Roundtable Discussion with Mission Priests
In a recent virtual conversation, Antiochian.org asked several Antiochian mission priests to talk about their experiences in mission building. Responding are:
- Fr. John Oliver, St. Elizabeth Mission, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
- Fr. Ignatius Valentine, St. Raphael of Brooklyn Mission, Iowa City, Iowa
- Fr. Boniface Black, St. Andrew the Apostle Mission, Lewes, Delaware
- Fr. John Atchison, St. Nicholas Mission, Springdale, Arkansas
- Fr. Gregory Horton, Holy Myrrh-Bearing Women Mission, Bonners Ferry, Idaho
- Fr. Christopher Rigdan-Briscall, Christ the Savior Mission, Waterloo, Ontario.
1. In your experience, what types of outreach have been the most effective in bringing people to the mission so as to grow (i.e. newspaper advertising, website, word-of-mouth, scheduled seminars, radio/TV, etc.)?
Fr. Gregory: By far it has been word of mouth. People who are excited about the Faith and bring other people to the church services and activities are the greatest single evangelical asset available to the parishes today. We have had some limited success in identifying newspaper, yellow pages and website contacts (especially first contacts) with potentially interested persons, but the effectiveness has proven somewhat limited. Newspaper ads, for instance are GREAT when highlighting specific events but lose their punch when repeated for many weeks and months in a row. Websites can be used in a variety of ways and I know this medium to be effective for "general community interest" in the Orthodox Church when people that meet us might be curious as to who we are. But, let me stress again, there is NOTHING that beats personal contact and enthusiasm...word of mouth...that is the gauge for how excited parish members are about their church home.
- Word of mouth
- Yellow pages
- Newspapers: "free" news releases. Some paid ads.
- "Open House" on Sun. afternoons, likewise Choir Concerts, Church Tours, Icon Festival, Seminars, etc.
Fr. John O.: Two, in particular: word-of-mouth and website. In our experience, the primary purpose of advertising has been to heighten the profile of the mission in the area, and not to convince or persuade persons to consider Orthodoxy through the advertising itself. Advertising is not, in our experience, persuasive to get folks through the door. Instead, advertising serves simply to let the community know we're here, and then those persons who had been waiting for something like an Orthodox parish to emerge usually find their way to us. So, when we were established, they had been, in a sense, looking for us all along.
When they come looking for us, they typically access our website first. We've placed some "inquirer-friendly" content there - what to expect when visiting St Elizabeth's, what Orthodox Christians believe about topics of interest to inquirers, the importance of a liturgical style of worship, etc. We've never received a single inquiry from our phone book or newspaper advertising, and a few newspaper and television stories on St Elizabeth's social outreach has yielded no inquiries. So, we believe our advertising outreach has been primarily to heighten our profile in the area, and to make us easily findable when people feel moved to come calling.
Something that's worked recently: we printed a small flyer to distribute to a few of our neighbors inviting them to some quiet time at the church for Sixth Hour Prayers (which we offer on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the four fasts of the year). From that advertising, we've had a neighbor join us.
Fr. Ignatius: There is no doubt that word of mouth has been the most effective way that people have been brought into our mission. We have advertised in the newspaper and we have hosted speaking events in the community. Those methods may have their place as far as outreach goes, but we have seen few if any resulting new members from them. We believe our website is important to advertise our mission, but even the best website does not compare to good ol' word of mouth. Usually, when a new person comes, it is because one of our members brought them. This shouldn't surprise us. The beckoning call to "Come and see (John 1:46) has worked well for church growth for 2,000 years.
Fr. John C: Word of mouth has been probably our most successful tool of evangelism. Others have seen our web site, while many have been researching ancient Christianity and sought us out.
Fr. Christopher: I have found in my experience (both here in Waterloo and during my time in Vancouver as well as my years as a deacon) that this question implies two separate yet inter-related parts. The first is what is most effective in getting people to come into the mission. The second part is how we grow numerically, in maturity and unity.
For the first part (getting them in the door) we have used a multifaceted approach. This has included the following:
- Signage—currently we have a sign on Main Street (two blocks away) and a sign in front of the Church
- Website—this is updated almost weekly and all attempts are made to keep it current. We are also listed on Get to Know the Original website
- Posters & flyers—this is particularly used for special events
- Newspaper ads—we generally only use this approach for Pascha and Nativity
- Articles in the newspaper—this is by far more effective then ads and it’s free. We have sought to foster a good relationship with the Religion writer at the local paper. The last article that featured our parish was about St. Nicholas and our celebration of his feast. The article was picked up across Canada!
- Yellow pages and yellow pages on-line—just need to be there. We have only had feedback from the on-line version though. However, I believe we only pay for the on-line ad and the traditional ad is free with the on-line version.
