A few weeks ago, I published some data about American Orthodox bishops, including the fact that 58% of bishops in American Orthodox history were ordained to the priesthood before they turned thirty — this, despite the fact that the canons require a minimum age of thirty for priestly ordination. Today, I will dig deeper into this question of priestly ordination age.
For this study, I have gathered the birth and ordination years for 258 priests in American Orthodox history, from the 1940s to the present day. Of these 258 priests, 60 went on to become bishops. (The reason only 60 of the 200-plus American Orthodox bishops are included in this study is because I focused only on those priests who were ordained in America, rather than abroad, and I limited my study to period since the 1940s.)
The percentage of priests who were ordained before age 30 has changed dramatically over time. Up to 1980, 70% of priests in my study were in their twenties at ordination. Only 5% were 40 or older, and none were over 50.
Contrast that with the period since 1980: only 19% were in their twenties, nearly half were 40 and up, and 21% were over 50.
In our day, the average ordination age is right around 40, and it’s been pretty steady since about 1980:
What caused that big jump from the 1970s to the 1980s? Well, one major factor is likely the evolution of seminary education in America. Three of the major American Orthodox seminaries — Holy Cross, St. Vladimir’s, and St. Tikhon’s — all opened in 1937-38. But initially, these seminaries didn’t offer the M.Div. programs that we’re accustomed to today. Students, who were virtually all cradle Orthodox, received bachelor’s degrees.
Things began to change in the 1960s. St. Vladimir’s joined the Association of Theological Schools in 1966, and its M.Div. program began the next year. In 1973, St. Vladimir’s achieved full ATS accreditation; Holy Cross followed suit a year later. (St. Tikhon’s didn’t offer an M.Div. until 1989, and it was almost two decades more before the seminary attained full accreditation.)
In 1980, Metropolitan Philip Saliba established the Antiochian House of Studies, a distance learning program that opened up a pathway to the clergy for older men who weren’t in a position to uproot their families and attend seminary. This program mainly produced deacons rather than priests, but many graduates of the program went on to become priests in the Antiochian Archdiocese and in other jurisdictions. In time, several other jurisdictions established their own late vocations programs. The history of this movement is not well documented, but it seems to be a factor that contributed to the increase in older priests being ordained.
Also in this period, an increasing number of converts began to join the Church, the most prominent being the large number of converts from the “Evangelical Orthodox Church” and from Christ the Saviour Brotherhood. Convert priests tend to be older than cradles: Prior to 1980, the average ordination ages for cradle Orthodox priests was 27.5, while the convert average was 32.9. Both of those numbers went up by a full decade — since 1980, the cradle average is 38.6 and the convert average is 43.2.
Speaking of converts, nearly one-quarter of the priests in my data set converted to the Orthodox faith, and all but two of them were ordained in the 1960s or later. I have always been interested in the length of time between conversion and ordination, and for 47 of the convert priests, I have both the year they converted to Orthodoxy and the year they were ordained. On average, these converts waited 6.8 years before ordination. 21 of the 47 waited three years or fewer; 13 of them were ordained almost immediately, the same year they were received into the Church.
These rapid ordinations have had mixed results, and there does appear to be some impetus to require a longer waiting period before ordination. Back in 1987, the Antiochian Metropolitan Philip ordained dozens of “Evangelical Orthodox” convert clergy immediately, as soon as they were chrismated. But later, the same Metropolitan Philip began to require a minimum 3-year waiting period between conversion and seminary enrollment, and this was eventually extended to five years. For what it’s worth — and the sample sizes here are pretty small — the overall waiting period seems to be increasing: the average wait between conversion and ordination for convert priests in my data set was 3.4 years from 1950-1989, and 8.9 years from 1990-present.
All this is very preliminary. 258 priests over a ~75 year period isn’t a large sample, and this whole area really calls for more rigorous study. My hope is that studies like this can help lay the groundwork for deeper analysis in the future.