The Parish as a House of Formation: Part I Why Parishes Fail

As a newly ordained priest, I was assigned to rural, northern California. In this part of the country, better than 75% of all adults having no religious affiliation. The town I lived in was right in the middle of the I-5 corridor from San Francisco to Seattle which was (and still is) one of the most unchurched parts of America. It was a great place for a young priest to learn how to do mission work!

Since leaving California, most of my ministry though has focused on working with parishes after the pastor was removed for one reason of another. So while it wasn’t I wanted for myself as a priest, God has seen fit to give me was a lot of experience in the different ways in which parishes can become dysfunctional.

Here’s what I’ve learned. Tolstoy got it exactly backward. It is unhappy, that is pathological, families that are all the same and happy families that are all happy in their own way.

Like psychopathology, spiritual and pastoral pathologies tend to proceed along a relatively predictable path. The reason for this that healthy spirituality frees us. Precisely because the spiritually healthy person (and community) is free, his behavior will always surprise us.

Pathology–again, psychological, spiritual or pastoral–is predictable because it isn’t free. Like gravity, pathology follows a well-delineated path of decay. The predictable outcome of the dysfunctional parish is that it (or the priest) becomes the center of people’s lives instead of Christ.

This isn’t my own insight.

The late Fr Alexander Schmemann was highly critical of the tendency of parishes in America rather than Christ taking first place in the life of the Church and of individual Christians. The result of all this is that

…a parish organization lives by standards and principles, which, when applied to an individual, are condemned outright by Christianity as immoral: pride, gain, selfishness, and self-affirmation. Even the constant preaching in terms of the “glory” of Orthodoxy is a rather ambiguous substitute for the glory that according to the Gospel is due to God alone. The parish organization has replaced the Church and, by the same token, has become a completely secular organization. In this it is radically different from the parish of the past. It has ceased to be a natural community with a Church as its center and pole of “ultimate reference” and “seriousness.” It has not become a religious community, i.e., a group united by and serving a common religious ideal. As it exists today it represents the very victory of secularism within American Orthodoxy (What is a Parish?).

In all the parishes I’ve served that had become dysfunctional share a common characteristic. All of them had becomes ends in themselves rather than means to an end. There are many reasons for this and to lay the failure on secularism is I think simplistic (here). Secularism (like the free market and democracy) while not an unalloyed good, is part of why it is possible to build Orthodox parishes in a largely Protestant nation. Nevertheless, I think Schmemann’s basic insight that parishes have become ends in themselves is fundamentally correct.

The moral and pastoral problem is that we’ve lost sight of the fact that the parish exists for a particular reason: to help people discern and live their vocation. For the vast majority of Orthodox Christians, our vocation is not to ministry within the Church–much less the local parish–but to the world outside the walls of the Church.

Fulfilling that vocation, in fact even realizing that such a calling is even possible, requires that the parish focuses not on itself but on the spiritual formation of the laity. To the degree that this doesn’t happen–and in some cases, the formation of the laity to discern and pursue their vocations isn’t even on the radar of many (most?) priests and parishes–the parish will become dysfunctional.

Given that Schmemann was writing more than 50 years ago, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that dysfunction is just the new normal for the parish. Writing about half century ago about things that were already seen as “normal” not pathological he writes that while the

…modern American parish may have many good aspects, … any deeper analysis must admit that it lacks seriousness in the sense we used this term above. Beyond that, however, as organization, i.e., as “parish” it, in fact, opposes this kind of seriousness, because it knows by instinct and from experience that the success it wants and seeks is precisely opposed to religious seriousness. To be “successful” one has to refer and to cater to human pride (the right hand not only knowing what the left one is doing, but spending most of the time acknowledging and publicizing it), the instinct of gain (bingo, or raffles, etc., being more efficient way to fill the parish treasury than any appeal to religious consciousness), vainglory (the best, the greatest, the most expensive . . .). And since all this is done “for the Church” it is thereby justified and glorified as “Christian.”

