When people meet me, they are usually surprised to learn that not only am I an Orthodox Christian priest, but that I also work as a computer Network Consulting Engineer. The term for what I am is “bi-vocational.” It is not a term that I invented, or which was even created in reference to Orthodox priests, but rather has its roots in Protestant thought, to describe a minister that works a secular job while also preaching in and pastoring a local Church. Most Orthodox priests are full-time, being compensated financially by their parish and not holding any other employment. However, in America, there has been an increased number of priests who hold down part-time or even full-time jobs while serving as priests, owing to the difficult circumstances for Orthodoxy in this country. In this article, I will share a few reflections on the experience I have had so far, both to satisfy curiosity, appeal to others to support missionary work with their financial resources to reduce the necessity of priests to work in secular employment, and encourage others to follow in my footsteps.
I was not born into an Orthodox family, but instead became Orthodox as a result of several years of intense research and experiences. During my teenage years, I became increasingly interested in the Church, its history, and exploring my Christian faith more deeply. As I discovered new facts and insights, I became more excited and wanted to share the information and my experiences with others. As I moved towards the Orthodox Church, I began to take an interest in the spread of Orthodoxy in America, including attempts to start new Orthodox parishes, especially in areas that would be considered “unlikely” candidates for a mission due to demographic trends. Some Orthodox jurisdictions have policies and plans in place where they will only open a mission if there is a guaranteed minimum number of families, and this minimum is often set rather high. Yet I knew from my travels that there were pockets of Orthodox people scattered throughout the United States, many without parishes and some being tempted to leave the Orthodox Church and attend other Christian denominations. There is also an increased interest in converting to Orthodoxy, but many are forced to drive long distances to attend Church, and this is a deterrent for some. I wanted to help address this problem.
We began our mission in Raleigh in 2006, having our first liturgy in 2007 with visiting clergy. We are the only parish here serving according to the traditional Orthodox festal calendar. By 2008, we were being contacted by an increasing number of inquirers, and so the bishop ordained me a priest that June. We opened our mission in Greenville in the summer of 2008. Suddenly, I found myself a priest for two missions, working a full-time job. I knew what I was getting into, having discussed with other bi-vocational priests in our diocese how they managed to do it, and thankfully, the Lord was merciful to me and eased me in gradually.
After my ordination, I went to our monastery in Bearsville, New York and spent a week learning how to serve the Divine Liturgy. My teacher was my friend Fr. Savvas Anastasiou. One of our brother priests, Fr. John Somers was there, and of course Fr. Maximus, who was then a hierodeacon. For part of the week, my bishop and spiritual father Metropolitan Pavlos was there as well. This week was a blessing, a time of great peace, a provision for the journey, and a rest before great labor. Normally, an Orthodox priest would serve liturgy for forty days after ordination, but I had to return to my secular job after only a week.
It was certainly difficult to go back into work, wearing my secular attire, after a week of being in a monastery and serving the Divine Mysteries. It does feel somewhat schizophrenic, or like I am living in two worlds. Thankfully, my employer was supportive of my ministry outside of work, and never made any negative comments. I continued to accept difficult assignments, including many overnight slots, in order to demonstrate that I was not going to shirk my responsibilities at work, and to witness our faith in some small way. At some point, I was requested to join the on-call rotation, which presented a heightened challenge.
On-call meant that one week out of every seven or eight (depending on personnel availability) I would have to respond to issues and log in to the work network at any time of the night or day. Naturally, this meant that I had to coordinate my trips to Greenville, or trade on-call. As our team reduced in size, I was finding myself on-call more frequently, at some points once every five weeks. This meant that sometimes I could not trade a Sunday, and as a result, a few times I had to serve liturgy in Raleigh knowing that I might be called to work, and faced with the reality of having to delay work until finished with prayer, which could have had negative repercussions for my career! However, God never allowed me to be paged while celebrating liturgy, even though I was paged in the middle of the night before liturgy and soon after liturgy on a few occasions. I had faith that God would not put me to a test I could not endure, yet as a fallen human, I did worry quite a bit. Thankfully, I moved out of the position which required on-call recently.
Another drawback is time for study. A priest should study diligently, to always be obtaining more information and knowledge to help his ministry. Likewise, an engineer must always keep abreast of the latest technological advancements. There is a sense of urgency and dynamism in both roles, where one either goes forward or backward, but cannot remain stagnant. Sometimes I have felt I am a mediocre engineer and a mediocre priest as a result! But I carry on, and I surprisingly have continued to find success in my secular career (although I am not climbing the corporate ladder as rapidly as some of my co-workers) and I find time to nurture my own spiritual life and study and progress in knowledge which helps my ministry. Often I read late at night when everyone else has gone to sleep.
Sometimes, I have to refocus myself in order to pay enough attention to my wife, who is supportive of my work, but like any other normal person, does not want to be ignored. It would be a big mistake to not pay as much attention to her as I do to work and the Church. She helps me keep balance in my life, and for that I thank her. God gave her to me before he gave me the priesthood, and marriage is a sacrament just as ordination is. Therefore, maintaining a good family life is the first act of my ministry, and is important for setting the example for my parishes.
As a mission priest, I have not had any deaths in the parish yet, but I have been called out in the night to visit someone in the hospital, and often I am on the phone late at night trying to give counsel to those seeking it. It can be difficult when someone calls during the day, because I am faced with the prospect of ignoring the call—which could be urgent—or answering it and then seeming inattentive as I deal with other issues. Thankfully, most of my parishioners understand my situation, and are quite forgiving. Sometimes, I do take the call as my lunch break, or resolve to work a little later in the day. Thank God I have a flexible schedule.
Yes, it can be stressful to do this work, but what else would I be doing if not this? Many people my age are still getting in to trouble, yet the Church keeps me grounded. From time to time, when I feel overwhelmed or down, the Lord extends a small blessing to me, in various forms, such as a gift received, a spiritual consolation, a success, a new parishioner (those are the best blessings!). Then I am able to pick up and get going again. My life is blessed because of this work, and I encourage other young men to follow in my steps and discern the ordained ministry, specifically in establishing missions. I also encourage young women to be open to becoming the wife of a priest, a Sunday school teacher, a youth group leader, or any of the other important roles that women fill in a parish. There are so many people who would become Orthodox Christians if they knew about it, and I hope that my example will contribute in some small way to others following the command of Christ to evangelize.
I also find that by living in two worlds, I am exposed to people who might not otherwise meet an Orthodox priest. I have been able to encourage co-workers who are searching for God. When appropriate, I mention how Orthodox might view a certain situation or issue. Seeds are being planted, and awareness of our holy faith is spreading. The fact that I do not accept a salary at this time makes a positive impression on some who have come to view the Church as a money-making enterprise more than a place of salvation. While Scripture is clear that a minister may be compensated for his work, it is also the case that through history, some have tarnished the priesthood by abusing this privilege. I want my missions to grow, and so I cannot take money from them and expect them to grow at this time, let alone function well or engage in charitable works. I also am not tempted to compromise on teaching for the sake of not offending the hand that feeds me. Certainly, if our missions blossom into full parishes, I may receive the opportunity to be a full-time priest, and I would do this because of how much more work could be accomplished. However, at this time, being bi-vocational has been a blessing for our work, and I believe it can be in other places as well.
While serving bi-vocationally has been a positive experience for me, I do wish to encourage laypeople with means to support our mission work, and I hope that in the future, more mission societies will be formed that sponsor priests who are doing domestic missions from scratch (and not just filling vacancies in already-existing parishes or missions). We need to continue to reach out to those Orthodox who are isolated, and those who wish to become Orthodox, even if there are only small numbers in the target area. In fact, I am finding that some of the smaller areas in which I minister yield greater “results”! For instance, Greenville is much smaller than Raleigh, but we have a free-standing Church building in Greenville and more parishioners, engaging in more charitable projects, whereas Raleigh is still meeting at my home chapel. Perhaps the smaller towns have a greater sense of connectedness. I do not have the answer to that, but regardless I see the evidence before me. It would be a mistake not to target an area because there appears to not be enough potential core members. If we really believe that we are offering the Truth, then will not people who seek the Truth be attracted?
In this essay, I have offered a background to my work, and some concrete examples of the interplay between my secular job and my mission work. I have also encouraged the establishment of further missions, even in “unlikely” areas. I have asked that those with means prayerfully consider supporting mission priests and perhaps establishing mission societies to help us, so that we can dedicate more time to our ministry. I will close by inviting those so inclined to join us in our work. We need both lay and clerical assistance in our efforts! Some may be called to relocate to North Carolina to help us as we spread the Orthodox faith to increasingly smaller towns and rural areas. From this there potentially could come priestly and diaconal candidates. Others may be called to establish missions in their own areas of the country, and perhaps our work can assist them and be a guide. If you have an interest in missions and evangelism, please do not keep it inside, but rather ask the Lord in prayer to guide you and develop you, and allow yourself to be filled with Divine Grace to empower you to join the effort. The blessings you will receive are great; the friendships you will make are many and beautiful. You can directly touch the lives of many. Contact me with any questions and I will do whatever I can to help you get started. Finally, I ask for your prayers, without which, I surely could not survive.