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The Parish, the Priest and the Parish Council

Primate’s Message Delivered at Biennial Parish Council Symposium

By Metropolitan Philip

From The Word, December 1994 

Esteemed members of Parish Councils:

On behalf of the entire Archdiocese, I would like first and foremost, to welcome you to the Antiochian Village and especially to the Heritage and Learning Center. While here, I am sure that you will have the opportunity to see our camping facilities where your children spend some of their summer. You will also see our library which now houses more than twenty-five thousand volumes. Moreover, you will see our museum and School of Iconography, our beautiful dining room and the rest of our fine facilities. Surely, without your cooperation, the Heritage and Learning Center would never have existed. I am most thankful to you.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I want to assure you that this Parish Council Symposium will not be a monologue. Thus, after every lecture, you will have ample time to engage the various speakers in a question and answer session. We want to dialogue with you and exchange thoughts with you and frankly speaking, we want to learn from you. If you have problems in your parishes, spiritually or financially, let us discuss them. We want to know if you have a healthy parish and if not, why? Are your parish organizations functioning properly, i.e., do you have a healthy Sunday School, a strong youth group and an inspiring choir? And what about the Antiochian Women, the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Fellowship of St. John the Divine and Teen SOYO? Are they functioning properly? Is your priest responsive to the needs of your parish? Is the Archdiocese responsive to your needs? Are we serving you as you deserve? We realize that without you, the Archdiocese does not exist and without the Archdiocese, you do not exist. Therefore, the Archdiocese and the parishes compliment each other. If you are strong, the Archdiocese is strong, but if you are weak, the Archdiocese is weak.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

This is the second time in the history of our Archdiocese that leaders and parish council members meet in a symposium to discuss in depth the problems which our Archdiocese is facing while on the threshold of the Twenty-first century. Henceforth, a biennial symposium of this kind will be held for our parish leaders in this center.

The topic which I will discuss with you is the following: “All Together, We Perform a Sacred Task. There is no room for Them and Us. For in Christ we all are ‘Us’.”

This topic is rooted in my message to the Archdiocese Convention which was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1968. In that message, I said: “For many years, we have been administering our local parishes under a false dichotomy; indeed under a dangerous and unorthodox dualism. We have been preaching two kinds of theology: One for the church upstairs and one for the hall downstairs. We do not believe in this “upstairs downstairs” theology. Nor do we believe in the existence of two classes in the parish, opposing each other, “them and us,” clergy versus laity. This kind of dichotomy has caused many serious parochical problems. Unfortunately, some of our clergy do not think that we need parish councils to help us administer the affairs of our parishes. Moreover, they believe that parish councils are nothing but an American innovation which we should abolish. I completely disagree with this kind of unrealistic and unorthodox thinking. On the other hand, we have parish councils who believe that priests are hired and fired at the whims of parish councils. Furthermore, they believe that the priest takes care of the spiritual matters and they take care of the financial matters. Thus, when the priest is giving his sermon upstairs, the council members are counting the Sunday collections downstairs. I completely disagree with this thinking and this unorthodox practice.

In the Church, there are no spiritual and financial matters opposing each other. As a matter of fact, everything in the Church points to the Eternal, to the Almighty God who is the source of “every good and perfect gift”. In other words, if the parish lacks the necessary funds to pay its bills, i.e., light, heat, air-conditioning, help the poor, help plant parishes, pay the priest’s stipend, etc., it is the sacred duty of the pastor to devote some of his sermons to the financial conditions of the parish and to work closely with the parish council in order to remedy this situation. On the other hand, if the parish has a lousy choir which does not inspire anyone or add any beauty to the Divine Liturgy, and if the parish does not have a well attended and well organized Sunday School, and if the parish does not have a youth group, etc., it is the sacred duty of the parish council to discuss such matters with the priest and make sure that he is cognizant of the spiritual conditions of the parish. Therefore, we cannot separate between spiritual and financial matters in the life of the parish and we cannot have classes opposing each other. Thus, there is no room for ‘them and us’ for in Christ, we are all ‘us’.”

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Since my consecration to the Holy Episcopate in 1966, I have been preaching this simple, but very Orthodox theology. “The Church is not the bishop alone, or the priest alone, or the laity alone. The Church is the bishop, the priests and the laity working together.” For “we are laborers together with God.” As St. Paul put it (I Cor. 3:9).

At every Divine Liturgy, when we recite the Creed, we say, “And I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” This means that there is one Church which cannot be divided by class, tribal, national or political conflicts. As the Church is one, the faithful must be one and must reflect this oneness in a true communion with God and with each other. In other words, the Church must be communion.

In his first epistle, St. Peter said: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light,” (I Peter 2:9). St. Peter was not addressing one class of Christians only when he said, “You are a chosen race and a royal priesthood.” On the contrary, he was speaking to all Christians, clergy and laity alike. For all who were “baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” as St. Paul stated. Therefore, by virtue of our baptism, we are ordained to perform a special ministry in the life of the Church. After we baptize a child, we anoint him/her saying, “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I do not know of any word which is more repeated in our Orthodox circles than the word “church.” But what do we mean by Church? Is the Church that physical structure on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan, or West Fourteenth Street in Cleveland, Ohio? Let me tell you, first, what the Church is not. The Church is not a country club to which you belong for recreation or social prestige. The Church is not a fire station or a police station which you call only in emergencies. The Church is not a political organization or a tribal entity or an ethnic shelter to protect us from this wave which some call “Americanism.” If the Church is not all these things, then what is the Church?

