Thirty-nine years ago I left this campus with gifts similar to yours. Like you, I have been blessed to have studied under some of the greatest Orthodox theologians of the time. Like you, I enjoyed or endured a community that was sometimes supportive and at other times challenging. I forged friendships with peers that would sustain me for a lifetime. Like you, I experienced some of both Crestwood’s and New York’s air, accents and crowds. And like you, my time at St. Vladimir’s came with the responsibility to live among God’s people and fulfill my royal priesthood with the added responsibilities that come with the knowledge and understanding gained here.
As difficult as my mission was to be, ministering to people of different generations, from varied ethnic and socio-economic strata, from hippies to Babbas, your challenge is greater. In addition to dinosaurs of my generation, you will live among post-modernists who imagine themselves to be the center of the universe, and who believe themselves to be self-contained, needing no “other” for fulfillment. You will minister to people for whom truth is, at best, relative. For many, including baptized Orthodox Christians in our pews, people believe themselves to be self-sufficient, needing no other, and, amazingly enough, “no other” includes God.
I must confess, I came to seminary confident that I knew quite a bit about my faith and parish life. I had served in the altar from a very young age, had been an officer of our teen group, and had served as a member of the choir and parish council. Every semester I realized I knew less and less, and today I am the least confident in my grasp of theology. I am committed, however, to an understanding that this is indeed the process of education, particularly when encountering the ultimately unknowable. In any case, we serve as best we can, striving to be faithful to God and the complex people that we serve.
Are you ready to commence your lives as churchmen and women? Let me share what I wish I knew when I started my church life some forty years ago.
From this holy place, I went forth with gifts that included relationships with holy mentors. These men and women loved God and loved His Church, and almost all of them have now gone to their rest. For a while, at least, they were available to me. I remember offering a lecture on human sexuality at an Orthodox clergy conference, with Frs. John Meyendorff, Thomas Hopko and Paul Lazor in the audience. That was a memorable, yet intimidating, day for me. Somehow, at least for a day, these mentors had become something like peers. This is not to say that I can claim to be a theologian, but we are all church workers, and as such, they were willing to be for a while in the audience. They had no obligation to offer their validations, but they accepted me as a fellow churchman and were willing to sit on the other side of the desk. Today, dear graduates, our relationships change, as you are no longer seminarians but co-servants in Christ’s ministry. You would do well to maintain your relationships with those who have shared themselves with you these past days.
Among the gifts I received from this place were studies in Scripture, history, canon law, liturgical theology, liturgics, music, pastoral care and dogmatics. When in class, I thought that these subjects would be helpful as background, never realizing how I would need to call upon these lessons daily and directly to meet real pastoral needs, defend our teachings, and answer honest questions from parishioners. As I reflect, I wish I had done more of the readings.
Among the gifts, too, were relationships with peers, which today I value in equal measure with those of the mentors, and with my studies. The men and women with whom I studied side-by-side would help me understand what is normal in my own development as a churchman, and offer support and perspective to help me problem-solve, adjust to married life and grow as a person. Do the work you need to do in order to keep these relationships alive. You will need them in the future.
All of these gifts I have used over the last thirty-nine years as I endeavored to meet my needs as a person, the needs of my family, and the needs of God’s people, among whom my bishop sent me to live as his representative. I was to serve them by tending to the corporate prayer; showing them God’s compassion in confession and counsel; providing hospitality that demonstrated God’s love; sharing time with them, showing God’s caring for them; and journeying with them as we grew up, or at least aged together.
Thirty-nine years ago I was twenty-four years old and serving a parish as a priest. Some of you will serve God in the Church as priests or deacons, other as leaders, and still others as counselors. Sometimes the witness of one who is not ordained is more powerful, because people can’t think that you are witnessing because it is your “job” as a clergyman. In any case, all of us who have been gifted with our encounters at this holy place will serve God’s people and be judged by how we represent God. This, I contend, is despite our varied roles and capacities. Because you have been here, God will use you within His royal priesthood to meet the needs of His people.
