Friday, November 1, 2019

The Value of the Church

We have been talking about Evangelism and Stewardship lately at St. Vladimir’s. At first glance we may consider that these are two issues that don’t really overlap. But I will submit in this piece that indeed these are almost two sides of the same coin, or put another way without having to mix metaphors: they do indeed overlap. One depends on the other and they both depend on us understanding that the Church adds value to our lives. If we understand that the Church provides us value then we will work hard to bring others to Christ and we will support the Church at the same time, for, as the scripture says: “...for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34)

And here is where we have missed something. That miss is my fault. People always praise the priest too much when things go well and criticize too much when they don’t. But this one is squarely on me. I somehow have not been able to convey to a large number of our parishioners that the Church adds value to their lives. And the way I gage that is this: our Treasurer tells me that we have many parishioners that do not give to the parish - at all. On any level. That means that they do not see the parish as adding value to their lives - at all. On any level. I do not know who these parishioners are of course - I just know that they exist. I don’t know who gives what and I don’t want to to know - I never want that to be a consideration in my service to our parishioners. Still, we tip the waitress at the restaurant because she adds value to our dining experience. If we never support the parish with time, talent, or treasure that means we simply do not see a value in the Church or our parish family. Note please that we include in Stewardship TIME, TALENT, and treasure. It is understood that not everyone has treasure to give. If that is the reality in your life now that is perfectly fine. That will change some day, and at that point you should reconsider your stewardship. We should strive to give to God first, before all other financial responsibilities, but sometimes we just can’t make that happen for various reasons. For now, give the time and talent that you can. Visit our Volunteer Page to learn more about how you can do that. But apparently, from what I am told, some folks give neither time, talent, or treasure. What that means is that somewhere along the line I didn’t fulfill my role as pastor of the flock.

This is one of those things that I was blinded by because it was so obvious to me. And because I feel so strongly that the the Church adds value to my life (let’s be honest, the Church and our Orthodox Faith GIVES value to my life) I couldn’t fathom that this was not the case for everyone in our parish. My wrong and my bad! Twenty five years as a priest - one would have hoped that I would have learned something by now. May God forgive me and grant me humility - the humility to understand one day that not everyone thinks the same things or the same way that I do. I mean, I do hypothetically understand that. But obviously not well enough. May this be the last mistake in this regard for me! Sadly, I doubt that. But one can and must hope as a Christian!

Now we come to the crux of the thing: how do we help people understand the value that the Church provides? Not because we need their money - but because the Church DOES provide value. And people need to understand that value so that they can order their lives correctly. Without this understanding people’s priorities will be completely upside down, and that will hurt their striving for salvation. Maybe people understand that the Church (big C - that is the organization founded by Jesus Christ for our salvation) adds value, but don’t see that same value in the parish? I’m walking through this with you because I am trying to figure it our myself. Sincerely. I don’t get it. I WANT to get it, but I don’t get it. And that is bad. I need to get it, and I need your help to get it so we can fix it together.

Evangelism and Stewardship are two of the main ways that we can measure the quantity of the variable we will call here “value”. Value = “the value the Church/parish provides to each parishioner’s life.” If the variable of value is high in our lives, I would argue, our efforts at Evangelism and Stewardship will also be correspondingly high. And if we see little or no value in the Church/parish, then our efforts at Evangelism and Stewardship will be between low and zero.

This is not a reason for us to despair. In fact - we should rejoice! For the Lord is clearly showing us that we have more work to do in the parish family AND showing us clearly what that work is. We need to help our parishioners see the value that the Church/parish provides them. I can’t improve on the Gospel, so that part (the content of the teaching of the Lord) can’t be changed. All of the scripture actually - I can’t change that of course. Ditto the Councils and Dogma of the Church. That is also way above my pay grade to change, and it would not be Orthodox by any means to attempt to do so. So the value of the Church is set - we can’t change that. And that value is high. It is eternal. It is the most important thing in the world. Through the Church we can gain salvation - and nothing is more important than that.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we have been CONVEYING that value adequately. My guess is that we have in fact fallen short here. We have the cure for death. It is kind of difficult to improve on that! But if we somehow don’t teach our parish family that truth very well then the teacher needs correction - not the content being taught. And that teacher is me. So going forward we will work more on trying to help folks understand the value our Lord Jesus Christ brings to them, along with the Church He founded for the salvation of all. I would be very open to ideas in that regard since clearly what I have been doing has not conveyed adequately to our parishioners what I had hoped it would.

