Fr. Seraphim Solof on the clergy crisis, Orthodox disunity, and his journey from agnostic to Orthodox priest

Father Seraphim Solof

Father Seraphim Solof (SVOTS Class of 1985) is a native of Pittsburgh and a graduate of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At St. Vladimir’s, he met and married a fellow seminarian, Marta (SVOTS Class of 1984), the daughter of the late Very Reverend and Mrs. Michael Stupar, also of Pittsburgh.

Ordained to the holy diaconate at Three Hierarchs Chapel on December 6, 1984 by the late Archbishop Job of Chicago (OCA), Fr. Seraphim served for five years as a deacon at Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Boston (OCA), and since 1990 at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Worcester. Deacon Seraphim was elevated to the rank of archdeacon by the late Metropolitan Philip on December 14, 2008. On October 22, 2017, he was ordained to the holy priesthood by His Grace Bishop John of Worcester, and assigned as assistant pastor of the Cathedral.

In the corporate world, Fr. Seraphim works for Bank of America as a Senior Vice President in Corporate Communications. He and Marta are the parents of two grown children, Elizabeth and Joseph, and they have one grandchild. Father Seraphim and Matushka Marta have been loyal donors and supporters of St. Vladimir’s Seminary for years; recently he was on campus as a guest speaker for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative conference, co-sponsored by SVOTS.

Father Seraphim, there is growing concern about the scarcity of priests to serve parishes in the U.S. and Canada. What are you seeing “on the ground?”

In our diocese, a number of our priests are nearing retirement and experiencing health-related challenges. I am often called to substitute in different parishes in our own and in other jurisdictions, and I am keenly aware that we have a pressing need for priests. Churches are desperate for competent, well-educated clergy. A crisis due to the shortage of priests isn’t coming … it is already HERE.

People sometimes suggest that we ought to make the M.Div. degree available online, through virtual classrooms. What are your thoughts on this?

At St. Vladimir’s, I was formed in our Holy Tradition by extraordinary fathers and teachers. But the most powerful part of my seminary education didn’t happen in the classroom, as critical as the academics were to my formation; even more important was the time I spent on campus as a member of the community, living the liturgical life throughout the year, fasting and praying with the community—even carrying out my work assignment. (I was a fair assistant ecclesiarch, but took top marks for running the dishwasher in the refectory.) For this, there is NO substitute or shortcut.

Why do you continue to give your time and treasure to St. Vladimir’s?

On a personal level, the Seminary means a lot to me! I spent three of my first four years as an Orthodox Christian there, I met my wife there, we were married in Three Hierarchs Chapel (which was consecrated at the end of my first year), I was ordained to the diaconate there, and my entire liturgical foundation comes from there. The Seminary feels and always will feel like home to me.

What are your concerns for the Seminary and the Church at this juncture?

There was a time when people had great hope that we would achieve administrative unity among the various Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, and that we would finally be able to realize St. Tikhon’s vision for the church on this continent. St. Vladimir’s was at the center of this work—the beating heart of the liturgical revival in North America, promoter of the use of English in the services, trainer of generations of American-born clergy from almost every jurisdiction, publisher of a wealth of theological and spiritual material in English, and in the chapel, an exemplar of solid liturgical practice.

Sadly, in recent years it seems that the Church is suffering from much of the same splintering and fragmentation that are afflicting the world at large. We are being torn apart along geopolitical lines at the international level, and that’s on top of the longstanding ethnic and jurisdictional divisions in this country. Yet there’s one place that still holds the vision of Orthodox unity and works to strengthen it in the face of so much pressure and so many temptations, and that is St. Vladimir’s Seminary. The Seminary’s vocation—baked into its DNA from the very beginning—is to teach us everything we need to know to be the Orthodox Church our own time and place, while keeping us from getting so lost in church politics and the externals of Orthodoxy that we lose sight of Christ and the Kingdom of God.

St. Vladimir’s has stayed true to this vision, resisting the temptation to idolize certain aspects of Church life such as jurisdiction, ethnicity, liturgical practice or language. Outstanding SVOTS teachers and pastors, both alumni and those on campus now, continue to be leading lights for our Church.

Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up agnostic in a reformed Jewish family. We went to synagogue occasionally but weren’t especially observant. (My taste for bacon is life-long.) My first exposure to Christianity was through two high school friends who were Greek Orthodox and Presbyterian, respectively. I was curious about their faith and didn’t understand how two Christians could hold such different perspectives on God and Christ and sin and salvation. Over the course of many long walks and late evenings, we held intense conversations about Christianity.