Today I wish to call your attention to the uniqueness of our vocation: unique, because each of us will be used by God differently. This is so because of the experiences that we brought with us when we came here. It is also true because of the uniqueness of our life-journeys, which will include different people, circumstances and challenges. I strongly urge you to embrace your age. Don’t be a father at age 25 to a 70-year-old. Be like a son who has been to seminary and comes with much to learn and much to share. Win them over as persons, and let them use you and your holy relationship to encounter God. Come on “too big,” and they will run away, or cut you in half! Allow yourself to have fun with all the kinds of wonderful characters that God has called to live in His Church.
I can’t say that every moment of my life was fun- packed and glorious. I can’t even say that my time here at this sacred place and thirty-three years in the parish was always fun. But the joy of witnessing God’s work in the lives of my family, parish and community from the inside was spectacular. Life in the Church allows us to see God working as closely as if we were on the stage of an improv, seeing the plot made up and unfold before our eyes. Such is our life as churchmen and women. How blessed it is to be constantly in the epicenter of God’s work, and able to see it, too.
Friends – and I call you friends because I share with you honestly what is on my mind and in my heart – I paid a lot of attention to keeping balance in my life. Balance, and setting appropriate priorities, are achieved only by deliberate and consistent work. Work to monitor and control your time, energy, and resources. It is an effort to order the use of these gifts deliberately, and with a vision of our goals, charge, and mandates. Work to identifying our real needs and meet them. In my opinion, our priorities must be set in the same order that God through His Church gives us His gifts.
Now, this is not to say that if a parishioner is dying and in need, you should go fishing. Rather, be sure to use your flexibility as the manager of your own time to meet both needs, not foregoing your own priorities. You can visit the hospital, or arrange for another priest to make the visit before your trip. Use your flexibility to make up for missed family obligations when the schedule of Church priorities is beyond your control. Too often, we teach people to have unreasonable expectations of us; then we get frustrated when we can’t meet them. We need to gently and firmly teach, teach and teach. Fighting is different from teaching, and fighting is not productive. We must gently model and teach what is reasonable, fair and holy.
The first sacrament for all Christians is baptism. In this sacrament we are initiated into the Church and enter into an intimate relationship with God from inside the body of Christ. So my first priority is my relationship with God and my needs to maintain and nurture that relationship. This includes time for prayer, including listening to God through study and quietness as well as sabbath or regular rest. It also includes maintaining the varied relationships with other people that I need to be fed and stay healthy. Let me ask you, what can I offer my wife and family if I am compromised by not being right with God? It is somehow a gift to my family to model a healthy relationship with God and to receive the truth and inspiration that comes from God through prayer, reading and relating to mentors, peers and protégés.
The second sacramental and liturgical dance around the Gospel Book is that of marriage. Marriage is a gift that keeps on giving, and keeps on taking. Successful marriages are dynamic and developing. We become more and more united with each other and God as we succeed in becoming more and more vulnerable, open, honest and intimate. God has given us each other to find Him. This takes lots of work, as we praise God together and meet the challenges He gives us in our lives. When we model making our spouses and families a priority, we better serve the parishioners who are learning more from our lives as examples, than from our preaching and teaching. We serve our parishioners better when we take better care of our families and ourselves.
Thirdly and lastly, before our funerals, some process around the Gospel book in their ordinations. Here I will loosely include those of you who will successfully avoid formal ordination, but will nevertheless serve God through the Church in other capacities. We do well to remember that priesthood is not a job, but a life. We live among God’s people as examples, teachers, coaches, friends, confidants and servants. All real leadership and power in the Church is in serving. In serving, you will be given by those you serve trust and authority. In serving, you will prove your authenticity as a churchman or Christian. In serving, you will influence others and God will work. In serving, you will fulfill your vocation and enjoy the joys of a blessed life. By witnessing to others, you will see God work in their lives and in your own. This is awe-inspiring; be open to this awe. It is a gift from God and will strengthen your faith and feed you in your own journey.