What I would argue is what is needed is a vision of the parish as a house of formation. In the next few posts, I hope to sketch out a vision of the parish not as “successful” but as a house of formation. A place where men and women can discern and be supported in pursuing their personal vocations as Orthodox Christians.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

For Consideration

… Orthodox churches, are voluntary communities that must strategize to retain and attract membership; hence the new significance of Orthodox evangelism and technological acumen in reaching inquirers. The perceptual fault lines between “convert” and “ethnic” Orthodox Christians as well as the categories of intermarriage and seeker converts in parish life provide a lens by which to observe the shift in these meanings within a community that continues to be cast as ethnic and marginal to American religious mainstreams. The clerical valorization of seeker converts as model Orthodox Christians worthy of emulation by the community as a whole signals an intra-parish acceptance of, rather than a resistance to, this voluntarism. In essence, ecclesial membership by birth, nature, familial, or national heritages as ideals of church affiliation have been supplanted by voluntary, conscious, and emotionally driven associations such as those represented by seeker converts. Clerics wanted all their parishioners, regardless of birth affiliations, to become the functional equivalents of seeker converts, to be Orthodox church members by choice rather than through natal or familial tradition or accident.

From: Amy Slage, The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity

A Thought For Great Lnet

…we picture Jesus in such a way that He becomes a living reproach to humanity rather than an easily recognized expression. By thus elevating Him, we unprofitably abase ourselves and create a distance between us and Him that defeats the purpose of the Incarnation.

Michael Casey, Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology, p. 4

On Vocation 

A young man crossed the desert and finally came to the monastery of Scete. There, he asked to hear one of the abbot’s lectures and was granted permission. 

That afternoon, the abbot’s discourse was about the importance of work in the field. 

After the lecture, the young man said to one of the monks, “That was amazing. I thought I would hear a fine sermon about virtues and sins, and the abbot spoke only of tomatoes, irrigation and so forth. Where I come from, all believe that God is merciful: all one must do is pray.” 

The monk smiled and replied, “Here we believe that God has already done God’s part; now it is up to us to continue the process.”

Israel Galina of, Stories of the Desert Fathers (Translated): Ancient Wit and Wisdom for Today’s Bewildering Times. 

A King Needs A Palace 

​Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of-throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself!

George MacDonald in C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Walker and Co., 1987), 205.

The Soul of the Eater is Not Satisfied

All, over which men labour in this world, is consumed in the mouth, and, munched by the teeth, it passes down to the stomach to be digested. For the little while that it delights the appetite, it seems to give pleasure while it is held in the mouth. When it has passed to the belly, there ceases to be any difference between sorts of food.

After all this, the soul of the eater is not satisfied; either because it again longs for what it has eaten, and both the wise man and fool cannot live without food, and the poor man seeks for nothing except how he can keep the organism of his pitiful body alive and not die of hunger, or because the soul gains no advantage from the refreshment of the body and food is the same to the wise man and the fool alike and the poor man goes where he can see wealth.

St Jerome “Commentary on Ecclesiastes

Jerome’s words are a commentary on a passage in the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes: “All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the soul is not satisfied. For what more has the wise man than the fool? What does the poor man have, who knows how to walk before the living?” (6:7-8, NKJV)

Especially when I’ve presented ideas like this to Evangelical Christians, my listeners will say that I’m denying the goodness of creation. While I understand why they say this, St Jerome isn’t denying the goodness of creation. He (and I) is rather delineating the limits of creation. Good though it is, there is no life in food. Life comes to us not from what we eat or drink but from God.

Again, this doesn’t mean food (or any part of creation) is evil. It only means that we can’t ask from creation what creation itself can’t provide. This is what St Maximus the Confessor is getting at when he writes that “Nothing created by God is evil. It is not food that is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but unchastity, not material things but avarice, not esteem but self-esteem. It is only the misuse of things that is evil, not the things themselves.”

We can summarize the whole of our Christian life as nothing more or less than the struggle to learn to use creation as God intended it to be used. When I misuse the creation then I don’t only dishonor God and the creation, I cause my life to be nothing but a series of frustrations as again and again I become disappointed.

As these disappointments add up I become increasingly prone to cynicism and hardness of heart. I lose, in other words, the ability to feel joy because having lost any sense of nature of creation, I have become incapable of gratitude.

