How long do converts wait before ordination?

Archbishop Dmitri Royster of Dallas was 31 years old and had been Orthodox for 13 years when he was ordained to the priesthood in 1954.

Last week, I wrote about the ordination ages of American Orthodox priests. In that article, I made some preliminary observations about the length of time converts to Orthodoxy wait before ordination to the priesthood — but I only had waiting period data for 47 convert priests. Since then, I’ve expanded that to 111 priests, which allows us to learn a bit more.

So how long do converts wait before ordination? The median wait for these 111 priests is 5 years, but that covers a long period from 1954 to 2018. If we split the sample into two groups — pre- and post-2000 — we can see a big shift: for the 60 priests ordained prior to 2000, the median waiting period is just one year; for the 51 priests since 2000, the median is eight years.

When I saw that, my first thought was, wow, our bishops are exercising a lot more restraint in recent years! Which might be a little bit true, but that’s not the whole story. See, prior to 2000, 59% of the convert priests in my study were men who previously served as clergymen in heterodox confessions. Since 2000, that percentage has dropped to 24%. This shift is the biggest factor in the increased waiting period for convert priests.

For all convert priests who were heterodox clergy, the median waiting period is zero years. 75% of these men were ordained almost immediately, no later than a year after they became Orthodox. (64% were ordained the same year they converted.) This group includes clergy from the “Evangelical Orthodox Church” and Christ the Saviour Brotherhood, as well as Byzantine Catholics and Episcopalians, among others.

But heterodox clergy don’t convert to Orthodoxy like they used to — as noted above, the proportion of heterodox clergy among convert priests has fallen from 59% to 24% since 2000. There are several likely reasons for this. For one, mass conversions, like the Evangelical Orthodox and Christ the Saviour Brotherhood, are uncommon, and they happened to be concentrated in the years prior to 2000. But also, there’s the simple fact that mainline Protestantism has moved much further away from Orthodoxy in recent decades, meaning the remaining clergy in those confessions are less likely to become Orthodox. Just look at the Episcopal Church: traditionally-minded Episcopalian clergymen — think of people like Fr. Chad Hatfield and Fr. Joseph Huneycutt, to name a couple familiar ones — left that denomination in the early ’90s. There just aren’t people like that left in the Episcopal Church.

As for convert priests who weren’t heterodox clergymen, their waiting period has not changed — the median wait for these men was eight years prior to 2000, and it’s been eight years since 2000. Only 8% were ordained less than three years after their conversion.

For all convert priests — whether former heterdox clergymen or not — the median age has not changed: it was 39 years old, both before and after 2000. But that’s just the median; at the younger extreme, before 2000, 21% of convert priests were ordained prior to the canonical minimum age of 30. Since 2000, that number has been cut in half, to 10%.

I’ll close today with two questions — questions that I’m sure many readers will have opinions about, but also questions that, someday, should be studied as empirically as possible:

  • How long should converts wait before ordination to the priesthood?
  • Should heterodox clergymen be fast-tracked into the Orthodox priesthood, or should they be treated the same as heterodox lay converts?

9 Replies to “How long do converts wait before ordination?”

  1. In statistics I am outlier. I was received into the Orthodox Church in 1964, I was ordained deacon and priest in 2006. Your sample is still rather small, and but I believe your basic point can be developed further. What strikes me is changes in church background. Whether clergy or lay at time of entry into the Orthodox Church, in the past had a readily discernible Christian background; they had been raised as Catholics or as Protestants in mainstream confessional denominations That is less likely to be the case today. Many are Nones, or if they have (or have had) church affiliations, these are likely to have changed several times. And of course these affiliations may change again. Unfortunately we have not done a good job of tracking former “convert Orthodox” whether lay or clergy. We like to congratulate ourselves on the number of people entering the Orthodox Church; we barely mention the number of people leaving the Orthodox Church.

  2. Very interesting article. It is up to the discernment and prerogative of the bishop, so prayers for illumination. Some converts did have an eagerness for mission and pulpit. Bishops have a very big job discerning ambition from service. And even among converts there is a revert within 3-5 years that I’d be interested to understand. Some converted for brittle reasons, like opposition to staid conventional churches, and were more likely to dropout for reasons related to people.

  3. 1. Ideally I think convert laymen should wait ten years before seeking ordination. But 8 probably works.

    2. Clergymen who convert are in a difficult situation. Usually they have families to support, or perhaps half support, if the wife works. In either case, most of these men have dependents! If they have a skill that can provide income, then push out ordination 8-10 years. Send them to seminary. If their families truly depend on their income, and ordination occurs more quickly, these men should be mentored for at least 5 years by a seasoned, mature priest. Then, if the mentor and bishop agree., perhaps he can pastor his own flock. I say this with the experience of having been a convert clergyman’s wife

  4. I 1997 and did mot enter seminary until 2007, being ordained to.the priesthood in 2010. The experiences, combined with a STRONG mentor before I went to Seminary, were VERY helpful.

  5. For the AOC, the math seems simple. 5 year minimum before enrollment to seminary + 3 year Mdiv program = 8 years.

  6. Is there a record of how long the father of St. Gregory Nazianzus was in the church before ordination? He was a heterodox bishop to start, there was no such thing as a seminary then. Time from conversion to ordination might also consider just what kind of seminary the convert attended. An episcopalian school since around the last 50 years is highly suspect. What was said about episcopalians is quite true, they don’t make clerics like they might once have. It’s worth mentioning that this means they don’t make laymen like they used to. Starting with actual christian laymen makes it more likely to produce actually christian and orthodox clergy. The “problem” of clergy converts starts some years before we tend to think. In addition there are Orthodox jurisdictions where convert clergy make up a large proportion. This has implications for the laity inside the Orthodox Church. If laity are not producing their “own” clergy, what’s been going on in those parishes, over decades? Conversion needs also to happen inside the Church, not only from the outside inward.

  7. I can say, with confidence, that the mass conversion of EOC to the AANA, back in the early 1990s and the reception of their clergy as Orthodox clergy was one of the worst decisions that could have been made. Only now are churches in the AANA who have these men as priests finally being able to break away from the bad habits and preferences they brought with them especially the music. these men were not trained in Orthodox music except for maybe the Kazan project which is only in a most basic sense considered Byzantine chant. And the lack of good authentic Orthodox music in these parishes has lead to bad habits and a disconnect from the rich chanting tradition from the mother churches. Now, under Met. JOSEPH, the musical direction is finally getting back to its roots and these convert clergy are aghast which means it is the right thing to do.

  8. Why were/are AANA parishes so unlikely to have sons of the congregation enter the priesthood? There’s a kind of a yawning gap between ought to and is. If the so important “traditional” music were effective for the laity perhaps more laity exposed to it would make that step? It’s a guess things had not and may yet not be functioning too well in jurisdictions that depend on an ethnic background for clergy candidates. The EOC men may not have been perfect, no man is. Some of the habits they found when they came into the Church were not perfect either.

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