A Parish’s Responsibility to New Members
“The saints are like a group of trees,” according to Desert Father Abba John the Dwarf, “each bearing different fruit, but watered from the same source; the practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same Spirit that works in all of them.”
What is the parish’s responsibility to the new member? Few would believe that the parish’s responsibility to the new member is to welcome the new seed into the soil, tend to it until moistened with the water of baptism and oil of chrismation, then abandon its growth as the storm that is “the world, the flesh, and the devil” pounds it into oblivion. Few would want to be that seed.
New members are driven to our doors by a change in circumstance—a new job brings him to your town and he is already Orthodox, or by a change in conviction – a new perspective brings her to your church and she becomes Orthodox. To be in the Church is their common yearning.
Persons come, and they come with personalities: some desire deep involvement, some prefer to be left alone; some crave the socialization that parish life can offer, some just want to come to liturgy, socialize with God, then slip out before the overstimulation of coffeehour. If we were to adjust Abba John’s thought, we might say that “new members are like a group of trees, each bearing different personalities, but watered from the same yearning; the needs of one differ from those of another, but it is the same desire that works in all of them.”
With this in mind, we may discern at least three responsibilities the parish has toward the new member: first, we have a responsibility to help the new member minimize root shock, which can be understood as the inevitable stress that comes from uprooting from one community or tradition or emotional ecosystem and planting into another; second, we have a responsibility to embrace the Church’s view of salvation as hypostatic and grounded in the personal, encouraging each new member toward growth in Christ as it will be uniquely experienced by him; and third, we have a responsibility to welcome the new member into a love culture.
Our First Responsibility: Minimizing Root Shock
Once, I uprooted a mimosa tree in my front yard to make room for an oak sapling. Two of my daughters were out with me, and when I pulled the mimosa from the soil, I heard moans. They voiced what they were certain the tree felt. “Oh no,” said one, “does that hurt the tree?” A good question for any age. Then she wanted to know, “Does it suffer root shock?”
Yes, I told her, trees do experience stress when uprooted and re-planted, with all the shaking and jostling and having to push roots into new soil. We agreed that a new tree cannot be expected to blossom or bear fruit immediately after its transfer. Nor should it be forced to do so.
To recover from transition and get oriented, this takes time. The parish should be able to say to the new member – “Don’t just do something, stand there.” This is important not just for the new member, but also for the community that receives him. The relationship between a new member and his parish involvement is not only a matter of personality, but also of trust.
When the apostle Peter lays out the criteria for choosing a disciple to take the place of the departed Judas in the Apostolic College, he spoke “of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21). The new apostle, then, would be appointed from among those who had been with the Christian community from the beginning. We can understand how this approach would benefit both the disciple, whose faith would then have already been evident, and the community, whose trust would then have already been earned.
One new member may want to avoid getting involved until he feels settled, while, for another, involvement is the only thing that will help him feel settled. Both are legitimate needs. Critical to consider, however, is balance within the parish body. A local church is an ecosystem, and ecology is the study of connections and relationships. So, we ask: what effect will this event have on the ecosystem as a whole, and how do we keep it together, integrated, and healthy?
Our Second Responsibility: Salvation as Hypostatic
There is to salvation a hypostatic dynamic. “Hypostatic” literally means “to stand under,” and we may understand that dynamic this way: while all human beings share a common human nature, each of us enjoys a way of being that is uniquely ours. Nature is to person as general is to particular. Each of us is a particular way of being that “stands under” the general nature we all share. This hypostatic quality is part of what makes up the unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable – and, therefore, precious – quality of each human being.
(We may add here that, in this age of increasing sexual confusion, there is no nature apart from hypostasis, and no hypostasis apart from nature. Our personhood is organic to our nature; no human nature exists independent of the hypostasis through which it is expressed. Human nature, like Divine nature, always exists in personal form of being. The hypostasis of male and the hypostasis of female are not incidental to our nature, but are, rather, our nature’s mode of being. The sex of each person deeply expresses our personhood and who each of us is.)
This hypostatic grounding of salvation means that while salvation is a common need shared by the whole of humanity, each new member comes to our parishes with a brokenness particular to him. Each, therefore, will experience the healing of Christ in ways equally particular.