This I think is the situation of all of us at one time or another. But for some, maybe even many, people today this sense of growing dissatisfaction is the norm.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Appreciating Our Past

Jihadists and Progressives Together:

That Christianity is “the root of the West, the West’s living source” is at best unremembered. It is more accurate to say that it is remembered, but also hated and rejected. The West — Europe and North America — knows its roots perfectly well and that Christianity is still undeniably a source of life. The West knows and is doing its very best to live it down.

Read the rest here

Love is the Vocation, Friendship the Key

The call of the husband is not to fit into a preconceived role of husband, but to enter deeply into a relationship with his wife. We find our fulfillment as husbands (and wives) as we are united with Christ and perfected in Christ, in relation relationship with our spouse. If a man tries to act like a good husband, head, or leader, he will find that his wife, with her faults, will only get in the way. This is a subtly self-centered approach to marriage. If, however, he tries to love his wife with perfect love, he will find that his wife provides plenty of opportunities for him to be an become a true husband, head, and leader.

 Philip Mamalakis, “The High and Holy Calling of Being a Husband,” in David C. Ford, Mary S. Ford and Alfred Kentigern Siewers Eds.),  Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage, (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016), p. 100.

Vocations are always personal. God calls this or that person to love Him and to love others in a concrete–and so necessarily, personal–way. And just as no one is called to be a husband (or wife!) in general but to be the husband of this woman, no one is called to be a priest in general. The priest is called by God to love a particular community.

Unlike marriage, a priest might–and often is–asked in the course of his priesthood to love different communities. Some he loves for longer, other shorter, time. But whether his time with a community is long or short, easy or hard, the priest is called to love the community in all it’s concreteness.

And so, to borrow from the epigraph, the call of the priest is not to fit into a preconceived role of the priesthood, but to enter deeply into a relationship with his family, his parish, his fellow clergy and his diocese. This is only possible, if the priest is first “united with Christ and perfected in Christ.” It is only in this way that the priest can be “in relation relationship with” those around him.

If, on the other hand, a man tries merely to act like a good priest, head, or leader, he will find that his parish, with its “faults, will only get in the way.” The priest who doesn’t draw close to Christ will, of necessity, limits his ministry to appearance. He may sing well, he may preach well and even be of comfort to his parishioners. But for all he has the appearance of success, he will slowly die inside.

His inner life will wither away not because divine grace is absent but because he is relying simply on himself, on his own abilities, and not on Christ. Often this “subtly self-centered approach” to ministry is overlooked by the parish, the bishop and even the priest’s family until the priest stumbles in some way or other.

If, on the other hand, the priest “tries to love his [parish] with perfect love, he will find that [the community] provides plenty of opportunities for him to be an become a true husband, head, and leader.” But perfect love is only possible in Christ and this requires that the priest cultivate a deep, personal and prayerful relationship with his Lord.

Like marriage, the priesthood is a kind of friendship. And, in both cases, the friendship whether between priest and parishioner, or between husband and wife, is the fruit of a friendship with Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Magic, Liturgy & the Priest

When Ronald Grimes refers to magic, he’s not making “a pejorative” judgment but discussing “rites that aim to effect.” Magic is functional and so refers to any ritual, or “any element of ritual,” that we undertake “as means to an end.” Insofar as a rite not only has meaning but also works, it is magical. Insofar as it is a deed having transcendent reference and accomplishing some desired empirical result, a rite is magical” (Beginnings in Ritual Studies, pp. 42-43).

This kind of analysis is likely to make Christians in liturgical traditions nervous. “After all,” so their thinking might go, “isn’t something accomplished in the Liturgy and the sacraments of the Church?”

Grimes seems to anticipate this objection. He writes:

Liturgy speaks in an interrogative voice, then a declarative one: “Can this be?” then “This is the case.” By contrast, magic depends on the declarative to reach the imperative: “This is how things work; therefore, let this be the case!” Magic has in common with ceremony a propensity for performative utterances, but the frame of reference of the former is political, while that of the latter is transcendent. Magic uses a transcendent frame of reference to effect change in the ordinary reality of social and ecological interaction (p. 43).

The distinction he draws here is subtle.

