A Vision for Orthodox Christian Parish Life
Thankfully, we have some Adult Christian Education in our parish. For one series of classes, I was re-reading (after 10 years) Oriented Leadership: Why Every Christian Needs It,1 when I was struck by a terrible thought. As a layman, do I have a vision for my parish or not? That truly was a wrong question, because we all have visions for our parishes – considered or not, rational or not, Christian or not. I should have asked this: “Do I share with my brothers and sisters in Christ a vision for our parish that is also the vision of God for us?”
Oriented Leadership raises worthwhile questions, including a) What does it mean to lead other persons, when we all are persons made in the “image and likeness” of God?; b) How is Christian leadership properly modeled on the leadership exhibited by Jesus, the Incarnate God?; c) How important is vision (having an enunciated, shared, godly, general goal for us) to leadership in any group?; d) What does the pattern of love we see in the Trinity have to say to leadership in group decision-making (“hierarchical conciliarity”)?; and e) How is our stewardship (“being God’s trustees of everything”) linked to leadership? Even just thinking briefly about these questions is a stimulating exercise!
Here is one possible vision of the parish: “My vision is that the parish is and should be a safe place and a social group to support me and my family as strangers in a strange land, preserving the language of the homeland and the family ties for the next generation. It should provide a support group for more immigrants – including family members – expected to come over here soon, and, finally, it should preserve our religion (as it was practiced in the homeland). Our parish means the parish for ‘our people.’ If we do not take care of each other this way, no one else will.” Many firstgeneration Orthodox in the Western Hemisphere had such a vision for their parishes which they started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Here is another possible vision: “I am a parishioner who came to Christ and His Orthodox Church in another city because of deliberate outreach from a mission-minded parish. Having had my life changed for the better by this encounter with Christ and His Church and having come to this city, I want my parish to be open, and to encourage newcomers deliberately, even if they are ethnically and culturally different from those already present. I want to continue my Christian education and I want a parish that supports discipleship and membership programs. I am aware of other ways of doing things among faithful Christians than just how things were done among the Byzantines.” Many who have become Orthodox here in the last 35 years have some form of this vision.
It is not helpful simply to declare that one or the other of these visions is correct (“Orthodox”) and the other not (“un-Orthodox”). The point here is simply that, if you discover both of these visions – and surely others as well – in your parish, then your parish does not have a vision, but rather two or more visions. Recognizing this fact need not be the beginning of a parish civil war, but may rather start a constructive search for one, shared vision of parish life.
“What vision for our parish do all of us accept, that is the vision of God for us?” Now that is a question with lots more potential for good than the limited – but necessary – starting question above about “my own vision”! If the answer to this new question is truly “None,” as I speculate in many parishes it is, then that might lead the parish to seek that common vision – perhaps the best thing that could ever happen to that parish!
Not to have any godly vision of the parish that is shared by all means that we will mill around, year after year, decade after decade. Different visions will drive different actions by different parish groups and individuals, which efforts might cancel each other out. One might expand Proverbs 29:18a (KJV) in this context: “Where there is no (shared, God-given) vision, the people (of the parish) perish.”
Holy Scripture and Patristics have a lot to say to us on this theme, but only if we can grasp the concepts of leadership sufficiently to care to search them. “Our vision” is the focus here. God reveals the vision of the Kingdom and this is our highest-level vision. Jesus spent more time teaching about the Kingdom of God (His vision!) than any other single topic. The excellent Chapter 6 of Oriented Leadership, “Orthodox Leadership Must Be Kingdom-Centered,” looks at the implications here.
Yet how may we connect the highest-order “vision of the Kingdom” with day-to-day life in our one parish in one location? I have a vision of seven key relationships in which we already find ourselves in our parishes, and on which – if we identify and accept them – we can work together with God. This is an expression of the theological truth that Christianity is essentially a religion revealed by God to be love-based relationships between God and us, and among us (John 3: 16). (The relationships outlined in the chart below include those with God and with others.) Recognizing our parochial relationships raises the hope that, with God’s help, we may improve the quality of those relationships over time for the blessing of ourselves and many others.
We note a number of things. First, the Scriptures give us a glimpse of that larger picture of the Kingdom, in which the parish and the parishioners are surely participants. Of course, the vision of the Kingdom of God is far more extensive than a vision for one parish in Christ’s Church. Scripture, too, does not focus often on parish life. This is understandable, since the New Testament canon closed before “the parish” became the most visible, gathered, Eucharistic expression of the Church in thousands of communities all over the world. The point of the diagram is to say that in a few relationships in which we all share – which are built on Christ’s love and include God and us – we can cooperate with God in experiencing Christ’s Kingdom in a parish. Each of these relationships may be developed forever, with God’s help.
Second, a vision or a sense of mission and purpose is only valuable if it is shared, and reasonably justifiable on the basis of Scripture and the Fathers. The point of “consensus” in the Orthodox doctrine of hierarchical conciliarity is a) to have a reliable way to determine the will of the Holy Spirit for our parish and b) to encourage each of us to care enough about the beliefs of others involved to take the time to bring us all into the decision-making process. If some of us do not believe that a proposition (a “statement of the vision of the parish” for example) reflects the revealed will of God for us or if many of us believe a proposition is inappropriate, then we do not have a consensus and we should suspend judgment until we do. We undermine Christ’s reign over us if we are divided on why we exist as a parish. The Holy Spirit can bring unanimity, but only if we seek His will and guidance.
Third, this vision of parish life enables us all to respect each other’s work; we participate in each other’s work, but with different degrees of intensity based on our gifts from God for service. The Choir Director (given musical talent and training by God) probably spends more time and energy on the Worship relationship than on the Fellowship relationship, while still needing and enjoying Fellowship, perhaps organized by the presidents of the Men’s and the Ladies’ Societies. But the social-group Presidents (interested in Fellowship enough to do all the work to help make social events happen) also need the Worship relationship with God in the gathered Eucharistic assembly. We all have different gifts and different functions as different parts of the Body, and we cannot all do everything. Identifying key parish relationships lets us evaluate how we are doing and, hopefully, improve. In the Christian Leadership class I mentioned at the start, one hundred percent of the members noted that we are doing far better as a parish with Worship than with Membership.
My vision of the Kingdom present in the parish may not be your vision. Fine! What, then, do you think should be our vision? Again, Proverbs 29:18a (with my embellishments) warns us, “Where there is no [shared, God-given] vision, the people [of the parish] perish.” Let us take the time to discover, with His help, God’s vision for each of our parishes. This way, over the years, our parish life will be more Kingdom-centered and therefore more balanced and whole. May God help us make it so!
John W. Truslow, Jr., MAAOT, Layman,
St. Elias Orthodox Parish Church, Atlanta, Georgia
1This work by Orthodox laymen and management consultants Benjamin D. Williams and Michael T. McKibben was published by the Orthodox Christian Publications Center of the Orthodox Church in America in 1994.