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Do We Need to Rethink the Parish Council?

Bishop John at parish council seminarBishop John at parish council seminarBy Bishop John, Diocese of Worcester and New England

I was elected to serve on a parish council when I was 18 years old. I am indebted to those who served on that and subsequent parish councils for teaching me so much. Because of this early positive experience, I have paid special attention to parish councils and parish council experiences my whole adult life. I served on parish council and worked with it while studying business, theology, psychology and sociology, and I have reflected on the parish council experience from each of these perspectives. With 42 years of parish council experience, I have great love and respect for the parish council system of our Archdiocese and for those who are willing to serve. I do understand, though, what those who are reluctant to serve are talking about.

Parish councils are supposed to be made up of dedicated Orthodox Christians willing to serve the Church and her people in leadership roles. This service should be in harmony with the pastor and other council members, as well as with the leadership of the diocese and the Metropolitan. Christian leadership as described and modeled by Christ is always through service and love. Our Lord girded Himself and washed the feet of the disciples. People who serve are not paid for their service, and offer themselves generously, bring- ing invaluable business, military, civil service and professional know-how. Like all Christian stewards, parish council members recognize that everything we have comes from God, and that it is right to offer ourselves back to God through service and gifts. So, what is it that could be problematic and why are so many unwilling to serve? 

Tom Kirkpatrick, writing about meetings and committees for a church leadership magazine, points to a slew of possible dysfunctional behaviors on the part of committee members: aggressiveness, anxiety, avoidance of depth, back-stabbing, cultural insensitivity, defensiveness, disgruntlement or agitation, distrust, domination, fearfulness, inappropriate settings, judging, passivity, stubbornness, superficiality and unfulfilled expectations. Perhaps these could be obstacles to serving on a parish council or committee. It is my observation that Orthodox parish councils today see much less of these ways of behaving, and that parish council members themselves actively discourage such behaviors. Council members gently reminding the group of the purpose and mission of the parish council is usually enough to get a meeting back on track, onto productive and God- pleasing pathways. 

Council members should be treated with respect, and we should assume and acknowledge that all members desire and attempt to serve the Church, and want what is best for the Church. From a position of strength and respect, aggressive and anxious people can better be persuaded to see other perspectives. 

Parish councils seem to do best with a simple agenda allowing for free discussion. Focusing on issues, rather than on the persons who bring up the issues, helps build the trust and love necessary for good stewardship. Teaching the faith also goes a long way to make a council productive. In our Pittsburgh Cathedral and other parishes, meetings begin with short theological lessons that allow the council to stay focused and serve the Church better. Since the institution of that practice, parish council meetings have been shorter, allowing everyone to get home sooner. While there are similarities between church leadership and all other kinds of leadership, there are also some differences. Our government is that of heaven; our army is God’s; we are in the business of revealing and serving the kingdom of God; our agenda is from our head or source, Jesus Christ. 

Parish council service is a diaconal function which brings faithful stewards spiritual growth and rewards. One should not shy away from such an opportunity. If your parish council nomination committee sees in you a vocation to be a council member who will meet a need of the Church, please don’t hesitate to respond positively. Find out if the parish council meetings have improved over time, and, if not, be part of the solution. Serving the Church is a blessing, and, as they say, the rewards are “out of this world.”