Thursday, December 29, 2016

Special Needs Ministry at St. Vladimir's

I have been thinking about this issue for some time. Since I have a child with special needs I am allowed to think about such things. I should think about such things. I am required to think about such things. But as a priest I WANT to think about such things. I need to think about such things. It is my job to think about such things. How can we bring more people to Christ? How can we avoid excluding people from the God's Church? How can we make St. Vladimir's a place that is a spiritual home for those with every kinds of child? This is a big deal. This is a rather large pink elephant in our room, so to speak. And if we are honest with ourselves – we are mostly ignoring this pink elephant. Sometimes if we ignore a problem it will just disappear. Especially pink elephants. At least that is what I often tell myself. It doesn't happen nearly as often as I hope it will. And I don't think there is any way it is going to happen here. We have to address this important issue.

Certainly our first reaction is likely to be something along the lines of “we are not chasing anyone away.” That is true. Undoubtedly true. We ARE a welcoming community. There is no doubt about that. We are welcoming to those like us and those not like us from a social, racial, ethnic, political, and pretty much any other point of view. But not with those who have special needs, mental illness, cognitive challenges, etc. Does this mean we hate them? I have no doubt that we do NOT hate them. Not by any means. But let's be honest with ourselves: we just don't know what to do with these people. Or their children. Or their adult children. We don't know and thus we hope that if we ignore the problem it will solve itself. That is not going to happen. Passivity is not going to ensure anything except that we are excluding many from the Lord's Kingdom. That cannot be. We must affirmatively welcome all – and find a place for all.

It is not easy to deal with people with special needs. It can be scary sometimes, although these folks are very rarely violent. But they are different. They are not like us. And since we have little or no exposure to these kinds of people we don't know what to do. And they can be loud. Or act out. Or fidget. Or not sit still. Or act in any number of ways differently than the expectations we have for our faithful during the solemnity of the Divine Services.

So what do we do? Allow chaos to reign during the Divine Services? That obviously won't work. But can we have some compassion, some understanding, some flexibility? I cannot answer for anyone else. I can say, however, that I feel as the parish priest I need to do more. And I can also say that part of my job as the parish priest is to challenge the parish family to grow spiritually. Thus, I'm going to jump to the next pronoun and state that WE need to do more.

The Lord said: “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.” You can find that in Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5. It is true that He said this in the context of repentance. We have often used the same metaphor as the Holy Fathers: the Church is a Spiritual Hospital. We are all sick. Why is it that we accept some (mostly hidden, often denied) illnesses as OK for church attendance and relegate others to banishment from the temple? The Lord also said: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” That is called the Great Commission. We know this as the end of Matthew's gospel. There are related versions of it in Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. We are being called to teach and baptize all. I've read the Great Commission lots of times. It was a pretty important part of my doctoral work, so I've studied it pretty intensely. Nowhere have I read in the Holy Fathers that this can be interpreted as affirmatively excluding those with special needs from the Christian Community.

I don't have the answer here. Well, maybe better put is that the answer is obvious. It is just not clear to me how we get from where we are now to executing the obviously correct answer. We have to have a ministry for those with special needs. It needs to be authentically Orthodox. It needs to integrate all into the Body of Christ. Those are over-arching strategy sort of statements. That is fine – these must be said. But what are the tactics? How do we execute this strategy so that it is effective in every meaning of that word?

Below are a few blog posts that I read in preparation for writing this note. Clearly we have some legitimate arguments about some of the theology stated or implied in these, but they still give us a very good look into concerns of special needs parents and what some other parishes are doing to execute this important ministry. The point here is not to get you to think like a Protestant – the point is to expose you to the reality of those with kids with special needs – and I think these posts do a good job of that in a broadly Christian context.

What are the Stats on Disability & Church

Why Church Is a Burden for Special Needs Parents {And What You Can Do About It}

Why You Should NOT Welcome My Special Needs Child to Your Church

7 Reasons Why Churches Fail Special Needs Kids

I have some tactics I think can work to get us moving in the right direction. But I'm going to reserve sharing those right now. Why? Because I have found over the years here at St. Vladimir's that if I put a problem out there the parish, which is replete with smart people, the parish often comes up with a better solution than I could have ever concocted myself. So I have my ideas. I'm not going to poison the well of good ideas by sharing mine just yet. Will you share yours? Please comment below. Or send an email to I look forward to this conversation and putting together a solid set of tactics that can serve our strategy of establishing a solidly Orthodox Christian ministry for those with special needs and their families.

Fr. Gregory

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Prayers after Meals at St. Vladimir’s

We have developed a somewhat odd habit at St. Vladimir’s. We pray before meals, but not after meals. There is a good reason for this of course. It isn’t that we don’t WANT to pray after meals, it is just that the nature of our meals lends itself to folks leaving at a time that is best for them and their families. That is, there is a clear START to our meals, but there is not a clear FINISH.

Still, it is important for us to pray before and after meals, whether we be at home, at church, or somewhere else. But I think it is especially important for us to model the best practices in this regard at St. Vladimir’s. And so, after 35 years as a parish, I think it is time that we establish the good habit to pray both before and after meals at St. Vladimir’s.

