Tag Archives: Pastoral care

Preaching the Kerygma

Icon of St. Kosmas Aitolos preaching to the people

When Jesus begins His public ministry (Luke 4:17-21), He does so be reading from the Holy Prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4: 18-19, NKJV; compare Isaiah 61:1, 2).

Jesus doesn’t begin His ministry by explaining the mystery of the Holy Trinity or of His own incarnation “by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” No, He announces Good News to the poor, the blind and the captive. He proclaims the kerygma.

Sherry Weddell in her book Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, asks what you might be asking. “What is the kerygma?” She quotes the late Pope John Paul II who says the kerygma is “the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith” (p. 66)

Another way to think about it, she says, is this, it is “the essential nucleus of the Gospel that awakens initial Christian faith.” The goal here is to inspire the person to say, “Jesus is Lord!” More systematically, the kerygma “the basic outline of the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (p. 66).

Orthodox Christians tend to be maximalists (at least in theory). So talking about the “essential nucleus of the Gospel” can sound to our ears like a bad thing. “Why,” you might ask, “would I want to give someone a ‘simplified’ version of the Gospel? After all, we have the fullness of the Gospel?”

That last, theological point, is certainly true. I believe that the fullness of the Gospel is found in the Orthodox Church. But as the saying goes, a thirsty man doesn’t need to drink the whole river.

The kerygma is really an invitation, a starting point, to accept the Gospel. When we proclaim this very basic teaching about Christ we are following the example of the Apostle Paul. Speaking to the Corinthians, he says that he “could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it.” Unfortunately, they “couldn’t even digest spiritual milk and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-4, NKJV)

The kerygma is our starting point. If the Apostle Paul is any guide, the presence in our lives (or parish) of “envy, strife, and divisions” would suggest that even though we have been baptized, regularly attended the service, go to confession and receive Holy Communion, something is wrong (here).

While we ought  “to be teachers” we still evidently need someone to “teach [us] again the principles” of the Gospel. We still need the “milk” of the kerygma and aren’t ready yet for the “solid food” of doctrine and the inner life of prayer. These are only fully available to us when we commit ourselves to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Though concerned with the pastoral situation in the Catholic Church, Sherry’s observations are also applicable to Orthodox Christians. “One of the obstacles to calling our own to discipleship is that few Catholics have ever heard of the kerygma or the ‘Great Story of Jesus’ (to borrow a wonderful phrase from Father Robert Barron), and even fewer know what the kerygma contains or have heard it preached clearly” (p. 67). Later she asks

If Christian faith flowers only in the presence of the kerygma, what does that mean for our pastoral practice? How is our generation to believe without someone who proclaims the kerygma? We can no longer presume that people around us already know the story. On the contrary, we have to presume that (a) many don’t know the basic facts of the Story; (b) a good deal of what they “know” may be wrong; (c) they don’t know how the parts of the story fit together to make a whole; and (d) they don’t know what the story means for them personally. Nor do they know what it means for their family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, or the world (p. 203).

When we talk about the importance of preaching the Gospel in fostering discipleship, we mean focusing on the kerygma, on the Great Story. In Forming Intentional Disciples (pp. 207-216) there is helpful summary of the Great Story:

  1. The Kingdom of God
  2. Jesus: Face of the Kingdom
  3. Jesus: The Kingdom in Word & Deed
  4. Jesus & the Cross
  5. Jesus: Resurrection, Ascension & the Church.
  6. Jesus Asks Me to Follow Him
  7. Personal Sin
  8. Dropping the Net
  9. The Life of Discipleship

I would encourage Orthodox Christians—clergy or laity (and indeed anyone interested in evangelism)—to read this summary (and really, the whole book).

For now, I think it is important to keep in mind that like salvation, discipleship is a process. We grow in holiness because we grow in our participation in the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:2-4). God calls us ALL grow in our likeness to His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Discipleship begins in the sacraments and our personal acceptance of the kerygma. But, to return to the Apostle Paul one last time, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14, NKJV).

