Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Calling

Occasionally, I complete surveys as part of the PBS Viewer Advisory Panel. About a year or so ago, maybe a year and a half, one of the programs that came up on a survey was something called "The Calling", which is a documentary about people preparing to become religious leaders in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. I have been watching for this program since then, and it finally aired in December on most PBS stations across the country as part of the program Independent Lens.

The idea of being called to be a spiritual leader is one that is fascinating to me. One thing that was really striking in this program was the extent to which spiritual leaders are often asked or need to put their personal lives and families on the backburner. The ones who were struggling the most were the ones who couldn't do this. One, the son of a chief in American Samoa, ended up leaving the ministry altogether. Another, a single mother who was ordained in the A.M.E. church, chafed at the requirements placed upon her in her first position as an associate pastor and ended up as an associate pastor at another A.M.E. church, a position she still holds, according to the website of the documentary.

Others made the decision to sacrifice their family life to pursue their religious life. Aside from the Catholic priest, who was the only one on the program required to give up the possibility of having a family, there was the Islamic chaplain who ended up pouring so much into his work and community that he ended up divorced (although he is now remarried). And then there was the Modern Orthodox rabbi who did not feel he could commit to a wife because he spent so much time traveling for social activism, despite the fact that in the Jewish community, rabbis are expected to be married and have a family, and he knew that not having one would hurt him if he wanted a position with a synagogue.

For the first time, I felt I saw the wisdom in a religious organization prohibiting marriage. This is an issue that has two sides, for sure, and I definitely think that having a family gives religious leaders important insight into the lives of their flocks. Religious groups that require celibacy have important responsibilities to include lay leadership etc. in decisions and to provide guidance. There was an article in the New York Times recently about how evangelical Christian churches often go the other way- they actively seek out ministers who are married and have families, and do not want to hire single applicants.

But it makes me think that the Armenian Church (and other Orthodox churches that have similar provisions for married and celibate priests) might get it right.