Posted: August 8th, 2014

Epigrams and Interludes

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema
The Spring 2014 issue of PRAXIS Magazine, the official publication of the Department of Religious Education of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, focused on the ministry of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.  Fr. Mark was asked to offer a retrospective on his tenure as a parish priest in this article.

Epigrams and Interludes —

From the Notebook of a Semi-Experienced Priest


To be a parish priest is a tremendous privilege.  One becomes a part of so many lives, sharer in so many joys and triumphs, conduit of so much grace. Often I wonder, “In what other vocation would I know such wonderful people so intimately?”


In my priestly highlight reel there is no footage from grand banquets or the interminable meetings. Just precious moments of quiet, private beauty: watching the first dance of a couple who overcame all odds to be married; seeing a child who needed baptism right after birth walk up on her own for Communion years later; enjoying a birthday recital for a nonagenarian given by his grandchildren; hearing a confession that marked the turning-point in a life ravaged by severe depression.   No one publishes a commemorative album for what really counts in ministry.


Nothing before ordination could prepare me for the immediate and unearned reverence from so many; nor for the contempt of a certain few.


When I first came to my parish, we lost several parishioners in a short time.  I thought it hard to do funerals for people I never met.  Through the years I came to know my people.  Now funerals are truly hard.


I would have been a better deacon if I could have been a priest for a few years first.  He could be a better priest, perhaps, who could walk a few miles in the bishop’s shoes first.


Parishioners with burdens on their conscience are slow to come to confession for fear that the priest will forever remember their sin.  Not so: the grace that descends to wash away transgressions, I find, wipes clean my memory also.


A thought after confessions at camp: Millstones should be more readily available.  For those inclined to abuse children.


In fourteen years I have made almost every mistake in the book.  But the parishioners I truly hurt have all been quick to pardon; whereas the ones who blame me for their own problems never, ever forgive. 


One of the greatest sins a priest can commit against his flock—aside from the obvious and unspeakable—is to be slow to admit, “I don’t know.”


There is a second like unto it: faking feelings.


Quotation for inscription on seminary walls: Thales was asked what was difficult; he answered, “To know thyself.”  Then he was asked what was easy; “To give advice.”


Parish finances should be no more complicated than the average household’s.  How can parishioners vote on budgets and financial reports they can’t understand?  Complex accounting leads to a dictatorship of the treasurer.


Plutocracy is a poor system of governance always, and most especially for a Church.


Saints walk among us and we know it not.  Many “ordinary” people, I have witnessed, choose lives of extraordinary sacrifice and forbearance.  Whereas the “important” people are driven by jejune passions and fears. 


Stewardship has been a failure, both as an exercise in proportional thanksgiving and as a source of reliable revenue for serious ministries.  Should we return to the dues systems of the 1970s?  If we adjusted rates for inflation: might we double our churches’ revenues … or lose half our adherents?


After I was first ordained, a veteran priest at the Archdiocese told me that the schedule can be demanding.  Actually, the word he used was cruel: cruel for priests, cruel for their families.  His words come often to mind.


I have yet to find a heterodox church of equivalent size to one of ours that does not have at least double the staffing.


There is a special place in my prayers—and I trust in the coming Kingdom—for parishioners who open their vacation homes to priests’ families.  Without hyperbole, these people save lives.


Clergy-killers exist.  Our next Clergy-Laity Congress would do well to invest a plenary session in discussing current research on this phenomenon.


Democracy in the Orthodox Church?  Yes, please!  Can you imagine?  If, before elections, there were an open debate about the qualifications and track record of Parish Council candidates?!?!


“The carpenter solves every problem with hammer and saw.”  How hard it is to convince some of our laypeople that the Church is not to be run like a law firm or a pizzeria.


Satan could not succeed in emptying the churches with Roman persecutions, Turkish domination, or Marxist oppression.  Then he devised Sunday morning school sports.


Regarding time management: In recent years the greatest boons to the priest have been email and smartphones.  The worst black hole?  Ditto.


There is a temptation to preach the Church rather than “Christ and Him crucified.”  But what does it profit a man to know the color symbolism of iconography, if he does not practice seventy-times-seven forgiveness?         


My finest pastoral moments have been the times I kept silent. 


Regarding guru priests: Susan B. Anthony words ring true, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do to their fellows, because it always coincides with their own desires.”


Of early Church writings, I am haunted most by the Epistle to Diognetus.  It defends the Christians for living profoundly different lives. Dare any apologist make such a claim in the sports-addled and celebrity-sick society that is America today?


Some have the goal of establishing Orthodoxy as the fourth major faith in America; others, to establish it as the major faith among its adherents. 


We live in the day Huxley foretold: “Everyone belongs to everyone else.”  Feigned prudery and wilful naïveté keep us from talking to our children about chastity at an age early enough to make a difference.  They lose their virginity, lest we lose our dignity.


The trends in Archdiocesan Registry statistics (at should be a topic for consideration at every meeting at every level of our Church.


If each of our families gave up cable TV for one month and added the difference to their stewardship, no goal would elude us.


For any parish fundraiser, if volunteers donated the minimum-wage value of all their man-hours, the total would exceed the net of the actual event every time.


So often true: "Humor is the atmosphere in which grace most flourishes." (H.W. Beecher)


Sloth defined (for priests): It’s easier to follow the rules than to think for yourself.


The most effective youth ministry: Whatever gets a dad to worship with his family every single Sunday. Research shows that this more than anything keeps children in the Church into adulthood.  If the Church is losing its youth, we should not blame the fathers in the collars, but the fathers not in the pews.


Who are the moneychangers of our temples?  Are they not the hawkers of churchy gewgaws and the purveyors of countless books? The one book that is needful we hardly know, and there is no honor for a keychain icon when it is stuffed into a back pocket.


Once said of a popular preacher: “He can preach Christ better, but he cannot preach a better Christ.”  This applies to a parish priest: others may surpass him in liturgics, administration, or working the crowd; but their chalices do not commune a better Body and Blood of Christ.


The priest is a spiritual father—one who prepares those in his care for maturity, independence, godly and reasoned decision-making.  Some parishioners wish instead for a spiritual daddy.  These are dependent personalities who refuse to grow up, who crave incessant emotional support. No progress is possible with such people; they become carrion for the gurus to pick over.


I have yet to meet the person who touts hypakoe (obedience) as the queen of virtues who is not himself oppositional and defiant when he fails to get what he wants. 


In my last year of seminary, I went to every veteran priest I admired and asked, “What would you have done differently?”  To a man, they all said, “Spend more time with my own family.”


The greatest threat arising in my time as a priest is the mainstreaming of militant unbelief after 9/11.  Faith in “Science” has grown into a quasi-religion; old vices are now touted as social virtues.    Through popular culture’s subtle propaganda our most intelligent young people will be coaxed from us and made janissaries of the New Atheism. Darwin prophesied a “descent of man” that will surely follow.  How marvelous if our Church would mount an organized response to this trend!


Metropolitan Nicholas formally installed me in my parish in September 2000.  At the end of the day he said, “Just love them.”  A better Position Description I have not yet found.


Often while writing sermons I recall Pascal’s apology: This is long because I lacked the time to make it shorter.


“Whom the Lord loves, He chastens.”  Sometimes we feel wounded when we merely have been wakened. 


From the heart I have prayed before the Great Entrance each time: “Those who love us, and those who hate us, O God, forgive.”  Even so, Amen.


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