Now on to the parish. The parish is not the same as the Church. The parish is part of the Church, but every parish is a little bit different. Some are a lot different, but I think deviating too far from the norm in this sense just makes us abnormal. So I wouldn’t be very open to radical changes in our parish life. And just so everyone is aware, we are having a clergy retreat in the parish before the end of the year to discuss how we might increase our offering of Divine Services in the parish. I think more Divine Services = more value. But given my recent track record of understanding our parishioners I’m not really trusting myself fully in this area. My “value meter” seems to be kind of broken based on the data we have regarding participation in Stewardship. So please share thoughts with me so I can fix that. A priest has to lead. A priest has to challenge. But a priest has to learn too. And I’m thinking that I need to focus a little bit more on the learning side going forward. Do not worry - I will not stop leading and I will not stop challenging. In fact, I won’t lie - I’ve got a big challenge for all of us: my goal (which has Archbishop Peter’s blessing) is to see us get to the point of having the full cycle of Divine Services at St. Vladimir’s daily. Every day. Every week. Every month. Every year. Until the Lord comes again. I don’t think (I HOPE!!) that anyone would say to me: more services = less value. I get it if everyone doesn’t UNDERSTAND the value of the Divine Services (again - my fault if this is the case), but I don’t get it if folks feel that more services actually DETRACT from the value the parish provides them. If that is the case please tell me. I will be happy to talk this through with you. The Divine Services are the theology in action of the Church. If we could hold all services every day and one could attend all services one would never have to open another spiritual book. One who attended all the services would know the theology of the Church, would hear almost the entire Bible read each year, would know the lives of the saints, and would even breathe as an Orthodox Christian - would understand the “fragrance of the Church” as the Holy Fathers write. That is what we were taught in seminary. That is what I have always been taught by my superiors in the faith (bishops and senior priests). I don’t think they were wrong or that they tried to mislead me. As we walk this through I’m coming to the conclusion that here too the problem is not with the actual value the parish provides our faithful, but with the teacher. The value is clearly not being conveyed! And I need help to do this better. So please give me your ideas. We have LOTS of great ideas at St. Vladimir’s - but most remain in your heads. SHARE THOSE IDEAS and I hope that together we can improve on our ability to convey the value of the Church/our parish to our parishioners.

I have been the Secretary of our Diocese for lots of years. I figured it out once. I think it is something like 15 years now. I know most of the parishes and their issues pretty well because of that. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t and obviously I try to apply those things that work and avoid those things that do not work in our parish. And I thought we were doing pretty wellwell. Of course, like all families we have areas where we need to improve. But to find out from our Treasurer that we have many parishioners who do not give at all or entirely irregularly has shaken my paradigm that we are directionally correct in our parish. OK - that is an exaggeration. But it has challenged that paradigm. It seems that we may not be exactly on the right track. And If this is the case: we may need to make adjustments.

But adjustments do not equal blowing the thing up and starting again from scratch. In fact I KNOW (unless we are wildly divergent from every other parish in the diocese, and I do not believe we are that odd) that we are mostly on the right track. Be certain that I believe the scripture is absolutely true in this regard: “Where there is no vision, the people perish...” (Proverbs 29:18) And that I believe that the priest provides the vision as the leader (under the tutelage of the ruling bishop of course). But I am not opposed, and in fact I invite, your advice on tactics on how we accomplish our strategy, or better put, how we live our mission as a parish. Here is our parish Mission Statement as approve by our Parish Council - everyone should know this and act accordingly:

“The mission of St. Vladimir Orthodox Church is to gather Orthodox Christians of all nationalities and backgrounds, as well as all those desiring to embrace the Orthodox Christian Faith, as a parish family for mutual spiritual support and the salvation of our souls. We strive to emulate in our lives, and especially in our parish family, the relationship between the persons of the Holy Trinity as the highest and most profound example of love.”

The fact that we have a good number of folks that do not support this mission by not donating time, talent, or treasure means we have work to do. Not that these folks are bad or wrong - no! That we have work to do to help them understand that the Church and the parish add value to their lives and that we should look to ourselves to improve: me first of all.

Help me figure this out! Please contact me. The only stupid ideas are the ones we don’t share. All ideas are welcome! That doesn’t mean we’re going to USE every idea. :) But this is your invitation: help me understand how we can do this better. Because I am absolutely certain that if we can improve on conveying the truths of Orthodox Christianity to those entrusted to us that we will fulfill our mission, our flock will understand the value the Church/parish provides them, and Evangelism and Stewardship will be in full swing in our parish. That is where we need to go if we want to build our school, our new church, and FILL that new church with new people coming to Christ! Everyone is part of the parish family and thus everyone is part of the answer: help me by sharing your thoughts with me. And please pray for me that the Lord will help me to do a better job as your parish priest.

Fr. Gregory

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