It might help us if we think of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental tradition as the anthropological fruit of awe. I have in mind here the response of St Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist, to the Virgin Mary. “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43) The questioning inherent in liturgy isn’t skepticism but wonder. Seen in this way, there is a developmental continuity (both psychologically and spiritually) between our appreciation of the beauty of creation, the mystery of the Eucharist and our own dignity as Christians.

The middle step here—the Eucharist—is critical. Without it, our wonder is rooted simply in ourselves and our own finitude in the response to a largely but ultimately equally finite creation. Yes, there is a grandeur to a sunset, a mountain, the birth of a child. But apart from the Eucharist (and the rest of the sacramental economy), these experiences remain locked into the finite and ever-shifting character of creation and of our own experience of creation. Without the Eucharist, I remain a prisoner of my own, internal, psychological processes.

It is the Eucharist, the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, that liberates the normal, universal, human experience awe in response to transitory beauty into a foretaste of the Eternal. “Grant them in return for earthly things, heavenly gifts; for temporal, eternal; for corruptible, incorruptible.”

Magic doesn’t begin in the experience of wonder but in an act of the will; not awe but assertion. Yes, magic seeks to change things but change them according to my own desires, my own ideas of what is fitting. “The force of magic,” Grimes writes, “lies in its use of desire as a major contributing factor in causing hoped-for results” (p. 43, emphasis added).

Rooted as they are in awe and wonder, the dominate mood of liturgy is thanksgiving. Yes, liturgy is a transcendent and transforming, event. But the liturgically mediated change is predicated not only on divine grace but my ability to accept with gratitude the fact of my absolute dependence on God and my relative dependence on others. Implicit within the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the rest of the Church’s sacramental economy, is my grateful acceptance of my own finitude.

The affective mood of magic is quite different. Typically, magic reflects human anxiety and a desire to control reality. Again Grimes: “magic restores, or takes, control by employing symbols more for their consequence than for their meaning. Thus magical anxiety is likely to be coupled with its opposite: confidence. Magic frequently conjures confidence as a step toward producing the desired results” (p. 43).

But the confidence of magic, is not the fruit of trust but fear and so reflects a lack of appreciation for my status as a creature. Yes, as Grimes points out, magic can lead to “awe or thankfulness.” When it does, we are “one step closer to liturgy or celebration.” Usually, though, magic is a way of explaining reality; it “is how we account for causes and consequences.” This search for an explanation often involves “trickery” and again, while this can grow into something else—the “playfulness of celebration” (p. 44)—it doesn’t necessarily do so. For magic to become liturgy requires gratitude; for it to become celebration, it requires that “surrender idiosyncrasies and independence” (p. 41).

In both cases, for magic to become something more requires that I surrender control and the pursuit of my own desires as mine.

Contrary to what we tell ourselves, magic isn’t absent from contemporary societies “although it is probably adumbrated in them.” Specifically, as Grimes says, “modern therapy and sexuality are as laden with magical thinking as healing and fertility rites ever were.” Likewise, “advertising is full of it. People deny that they believe in magic but ingest this pill and use that shampoo, expecting ‘somehow’ (the cue for magical transcendence) to become what they desire” (p. 44).

And the priest? What has this to do with him?

People often come to the Church, come to the worship of the Church, anxious and weary. Jesus tells us as much. “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, NKJV).

In those moments when we come to liturgy anxious, weary and weak, there is a temptation to see the Liturgy and the sacraments as magical and the priest as a magician. The priest needs to be on guard for this attitude among his parishioners. It is important that he be viglant in this matter not only for their sake but his own as well.

The temptation for me as priest is that to see me—and not Christ—as the source of healing and transformation.

Responding to this temptation, and guarding against it, is the subject of our next conversation about Liturgy and the spirituality of the priest.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Decorum, Liturgy & the Priest’s Spiritual Life

Let’s return to our earlier discussion of liturgy and the spirituality of the priest (see here). To recap briefly what I said,  the idiosyncratic liturgist seeks to shape the liturgy according to either his own personality or the ethos of the community. Doing so, in either case, means constricting human freedom to what is given. Here the insights of the social scientist can be helpful.

When a social system becomes closed in on itself, it tends to concentrate dysfunction and pathology. This is Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good) applied to a social group.To understand this, think about how a pond, cut off from free flowing water, will eventually become stagnant. This usually doesn’t mean nothing grows in the pond—that there is no life—but that only a very few things grow. And what does grow, grows at the expense of other forms of life that would naturally be in the pond.