Among our personal needs, which we meet so that we can meet the needs of others, are prayer, continued study and the three kinds of relationships I have described: those with mentors, peers and protégés. It is said that everyone needs a Paul, Bartholomew and Titus. We need mentors, who can offer us support from their experience and help us learn how to make use of our gifts. Mentors teach us how to avoid common pit-falls, and help us learn our roles. We also need peers, who can remind us that our labor is difficult, especially in these quickly changing times. We need protégés, who can challenge us to grow by understanding what God is doing in our lives and giving language to feelings and thoughts. Protégés challenge us to live honestly and deliberately.
Americans are notorious for not doing the work it takes to develop, nurture and keep relationships. Your parishioners will complain to you about how lonely they feel. When you organize events to bring them together, they will in great numbers not come. People seem to assume that friendships should just happen. Today’s technological world is isolating and friendships take lots of work.
It is reported that most Americans, excluding spouses, will go to their graves without more than 1.5 meaningful relationships. It is essential for us to work at our relationships to have balance and health. Please, do that work.
Secondly, it is important to lead with confidence, based on your role as leaders in the Church as defined by the bishop who sent you to live among the people. If you fight for your position, it will be understood that your position is up for negotiation. Instead firmly, patiently and lovingly teach about the roles we live in the Church for the benefit of the people and community. A favorite analogy for me is that the world is playing tag. If you chase them, they will run. If you stand still, they will be able to stop running and eventually listen. Approach each soul with all of the respect due a complex creature in the image and likeness of the ultimately unknowable God. If you don’t push, they will eventually follow. If you try to sell, they will not buy. A mentor told me once that the priest never wins a fight. If he prevails over another person he gets an enemy that needs to win back his dignity, and if he loses the skirmish, he loses credibility. We need to reframe our disputes so that everyone can win. Sometimes we can put off a discussion long enough for everyone to save face. To be more efficient, sometimes we treat people as if they were all the same. This shows little respect for the person. When you show respect to your parishioner, you counter he effects of the world and the surprised parishioner will begin to release the anger that he carries from being disrespected in and by the modern world.
Brothers and sisters, you represent the Church for the faithful and, as social creatures, those you serve want – no, need the love and acceptance of their Church community. You represent God, whom your parishioner fears is angry and far away. I am convinced that the hostility people have toward their church leaders comes from the basic fear of rejection. So afraid are they of rejection, that they protect themselves with animosity, distance, resistance and anger. Ultimately, the priest and church leaders will stand over their lifeless bodies and proclaim even if their life had been worth living. Church leaders are imagined to have great power, so in return, some do all kinds of things to protect themselves. In such challenging moments, be kind. Be patient. Be loving, and wait. They will grow or leave. In my service to the Church, I have successfully outlived every parish member that ever gave me trouble.
When faced with challenges, ask critical questions, like, What is true? What is real? What is fair? and, What is holy? The adage that “what we need most, we learned in kindergarten,” has merit. Seminary is helpful, too, but we do well when we simplify and remain honest with God and those we serve. That is your priesthood, the priesthood of everyone baptized into Christ: to be with God before man and man before God. That is your Christianity. As Church leaders, you will teach by example, sometimes with words, but always by living with and within the community.
Thirty-nine years ago, I began a life in the church harvesting fruits that others had planted and pruning trees that would bear fruit for you to harvest. It brings me great joy to see that God’s call is still being heard. By being here today, and by your willingness to serve, you validate my choice to work in this ministry. You have made a wonderful choice. You will see God working in the lives of the people you serve. You will see His healing, restoration and forgiveness in the lives of those you live among. You will share an intimacy with parishioners that no one else has an opportunity to enjoy. You will be stretched, challenged and sometimes even rejected, yet here the adage is true: that which does not kill us will make us stronger. God will minister to your pain Himself, and you will mature. You will learn what joy comes after sorrow, and your faith will grow. My dear brothers and sisters, if I had to do it all again, I would choose the same in a heartbeat. You have chosen well to study here and you have chosen well to serve the Lord, our God.
*His Grace Bishop John offered this address at the 2017 Commencement of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, NY. Bishop John is an alumnus of St. Vladimir’s.