How will we do this you ask? Certainly it is true: folks sort of get up and leave when it makes the best sense for them each Sunday. And that is fine! But we will simply put a little structure into this part of our parish life. About 30 minutes after we bless the food we will say the thanksgiving prayer. And we may find that 45 minutes makes more sense. Or 60. But let’s start by trying 30 and see how that goes. We will only find the right time if you give me feedback though – so please do! It isn’t that I haven’t thought about this in the past. Of course I have. But it never sort of rose to the point of being actionable. Well, one of our young families asked me about our practice and I had to say that we simply are not doing the right thing and we need to. This is what giving feedback can lead to – improving the spiritual life of the entire parish family! So please do give feedback – this will be VERY welcome!

To be clear, just because we say the prayer does not mean that you are expected to leave! You are welcome to stay just as long as you do any other Sunday. It is just that we will pray at some point. This is not the end of the meal – it is just the time of our prayer. So please do not feel any pressure to leave after the prayer!

As with all prayers in English there are many, many translations. None is right or wrong, but we have to use one. So we’ll use this one from the Jordanville Prayer Book:


The melody is the Tone 8 Troparion melody – the same as the Kontakion for St. Vladimir (which we all hear just about every Sunday – so we know it). :)

There will be fits and starts here. I will likely forget from time to time. After being here for almost 20 years as a priest and 5 more before that as a student this practice of NOT saying the prayer after meals is pretty well burned into my conscience. But I know you will lovingly remind me if I forget!

Now for the advanced portion: sometimes we will sing this prayer in English and sometimes in Slavonic. Yikes! How will we know which one to use? Simple! If we sing the Lord’s Prayer in Slavonic we will sing the thanksgiving prayer in English. And vise versa too! :) That’s right – we’ll sing the Lord’s Prayer in English sometimes going forward. Don’t worry – we’ll announce which we will use before we start and we’ll try to be as equitable as possible.

Please let me know if you have questions. And please feel free to comment here too.

Fr. Gregory

Friday, December 9, 2016

Why do we accept vandalism in our parish church?

Vandalism might be too strong. When invoking the Vandals one probably has to be a little more precise. We are not talking about widespread destruction and looting. We are really talking more about mischief. Mischief that kids sometimes engage in. I did. I bet you did too. Kids do dumb stuff sometimes. Especially when parents aren’t looking or when other adults don’t step in to a situation because it is not their kid that is engaging in mischief.

Every person on my block knew my name when I was a kid. Every person on my block knew that if they called my parents and told them that I was doing something stupid or dangerous that I was going to hear about it from my parents when I got home and that I was likely going to be punished. And that I would know not to do it again. The reporting adult was not questioned. It was assumed that the adult was telling the truth despite any protestations on my part. We don’t live in that time anymore. I suppose we are all nostalgic for our youth. Even if that nostalgia is in regard to limiting our behavior. We can’t change the fact that those days are gone. Adults have learned to look the other way if it is not their kid. To pretend that it is not happening. To not overstep in trying to correct someone else’s child. Whether I think that is a good idea or not doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: we can’t accept that our children will be allowed to engage in mischief in our parish church. This teaches them disdain for God’s House. And when we get to that point it is time for me, as the Rector, to step in.

But I can’t be in the kitchen during the Vigil. I have to serve or hear confessions while the kids are in there ransacking the place, eating food there without any permission from anyone, and leaving victuals out to feed the mice. And I can’t be in the kiosk area to keep every poster that is put up from having the edges of the paper creased and folded so that something we spent hours preparing is ruined and our parish looks trashy to visitors because we can’t put up a decent flyer. Or to keep pamphlet holders and other things there from being broken. And I can’t patrol the memorial table and the other candle stands that have sand in them during the Divine Services while the kids play in them like sand boxes.

That is just the obvious stuff. That doesn’t even include things like carving in the wood furniture or dripping wax on the floor or the icons.

I get it – no one wants to be scolded by another parent for overstepping their bounds with that person’s kid. But I am telling you now that this is all inappropriate and that it is your Christian duty to step in and say something. You don’t have to (and you should not) punish the child. We are not hereby forming a branch of some secret police force. But children do silly things. Sometimes dumb things. Sometimes destructive things. They are kids. They don’t always think things through. This does not mean they are bad. They are learning. But they will become bad – and disdain the House of God – if we don’t do something about this. That is why we adults have to help them to do the right thing. They need to love God’s House and want to care for it as a Christian obedience – and we get there with some structure and a lot of love.

Here is how this will work. If you see a kid engaging in mischief and the kid’s parent is not around say something. If the kid doesn’t heed your words tell the parent. If the parent doesn’t do anything about it tell me. Easy. This is not a threat to anyone’s parenting. This is not overstepping bounds. This is seeing to it that “... all things be done decently and in order.” (I Corinthians 14:40). Any punishment necessary is at the hands of the parents, as it should be. This is not a call for punishment – this is a call for reasonable structure that will guide kids to the right approach to the parish church as God’s House. God’s House is a sanctified space – it is not just some old building. If kids engage in mischief at school or at someone else’s house you as a parent want to know about it and correct it. SO MUCH THE MORE SO IN GOD’S HOUSE!

Mischief in the church is unacceptable. Ignoring mischief so that a child begins to disdain the church is even more unacceptable. This must end beginning this weekend. People work hard to clean the church. People work hard to prepare flyers. People work hard to donate to the church so that nice things can be purchased to glorify God in His House. If we ignore our children when they engage in mischief we assure that they will never care for God’s House. And we will answer for that. And as your priest I will answer for it more than anyone. And thus, today’s note. Let’s do this with love. Let’s do this with cooperation. But let’s – we must – do this. For the sake our kids and for the sake our own souls.

Fr. Gregory