Back to the Future: A New Old Model for Clergy Training


Metropolitan Antony Bashir

Today, the main way a man becomes an Orthodox priest in America is by completing an M.Div. program at an Orthodox seminary, the biggest being Holy Cross, St. Vladimir’s, and St. Tikhon’s. All of these seminaries opened at the same time — 1938-39 — and initially, they didn’t offer master’s degrees, instead awarding bachelor’s degrees to their students, who tended to be in their early 20s. These early seminaries were affiliated with the Greek Archdiocese (Holy Cross) and the Russian Metropolia (today’s OCA, which had both St. Vladimir’s and St. Tikhon’s). The other big jurisdiction in America, the Antiochian Archdiocese, has never had its own seminary.

While aspiring Antiochian priests have long attended the Greek and OCA seminaries, it wasn’t always that way. Prior to the modern seminary movement, a young Antiochian man called to the priesthood would be apprenticed to and trained by an experienced priest. In 1944, Metropolitan Antony Bashir decided to enhance this process by creating a “Preceptorial Council,” which would oversee the training and theological education of prospective American-born clergymen.

In the chaos and uncertainty caused by COVID-19, it is, at the moment, somewhat unclear when our seminarians will be able to return to their campuses. And that’s even before taking into account the long-term economic viability of the seminary model itself, especially given that the two biggest seminaries (Holy Cross and St. Vladimir’s) are located in two of the most expensive localities in the country (Brookline, Mass. and Westchester County, NY). In light of this, Metropolitan Antony Bashir’s older alternative to seminary training may be worth another look.

The original system, which Metropolitan Antony enhanced in 1944, provided for the following:

  • A divinity student should complete a baccalaureate course in a reputable secular college.
  • The student should prepare himself for a secular profession “in order to be self-supporting at need, and in order also to serve the Church with the specialized knowledge so acquired.”
  • While in college, and for as long as necessary afterward, the student should study theological subjects under the direction of one or more experienced priests appointed as “preceptors.”
  • As soon as the young man had completed his education and either got married or decided to remain celibate for life, he should be ordained so that he could begin his apprenticeship.
  • Men with an aptitude for scholarship would be strongly encouraged, and if possible assisted financially, to pursue doctoral studies.

This model had some flexibility, able to be adjusted by the Archdiocese based on the man’s age, amount of schooling already completed, and the urgency of need for his services.

In 1944, Metropolitan Antony took this basic structure and created a “Preceptorial Council,” which would oversee the whole process, recommending candidates for ordination, appointing students to preceptors, and recruiting preceptors to focus on specific subjects where they had expertise. One of the Preceptorial Council’s founding documents summed up its purpose: “Briefly stated, the Council’s plan of operation is founded solidly upon a realistic recognition of the fact that our resources are small and weak; and upon a fixed resolution to use all our knowledge and ingenuity to make the best of what we have.”

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Given that you’ve almost certainly never heard of the Preceptorial Council, it goes without saying that the thing didn’t last. In the end, most Antiochian clergy ended up attending the Greek and OCA seminaries, which they do to this day. I don’t know exactly when the Preceptorial Council died out, but elements of it (if not a direct connection) can be seen in the Antiochian House of Studies, which was created by Metropolitan Philip Saliba — Metropolitan Antony’s successor — in 1980. While the House of Studies mostly trains deacons via a correspondence program, it has also produced many priests in its 40 years of existence. Whereas the Preceptorial Council focused on college-age young men, the House of Studies and other jurisdictional distance learning programs generally cater to older students who have established careers. Significantly, these modern distance learning programs generally do not assume that the student will go on to serve a formal apprenticeship under an experienced priest. And most graduates of these programs don’t end up shepherding their own flocks, instead mostly serving as deacons or attached priests to their parishes.

There are good reasons why the seminary model has lasted for 70-plus years — but then, inertia is also a powerful force. Perhaps now could be an appropriate time to give some thought to the old Antiochian model, which is as sort of hybrid of the seminary M.Div. track and the distance learning programs that are offered to “late vocations” people — perhaps a combination of online academic courses (offered by the existing seminary faculty, if desired), coupled with mentorship by experienced local clergy appointed by their hierarch and paid a stipend for their efforts. Students could work out of local parish offices, assisting the clergy and undertaking projects such as adult education classes and participation in parish council meetings. With daily hands-on experience in parish administration, these up-and-coming clergymen would learn firsthand how to lead a local Orthodox community.

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What are the goals of seminary education for prospective priests? What are we trying to achieve? As I see it, it’s something along the lines of this (in no particular order):

  • theological education
  • liturgical training
  • preparing men to be parish priests
  • preparing their families
  • spiritual formation
  • fostering peer relationships
  • fostering cross-jurisdictional relationships

The current seminary model is pretty good at some of those things, and maybe not so perfect at others. Some version of the old Antiochian model —  which might be a practical necessity for at least the Fall 2020 semester anyway — would have its own strengths and weaknesses. Two of the biggest weaknesses would likely be in the areas of peer and cross-jurisdictional relationships, but this could be mitigated by gathering students and their families in person for extended periods of time in the summer — something that’s already done, on some level, in many of the “late vocations” programs.

Maybe this model would work; maybe it wouldn’t, for one reason or another. Regardless, the COVID-19 crisis may force such an experiment upon us. If schools are not allowed to open for in-person classes in the Fall 2020 semester — a very real possibility — our jurisdictions and seminaries may have little choice but to try out an approach similar to the one described here. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.

6 Replies to “Back to the Future: A New Old Model for Clergy Training”

  1. The adoption of the preceptor model is good but often ordaining men before age 30.

    My very strong opinion is that all priests must have held a secular job full time for al LEAST a few years. This is about the only way they can understand the pressures of employment in the secular world, as most of the parishioners will live day to day.

    Then, a preceptor program is VITAL. No man should be given a parish without having been mentored along side a seasoned priest.

    This I know from experience.

    PS – I LOVE these posts!

  2. Having taken part in one of the distance learning programs for the diaconate and now being enrolled at St. Tikhon’s, I can see the wisdom of this model. One weakness of the current seminary model is that seminary accreditation in America is (in some ways) incompatible with Orthodoxy. Meaning, we have required classes that are not key to Orthodox ministry, and then, several of the incredibly important classes to Orthodox ministry do not even count toward the degree. So, if the aspiring priest does not necessarily need an M.Div., but needs practical pastoral guidance, the above-proposed model could improve on some of the current weaknesses. …But as you say, if we cannot return to a normal school year in Fall 2020, this could provide some inspiration as to how we might be able to adapt, even if temporarily.

  3. Several of the suggestions made here are built in, at least formally, to the program of the Diocese of Chicago pastoral school program: mentorship, practical internship work in the parish, in particular.

  4. One crucial aspect of seminary life is spiritual formation, as you listed. Being part of a seminary community, with a full cycle of daily services (which is not possible in a typical parish) are crucial.
    One aspect that is often overlooked is the use of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). While CPE was originally formulated in Protestant settings it is very valuable training in the basics of pastoral counseling and ministering to the sick along with growing in self awareness. Thankfully, St. Vladimir’s has adopted CPE as part of their curriculum while St. Tikhon’s has since dropped it and the other seminaries, as far as I know, do not require it nor encourage it.

    1. Possession of one unit of CPE also opens the door to professional hospital chaplaincy for seminary graduates. When I received my MDiv at SVS the program only encompassed a portion of a unit, and as far as I know it was not transferable. The hundred hours of CPE training our class undertook was excellent education but the expanded program which affords CPE certification is a real boost to grads re-entering the job market.

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