Discipleship begins, in other words, not simply in “you” hearing the kerygma but in “me” preaching it.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Schmemann and the Life of the Parish

Fr Alexander Schmemann in his essay “What Is the Parish?” makes what he characterizes as two shocking assertions.

Fr Alexander Schmemann and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

First, that “the parish as we understand it now, i.e., as an organization with officers, by-laws, finances, property, meetings, elections, etc., is a very recent phenomenon and exists, in fact, almost exclusively within the Orthodox ‘diaspora.'” His second, and what he calls his equally shocking observation, is that “in spite of all its religious connotations” the parish as it exists in America is “a product of secularization.” He qualifies this slightly by saying “that in the process of its development within the American way of life [the parish] has accepted a secularistic basis which little by little dissolves the ultimate seriousness of that which it claims to serve and to be, i.e., the Church.” He then goes on to offer a brief analysis of “the genesis and the development of the Orthodox parish in America.”

As for his diagnosis of the situation he says that the parish has become “an end in itself, an organization whose whole efforts and energies are aimed at advancing its own good material stability, success, future security, and a kind of self-pride. And it is no longer the parish that serves the Church, it is, indeed, the Church that is forced more and more to serve the parish.’ This mindset is so entrenched that even the “priest, the last sign and representative of the ‘Church’ in the “‘parish,'” is expected to “entirely subordinates the interests of the Church to those of the parish.”

All of this, he says, is a result of Orthodox Christians capitulation to secularism. Recent sociological studies in the growth (or not) of Christianity both in the US and worldwide, I think give us reason to doubt Schmemann’s analysis of the Church in America. For example, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (The Churching of America 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, 2nd edition) have argued the churches that have failed to thrive in the American free market of ideas are established churches. It is likely not secularism as such that has led to what Schmemann calls the parish’s “loss of religious seriousness” but rather the Orthodox Church’s loss of state support when its faithful came to America. Living and developing as a beneficiary of the state fosters an inability—and even unwillingness—to compete in the free marketplace of ideas. Like other established churches, the history of Orthodox Church put it at a disadvantage in America. Ironically, freedom and prosperity have harmed the parish. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, the parish needs to learn how to use the blessings of America to further the Gospel.

Schmemann makes a mistake here common to intellectuals. His scorn for democracy and the free market (economic as well as intellectual) leads him to shift responsibility for the Church failure from Orthodox Christians to American culture. Doing so, however, he overlooks the long history, of prophetic Christian involvement in American. To be sure, this witness is often less than perfect. But as Stark and Finke, argue, not all Christian communities succumb to the temptations inherent in the Novus ordo seclorum. If in fact, as Schmemann argues, the parish “by standards and principles, which, when applied to an individual, are condemned outright by Christianity as immoral: pride, gain, selfishness, and self-affirmation” we need to first look inward and examine our own consciences and practices before we look outward to the social conditions that may have contributed to this state of affairs.

To his credit, Schmemann does look inward. He criticizes “the constant preaching in terms of the ‘glory’ of Orthodoxy.” He is correct when he says that this “is a rather ambiguous substitute for the glory that according to the Gospel is due to God alone.” If in fact, the parish “has replaced the Church and, by the same token, has become a completely secular organization” it isn’t simply because of secularism but a failure to preach the Gospel. It reflects a situation in which we make good Orthodox who are not (necessarily) good Christians in the sense of being disciples of Jesus Christ.

While I think he is romanticizing the history of the Church, when he says that “this it is radically different from the parish of the past” (see for example, the treatment of mediaeval parish life in R. Stark, The Triumph of Faith: Why the World Is More Religious than Ever), he is correct that the parish has in many ways “ceased to be a natural community with [the] Church as its center and pole of ‘ultimate reference’ and ‘seriousness.'”

But this raises, or should raise, a question. If the parish serves the purpose of the Church, what is the purpose of the Church? What is that “common religious ideal” that unites us as Orthodox Christians?

In simplest terms, we are to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16: 15, NIV), making “disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything” Jesus has commanded, confident that our Lord is with us “always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28: 19-20, NIV).

The goal of the Church, and so the parish, then is this:

  • To Preach the Gospel
  • To Make Disciples
  • To Catechize the Faithful
  • To Live in Hope

With all due respect to Schmemann, his argument is that it is the failure to do these things, rather than secularism as such, that has led to the parish’s lack of religious seriousness. In what follows, we’ll look briefly at each.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Clergy and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Last week I was in Nashville, TN for the American Association for Christian Counselors World Conference. One of the most interesting presentations I heard was on clergy and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Though the presenter focused on NPD among Protestant clergy (Presbyterian Church of Canada) I think the paper’s analysis has a more general application.

As for why NPD can be a significant concern in pastoral care, Ball and Puls write (citations deleted):

The problem is insidious. Pastors are trusted with our most intimate life details, are invited into our most difficult times, and are seen as trusted spiritual and relational advisors. How, then, can a pastor who requires praise and adulation, who feels no empathy for the people who support him, and who manipulates others for the sole purpose of meeting his own voracious needs be that person? Christ’s example of “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” would be comprehensible only at a dim intellectual level.

You can find the paper is available online. If you have the time and inclination I would encourage you to read it.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Ball, R. Glen and Puls, D (2015) Let Us Prey: The Frequency of Narcissistic Personality Disorder among Pastors.

Divine Providence and Pastoral Care

St. Gregory Palamas nicely summarizes the nature of pastoral care. As a quick aside, it also reminds us what we owe each other in Christ but this will have to wait for another time. Here my concern is with pastoral care.

Each of us must discern the providential working out of God’s grace in our own lives. Just as spouses are called to discern God’s providence in each others’ lives parents are to do this for their children. Turning from the family to the Church, priests are responsible for discerning and fostering the vocation of their parishioners and bishops for the members of the diocese. All of this is, necessarily, personal.

This means that pastoral care not just about asking what God wants for the parish or the diocese. Much less can the pastoral life be reduced to slotting people according to a pre-determined list of needs for the diocese or parish. Neither the bishop nor the  pastor is not the Church’s “director of human resources” trying to hire the right people for the job. But if not this, then what?

Pastoral care takes as its starting point “the wise providence” of God in the life of the person. The grace that God “lovingly bestows on each one of us” is how He reveals His will for the parish and the diocese (and for that matter, the married couple and the family). It God’s gifts to his parishioners that should sets the pastor’s agenda. It is this, not his own dreams about the “perfect” parish, that should guide the pastor as he guides the parish.

So for example, I’ve always wanted to pastor a congregation that placed a great deal of emphasis on adult education. Nothing wrong with wanting this. In fact I’ve found my life a priest gets easier in direct correlation with my willingness to acknowledge (if only to myself) what I want.

Please note, however, I didn’t say my life gets easier because I get what I want . I’m only saying that it gets easier when I acknowledge what I want. Too often, I’ve found myself frustrated or unhappy as a priest because I couldn’t distinguish between what I wanted and the gifts God gave the community I was leading.

My frustration is the result of many things. Chief among these though is my trying to get people to conform to my expectations for the parish. When I do this I ask the congregation to serve me and not our serving Christ together. Priest and parishioner, pastor and parish, each bring  their own expectations to the parish. More importantly, each bring their own unique gifts. We need to be aware of both, but it is the gifts given by God that must guide parish life.

What I’ve come to appreciate is that pastoral care is first a matter of discerning the will of God made manifest in the grace He’s given the parishioners. When I’m faithful—obediently really—to how God has concretely blessed the parish, I find pastoral care becomes if not exactly easier at least more peaceful. Like the poor, stress and strain will always be with us. What’s most important for the pastor (and the bishop, the husband, wife, father and mother) is first to discern the will of God for those entrusted to his care and second to be obedient to God’s will.

Let me recommend two books that I have found very helpful. They are written by the Catholic author (and my friend) Sherry Weddell who in 1993 co-founded of the Catherine of Siena Institute, an affiliated international ministry of the Western Dominican, that she serves as co-Director. The first is Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. The second is a collection of essays edited by Sherry on pastoral care: Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.  I have found them both very helpful in my ministry and my own spiritual life and I would recommend them both.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory