WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE A PARISH COUNCIL “WORK”

by Ron Nicola

“…one of the main functions of the parish council, along with the pastor; is to maintain the unity of the community. The pastor and parish council must work harmoniously together. They reflect the unity that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Where this is not reflected, there is division, hatred, pride, and jealousy. In the words of scripture, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand!’ It behooves us, therefore, to cooperate with each other as co—workers in our Holy Orthodox Church. Where there is a common vision, along with cooperation and respect for each other, parishes flourish and grow.”

Who among us would disagree with such wise words? Considering these observations were made by Bishop ANTOUN, they carry even more significance. Bishop ANTOUN, as one of the great leaders of our Archdiocese, has more intimate knowledge about what it takes to establish and maintain successful parishes than just about anyone. He has spent virtually his entire career working closely with clergy and laity alike in the ongoing struggle to do God’s work in his earthly vineyard. We would do well to heed his observations and to consider seriously what it takes to achieve the level of cooperation he refers to in this statement.

During a recent gathering at the Antiochian Village Heritage and Learning Center, sixty-five (65) faithful from this Archdiocese representing twenty-nine (29) parishes and missions met with Bishop ANTOUN for two and one-half days to ponder his words of guidance and to consider ways to make them a reality in the everyday operation of our local communities. Working to achieve these concepts of cooperation and common vision which Bishop ANTOUN addressed oftentimes falls under the jurisdiction of the parish councils which exist in each and every one of the parishes and missions in the Antiochian Archdiocese. What it means to be a parish council member and what the council’s proper scope of responsibility should be became a principle focus of this gathering.

It is unfortunate that all too often faithful and dedicated servants, who give of their time and talents to serve on a parish council, fall into the trap of viewing their responsibilities from a narrow perspective. This narrow perspective suggests that maintaining the routine, worldly, and secular aspects of parish life is and should be the council’s primary focus. While practical concerns such as paying hills, budgeting parish resources, and maintaining parish property and buildings, certainly are what parish councils do, they are not the only things a council should concern itself with when it gathers for its monthly meetings. A parish council, when it is operating in a wider realm, takes care of these daily needs of the parish while also focusing its attention on the spiritual well-being of the parish. Councils are, after all, made up of the pastor and the elected and appointed lay representatives of all parishioners and parish organizations. From this perspective, parish councils must continually remind themselves that they have a responsibility to shepherd the growth and development of all aspects of parish life.

Bishop ANTOUN, in his further involvement with the sixty-four (64) participants at the third biennial Parish Council Symposium, spoke about this danger of parish council members taking too narrow a view of their work. Speaking about council members, Bishop ANTOUN said:

“You are called by God and those who elected you to serve in the best interest of the Church. In every decision that you are asked to make, the first question that should enter your mind is What would God have me to do in this situation?’ Did I pray about it first? Did I weigh the pros and cons? How will my decision affect the Parish and its members? Am 1 being fair and Christian? Will our decision hurt our parish, our priest, others in our local community, or the Metropolitan, our Archdiocese, our Holy Orthodox Church? Will my decision be an affront to Jesus Christ?”

His point in making these observations was that if a council does not routinely ask these questions, it runs the risk of gradually forgetting that its responsibility is, first and foremost, to let its deliberations be guided by the wisdom of our Lord and the teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church. In this same vain, all council members must view their area of responsibility to include all aspects of parish life … the spiritual as well as the secular realms of parish life. This is where the spirit and reality of cooperation between pastor and council members becomes most valuable. The work done by participants at the Parish Council Symposium quickly revealed that nothing insures a healthy parish and a properly functioning parish council more than a positive relationship between the council and the pastor. While all in attendance recognize the validity of this statement, questions often arose concerning how to achieve and how to maintain this desired state of affairs.

This question of how to maintain a healthy and positive relationship between pastors and parish councils was not only on the minds of those who attended the symposium. Prior to the October, 1996, gathering, a survey was mailed to all parishes and missions in the Antiochian Archdiocese. Sixty-four of the 205 parishes and missions in the Archdiocese completed and returned the survey. One section of the form asked respondents to list three issues they would like to see discussed at the symposium. This question generated 119 different responses. While these responses spanned a wide range of topics, the most common area of concern had to do with relationships. Relationships between council members, between the council and the parish priest, between the parish and the Archdiocese. Clearly, many among us want to solve the puzzle of good relations among our fellow Christian brothers and sisters as one of the important keys to the establishment of successful parish councils and a healthy parish life in general.

Three moments which took place during the Parish Council Symposium offer clues concerning how councils can and do play a positive role in establishing and maintaining these good relationships in the local community and throughout the Archdiocese.

What symbol or shape reminds you of your parish? Parish Council Symposium participants were asked to think about this question and then, using scissors and a piece of card stock paper, to cut out a shape which reminded them of their home parish. They then wrote the name and location of their parish and a key phrase which described what they created with the paper and scissors. This simple exercise provided significant insight, and a certain amount of enjoyment. If you have ever served on a parish council, you know how easy it is to become involved in the repetitive routine of daily, weekly, and monthly parish operations. Often there seems little time to step back and reflect on the overall health and well — being of the parish. An activity like the one described above can provide the perspective often needed to identify key parish needs and to then focus on programs which can best address those needs. A parish council that takes the time to consider the overall character of their community enhances the possibility that it will communicate effectively with each other, with their pastor, and with the parish at-large.