Let us focus for a while on how St. Paul defines the Church. In I Corinthians, 12:27-28, St. Paul says: “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.” St. Paul is telling us that the Church is not a physical structure. We, the assembly of the faithful, are the Church. We are “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” We are the “body of Christ.” Then St. Paul continues: “For the body does not exist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body,” (I Cor. 12:14-15).

St. Paul makes a perfect analogy between the Church as the body of Christ, and the physical human body. Just as every member of the physical body is important, so is the membership in the Body of Christ. “Just as the hand cannot cut off the foot without causing pain and suffering and loss of the fullness of life to the entire body, so also the Church needs each of its members.” The priest is necessary to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, but so is the person who bakes the holy bread, the one who brings the wine, the altar boy, the parish council member, the choir member, the Sunday School teacher, the Antiochian Women, the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, SOYO, the Fellowship of St. John the Divine, and each member of the congregation. Each Christian who reaches out with love and concern to those within and without the Church does important work for the kingdom. Therefore, we cannot afford to lose one single member of the Church. For the loss of one member makes the whole body suffer.

Some of you might ask: “But what about those members who do not come to church or pay their dues?” I want you to realize that this phenomenon is not unique to your own parish. Such situations exist in almost every parish throughout the entire world. What should we do about these members? Should we cut them off from the body of Christ? If we do, then the whole body will suffer. Therefore, we strongly recommend that every parish should have a very active Stewardship Committee which, together with the pastor, should visit its inactive members, talk to them, missionize them and if you please, reorthodoxize them. You should never give up on any inactive member. You can never tell when God will touch their hearts and breathe in them His Holy Spirit. If you throw them out, you have lost them, lost their children and perhaps lost also, their relatives. What do you gain by throwing them out except turmoil, confusion and conflicts within the Church. St. Paul says: “The strong must bear the infirmities of the weak.”

My dear friends:

What must you do as leaders and members of your parish councils to make your parishes healthy and successful? When we began advertising this symposium, I discovered that much interest was generated in it. A young lady who is a member of one of our parish councils in Florida wrote me the following:

“A parish council instills a vision much like the quarterback who calls the play in a football huddle and then stays in the game to execute the plan. Not only does he call the play, but he fires up the team with his spirit and enthusiasm and his positive and confident statements. This is all part of the success of each play and each successful play moves the team closer to their goal. The best leaders are those who know how to elevate those around them to their level. The most effective leaders are those who know how to make others become leaders.”

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is not only an honor to be chairman of the parish council or to serve on it. It is also a grave responsibility. You must be an example to the rest of the congregation in piety, faith, attending church services, work, and financial contributions to the church. Forgive me, if I tell you that you must observe the three “G’s” rule, i.e., “Give, Get or Get Off.” The worst thing you can do is to ask others to give when you, yourself, are not giving. It is not good to be a passive member of the council. You must motivate others and get them involved in the life of your parish. Furthermore, my dear friends, you must cultivate talent in the parish. Through the sacrament of Chrismation, “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” all of us have received from God a variety of gifts. Consequently, we must use these gifts for the edification of the faithful. If someone in the Church has the gift of music, get him/her to join the choir. If someone is gifted in education, get him/her to be a Sunday School teacher and if someone is gifted in administration, get him/her to serve on the parish council. One of my most favorite parables in the Gospels is the Parable of the Talents, recorded in Matthew 25:14-30.

“For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time, the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you have delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not winnow, so I was afraid, and I went out and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours. But his master answered him, “you wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth’.”

“All spiritual gifts come from the Holy Spirit who distributes them according to God’s will in the same manner as physical gifts are distributed to the human body.”

In I Corinthians, Chapter 12, St. Paul says, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working but it is God who inspires them all in every one,” (I Cor. 12:4-6). You could say that the emphasis in both the Parable of the Talents and the writings of St. Paul in First Corinthians is based on the fact that God has given us gifts according to our ability. Our most important duty as good stewards is not to bury our talents in the ground like that idle and wicked servant. We must use our talents for the glory of God and the edification of his Church. And if some in your parish choose to be idle and bury their talents, I am sure that your shoulders are broader and will carry the others’ overload. Some eyes see farther and are expected to guide the near sighted. Some hearts are bigger and are meant to transfuse the Christian spirit into lives unable to pump enough for themselves.

There was once a Man who never sinned; and it was this innocent Man who chose to pay for the sins of the whole world “To whom much is given, of him much will be required.”

Finally, I will be pleased if my talk has provoked some questions in your minds. After all, we must study together and learn from each other. I am most grateful to you for being my co-workers in God’s vineyard. Let me remind you that we are not saved by faith alone, but by faith and good works. Thus, “let your light so shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven,” (Matt. 5:16).

This message of our Primate was delivered at the biennial Parish Council Symposium at the Antiochian Village. It contains information for every Parish Council in the Archdiocese.