"Preparing our Clergy?"

Preparing our Clergy


I teach at the Divinity School of a very large and secular school, Duke University. A few days ago, a student was praising the work I had been doing in one class and said that it was refreshing to have not only an academic, but also a pastor teaching the course. That comment reignited my own internal debate about the very nature of what I am doing at that school and I began, once again, to think about the differences between a university and a seminary and the ways in which we train our clergy.

In addition to the background screening and psychological profiling, we tend to think of their preparation primarily in terms of their education. Ordinarily this training takes place at a theological school such as Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. What is striking about the names of these two schools is that one is called a Graduate School of Theology while the other designates itself as a Seminary. Even though both of them are in reality seminaries, the difference in nomenclature is significant.

So, what is the difference?  What are the implications for Orthodox theological education?

  1. The Seminary

    According to contemporary Catholic Canon Law (I was not able to find anything similar in Orthodox Canon Law, but I think we can accept truth as true no matter where we find it) “The Church has the duty and the proper and exclusive right to form those who are designated for the sacred ministries.”[1] In other words, the training of priests is the sole responsibility of the community of faith and not some secular or state agency. For that purpose, special schools of theology, called seminaries, were established that had but one purpose, the preparation of clergy

1.1.  Spiritual Formation.

Interestingly, we find in these canons little or no mention of the concept “education.” The priests are, rather, to be provided with spiritual formation during which

students are to become equipped to exercise the pastoral ministry fruitfully and are to be formed in a missionary spirit; they are to learn that ministry always carried out in living faith and charity fosters their own sanctification. They also are to learn to cultivate those virtues which are valued highly in human relations so that they are able to achieve an appropriate integration between human and supernatural goods. [2]

This formation was to take place in a commune like context in which, a single rule governed all aspects of daily life: the seminarians would eat together, attend classes together, and worship together. At the heart of this common life was the Eucharist.

1.1.1.     Eucharistic Celebration

The eucharistic celebration is to be the center of the entire life of a seminary in such a way that, sharing in the very life of Christ, the students daily draw strength of spirit for apostolic work and for their spiritual life, especially from this richest of sources.[3]

This formation also includes instruction in doctrine, philosophy, theology, and the Holy Scriptures.

1.1.2.     Doctrinal Instruction

The doctrinal instruction given is to be directed so that students acquire an extensive and solid learning in the sacred disciplines along with a general culture appropriate to the necessities of place and time, in such way that, grounded in their own faith and nourished thereby, they are able to announce in a suitable way the teaching of the gospel to the people of their own time in a manner adapted to their understanding.[4]

1.1.3.     Philosophical Instruction

Philosophical instruction must be grounded in the perennially valid philosophical heritage and also take into account philosophical investigation over the course of time. It is to be taught in such a way that it perfects the human development of the students, sharpens their minds, and makes them better able to pursue theological studies.[5]

1.1.4.     Theological Instruction

Theological instruction is to be imparted in the light of faith and under the leadership of the magisterium in such a way that the students understand the entire Catholic doctrine grounded in divine revelation, gain nourishment for their own spiritual life, and are able properly to announce and safeguard it in the exercise of the ministry.[6]

Students are to be instructed in sacred scripture with special diligence in such a way that they acquire a comprehensive view of the whole of sacred scripture.[7]All of this was to be “grounded in the written word of God together with sacred tradition,” and taught “only by those who are outstanding in virtue and have obtained a doctorate or licentiate from a university or faculty recognized by the [Church].[8]

1.2.  Summary

So, it was that the Church envisioned and then established seminaries, specialized schools independent of the state university system, which had only one purpose, the spiritual formation not the academic preparation of the priest. They were not in the business of granting degrees, they did not charge tuition, they did not seek to gain accreditation, but simply answer to the mandate given by the Church. Indeed, this is the way most seminaries[9] started, but alas much has been changed under the pressure of the scientific university model of education and our descent into the world of commerce.

