What it takes to lay a solid foundation: Fr. David Barr's thoughts on formation and the future of SVOTS

Author: 
Ginny Nieuwsma

Fr. David Barr (SVOTS Class of ’83), pastor of St. Elias Orthodox Church in Austin, Texas since 2004, recently participated in a phone interview with Ginny Nieuwsma from the Seminary’s advancement team. We appreciate the time he took to answer her questions.

He emphasizes the unique place of St Vladimir’s Seminary.

FDB: What makes St. Vladimir’s exceptional is that it is the American seminary that is the salt and light to all of North American society, not just a particular ethnic segment of it. It is not the center of just one jurisdiction, but a center for all Orthodox Christians, enabling us to present the timeless truths of Christ and His Church to the world.

St. Vladimir’s has never been just “the OCA Seminary.” Orthodox Christianity is multi-ethnic and ours is not a one-jurisdiction school. We incorporate a variety of Orthodox traditions in the chapel and classroom. This is what makes us completely unique.

GN: The last few years at SVOTS have been ones of growth and change. What is your perspective on the Seminary’s direction at this time?

FDB: St. Vladimir’s is on a good track. I’m very impressed with the new academic dean—on paper he reminds me of the late dean Fr. John Meyendorff. He is a well-educated, pious, and humble man. I’m looking forward to more of our alumni meeting him as time goes on.

Just as Frs. Meyendorff and Schmemann and many other outstanding professors came from Europe, again we have a dean from “across the pond.” Here we have a stirring of the waters and the opening up of new possibilities. Remember, at the present time there is no place in America to earn a Ph.D. at an Orthodox institution, so it makes sense to bring in someone like Dr. Alex Tudorie. He has earned not one but two doctorates from a distinctly Orthodox school and environment in Romania, and this will offer something fresh to students at St. Vladimir’s.

GN: Despite your busy schedule, you have invested in SVOTS both through financial contributions and by serving as Alumni Association Board Chair for not one but two terms! Can you tell us why?

FDB: I really care about the Seminary and firmly believe in the importance of sound theological education. My concern is that today we don’t always value this enough. We think we can learn everything through the internet but in this, we lack discernment about what it really takes to lay a solid foundation for the life of ministry.

Frequently I am reminded of how well St. Vladimir’s prepared me for my priesthood, enabling me to articulate the Faith and deal with the many preconceptions of the people who come through our doors. We must prepare to “give an answer to the hope that is in us” (I Peter 3:15), explaining to those who are spiritually hungry what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.

I am glad and grateful that there are over 180 graduates who are serving within my Antiochian Archdiocese as priests and hierarchs. Four of our current hierarchs, including my own bishop, are alumni. SVOTS nurtures Antiochian seminarians in various ways such as by serving Byzantine Vespers in the Chapel. There is an ongoing commitment to Antiochian seminarian preparation.

GN: What part did St. Vladimir’s play in your preparation for the priesthood?

FDB: The Seminary played a central role in my preparation. My professors are still a part of my life. When I serve I often think of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and when I make a liturgical decision I’ll often ask myself what he would have done.

St. Vladimir’s formed my entire liturgical life since I learned about the daily life of the Church there. Without this, I would not have been prepared to serve well. You can’t learn the services and the full liturgical life by reading web articles, or by any method other than showing up in Three Hierarchs Chapel twice a day! 

GN: Father David, in addition to being our Alumni Association Board Chair, you are also an archpriest in the Antiochian Archdiocese. Could you catch us up on your pastoral ministry?

FDB: We’ve spent the last fifteen years in Austin, and through God’s grace our parish is growing tremendously—it’s overwhelming! We have two liturgies on Sunday and both are full. We serve 250-350 families or between 500-900 members (depending on how you count!). We’ll probably bring in 18 catechumens on Holy Saturday and that’s very typical.

As the oldest Orthodox church building in central Texas, we are located just four blocks from the Capitol. Since no expansion downtown is possible, we are building a north campus outside of the city’s core in order to house a satellite parish. 

GN: Can you identify the factors that have been responsible for the growth of St. Elias?

FDB: We have a good location downtown and are easy to find. We also have a strong web presence in which our yearly September catechism class is prominently advertised. I get emails from people all the time who have found us on the web. 

A parish always needs a site with good navigation, but then it’s important to respond to inquirers positively and quickly! Our first contact with a seeker is frequently an email, but then we grab personal time with people whenever possible over coffee or lunch. 

Also, our parish is a mile from the University of Texas at Austin and we are blessed with an active Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF). For instance, we have a Chinese student from the University who has been coming to St. Elias. He’s a very literate Bible reader who had never been outside of China until he came here and found us!


 

The Very Rev. David Barr chairs St Vladimir’s Alumni Association. In addition to his duties as pastor of St. Elias Orthodox Church in Austin, Texas, Fr. David serves as dean of the Central Texas Deanery, vice-chairman of the Department of Inter-Orthodox and Inter-faith Relations of the Antiochian Archdiocese, and director of the St. Romanos Chanter's Training Program. 

Father David and Khouria Luanne have two children, Samuel and Christina, and two canine family members named Bella and Bailey Mae.