- Workshops/Guest Speakers—we have held two each year for the last 3 years on Family Life, Iconography, and two with Fr. Peter Gillquist.
- Non-liturgical and non-academic events—this includes back yard barbeque, bowling, street hockey, dinners, free babysitting night, movies, and more. All of these are offered as opportunities for the faithful to invite friends but they’ve also proven to be the place where the people on the fringe become more connected and involved with the community.
- Helping the poor—involvement with other Christian groups who are feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, clothing the naked and so on. Basically doing what Christians are supposed to be doing.
- OCF—being present on campus has brought numerous students, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike.
- Fostering relationships with Professors and other non-Orthodox Christian leaders—this has resulted in numerous students attending services as well as some people being encouraged to attend an Orthodox Church by their own pastors (who are themselves interested in Orthodoxy). One way I have fostered these relationships is by join Ecumenical Ministerial groups, the University Chaplaincy groups and some serious book clubs.
- Extensive e-mail list—this is sent at least once a month and prior to major Feasts and special events. If we get your email you’re on the list unless you ask to be taken off.
- Phoning—we have had for a number of years a couple who would phone people frequently to encourage them to come out to regular services as well special events and feasts. About a six months ago they stopped being able to do this and we have seen an impact. The uninvolved Orthodox don’t come as frequently though we still have a steady stream of guests. Our parish council has agreed that we must begin this effort again and so we are in the process of equipping and training three people to take this on.
- Word-of-mouth—bring a friend Sunday has not yet been organized though we have spoken of doing this and I have seen this be an effective tool. Certainly some members of the parish just simply do this all of the time while others are intimidated or afraid. This is a topic that requires ongoing teaching and encouragement.
For the second part (growing numerically, in maturity and unity) we have also used a multifaceted approach. This has included the following: continuously offering a broad spectrum of services, studies, talks, opportunities to reach out (prison, food for the hungry etc) and social events; much of which has been listed above. All of this is accomplished while we do our utmost to ensure that the particular needs of children, youth, young adults, adults, elderly, married, single, widowed, divorced, or those with special needs, are being met or at least being sought to be met as we follow the Church’s Calendar. These events and ministries highlight the various Feasts and Fasts and offer both a rhythm to the communal life of the parish as well as opportunities for newcomers to feel welcome as they enter into our activities at a point of comfort for them personally. For example someone may feel uncomfortable at a Sunday morning service but comfortable at Vespers or a Bible Study while others may only feel comfortable meeting people in a back yard or at a sports event.
We also ensure that our guests are always spoken to immediately upon their arrival at a service, given information and a brief explanation of the particular service and invited to our time of fellowship (always a meal together on Sundaymornings) or to speak with the priest after the service. The growth in numbers mean little or nothing if there is not growth in the maturity of the parish personally and collectively as well in the sense of unity that exists within the parish. Everything listed above from Sunday School to Bible Study to a speaker on the topic of marriage to Holy Week services, have at the heart of the their planning and implementation this end—that we might all grow into the fullness and stature of Christ and that our parish might truly be an incarnation of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
2. What resources are not currently available to missions that would be most useful?
Fr. Ignatius: Perhaps an initial $500 budget funded from the Archdiocese or elsewhere that would be for the purchase of the beginnings of a mission bookstore. If there is such a thing, I am not aware of it.
Fr. Christopher: We have been blessed by the financial support of our God-protected Archdiocese. However, the assignment of a fulltime priest has been made possible because of one or two wealthy families tithing faithfully to this parish. Further financial support would be a great benefit to many Missions, especially for those that have worker priests who cannot give all of their attention to the establishment and building up of the Mission. I truly believe that the fact this parish had to wait for a fulltime priest was a great benefit to its establishment. Beyond this I would need to reflect further because in our circumstance Fr Iskander sought to make sure that the Mission had everything before I arrived!
Fr. John C: Information on effective use of finances. Information on training of Parish Council members to most effectively use their talents. Someone needs to write a book "Orthodoxy for Dummies". We need a good source of icons that do not cost a fortune.
Fr. Boniface: It would be useful to have some prepared news release materials for missions to customize and use when local papers will print this sort of thing for free. Secondly, sharing of liturgical items when established parishes are upgrading, and third, a listing of speakers willing to come and participate in an outreach event.
Fr. Gregory: Funding is always an issue but perhaps the funding could take the form of specific needs. For instance, I would be willing to submit our "needs list" to the Archdiocese for general dissemination or to be processed through a clearinghouse of sorts. There are all sorts of people willing to donate for specific needs (liturgical items, copying music books, specific elements of the building, speaking events, etc...)...why not match these folks with these needs and form long distance relationships between sponsors and missions? Many people that cannot themselves move to become part of a new mission effort are more than willing to help sustain and grow that church with material support. By making the needs and the gifts more specific, it forces the mission to speak out about how things are going and to keep donors abreast of new developments, needs and growth.