The parish has a responsibility to the new member to give some breathing room to this process. Mr Smith and Ms Jones can partake of the identical sacramental life of the Church, yet, over time, the indwelling of that life will express itself in ways unique to each. Perhaps, for example, both parishioners become more peaceful over time, but Mr. Smith expresses his growth toward peacefulness as gentility, laying aside boundaries between him and others, while Ms. Jones expresses her growth toward peacefulness as assertiveness, establishing boundaries between her and others. Same grace, different fruit, each given the freedom to grow.
So, while we encourage uniformity of belief, and even of lifestyle on some matters of first principle, we can respect diversity in expression and accent and practice.
Our Third Responsibility: The Church as a Love Culture
A church community can be many things, but it is one particular thing before everything else. A church community – any church community – can be an entertainment culture, where emphasis rests more on performance than on prayer, and parishioners evaluate their experience based on how interesting it is from week to week. A church community can be a policy culture, where traditions and canons and obediences stand by themselves as things to be adored, and where the value of a person is determined by his measure of adoration; and, instead of healing, these mechanisms of healing become the focus. A church community can be a profit culture, where the dominant tone is that faith in God will result in more and more life improvements, and where the dominant theology is pagan – I worship because of the favor it will bring to me.
Instead of all this, however, a church community can be a love culture. The new member should find an environment where he enters into a process of discovering what it means to be loved by God, to love God in return, and to love the world as God loves the world.
When we come to church, we are more likely to be reminded of what we believe but do not always feel – that far from being cold and meaningless, the universe and everything in it is, at its core, the material expression of the love of God. We come to learn how to stop resisting that love – which means we learn how to fight the selfish passions within us. And because God’s value is at the heart of everything, we can affirm that every crime, every tragedy, every hurt, every injustice, is a violation of that core principle of love. So, the church can be a love culture in the sense that we can discover that the reason for our existence is that God loved us into being.
The church can be a love culture in that we can discover that the purpose for our existence is to love God in return. We are faced here with the subject of obedience - simple in essence but complicated in practice - identified by Our Lord Himself as the organic expression of love for God. “If you love me,” He is quoted as saying in the Gospel of John, “keep my commandments.”
Obedience is among the more difficult virtues to cultivate because we have at least three forces working against us: 1) a fallen nature that favors the lordship of the self; 2) a fallen world that encourages a spirit of rebellion; and 3) fallen persons whose calls for obedience we often find disingenuous.
Obedience on the level of the local parish can manifest itself as, among other things, obedience to church conduct or the liturgical cycle or the fasting schedule or some penitential discipline or simply to each other. Obedience misunderstood becomes legalism and suffocation. But if the local church is a love culture, parishioners have a better chance at discovering the relationship between obedience and freedom from which all meaningful obedience flows. We want the new member to know that the Church does not demand submission. Instead, the Church asks, How far do you want to go in your relationship with God?, then provides as many opportunities for growth as we desire. So, the church is a love culture because we learn what it means to be loved by God, and what it means to love God in return.
Finally, the church is a love culture in that we discover what it means to love the world as God loves the world. A new member can discern almost immediately if the church has any consciousness of life beyond its own walls. And perhaps the best consciousness-raising question any church could ask of its relationship with “the world outside” is: “If God were to suddenly take our parish from the face of the earth, would we be missed?”
Leaning on Each Other
Let’s finish with this: within the narrative about a conversion experience, the third chapter of the Book of Acts includes a rich detail. The apostles Peter and John are approaching the temple for Ninth Hour prayers. A man, lame from his mother’s womb, calls for alms from the apostles at the Beautiful Gate. “Silver and gold I do not have,” replies Peter, “but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” The man does. He stands, walks, and enters the temple with Peter and John – “walking, leaping, and praising God.”
Then, verse eleven: “Now, the lame man who was healed held on to Peter and John.” This, in one sense, is a physical description of an ecclesial principle. A person, newly whole after an encounter with the living God at the hands of His servants, is not released alone into the wild but leans on the church available to him for support, strength, protection, and formation. Established members take care of newer members until newer members become established members, and the cycle continues. This is church; this is family; this is how we “commend” – or, better yet, entrust – “ourselves and each other, and all our life, unto Christ our God.”
Fr. John Oliver is the priest of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He is the author of numerous articles and essays, and of Touching Heaven: Discovering Orthodox Christianity on the Island of Valaam, published by Conciliar Press.