Under-30 American Orthodox Priests Are Disappearing

Fr. Andrew Damick, cofounder of SOCHA, was ordained to the priesthood in 2006.

A few weeks ago, I published some preliminary data from a study I’m conducting on the ordination ages of American Orthodox priests, as well as the waiting period between convert priests’ conversions and their ordinations. Since publishing those articles, I’ve expanded my sample considerably. Today, I am sharing some updated data.

I now have ordination ages for 408 priests — a 58% increase in sample size compared to my initial report. Here are two charts, followed by my tentative interpretations.

In the early days of Orthodox seminary education, in the 1940s and ’50s, the median ordination age was 25, and all but a small handful of priests were cradle Orthodox. In this period, 86% of priests were under the canonical minimum age of 30 when they were ordained.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the median age moved up to the late twenties. As best I can tell, the two biggest factors that led to this shift were (1) the evolution of seminary education, which shifted from unaccredited bachelor’s degrees to accredited programs that ultimately became the MDivs that we know today, and (2) an increasing number of convert priests, who tended to be just a little bit older than their cradle counterparts. But still, in the ’60s and ’70s combined, 58% of priests were ordained before they turned 30.

In the 1980s, the median age jumped by nearly a decade, from 28 to 37 — and the under-30 percentage fell off a cliff, from 63% in the 1970s to 18% in the 1980s. This was not caused by an increase in converts, although there were certainly a lot of middle-aged convert priests in the ’80s, most notably from the “Evangelical Orthodox Church.” But even if we ignore converts entirely, the median ordination age for cradle Orthodox priests went up from 27 in the 1970s to 36 in the 1980s. At this point, my best guess is that this is a continued effect of the evolution of seminary education. Another possible contributing factor might be later marriage ages, although I don’t have enough data on that to say with confidence.

The 1990s and 2000s look almost the same as the ’80s — the overall median age is around 38, with cradles around 35 and converts 41. The percentage of priests ordained before turning 30 was 22%.

The current decade has seen a notable shift — the most notable since the 1980s. The overall median age has fallen a bit, from 38 to 35, but the age of cradle priests has remained pretty constant (falling by just a year, which could very well be randomness). The interesting thing is what’s happening with convert priests: the median age has fallen from 41 to 35.

Somewhat paradoxically, while the median ordination age for convert priests has declined by six years, the median waiting period (between conversion and ordination) has increased by three years, from 6 to 9. (I should say, the two groups — the age group and the waiting period group — are not 100% identical. For some priests, I only had one or the other number.)

Perhaps even more paradoxically, just 7% of the priests in the study were ordained before turning 30. So we’ve got (1) a decline in the median ordination age, (2) a paradoxical decline in very young (under 30) priests, and (3) an increase in the waiting period for convert priests.

Regarding the converts, what I think is going on — and I mentioned this in a previous article — is that we aren’t seeing nearly as many heterodox clergymen converting to Orthodoxy and being ordained priests. The demographics of our convert priests have shifted. In the 1980s and 1990s combined, 57% of convert priests had previously been clergymen in a heterodox confession. That percentage fell to 41% in the 2000s and then all the way to 19% in the current decade. What seems to be happening, then, is that heterodox clergy-turned-Orthodox priests are becoming less common, and instead, we’re seeing an increase in men who convert to Orthodoxy in their 20s, go to an Orthodox seminary, and get ordained at roughly the same ages as their cradle Orthodox peers.

As for why under-30 ordinations have become so rare — I don’t know what’s going on. Are bishops becoming more intentional about following the canons regarding ordination age? Is it just a quirk in my particular data set, something that would disappear with more complete data? At this point, I don’t know — but it’s really fascinating.

Needless to say, all of this is tentative and preliminary, and I offer my interpretations as hypotheses rather than firm conclusions. We have a lot more work to do to better understand our history and our present condition.

4 Replies to “Under-30 American Orthodox Priests Are Disappearing”

  1. I do know of one Dean, now reposed, who was quite vocal in private conversations about how most of his biggest problems as Dean came from the youngest priests and firmly advocated a “return to the canons” on this issue because he felt that the extra time would help eliminate some of the pastoral “immaturity problems.”

  2. Regarding the under 30’s, I imagine it somewhat is a mirror of the increase in the median age of marriage? That has increased notably in the last decade, and if young men are waiting to become priests until marriage that is a likely, partial explanation. In the 80’s young men were getting married around the age of 25-26, but now that number is closer to 30.

  3. I think overall in society at large we are seeing the age of maturity going up and up. More people in their 20s than ever before are still living with their parents. When you have that across a society as a whole it would just follow that you would have fewer young men that have the maturity to approach ordination at a younger age. I would say the man under 30 that can stand up to such a challenge is definetely the exception and not the rule.

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