Fr. John O: Here's an atypical response: materials on effective conflict resolution. In my experience, adding new members to the mission is best accomplished by keeping current members healthy. I think our mission has come to believe that ultimately it is God who plants new seeds in our mission, and that our responsibility is to provide good soil. We can get the word out there, we can advertise and announce our presence, but, generally, the folks who have found their way to us are those who had been looking all along - looking for an expression of Christian faith dissimilar to popular culture, with lasting and time-tested beliefs and practices. Getting folks through the door has largely been outside our influence; greatly within our influence, however, is what they find when they arrive.
Conflict within a mission can be devastating, for two reasons: first, many people are deeply emotionally invested in the mission's success, so conflict often has a much bigger effect than it needs to; second, the same rock thrown into a small pond creates more upheaval than when thrown into the ocean. A problem will often feel more serious in a small mission than in a large established parish, and a mission doesn't have years of "conflict-resolution" that can help it settle down during times of conflict. Sometimes, when conflict arises, it can feel as if the mission is falling apart. Handled rightly, though, conflict can be understood as evidence that the group is maturing.
Often, inquirers come to our door through means we did not devise: maybe a priest or members of another parish will refer someone to us. What that inquirer finds when he comes to our door, in our experience, influences his decision to continue with us. So, striving to become a loving community has been important. We believe that the kind of growth that we can manipulate is probably not the kind of growth we want - those folks may not last for long. Instead, we emphasize striving for genuine community, and that seems to be attractive to inquirers. Helping converts adjust to the reality of Orthodox life - one where the glow wears off eventually and that necessarily involves struggle - has become important. Materials on effective conflict resolution can keep a mission on track.
3. Approximately how long from inception did it take before the mission grew to a size of 15 families? 25 families?
Fr. John C: Maybe a couple of years to grow to 15 supporting families, 5 years to 25.
Fr. Ignatius: 15 families took us 3 years, and 25 families took 7 years.
Fr. Christopher: Inception was with 5 households and Fr Peter Gillquist was invited to come and speak. From this event a list of numerous people who were interested and another 5 families committed to the enterprise. Divine Liturgy Services began with Fr Iskander Younes two Saturdays each month in a rented Orthodox Church. Within one year 15 households were committed. By end of 2-½ years 20 households were committed and a building was purchased and renovated. By the end of 3 ½ years the Bishop agreed to the assignment of a priest as 25 households expressed their commitment. It was at this time that I came (in June of 2008) and the full cycle of services began. We currently have 40 households who attend regularly; another 10 come with some consistency.
Fr. John O: Let's see... our first Divine Liturgy was in March 2005, and it took us two years to reach 15 families and four years to reach 25.
Fr. Boniface: Saint Andrew was a mission station for more than five years. At first, it held an evening service once a month, then twice a month; then a Sunday Liturgy every other week. That led to a pretty good core of about 12 - 15 families. Since March 2009 when we began every Sunday Liturgy and had a full Holy Week our progress has been amazing. We had 84 at Pascha, and are meeting new people all the time. Right now we are just about able to declare that we've reached the twenty-five unit number. Saint Andrew is settling on a building lot at the end of this month, Jan. 2010 for $185,000., with public sewer and a nice flat lot. We will now start to renew the building fund in order to put up a building in next couple of years, God willing. As of now, we are "set up - take down."
Fr. Gregory: I can't remember the actual amount of time at St. John's in Post Falls...I do remember that we started with about 10 to 20 people (not families). In 8 years we had grown to 200 or so and were able to split the parish in half and begin a new mission (Christ the Savior) in Spokane Valley, Washington! As for my present mission (Holy Myrrhbearers in Bonners Ferry, Idaho), the growth has been slower because it is a rural area and much smaller in terms of population. The best I can figure, we hit 15 families at about 6 months and 25 families after about one year. We are now moving through the 30s but growth is steady, if a little slower in pace.
4. Approximately what percentage of your parishioners are converts to Orthodoxy?
Fr. John O: Approximately 90% are converts to Orthodoxy. But this percentage applies to adults and not to children who have been born and baptized into our mission since its inception.
Fr. Boniface: We’re about 30% convert. This is a vacation area. We welcome many visitors, some who are second homeowners here, and also retired people. Many local Orthodox who’ve retired haven't been active in a parish since they left former homes and moved to the area.
Fr. Ignatius: 50 percent.
Fr. Gregory: 75 percent.
Fr. John C: We are probably 80% convert
Fr. Christopher: We currently have 49 converts from the total 94 faithful communicants (54%). This includes children and adults.