  1. 2.     The University Model

2.1.  European Roots

The secular or scientific university model was created by Wilhelm von Humboldt at the University of Berlin in 1810. His model of education was based on the humanistic conviction that “schools and universities be fundamentally "neutral" – free from ideological influences and private interests such as those seen, for example, in feudal or clerical tutelage.”[10] This implied freedom of scientific inquiry and the unity of teaching and research. The results of that research were to be published, which, in turn, lead to the much feared “publish or perish” dictum.

When von Humboldt put forward the idea of freedom of teaching and study, he meant above all, freedom from religious orthodoxy and the notion that scientific knowledge could be discovered rather than learned as revealed in the past…[11]

This approach to higher education “effectively overthrew the hegemony of theology, [which had been considered the queen of all sciences] leaving the matter very unclear as to what, if any, place it would have in higher education.[12] “Theology’s place in a research university was in doubt because theology had traditionally rested on ‘revelation,’ on authorities, whose authoritative status could not itself be examined in an orderly, disciplined, and critical [that is scientific[13]] way.”[14] There some at the time who sought to preserve theology’s place in the university curriculum by trying to establish it as a subject of scientific inquiry. For example, in his Kurze Darstellung des theologischen Studiums, published in 1811, F. D. Schleiermacher developed the science[15] of theology as an integrated whole, the primary value of which is to be seen in its relationship to the practical needs of the Church. He refers to theology as the “collective embodiment of those branches of scientific knowledge and those rules of art without the possessions and application of which a harmonious guidance of the Church is not possible.”[16] As he conceived of it, theology could be divided into three major areas: philosophical, historical, and practical.” With this the “the seed of specialized scholarship had been sown.”[17] From there it was a short step to establishing chairs and departments of divinity at the universities. This had already begun in Europe as early as Edinburgh in 1620 and 1694. The freedom loving, scientific minded, and mercenary Americans were not far behind with their own chairs of theology and at Harvard (1721) and Yale (1755). This specialization quickly led to the idea of graduate level instruction[18] along with the granting of masters and doctoral degrees.[19]

2.2.         North America

As these programs proliferated in the very commercial context of North America, a kind of competition between schools developed. That in turn lead to the question of the relative value or worth of the individual degrees. Did these degrees all represent the same level of education?

In order to establish the quality of their own programs (degrees) and establish the value returned on the investment made by students the vast majority of these schools turned to the notion of accreditation, a means by which a supposedly independent agency, such as the Association of Theological Schools, examines and confirmed the integrity of a given program. According to their handbook the ATS accrediting process is “a primary means of quality assurance in North American higher education.”[20] The agency’s standards for Degree Programs is “intended to ensure a common understanding of the academic work involved in degree programs at member schools and to provide common public meaning for a degree.”[21] Initially, accreditation meant that “a school had adequate library resources, facilities, and faculties appropriate in skill and education for graduate, professional theological education.”[22]

In this way, the Humboldtian vison[23] of education was disseminated, if not imposed, on various schools in order to insure a uniform standard[24] for judging the adequacy of professional training.

2.3.         Cost

All of this became enormously expensive and soon state and national Church funding was insufficient and a new source of revenue, fees and tuition, was established. The reasoning seems to be that the student is provided with a service (education), quality-certified by a resume-enhancing, accredited degree, which increases the likelihood[25] of employment, can be used as a benchmark by potential employers, and justification for demanding increased levels of compensation. For all this the students themselves should bear some of the cost. And so, “The cost of obtaining a U.S. degree is among the highest in the world and rising…”[26] Yet, those costs seem to be justified since a higher education (a degree) generally leads to higher earning power.[27]

With tuition the main source of income, there was a constant struggle to increase the number of paying students and reduce the cost of the services provided. In other words, to develop a new business model.[28] One approach was to diversify the schools offerings by introducing additional degree programs (M.A,, Th.M, etc.) for those who do not seek fulltime work in the Church. Modern technology, such as online and distance learning was also introduced on the basis of cost/benefit considerations. Of course, online instruction is relatively new and still being developed. So, its actual effectiveness remains a matter of some doubt.[29] But, even if those criticisms could be answered, it remains clear that spiritual formation cannot possibly be done in cyberspace.

2.4.         Orthodox Schools

There can be no question as to the fact that Orthodox theological schools have adopted these Humboltian (scientific, humanistic) and commercialized devices and structures. Looking in from the outside, one might be tempted to say that today they too are selling a product (education/degree), which has to be bought and paid for, which, however “assures” the potential “employers” (parishes) of its quality (“guarantees” that the graduates’ ability to do the work of a pastor), and which justifies the candidate’s demand for a substantially higher benefits package.[30] These, then, are some of the developments that have moved the original concept of the seminary away from theologia as pious learning[31] and transformed it into degree granting institutions of graduate education and have professionalized[32] its graduates, rather than forming them spiritually for their pastoral duties.

While it is understandable that secular universities embedded in the North American consumer context have chosen to take this path, given the original goal of spiritual formation one has to wonder why the seminaries have given in so easily. Or am I being too pessimistic? But have they really given in? Isn’t there something left of the original ideals of seminary training?

To their credit, I believe that the administrators of both St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary and Holy Cross Graduate School of Theology have, in fact, sought to maintain some of those original values and outcomes. While not a prominent feature, you will find numerous references to spiritual formation throughout their websites and catalogues. Holy Cross defines itself as an “intellectual, educational, and spiritual formation center of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America…”[33] Both schools invest a lot into developing an on campus social, academic, and worship community. This includes on campus living arrangements, common meals, and a daily liturgical cycle. These schools still seek to maintain something of that original seminary vision no matter what they call themselves. This is evident in the way they describe themselves.

Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology is an Orthodox Christian seminary and graduate school of theology centered on the Trinitarian faith as revealed by Jesus Christ and as preserved in its fullness, genuineness, and integrity by the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The School embodies the historic and specific educational mission of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and its archdiocese in the United States. Holy Cross educates its students to articulate and understand the biblical, historical, dogmatic, ethical, and liturgical traditions of the Orthodox Church. Students are prepared to become future Orthodox clergy and lay leaders who demonstrate faith, sensitivity, and compassion as they cultivate an attitude of offering a service of truth and love in the world. Through its graduate degree programs, Holy Cross offers men and women the opportunity to become spiritually mature persons through immersion in worship, theological studies, and service to community.[34]

St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary serves Christ, his Church, and the world through Orthodox Christian theological education, research[35], and scholarship, and the promotion of inter-Orthodox cooperation. In this way, the Seminary prepares students for ministry as bishops, priests, deacons, lay leaders, and scholars so that they may build up Orthodox communities, foster Church growth through mission and evangelism, teach the Orthodox faith, and care for those in need.[36]

  1. 3.     Assessment

    In spite of these efforts, I believe that we have suffered a number of negative effects because of the twin dangers of an academic view imposed by extra-ecclesial agencies and professionalization of the priesthood. These schools appear to be living and operating in a no-man’s land between an ancient vision and contemporary realities. The tension this causes is evident when St. Vladimir’s reconstitutes itself in primarily business terms replete with CEO in order to better preserve the true purpose of a seminary.[37] Whether this structural reorganization or, for that matter, any of the other “advancements (degrees, accreditation, tuition, etc.) will help or continue to bring further damage may well depend on the administrators’ ability to remain committed to the very clear and focused understanding of theological education set out in our Tradition and evaluate every proposed innovation in light of that ultimate purpose, the spiritual formation of future priests.

     I wonder if Archbishop Dmitri’s[38] vision of a diocesan level program of priestly formation, conducted in local parishes, by qualified senior clergy, without tuition, degrees, or accreditation, might not have been a step back in the right direction. But alas, a minor program like that would have brought “competition” and loss of revenue to the major schools. So, the idea never got off the ground.

  2. 4.     Conclusion

    I am not suggesting that we abandon our seminaries or that we make major changes to the ways in which they are structured and run. I know that the world has changed and that the Church and its institutions are required to meet those challenges and, at least in some cases, adapt themselves to the new situation. However, I do believe that, in light of the secular and godless nature of many of those pressures, we will have to be especially vigilant.

    If we are correct in assuming that it has become increasingly difficult to do the work of the Church and in particular to introduce Christ to others, we will have to ask ourselves how we can improve that situation, that is, under what conditions can the ministries of the Church take place?

    According to St. Theophan the Recluse (commenting on Zechariah 8:22), “Those who live always according to the Spirit of Christ are, without the use of words, the best preachers of Christ and the most convincing apostles of Christianity.”

    In other words, it is the mature believer who is in a position be fully present Christ to others and introduce them to Him, to do the work of the Church. If that is true, then the original purpose of the seminary, spiritual formation, becomes even more important than it has been.

    At the outset, I mentioned that I teach at Duke Divinity School. My work there began as a result of a conversation with the person who was the academic Dean, Willi Jennings. He shared with me his concern that the students who came with a vibrant faith soon lost that under the onslaught of the very liberal and academic teaching. In order to help the students maintain their faith, the school began to require all incoming students to participate in what they called Spiritual Formation groups. When he offered to have me lead one of those groups, I asked him what exactly he was trying to accomplish, what I was supposed to do. Without hesitation he said “teach them how to pray and how to read the scriptures,” in other words, use your Orthodox perspective to lead them to a fuller understanding and commitment to life in Christ. In other words, he wanted to revive the ancient notion of a seminary in spite of the school’s  divinity school designation. At the time, I agreed to take a group and have done so for about 15 years. My main concern with the idea was that they relegated spiritual formation to special first-year groups, rather than to the whole program of the seminary, and that they separated it from the regular academic classes rather than allowing spiritual formation to inform all disciplines. I did what I could, but it was a struggle.

    Applying that experience to our own Orthodox schools, what I am hoping is that we will reemphasize spiritual formation as the primary goal of the entire enterprise and to keep that alive in the midst of all the changes we will have to make.


[1] Catholic Church. et al., The Code of Canon Law, in English Translation (London, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Collins, Eerdmans, 1983), Can. 232.

[2] Ibid., Can. 245 §1.

[3] Ibid., Can. 246 §1.

[4] Ibid., Can. 248.

[5] Ibid., Can. 251.”

[6] Ibid., Can. 252 §1.

[7] Ibid., Can. 252 §2.

[8] Ibid., Can. 253 §1.

[9] This is not only true of the Roman Catholic Seminaries. The Orthodox St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary was established (1925) because the hierarchy “recognized the need for American-born-and- raised clergy and decided to establish a permanent seminary.”  Cf. "Our History," St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, https://www.svots.edu/our-history.  Similarly, a free Church in Germany established (1912) a Predigerschule (preacher school), that is, its own “Ausbildungsstätte (place of training) ‘für Diener des Wortes.’” Cf. "Geschichte Der Hochschule," Theologische Hochschule Ewersbach, http://www.th-ewersbach.de/die-hochschule/geschichte/.

[10] Heinrich Kern, "Humboldt's Educational Ideal and Modern Academic Education,"  (2010): 1.

[11] Steven Muller, "Wilhelm Von Humboldt and the University in the United States," Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest 6, no. 3 (1985): 254.

[12] Charles J Conniry "Reducing the Identity Crisis in Doctor of Ministry Education" (George Fox University, 2004).

[13] In the German sense of Wissenschaft, a particular epistemology, research methodology involving Orderly, disciplined, critical inquiry.

[14] David H. Kelsey, Between Athens and Berlin : The Theological Education Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 15.

[15] According to Schleiermacher’s scheme, theology is to be viewed as a positive science. Heinrich Scholz, Schleiermachers Kurze Darstellung Des Theologischen Studiums (Leipzig: A. Deichert'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1935). Compare Pannenberg, Theology and the Philosophy of Science.

[16] Scholz, Schleiermachers Kurze Darstellung Des Theologischen Studiums, 2.

[18] “Shortly after, by an irrepressible inherent logic influenced by the German universities, particularly that at Halle, a graduate component appeared.” P. Joseph P Cahill, "Theologivcal Educations; Its Fragmentation and Unity," Theological Studies 45 (1984): 355.

[19] “the University of Berlin became the vanguard of modern “research universities”—and the first institution to confer the (modern) Doctor of Philosophy degree. Other German universities quickly followed suit, attracting many students from other countries, including the USA.1 By 1884, for example, thirteen of Johns Hopkins’ faculty had earned German doctorates. Accordingly, even though in 1861 Yale University was the first American institution to confer the Ph.D., scholars of American higher education typically cite the founding in 1876 of Johns Hopkins University as the decisive moment when the “Berlin” model made its debut tour de force in the American Academy.” Ibid., 138.

[20] Self-Study Handbook, (The Association of Theological Schools. The Commission on Accrediting, 2015), http://www.ats.edu/uploads/accrediting/documents/self-study-handbook-consolidated%20161107.pdf#pagemode=bookmarks. 1.

[21] "Standards and Notations," ATS, http://www.ats.edu/accrediting/standards-and-notations.

[22] Self-Study Handbook. 1-2.

[23] According to ATS standards, “Faculty are expected to engage in research, and each school shall articulate clearly its expectations and requirements for faculty research and shall have explicit criteria and procedures for the evaluation of research that are congruent with the purpose of the school and with commonly accepted standards in higher education.”

[24] Commission accreditation is based on Standards of Accreditation (“Standards”) and Policies and Procedures (“Procedures”) that have been adopted by the Commission’s membership.” This includes “specific Standards for each type of degree program offered by accredited schools that define an agreed-upon understanding of their purpose, content, location, duration, resources, and admission requirements.” Self-Study Handbook. 4.

[25] “The likelihood of unemployment, and the length of unemployment are typically lower for those with higher levels of education than for those with lower levels of education…”



[26] Wingfield Hau, "The World's Most Expensive Universities," Forbes  (208).

[27] “A large body of research focusing on identical twins routinely shows that the twin with more education earns more than the twin with less.” Michael Simkovic "A Value Added Perspective on Higher Education,"  (2016), https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=188070086031107070068095002081098110004011091052061061010086122126027076086006099119037011125063116000098100031075086096017097020075007033072001093116080112078004057018067116075008090072073112065082093113111101125103014121011116092111071103113020073&EXT=pdf.

[28] One administrator of St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press uses exactly that phrase. Speaking of a special donners “they have also helped us complete one of the short-term goals of our new business model” "Svs Press Receives Major Gift to Establish Endowment," St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, https://www.svots.edu/headlines/svs-press-receives-major-gift-establish-endowment.

[30] In a conversation with an OCA diocesan administrator, that priest expressed his frustration at the fact that he could no longer find seminary graduates willing to be assigned to places that did not meet their financial expectation. “All they want is more money.” Interview with Fr. Thomas Moore, dean of the Carolinas’ Deanery of the OCA Diocese of the South. May, 2018.

[31] Self-Study Handbook.

[32] “It would be but a short step to conceiving the minister as a professional, one prepared to undertake certain tasks. Farley even suggests—and I think quite correctly—that the ladder of ecclesiastical promotions was not constructed by intellectual or even pious acquaintance with theologia. Promotion, if this is the proper name, occurs because of abilities that have only a remote connection with theologia”  Cahill, "Theologivcal Educations; Its Fragmentation and Unity," 335.

[33] "Mission and Vision Statements," Holy Cross Hellenic College, http://www.hchc.edu/about/.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Hence the “publish or perish” maxim for faculty.

[36] "Our Mission, Vision, & Values," St Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, https://www.svots.edu/about/mission.

[38] Dmitri was archbishop of Dallas and the South (OCA), and just after 2000 he began floating this idea with some of us (his clergy) who shared an interest in such a project. It quickly became apparent that his suggestion would not resonate in the higher echelons of OCA leadership.