacons, and more priests for larger parishes. It is not good for the salvation of the priest to have him have such a large responsibility that he can’t even focus on his family. . . But that’s just my 2 cents.
    .-= Ben´s last blog ..A Funny Video to Tide You Over =-.

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  • http://truthspirit.wordpress.com Ben

    I HIGHLY agree with David. For all the things that my previous tradition got wrong, these are two areas that they got it very right. In my previous church there were ~1500 congregants (800 roughly on any given sunday)(roughly the size of a large Greek Parish). They had 2 head pastors, 3 youth pastors, 1 marriage pastor, 1 childrens pastor, and 1 urban missions pastor. All of those were paid. As well, there were roughly 30 or so elders and 40-50 deacons, all of which were assigned a specific part of the church.

    When I hear about a married priest who runs a parish of this size by himself, I think “ARE THEY CRAZY!!!” One of the pastors at my old church quit ministry and bought himself a ChicFillet (?) because it was too stressful on him and his family. Doing that kind of work is not healthy.

    I really think that we ought to be ordaining more deacons, who stay deacons, and more priests for larger parishes. It is not good for the salvation of the priest to have him have such a large responsibility that he can’t even focus on his family. . . But that’s just my 2 cents.
    .-= Ben´s last blog ..A Funny Video to Tide You Over =-.

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  • http://truthspirit.wordpress.com/ Ben

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that they had a very thriving small groups program for spiritual formation where the laity were taught how to be good Christians, kept accountable, and taught the faith. I don’t think that I would be where I am now had it not been for the spiritual formation I received there. (of my group of ~40 guy friends there, nearly 15 of them are now pastors or studying to be pastors)
    .-= Ben´s last blog ..A Funny Video to Tide You Over =-.

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  • http://truthspirit.wordpress.com Ben

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that they had a very thriving small groups program for spiritual formation where the laity were taught how to be good Christians, kept accountable, and taught the faith. I don’t think that I would be where I am now had it not been for the spiritual formation I received there. (of my group of ~40 guy friends there, nearly 15 of them are now pastors or studying to be pastors)
    .-= Ben´s last blog ..A Funny Video to Tide You Over =-.

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  • http://truthspirit.wordpress.com/ Ben

    “It is not good for the salvation of the priest to have him have such a large responsibility that he can’t even focus on his family. . . But that’s just my 2 cents.”

    Which is also partially (along with property rights) why the Roman Church required celibacy for its clergy in the early 900-1000s and why it has never changed (and to this day most Roman parishes are HUGE!!!)

    Ok I’m done now
    .-= Ben´s last blog ..A Funny Video to Tide You Over =-.

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  • http://truthspirit.wordpress.com Ben

    “It is not good for the salvation of the priest to have him have such a large responsibility that he can’t even focus on his family. . . But that’s just my 2 cents.”

    Which is also partially (along with property rights) why the Roman Church required celibacy for its clergy in the early 900-1000s and why it has never changed (and to this day most Roman parishes are HUGE!!!)

    Ok I’m done now
    .-= Ben´s last blog ..A Funny Video to Tide You Over =-.

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  • Chrys

    David and Ben, we must have a somewhat similar previous tradition. Your points about the high level of involvement among the adults, the vitality of small groups, and the large number in local leadership are one’s I have made often. (Of course, multiple ministers requires tithing, but that’s another . . . actually the same issue. It’s about a fundamental conversion of the identity.)

    All of this would seem to be particularly important for Orthodox since – unlike Catholic and most Protestant churches – Orthodoxy is simply not built for “mass production.” Spiritual formation is an arduous, intimate, labor-intensive process that does not submit well to large scale efforts. If the parish priest is be able to function as a spiritual father – or at least the “coach” of the parish – he can not possibly assume the level of responsibility laid on his shoulders. He must have time for prayer and study . . . and family. More to the point, many of the tasks assigned to him could be better served by members in the parish who have actually been “gifted” by God for that purpose and who yearn (though they may not know it) to serve. This would free up the priest to exercise the specific gifts he was given for the blessing of the Church and the glory of God.
    There is, I think, a great deal that the Orthodox parish can learn from other traditions about empowering (hate that word) the laity and fostering “ownership” of/in the community. This must be done critically, to be sure, since the forms present in the other traditions often carry a host of unstated and unhelpful notions. Yet, somehow, we must shift from “spectator” faith to something much deeper. I am encouraged by both of your comments.

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  • Chrys

    David and Ben, we must have a somewhat similar previous tradition. Your points about the high level of involvement among the adults, the vitality of small groups, and the large number in local leadership are one’s I have made often. (Of course, multiple ministers requires tithing, but that’s another . . . actually the same issue. It’s about a fundamental conversion of the identity.)