Another way to understand this, think about a pond. Now imagine that the pond is cut off from free flowing water, will eventually become stagnant. This usually doesn’t mean nothing grows in the pond—that there is no life—but that only a very few things grow. And what does grow, grows at the expense of other forms of life that would naturally be in the pond.

So if idiosyncratic forms of liturgy lead to spiritual stagnation, what is the priest to do? After all, as we said earlier, the fact that we are embodied creatures mean that a certain amount of idiosyncrasy is unavoidable. I will, in other words, only mostly “Say the Black” and only mostly “Do the Red.”

The spiritual life of the priest-celebrant doesn’t just go awry when he tries to shape liturgy according to his own personality or the community’s ethos. His spiritual life is also deformed when he uses liturgy as a means of denying the fact of human embodiment. Yes, in the words of the Cherubic Hymn, the celebrant, like the congregation, “mystically represent the cherubim.” But neither the congregation, and more importantly for our concerns here, nor the priest are actually angels.

There needs to be a gentle, peaceful and appreciative acceptance of the unavoidable missteps and variations that emerge whenever we gather together as the Church. It’s worth repeating Grimes when he says that given the nature of liturgy, “it is easy to overstep oneself, and as a result there is always something inherently clumsy about the liturgical stride.” This why, as he concludes, we humble ourselves “and apologize by confessions of sin, cleansings, sweats, baptisms, and incensations” (Beginning in Ritual Studies  p. 45).

And when we try, either individually or corporately, to block out the need to confess our myriad missteps and lack of attention, what happens?

In this situation, even when celebrated according to the rubrics, liturgy becomes something else. It becomes what Grimes calls “decorum” or a pattern of “indirection and repetition” (p. 39) that doesn’t so much serve transcendence as it does to reinforce “roles, statutes, and interpersonal intentions” (p. 40).

The irony here is that reducing our celebration of liturgy to decorum (what Schmemann Introduction to Liturgical Theology, p. 97, called “liturgical formalism”) we are is just as self-enclosed, and so just as prone to stagnation, as in the idiosyncratic form of liturgy. What makes this confusion so deadly spiritually is that like liturgy, decorum is also a relatively conservative way of ritualizing our social interactions. From the outside, decorum and liturgy can look very much the same. It is where they diverge, however, that it is important for our concern here.

As I said, liturgy assumes that I will always fall short of what is celebrated. This is why repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are built into the Church’s worship. For this reason, liturgy always challenges me to ask if I am who my actions claim I am. And if I am open to the question, I realize that I’m not. “Liturgy,” in other words, “is how a people becomes attuned to the way things are— the way they really are, not the way they appear to be” (p. 45).

Decorum moves in the opposite direction. When I violate “the decorum of an occasion” I’m saying that even though I’m physically present, I am psychologically or spiritually not “participat[ing] in … the occasion” (p. 40). And when I break the “rules of decorum”? Then “I am ignored, snubbed, gossiped about, or frowned at” (pp. 40-41; in light of this, the offense of the wedding guest in the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1-14 is evidently a more serious matter than his merely being rude).

While the consequences are relatively light, return for the offending party requires a great deal of effort. Return means that the offender conformity to group’s  “lightweight cultural ‘ought'” and so ratify, affirm and accept the group’s power structures. In other words, restoration comes not through forgiveness but hazing.

When a priest (or a parish) habitually defaults to snubbing or gossiping or shunning this is a sign that—however faithful he is to the rubrics—decorum and not liturgy is the wellspring of his spiritual life.

What the priest has lost, or maybe never found, is the ability of the Church’s liturgical tradition not simply to challenge him but to transform him. Transformation is always personal and so requires that the priest not only see how his life and ministry fits within the broad sweep of the tradition of the Church but also how that same tradition is, as it were, being played out in his own life and ministry. “Death in general is transformed by a funeral into the events of a person’s dying. By means of ritual, a natural demise is made for family and friends a concrete occurrence. This is the kind of work that liturgical rites do best: transforming the inevitable” into the personal and communal (Grimes, pp. 46-47).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

%d bloggers like this: