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