Spiritual Fatherhood

I am the father of five children, four who are living and one who has gone to his rest. The oldest of my children is now 27, soon to be 28, and, by God’s grace, soon to give birth to my first grandchild. God is truly gracious.

Closely related to this is the notion of spiritual fatherhood – the unique relationship a priest has to those who have been given to him for their spiritual care. Like natural fatherhood – there are no easy formulas. It is never a simple case of obedience (it certainly wasn’t and isn’t for my natural children). Nor is it the case of “father knows best,” because father does not always know best. I am not a Staretz (elder), just a parish priest.

This weekend I am serving in one of the neighboring parishes of the Deanery (St. Tikhon in Chattanooga) while their priest is on vacation. It is a parish that I assisted in its founding, having chrismated many of its members. It is also a parish that has given a larger portion of its membership to service in the priesthood and as wives of priests, than almost any that I know. It is small but vital.

Spiritual Fatherhood, like natural fatherhood, is a recognition both that you have had some role in the birth of something (even if far removed) and bear a unique responsibility in comparison to other relationships. For me, this is most true of my local parish. I am confessor to almost all of my parishioners, and bear the responsibility before God for the soul of each. On the great day of Judgment, I will have to give an account for the stewardship I have exercised or failed to exercise.

But like natural children, we cannot snap our fingers and make something happen. In both cases we have a responsibility towards other free persons – indeed their growth in Christ is absolutely dependent upon that freedom. “For where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.”

And thus like natural fatherhood, one finds oneself largely powerless over something that has been given to your charge. I have always wanted, above all, for my children to love God and to serve Him above all things. To date, two of my daughters are married to priests, which does not mean that I can “bask in success” but rather that two of my children require an extraordinary amount of parental prayer for they have accepted a very difficult life for the sake of Christ. May God keep them!

By the same token, we are largely powerless over the lives of our “spiritual children.” We can pray, exhort, confess, do all that we know to do, but their lives are a small sovereignty lived before the face of God. Mostly, spiritual fatherhood means a life of prayer in which you agree to hold someone in your heart before God and suffer with them as well as rejoice with them.

I am frequently reminded as I enter the altar, of the fringe on my epitrahelion (stole). It is a common tradition within Orthodoxy, that the fringe upon the stole of a priest represents the laity for which he is responsible. And so as I enter the altar, I take them with me, and that is likely the most important thing about the event. They are with me, and I am to pray for them and intercede before the all-merciful God of heaven for their well-being and salvation.

I think today (as I sit in a motel room in Chattanooga) of priests everywhere who bear the responsibility of fatherhood and of the burden they carry. May God make their burden light, by making them aware that it is Christ who is the true priest and the Father of us all. That, at most, we stand at the altar as His icon, and that as much as we fail to be proper spiritual fathers, He never fails. May we all learn to cry out to Him to help us who are so utterly inadequate to the task for which we were ordained. May God save the faithful and have mercy on all, for Christ stands as the great High Priest before the throne of the Father and makes intercession for the whole world. May God’s children everywhere pray for those who have responsibilities for them before God. May we wish no judgment upon them that we do not wish upon ourselves. Glory to God.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


18 responses to “Spiritual Fatherhood”

  1. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    I pray for all our priests — I have a small idea of what a terrible (in the sense of awesome) job they have — and in particular for those priests who have cared for my soul during their time in my parish. Anybody who has me for a spiritual child needs all the help he can get.

  2. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    May all who read this be urged to pray for their priests. I pray regularly for mine, Fr. Tom, and for his dear wife Jeanette. I observe in Fr. Tom the very challenges you write about: yearning for the children to be healthy, safe and to prosper in the Lord. Realizing that he can’t do it for us, carrying us to the Heavenly Father in prayer. No, this is a hard calling.

