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“I don’t understand what spiritual burnout is”

“Yura, your going to have a big parish,” his 8th-grade teacher said to young Yuri Kotchetkov. And he wasn’t far off the mark. Although Fr. Georgy doesn’t serve as head priest of any specific church, serving as spiritual father to the Transfiguration Brotherhood since the late 1980’s, his “parish” stretches to thousands of people across various different diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Liturgy of the Feast of the Transfiguration at the Church of Christ the Saviour. 2015

Liturgy of the Feast of the Transfiguration at the Church of Christ the Saviour. 2015

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– The work of a priest is, more than anything, tied to his personal gifts and calling. When a man chooses the path of priesthood – is there some sort of sign that it “the right choice”?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: Everything depends upon what we mean by priesthood. Unfortunately our understandings are varied. Some people look upon priesthood as work – honourable, influential, difficult – and, in short, believe it should be high paying. It isn’t the majority of candidates for the priesthood who have chosen that route in order to get wealthy, but there are always some. Of course, there are some people who believe that to be a priest is a special calling from God, and linked with service to God and man. This is a charismatic approach and not often found among seminarians. Seminarians are typical people who think about parish service and rarely about anything else; and, of course, they’d like to be assigned to a good parish. But what is a good parish? There are very different ways of understanding this. For some people it’s a place where there are thinking people, intellectuals, young people, or simply people of deep faith. A parish can also be understood simply as a collection of random people who have spiritual needs that need to be met and, naturally, those who meet these needs want to receive something for themselves in the form of respect, honour, and some sort of material reward.

Fr. Pavel Adelgeym and Fr. Georgy Kochetkov. 2010

Fr. Pavel Adelgeym and Fr. Georgy Kochetkov. 2010

Therefore, it’s not easy to answer your question. If a candidate for the priesthood is simply hoping that his service will provide a good life, fairly interesting and varied, or simply pleasant and profitable, then the priesthood is often a letdown. He might find that there are factors within the church itself that don’t allow him to settle down and serve comfortably. But if a candidate views service as a charismatic gift, then he doesn’t depend upon anyone or anything – he isn’t dependent upon the authorities over him, upon whether his relationship with various hierarchs or the priest-in-charge is good or bad, or upon the disposition of the authorities.

For this reason, it is important that we return to the original attitude to the priesthood, which understands priesthood as a person’s chosen path, and the choice is primarily to live with God and in the Church. And right away we need to say that we are speaking of the Church with a capital “C” – not just some sort of official or social institution, but the space of divine-human action and the action of the Holy Spirit. In that case, it will be clear to a man whether he is called to the priesthood or not. I really think that people should minimize the degree to which they connect their priestly service with well-being and respect, or much worse still, with personal spiritual authority. These things easily charm some people; but it all leads to disappointment later. Seeing how difficult everything in our ecclesial system is, the candidate for the priesthood gives up and leaves before he even finishes seminary, having lost hope in his prospects for self-realization.

From the point of view of charismata (spiritual gifts), which is, of course, the standard for the priestly service of a presbyter, who is the elder within his Christian community or parish – a man is unfit to serve if he is unable to care for and take responsibility for others, or when he has serious spiritual, emotional or physical difficulties which would interfere with his ability to act as a pastor, for the work of a pastor demands complete self-giving in service to God and the Church.

Not everyone is called to be an elder. And if a person has sensed that he can’t been an elder, it is good that he should realize this ahead of time and decide not to pursue ordination. Let him rather say to himself, “I will be a good helpful to those who are elders in my spiritual community and church.” 

– In our time, most people become priests by their own personal initiative. Our local council of 1917-1918 renewed an ancient standard, by which a church community recognizes and chooses its priest for itself. For those who are serving as priests in our time, is it necessary or even possible to fulfil this tradition of “choice by the people”, perhaps in a way similar to the “fulfillment of baptism” in some cases where people were baptized without training in the faith, knowledge of the Gospel, or knowledge of Orthodox Tradition? In other words, does today’s priest need this “adoption as priest” by the people? 

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: Yes, of course he needs this. We should no longer ignore the main points of the Great Council of Moscow of 1917-1918, and we should think hard about this ecclesial adoption, by which the Orthodox people recognize their elders. It would be best of all if the candidates were themselves selected, but this demands a great amount both of the candidate himself, and of those who choose him. The fact is that at present, our church communities are distorted by so-called clericalist ecclesiology – a sort of distorted understanding by which people believe that everything that happens in the church must happen only with of the blessing of the hierarchy – in addition to the Lord God – and should happen as initiative from above. Within this understanding, nothing can come “from below”. This is not an Orthodox Christian understanding of the Church, and we need to redress this problem at once. 

Georgy Kochetkov with friends at Fr. Arkady Shatov’s parish (now Bishop Pateleimon of Orekhovo-Zuevo and Suffragan to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Head of the Synodal Department for Charity and Social Work of the ROC.) 1979

Georgy Kochetkov with friends at Fr. Arkady Shatov’s parish (now Bishop Pateleimon of Orekhovo-Zuevo and Suffragan to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Head of the Synodal Department for Charity and Social Work of the ROC.) 1979

As such, we should already be posing the question of choosing priests, and simultaneously preparing the people to make reasonable and responsible choices when choosing their elders within the church. With this in mind, our parishes need to be more than random collections of people who come and go in order to consume “spiritual goods and services”, but true parish-based spiritual communities, or at least the sort of fellowship in which people want to live together and be responsible before God, the Church, and their own consciences for all that is happening in all aspects of their lives, and not only within the narrow bounds of their “life at church”.  Interest in this question is certainly growing, but there isn’t yet enough unity amongst Christians; until Christians are responsible to one another and their relationships exhibit the necessary degree of love and freedom, we can’t directly present communities with the opportunity to select their own clerics. A person’s choice of spiritual father for himself, the selection of priests and bishops – all these are very serious questions. And we need to learn how to answer them without creating disharmony or schism, without creating strife and anxiety within the church.

– You speak of the priest as the elder in the church, but lay people take more notice of his pastoral functions, as well as his leading of church services and his administrative and management functions within his life and service. What is primary here? And are there any particular examples of priestly service – whether from history, contemporary life or our recent past – which you might be able to recommend, having chosen the path of priestly life yourself?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: A priest has to be a prayerful person and a man of word and deed in such a way that his life reflects what he tells people. A priest needs to be attentive to the life of every Christian in his parish, but also to the lives of other people, society, culture, and the life of his nation. There are few people these days who take the decision to think over things and act in this way. But we do have examples, both among our youth and among those who already understand that life in the church is also spiritual battle – spiritual warfare for God, for His truth and authenticity, for love, and for freedom. And there are those who understand that the censor and the holy-water brush are not the essence of priestly life and service, and who understand that not everything can be measured in income or by administrative and management benchmarks. If a priest keeps service to God and neighbour as first among his priorities, then he will sense his eldership and will be given the grace of strength, the ability to reason, humility and spiritual discernment – in other words, he will be given the freedom and bravery he needs in his actions and his decisions. In the past years and decades we have seen examples of such priests: Fr. Vsevolod Schpiller and Fr. Vitaly Vorovoj in Moscow, Elder Tavrion Batozsky in Latvia, Fr. John Krestyankin at the Pskov-Pechory Monastery, and Fr. Pavel Adelgejm in Pskov.

At present, there are many good young priests who have good intentions, but they have not, as of yet, been through the sort of trials that would make them good to name here as examples. In fact, sometimes they break, not able to withstand the temptations that come from within our own church circles; in fact, this has happened with several priests with whom I am well acquainted. These people could have done many good things as pastors, collecting the church around themselves, building communities and brotherhoods and other informal Christian spiritual bonds.

A service with Archbishop Kirill (Gundyaev) of Vyborg, Rector of the Leningrad Spiritual Academy. To the right – his subdeacon, Georgy Kochetkov. 1982

A service with Archbishop Kirill (Gundyaev) of Vyborg, Rector of the Leningrad Spiritual Academy. To the right – his subdeacon, Georgy Kochetkov. 1982

– In society, in his family and with friends, does a priest remain within his priestly service or does he become like any other Christian?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: I think that a priest should not be dependent upon where he is at any given time or on his external appearance. His service doesn’t depend upon how he is dressed, whether he is wearing simple or expensive vestments, or whether he wears a cassock when he goes out onto the street or not. All these things are a matter for the individual priest and he should do what is better for him so that his witness to Christ is constant and of high-quality. A person needs always to be himself – he should not give in to fear or live by a “whatever you like” principle. This is true with respect to a priest’s attitude toward his superiors, both in the church and society, and with regard to everyone else, too, including members of his family, those he serves with, neighbours, friends and acquaintances…both inside and outside of the church.

– Over recent years, we often hear about the problem of psychological or spiritual burnout for those in the priestly service. Do you think this is a significant problem, and in 30 years of service have you ever experienced burnout yourself?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: I have never experienced burnout myself. I can’t even understand what spiritual burnout is. It seems to me that we have this euphemism in order to justify, in the eyes of society, people who crack, unable to withstand difficulties with their family or social situation or the difficulties they experience in their service within the life of the church, which are indeed many.  At this point, the clericalist tendency which we have already mentioned has intensified to such proportions that church hierarchs often behave like little tsars who don’t answer to anyone and can do anything they want. We find this sort of thing coming from bishops and from other management personnel, who wish to “humble” others, without being humble themselves. Many people don’t withstand this sort of thing – they throw up their hands and believe that they haven’t achieved anything and won’t in the future, and not feeling any support either at home or within the church, they think: “no point to fighting authority just to satisfy your conscience.” And at this point they are overcome with fear and the division within their lives gets more extreme, and all this leads to spiritual crisis, and sometimes even to a crisis of faith in God and the Church. We’ve come to call this “burnout”, though this is really not an adequate word to describe what is going on.

– We live in a time when priest not only leave their orders and their flocks, but sometimes begin to publicly criticize the church, demonstrating her wounds and imperfections. Is this a continuation of something that was happening during the Soviet era or is it something new?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: We aren’t, after all, exactly living in Soviet times; we do have some opportunities at this point, both in terms of being ordained and in terms of leaving holy orders. Unfortunately, people sometimes misunderstand the essence of church life and don’t understand what the Church with a capital “C” is. There is only one mystical Church of the saints and the faithful. But there is also the church of the sacrament and canons, and the church as a social institute. These are all very diverse understandings and, unfortunately, people often mix them up, and they don’t want to have anything to do with a church which is full of human insufficiencies and flaws – money-grubbing, pride, willfulness, rudeness – and they don’t see any hope. And this is a great shame. Therefore, in one way this is a continuation of Soviet psychology and the Soviet Era of church life. But on the other hand, this is something more modern, a situation in which people do desire to perform the tasks that God and life itself set before them, but they just do not know how to proceed. Many priests are disoriented, and often they are just poorly taught; they have little education, and despite this, they want to know everything and evaluate everything. And the less educated and mature the person, the more he judges from the position of ultimate truth. This, of course, is how situations of spiritual crisis arise. 

– What, for you, is the main inspiration for your priestly service, which has now lasted 30 years?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: I think that if a person is living out his calling before God, then this itself is a great inspiration and creative task, an amazing manifestation of love and freedom, spirit and truth. This is how every ordained server should live, even when we need to carry our service like a heavy cross upon our shoulders.

Liturgy of the Feast of the Transfiguration at the Church of Christ the Saviour. 2015

Liturgy of the Feast of the Transfiguration at the Church of Christ the Saviour. 2015

– How should those who are now considering ordained ministry test themselves and their intentions? We are talking here both about seminarians and people who are already much older…

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: More often than not, we don’t test ourselves; it’s life that tests us, measuring us in the spirit and according to the fruits we produce. We need to be able not only to test ourselves, but also to listen to the opinion of others who are closer to God, our elders and superiors in a spiritual sense – not only according to rank or position within the church, but in spirit and in terms of true meaning and significance. When a person can soberly evaluate himself without despairing in the least and without triumphalism, and when he can listen to others, then he is truly able to live according to God, in true humanity, and according to his conscience. And it seems to me that this goes for everybody – at least for every Christian and member of the church. And it would be good if people would live, serve and find their path toward fellowship with God and man in precisely this way. In this way a person doesn’t only collect and pastor himself, but also looks after God’s people for Christ and for the Church – not only so that others will help you and support you – a priest should gather the people of God so that they can serve Christ and His Church, God and their fellow man. It is in this way, that all the difficulties of the priestly path are somehow covered and don’t become fatal problems.

– In the course and fate of your priestly service there have been quite a number of twists and turns: all the churches that you and your community have restored have been taken away, you were banned from serving for a period of three years, and plenty of slander associated with your name can still be found in the Internet. How have you understood these things? What price is worth paying in your opinion? How is it that under such circumstances one avoids fear and doubts that they are on the right path? Have you been afraid or had doubts yourself?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: No, I haven’t for some reason been afraid. The road strengthens the traveller. It is important not to stand still or look back – that is the worst thing of all to do, because it puts people in a state of spiritual paralysis and even, sometimes, spiritual death. But, of course, it is important to know and love church tradition, to be able to be responsible for people, and learn to live in the church together, to live by the Gospel, to learn to live in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, in fellowship and service. And when we learn in this way and walk together in community and brotherhood, everything works. Yes, sometimes we have to deal with unjust prohibitions and persecutions, slander and the like – but this is probably the path of all Christians. We are all called to turn away from ourselves, take up the cross and follow Christ. It is perhaps more difficult for priests, especially if they have families, and if the people who are dependent directly upon them are not only their parishes, but others close to them who depend upon them materially and externally. Yes, it is difficult; but nevertheless it is possible. I myself am a celibate priest, so I have it a little easier. But I know priests in various diocese of our church who have wives and children and nevertheless they follow Christ and, precisely in doing so, they justify their service and bless their lives, considering themselves happy, despite various difficulties and tragedies.

Source: Russkaya Planeta

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