    All of this would seem to be particularly important for Orthodox since – unlike Catholic and most Protestant churches – Orthodoxy is simply not built for “mass production.” Spiritual formation is an arduous, intimate, labor-intensive process that does not submit well to large scale efforts. If the parish priest is be able to function as a spiritual father – or at least the “coach” of the parish – he can not possibly assume the level of responsibility laid on his shoulders. He must have time for prayer and study . . . and family. More to the point, many of the tasks assigned to him could be better served by members in the parish who have actually been “gifted” by God for that purpose and who yearn (though they may not know it) to serve. This would free up the priest to exercise the specific gifts he was given for the blessing of the Church and the glory of God.
    There is, I think, a great deal that the Orthodox parish can learn from other traditions about empowering (hate that word) the laity and fostering “ownership” of/in the community. This must be done critically, to be sure, since the forms present in the other traditions often carry a host of unstated and unhelpful notions. Yet, somehow, we must shift from “spectator” faith to something much deeper. I am encouraged by both of your comments.

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  • http://saintjameskids.blogspot.com/ Fr. James Early

    Wow, GREAT article, Fr. Gregory (and great comments thus far). This article should be mailed to every Orthodox parish council member in the U. S. – or better yet, to every single Orthdox PARISHIONER in the U. S.
    .-= Fr. James Early´s last blog ..A Missionary Kid Returns Home: part 4 – Orthodox East Africa =-.

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  • http://saintjameskids.blogspot.com Fr. James Early

    Wow, GREAT article, Fr. Gregory (and great comments thus far). This article should be mailed to every Orthodox parish council member in the U. S. – or better yet, to every single Orthdox PARISHIONER in the U. S.
    .-= Fr. James Early´s last blog ..A Missionary Kid Returns Home: part 4 – Orthodox East Africa =-.

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  • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory

    David, Ben, Chrys, & Fr James,

    I have nothing to say but AMEN!

    I think David put it well,in is a sin against justice (and charity) “to take a balanced person and then deliberately put them in a highly unbalanced environment and expect them to ‘fix it'”. It simply ain’t going to happen.

    Ben I think is also correct when he points out that the way we do thinks now (with the priest having sole responsibility for all the ministry in a parish) “is not good for the salvation of the priest.” And Ben you’re right, it is often Father’s family that pays for our unrealistic expectations (though I should point out, that the priest and the parish, and ultimately the whole Church) that is negative effected.

    Chrys’ model of the priest as a coach is I think a good one. It is the one I use and have used the last two years to great effect in my parish in Canton.

    Fr James, thatnk you for your kind words and vote of confidence! If you’re interested I’m happy to come to Houston for airfare and a modest stipend! :) Seriously though, we have to begin to challenge the rather lopsided model of parish ministry–a single priest can’t serve a parish, or at least not a parish much above about 40 or 50 adults (and this assumes everything is going well, but that’s another story).

    A parish needs a team of ministers, paid and volunteered, ordained and lay. And not, I want to add, to have larger parishes but because this is the NY model. No disrespect to my brother priests, but a single presbyter leading a parish and having personal, hands on, responsibility for the ministry of the parish is simply a recipe for failure.

    Again, thanks for your comments.

    In Christ,

    +FrG
    .-= Fr Gregory´s last blog ..The Priesthood, Sacraments, Signs and Symbols =-.

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  • http://palamas.info Fr Gregory

    David, Ben, Chrys, & Fr James,

    I have nothing to say but AMEN!

    I think David put it well,in is a sin against justice (and charity) “to take a balanced person and then deliberately put them in a highly unbalanced environment and expect them to ‘fix it'”. It simply ain’t going to happen.

    Ben I think is also correct when he points out that the way we do thinks now (with the priest having sole responsibility for all the ministry in a parish) “is not good for the salvation of the priest.” And Ben you’re right, it is often Father’s family that pays for our unrealistic expectations (though I should point out, that the priest and the parish, and ultimately the whole Church) that is negative effected.

    Chrys’ model of the priest as a coach is I think a good one. It is the one I use and have used the last two years to great effect in my parish in Canton.

    Fr James, thatnk you for your kind words and vote of confidence! If you’re interested I’m happy to come to Houston for airfare and a modest stipend! :) Seriously though, we have to begin to challenge the rather lopsided model of parish ministry–a single priest can’t serve a parish, or at least not a parish much above about 40 or 50 adults (and this assumes everything is going well, but that’s another story).

    A parish needs a team of ministers, paid and volunteered, ordained and lay. And not, I want to add, to have larger parishes but because this is the NY model. No disrespect to my brother priests, but a single presbyter leading a parish and having personal, hands on, responsibility for the ministry of the parish is simply a recipe for failure.

    Again, thanks for your comments.

    In Christ,

    +FrG
    .-= Fr Gregory´s last blog ..The Priesthood, Sacraments, Signs and Symbols =-.

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