  3. Gerald Avatar

    I hope you don’t mind a bit of interfaith praise. Baha’is do not have a priesthood, and most of us have a pretty negative idea of the role that clergy has played over the eons in religion. This post however reminds me of a quotation from Baha’u’llah that I am sure applies and I send to you in praise and encouragement for your work:

    “He that bringeth up his son or the
    son of another, it is as though he hath brought up a son
    of Mine; upon him rest My glory, My loving-kindness,
    My mercy, that have compassed the world.”
    (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 37)

    It struck me, that what an honest priest tries to do is no different than the responsibility fathers are given by God in my Faith, the education of the children (Son, according to certain Baha’i interpretive principles set down later in this same book, would mean Sons/Daughters). When you set forth to take the role, responsiblity, hardships and gifts of fatherhood in any context, you step-forward to raise a child of God. In a sense, as parenting is an act that often calls for an incredible vulnerability, you set yourself as a martyr where God has asked. In our Faith we recognize that not all martyrs must die, some suffer and offer vulnerable sacrifice to God while living, and that is one thing I can say for sure in praise of Priesthood.

    God Bless,

  4. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    The image is very striking. Where is it from?

  5. […] şi adaptare a textului de aici al părintelui Stephen Freeman, de preot Dorin Picioruş Publicat […]

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    The image is from the St. Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev. The artist was Vasnetsov.

  7. handmaid Avatar

    The artist is Viktor Vasnetsov, there is also an Apollinary Vasnetsov, who is the younger brother of Viktor.
    Both artists are wonderful.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have seen some of Viktor’s work – indeed I have spoken with an iconographer who knew him.

    But I was not aware of his younger brother. Can you send me a link for pictures?

  9. Isaac the Syrian Avatar
    Isaac the Syrian


    I am not sure if you would be referring to all priests, including those who gave newborns over to Baal, but if you mean Christian priests I think it would be hard to ascertain the sum total of the relative harm or good they have done in the world. I do believe that the humble servant priests would go largely unnoticed by the world and I would like to think that in twenty centuries of Christian history the vast majority of them were indeed of that type.

  10. Gerald Avatar

    I am referring to any priest who takes up the role of fatherhood out of an earnest wish to act as a spiritual guide in the life of another. I don’t want to get into the Baha’i view of clergy, as this is not the place, but it is largely the institutionalization we have an issue with. The individuals are just like any others, mostly good men, but the few bad ones get all the attention.

    God Bless,

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would refer readers to my article on the hidden saints among us. There are many among that number who are priests. The abuse of the priesthood is among the greatest of all sins and from which I pray God protect the Church. In my experience, everything a human being can abuse has been abused. But the Church abides and priesthood abides, because Christ Himself is the great high priest. I think that the Church abides in the Truth (I am speaking of the Orthodox Church) despite all that she has suffered, from both outside and from false believers within, is ample testimony to the faithfulness of God. He is able to keep us.

  12. handmaid Avatar

    “a link for pictures”


    It is a Russian site (be prepared with an online translator)! I find it fairly easy to navigate once I figure out who I am looking at 🙂

  13. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    Are you not forgiven for any doubts in your responsibilities when you come out from behind the Iconostasis; asking forgiveness from the faithfull? I am a lowly convert still trying to understand. You are always in my prayers even though I am not anywhere near your church’s worship.
    Christ is Risen!

  14. Mary Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for this post. I pray for my priest/spiritual father every day, and thank God for the great blessing he is/has been in my life. Without him, I’m afraid my slothfulness and pride would overcome me.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    Yes, I thrive on those moments.

  16. Sophia Galeev Avatar
    Sophia Galeev

    Father Stephen,
    I am trying to more fully understand the role of a spiritual father. I have a sense that it can be more than just your parish priest. I am seeking, trying to be patient and trust in God to provide, as He always has. At the same time, I am wondering if I am missing something right here in front of me. My priest is wonderful- kind, patient, and full of Christ’s love – he’s just extremely busy. Is it my expectations that are hindering me, or is there actually a possibility of having a deeper connection and fuller guide through my journey? Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

  17. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    There are no guidelines as such on the matter of a spiritual father. Generally, one’s parish priest is also their confessor, and may offer some guidance. But there are other relationships that do happen (and not for everybody, I think). Sometimes it is a monastic (including nuns – for there are “spiritual mothers” as well). It is good if someone finds such a relationship for the local priest to be aware of it – and to bless it, if possible.

    I’m very aware of just how busy many parish priests are these days – it can be difficult. May God give you grace and guidance!

  18. Sophia Galeev Avatar
    Sophia Galeev

    Thank you, Father. Glory be to God!

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