I went off to college in Boston, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where I earned a degree in Management. Throughout my first couple of years, I continued to think about the claims of Christ and Christianity, and tried to figure out what I believed and could believe in. In January of my sophomore year, I participated in an exchange program at Wellesley College, where I lived side by side with faculty and fellow students and enjoyed many late-night conversations on “deep things.” I also spent a lot of time in the library, where I first encountered Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s books, including his great classics For the Life and the World and Of Water and the Spirit. What he wrote about the church and the sacraments reinforced and complemented what I had learned from my Greek Orthodox friend in Pittsburgh. At the end of the month-long program, I decided that I wanted to become a Christian; one of the faculty members, a Methodist minister, baptized me in the college chapel. Interestingly enough, one of the participants in my baptism was a Greek Orthodox student from Wellesley. She gave me her cross, which I wear to this day; of course she knew I needed one if I was going to be baptized!

How did you first encounter Orthodoxy after your conversion to Christianity?

After my baptism, I had no idea how I was going to I tell my parents what I had done. As I prepared to go home for spring break, I wrote them a letter to let them know, and we all agreed we’d talk when I got home. During my visit, I went to the local Greek Orthodox parish for the Sunday service, expecting to see what Fr. Alexander had described so eloquently—but there was much more Greek in the Liturgy than I was prepared to deal with, and I didn’t feel quite like I belonged there. (My issue, not my hosts’!) I returned from the service somewhat discouraged and confused.

Reeling from my announcement that I was a Christian, my parents implored me not to make any other big decisions, so rather than immediately seeking to become Orthodox, I returned to Boston and started visiting a number of other churches. Ultimately, I joined a “high church” Episcopalian parish, which was a mission parish run by a nearby Anglican monastic community. I thought that this was perhaps as close as I could get to Orthodoxy in a form amenable to an English-speaking, non-ethnic American.

But the seed of Orthodoxy had been planted. A couple of years later, at the start of the second semester of my senior year, my Greek Orthodox friend from Pittsburgh came to Boston to start his seminary studies mid-year at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. I visited him in February, during Lent as it turned out, and the students on campus told me that Fr. Schmemann was in town and would be speaking that evening at “the Russian Cathedral” in Boston. So that night, I made my way to Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral (OCA) to hear him speak. Something about the atmosphere of the place overcame me at once. The darkened church, lit only by purple votive lamps, the lack of pews, the icons—I was just floored. And then Fr. Alexander began speaking, talking specifically about all the barriers to Orthodoxy I had encountered on my journey. It was as if he was speaking directly to me! In that moment, I knew I wanted to become Orthodox, and—shockingly by present standards—I was received into the church just a few weeks later, on Holy Saturday. And just over a year after that, I entered St. Vladimir’s as a first-year seminarian.

You were a deacon for almost 33 years before your ordination to the Holy Priesthood. Tell us about that journey, and how it is to serve as a priest and a bank senior vice president simultaneously!

In my third year of seminary, I asked to have a parish assignment. I was in the OCA, and all my Antiochian friends had one, and it seemed like such an excellent idea. I asked Fr. Meyendorff about it, and he said that only ordained (OCA) students were permitted to be away from the chapel on Sunday mornings—so for that less-than-profound reason, I petitioned for ordination to the diaconate and was ordained in the seminary chapel on the Feast of St. Nicholas by my bishop, Archbishop Job. I graduated the following spring, but didn’t feel called at that time to take on full-time parish ministry—so when we returned to Boston, I went back to work at MIT, where I had worked for the year between college and St. Vlad’s. And the years passed!

Over the course of my 35-year career in business, I’ve worked at MIT, Apple Computer, Sun Microsystems, and since 2006, at Bank of America. God has been very good to me, and it’s been a wonderful experience. And finally, after many years of pondering the question of my calling to the priesthood, with the support of Marta and my kids and my priest and my bishop and my metropolitan (and a dear priestmonk friend on Athos), “No” and “Not yet” became “YES!,” and I petitioned for ordination. I was ordained by Bishop John in Worcester just about two years ago, on October 22, 2017.

Over most of those years, I seemed to me I had separate personas that I put on and took off as needed: my work persona (Jeff), my Church persona (Dn. Seraphim), even my family persona (Dad). When I hit my 50s, somehow I lost interest in keeping all of those identities compartmentalized and separate. It took too much work to maintain the partitions, and I had, over the years, became comfortable enough in my own skin that I could just be me, wherever I went and in whichever context. Besides, I found that each part of my life could inform each of the other parts in unexpected and beneficial ways.

For instance, I’ve benefited from lots of management training and leadership development courses over the years, and have experience in carrying out the responsibilities that come with leading teams—both difficult ones (laying people off) and satisfying ones (coaching them to help them grow and improve). This kind of experience can help in pastoral situations, when either compassionate firmness or firm support are required. Conversely, there are many pastoral skills that can be helpful to anyone who manages other people or works closely with peers and partners. Throughout, I’ve always felt that my ministry was to my colleagues and co-workers as well as to my parishioners. That I go by different names, and even wear different clothes while carrying out that ministry, became less and less important as time went on.