Maturity in the Parish

You do know that the word presbytera means “elder”?  A feminine elder.

This is not about the women’s ordination debate, though. This is about spiritual maturity. Or, since it is easy to mouth pieties while still acting according to our own will,  maybe we should just call it ordinary, everyday maturity.

The canonical age requirement for priestly (presbyteral) ordination is 30. That may or may not be strictly observed in various Orthodox churches these days, but the normal seminary training track should get most candidates fairly close already– high school, undergraduate  degree, M.Div. It does seem that many candidates are now coming to seminary later, too– having married and started a family, worked to earn some of the vast amounts of money gobbled by higher education, and perhaps even spent time acquiring skills or qualifications that will allow them to ‘tentmake’ like the Apostle Paul, helping them defray some of their seminary costs and not making them dependent on a parish for their income.

Presbyters are to rule their own households well. That is of course a job for two working together, the priest and his wife. It’s great to have some years of marriage under your belt and the kid-raising started before you have to begin leading a flock. It takes maturity to train other people, little or big, into their own maturity.

Fortunately, you will learn as you go, too. Because the fact is, people in general aren’t as mature as they used to be. No, really. A Discovery Channel article cites research that confirms what we can see all around us every day, in the workplace, in the social media….yes, even in church sometimes.

….many modern adults fail to attain this maturity, and such failure is common and indeed characteristic of highly educated and, on the whole, effective and socially valuable people,” he said. “People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.” (emphasis mine–PresAnon)

YOW!  Highly educated people are particularly susceptible to  being ‘strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence.’  When I read this, the first thing that came to mind was the opening season of the soapy TV medical drama  Gray’s Anatomy. Those interns were highly educated all right, but they spent so much time on their studying and training that they had never had time to just grow up properly.

But what about clergy families? As I said above, many are coming to seminary after being in the work world for a time, which is a great thing. There’s just no real substitute for life experience. But the other main resource for priests and their wives is the more experienced clergy and -their- wives– firstly at their home parish, then at seminary, then hopefully in the deanery or among neighboring clergy from other jurisdictions.

Peer friendships are necessary and extremely vital. But the limitations of such are that it is possible to end up pooling ignorance and just reinforcing each other’s inexperienced ideas. That’s where help from more experienced clergy couples comes in.

There is a certain amount of practical experience allowed for in parishes near the seminaries, and a few summer internship offers. We could use many more of these, but the truly fortunate priest will  be able upon graduation to spend some years as an assistant to an older priest before taking on a ‘captaincy’ of his own. There is generally  less pressure on the wife & children of an assistant priest, too, giving them time to adjust to the clerical life. If I could wave a magic wand and make it all happen with the gobs of money it would take, I would want every family leaving seminary to have that kind of apprenticeship experience for a few years.

One more note on the topic of maturity: you will find that just like everybody else, many of your parishioners are less mature than might be desirable. I thought the bit about the highly educated lacking maturity in the article above was really something to keep in mind. You may find your parish is full of farmers, plumbers, or retail clerks who have been earning a living since well before you finished high school. I wish someone had told me early on not to discount the everyday wisdom of these kinds of people.

There are no guarantees about any individual, of course, but some ‘less-educated’ people may actually have a more reasonable outlook on reality than the newly-graduated from some academic discipline…even one like theology.

Educated or not, mere years should be entitled to respect. They have wisdom that we don’t. This goes against the grain in our youth-worshipping culture, but it is Christian. It is traditional. It is Orthodox. The babas and yia-yias may certainly be troublesome at times, but we dismiss them at our peril.

It will take humility  for a seminary graduate to listen humbly to what these people have to offer. The priest has the difficult job of balancing that with his call to teach authoritatively on behalf of the church and lead as shepherd. For once, I think, the presbytera’s job is somewhat simpler, if still difficult; for when confronted with many parish situations, the best thing to do is often to just refer people to her husband, their pastor. That too takes maturity.


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