Has your parish ever seriously considered the role leadership plays in the life of a successful parish? Probably most of us have talked about leadership in the context of our pastors perceived effectiveness as a leader, but leadership is not only the job of the pastor and leadership is not an accident of fate. We hear about leadership training all the time in the context of our jobs and careers, but rarely do we encounter leadership training in our churches. During the Parish Council Symposium, Fr. David Randolph, pastor of St. Andrew Church in Eustis, Florida, made a stirring and effective presentation on the subject of leadership as a necessary element in the life of any successful parish. His participation in the symposium was made possible, by the North American Council of the Fellowship of St. John the Divine. The current president of this organization, Kathy Abraham of Grand Rapids, Michigan, contacted Fr. David and worked with him in the planning of this particular workshop session. The work done by the Fellowship in the area of parish ministry teams created the perfect match with the topic of how to recruit and train effective parish leaders. To say that Fr. David’s presentation was well received would be a major understatement. What seemed to attract the attention of the symposium participants, besides the fact that Fr. David is a very effective speaker and presenter, was the convincing fact that leadership training of the laity of a parish can reap huge dividends when it comes to planning successful parish programs. Fr. David pointed out that a truly effective leader is a servant in the purest sense of the term. As such, a leader directs a group with wisdom and guidance in a manner which allows all to feel equally involved. Materials were presented which provided excellent ideas about, in Fr. David’s words, “equipping members for ministry.” Good leadership training and technique, for example, stresses the issue of consensus building as means of effective decision making. Fr. David talked about how to make all decisions at parish council meetings using the consensus process. “Don’t leave a parish council meeting until consensus is reached,” he suggested. “If a crossroads is faced, take time to pray.” It takes training and practice to learn the skill of consensus building, but the rewards are worth the effort. Fr. David left symposium participants with materials and ideas specifically related to this and many other aspects of effective and realistic leadership training. One of the surest signs of an effective church is the constant flow of new parishioners into and out of key positions of leadership within the parish. The materials shared by Fr. David stressed this point and offered ideas concerning how to recruit and train a steady stream of people willing and prepared to assume leadership within all segments of a parish organizational structure.

Do the organizations of your parish function effectively and are the fund raising efforts sponsored by your parish successful? These issues were also identified as crucial areas of responsibility for all parish councils. Symposium participants had the opportunity to consider each of these topics, parish organizations and fund raising, through presentations made by Dan Abraham and Mike Hamwey. Dan, an active member of the Order of St. Ignatius and chairperson of its current membership drive, shared a newly developed brochure called, “We Are What We Do.” He emphasized in his remarks the integrated nature of the work done by the Order and the work done by the organizations in every local parish. Dan cited numerous examples, including the clergy retirement program, the summer camp scholarship program, and the Order’s funding of most expenses for this parish council symposium, as areas where the Order does work which directly supports work being done by our parish councils. Dan’s presentation made it clear that the Order is very much a parish centered organization. Its members are active in their local parishes and many of the projects it sponsors directly impact the life of churches throughout the Archdiocese. Mike, the Director of the Department of Planning and Future Development for the Archdiocese, offered numerous tips on how to plan and executive successful parish fund raising programs. He illustrated, for example, practices parish councils could follow based on the principle that, “fund raising is not about raising funds, but rather fund raising is about dream fulfillment.” While this may sound idealistic Mike showed how the idealism of this concept can be realized in the projects and activities our parish sponsor. Since Mike is a full-time employee of the Archdiocese, he is available to visit parishes to make presentations like the one he offered to the symposium participants. Communities throughout the Archdiocese would be wise to contact him to discuss the many ways he could offer assistance in the area of planning effective fund raising programs and campaigns.

The symposium schedule afforded plenty of time for participants to dialogue with each other about the work being done in our local parish communities. These opportunities for intimate conversation, plus the excellent group presentations offered during the two-and-one-half day meeting at the Heritage and Learning Center, produced consensus among the group that the work being done by our parish councils throughout the Archdiocese could be enhanced by a manual which offered ideas and suggestions on the role and function of parish councils in the Antiochian Archdiocese. By the time the Symposium ended, an outline for such a document was produced and reviewed by all participants. One section of the proposed manual would include brief descriptions of programs which are already successful in our parishes and missions. The survey sent to all parishes and missions prior to the symposium asked for summaries of this type, and twenty-eight (28) such descriptions were submitted. The other section of the manual would include brief “how-to” articles on various subjects related to the issue of the parish council member training and the role of parish councils in the life of their communities. A list of possible topics was developed by symposium participants and they will be refined and developed into a rough draft prior to the Archdiocese Convention this summer in Toronto.

The sixty-five (65) participants in the Third Biennial Parish Council Symposium left for home feeling renewed and enthused about the important work they do as parish council members. All were grateful to Metropolitan PHILIP for the opportunity he gave us to host and participate in this important gathering. While travel to the Middle East for a meeting of the Holy Synod prevented him from attending the symposium, his support for this event contributed significantly to its success. Symposium participants wish to thank Bishop ANTOUN for the vital role he played during the various meetings and presentations. The wisdom he brought to the sessions gave all participants hope that the work being done by our parish councils is indeed important and can be enhanced by continued commitment to the teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church. Funding for the symposium, provided once again by the Order of St. Ignatius, and the excellent support provided by the Rt. Rev. George Geha and the entire staff at the Heritage and Learning Center, made this gathering both memorable and productive for all of the participants. At the closing dinner on Saturday evening and during Divine Liturgy Sunday morning, those in attendance felt they had truly established new bonds with faithful Orthodox Christians involved in the common struggle to fulfill our mission here on earth. All left with the humble prayer that we could return home to share newly acquired knowledge with fellow parish council members.

Ron Nicola is co-chairman of the Department of Stewardship of the Archdiocese. He is a member of the Editorial Board for THE WORD.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
March 1997
pp. 6-9

PUBLICATIONS BY ORI

Keep up with the latest news and stay in touch with ORI