The Crisis Facing Greek Orthodoxy in America

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. (Photo by TNH/Costas Bej)

The National Herald has been vigorously exposing the financial and organizational disarray in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese for months. These urgent concerns reflect the reality that Greek Orthodoxy in America is in decline and that the Archdiocese has no plans for dealing with the fundamental demographics reshaping Greek America. I address this crisis from the perspective of a historian of Greek America, not as a congregant with an agenda.

Although there are numerous Greek secularists, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, the backbone of Greek America to date has been the Greek Orthodox church.Church records, federal statistics, and research projects regarding Greek millennials reveal a multi-decade decline of 40% in the number of Orthodox marriages and baptisms and a similar multi-decade rise in the number of burials. In 1976, near the peak of the Second Wave of immigration (1965-1980), there were more than 250,000 Orthodox households. Today, the number is about 190,000, a decline of approximately 27%.

A handful of parishes have grown, but more churches had been closed than new parishes opened. The number of students in parochial schools has declined drastically. Aggravating the situation is a chronic shortage of priests.

A few years ago, Archbishop Demetrios declared the Greek Orthodox Church in America was no longer an immigrant church. Indeed, immigration over the past fifty years has been a scanty one-to-two thousand annually,an inflow negated by an equal number of repatriates. Despite the economic crisis in Greece that has resulted in half-a-million Greeks emigrating to the EU and Australia, only a few thousand have elected to come to America.

Most converts to Greek Orthodoxy are non-Greek spouses of Greek-Americans.The Church welcomes such converts, but it has no vigorous policy regarding converting non-Greeks.In that sense, the Church remains primarily an ethnic institution.

The current out marriages of Greeks to non-Greeks is at least 80%. That dynamic is not a reflection of Greek parental failings. Greek America is simply part of a demographic tide that is affecting all of American society. Over the next twenty years, this accelerating trend will result in the majority of Greeks living in multi-ethnic households with various religious traditions. About 10% of the households will involve non-European spouses. Young people maturing in these families will not privilege Orthodoxy as their spiritual option.They may not be sure if they even want to be considered Greek.

This new demographic reality is a threat to the Church, but it also is an opportunity for genuine growth. For that to happen, however, the Church needs activist rather than passive leadership. That activist brand of leadership has not been seen since Archbishop Iakovos was forced into retirement in 1996.

The consistent policy of Iakovos was to mainstream Orthodoxy without retreating from its Hellenism.He was active in national and international ecumenical circles. He also modified the organization of the Church to provide it with American-style social services. Another goal was to bring secular Greek organizations into the orbit of the Church.

Iakovos’ finest moment was when he marched with Martin Luther King in Selma. That action involved considerable personal courage. White activists associated with the march had been murdered and Alabama law enforcement officials and white supremacist groups vowed to stop the march with violence.As a tall man, wearing dark robes and a tall headdress, Iakovos would have been an ideal target for snipers. King, whom Iakovos had come to know at various ecumenical conferences, said he understood if Iakovos wanted to withdraw.

Iakovos believed that most Greek-Americans were not hostile to blacks demanding their full civil rights, but that Greek-Americans were reluctant to risk their own status in what seemed someone else’s war. Numerous colleagues advised Iakovos not to march, especially after he received death threats. What was decisive for him was that leadership meant forming and advancing positions on their merits, not on the degree of their popularity.

Rather than abstaining from marching, Iakovos chose to literally link arms with King in the first row of marchers. He was the highest ranking Christian official to do so as no Catholic or Episcopal prelates joined him. His presence was so dramatic that he was featured in a collage on the cover of Life magazine. Never before or since has an Orthodox leader been seen as an inspiring spiritual leader by the majority of Americans.

I disagreed with Iakovos’ conservative views more often than not, but his style of leadership is needed to revive Greek Orthodoxy in America. The financial scandal and egotistical Metropolitans must be dealt with forthrightly.Even more important is for the Church to devise a plan to attract the allegiance of the emerging generations of multi-ethnic Greek-Americans. New leadership must understand that policies that fostered survival and even growth in previous periods are not viable for twenty-first century America. Denial or indifference to the demographic changes engulfing the community could be suicidal.

The dominant pattern throughout the history of Greeks in America is that wherever a Greek community forms, it builds an Orthodox church. The relationship is symbiotic. The community sustains the church while the church provides a historical identity and memory. If that relationship continues to deteriorate, the very existence of a coherent Greek America is at risk.

10 Comments

  1. We seem to forget that Christ said “The gates of hell shall not prevail”, We are experiencing no more or less than the majority of other Christian Churches throughout the world, a decline in Christian culture. Yes, there should be cause for alarm, but there has never been a “Golden Age” in Christianity, it has and will be a struggle to just maintain our faith, we don’t need to adopt the culture, we need to work in the culture without them realizing it. If there is blame it rests with the families who have opted out of the church for sports on Sundays and a host of other activities, this is America in the 21st century, like it or not. The road to salvation is full of pot holes!!!!

    1. Jesus also removed candlesticks from lukewarm communities. Christ and love for the people must come before any ethnicity.

  2. Then there is Saint Athanasius Greek Orthodox Church, Arlington, Massachusetts, where five disgruntled Parish Council members are strongly supporting Metropolitan Methodius Of Boston Metropolis and Chancilor Father Ted Barbas who have torn Saint Athanasius to pieces and devastated the life of its former pastor, beloved Father Nicholas Kastanas and his entire family.

    Talk about “disarray.” Not many people in attendance at Saint Athanasius since July, 2017, when Father Nick, as he’s affectionately known, was taken from the church which included parishioners from many Greater Boston communities, sites of other Greek Orthodox churches.

    “…Greek Orthodoxy in America is in decline…?” Is current Greek Orthodox Leadership responsible?

    “…

    Along with being “fired” from Saint Athanasius, Father Nick has been denied all financial entitlements!

    Currently, there are many “former” Saint Athanasius parishioners who have chosen not to attend any church while some attend other area Greek Orthodox churches and some attending non-Greek churches of Orthodox denomination. Before our observance of Lord Jesus’s Holy Nativity, some former Saint Athanasius parishioners stated that they would attend Episcopal churches on Christmas Day.

    1. Have you ever attended an Episcopal service or interacted with Episcopalians? Respectfully, you disparage the most compassionate of all Christian groups. 25 years ago my picture and an article was printed here because I won an award representing my parochial school in a then annual spelling competition amongst all the orthodox parochial schools in NYC, for which Α. Ιακοβος personally awarded me. Because I was a diligent ιεροπαιδο and churchgoer at the time I feel I have the right to respond. The question is not whether a person can consider themselves orthodox if they are not of 100% Greek DNA but rather the reverse, whether a non orthodox has the right to be considered Greek. The fact that by choice I no longer consider myself orthodox does not diminish my Greek ethnicity or heritage. Both the school and the attached church (the church of my baptism) which I so well represented (and there were other achievements) really however left me feeling over the years as though I were of inferior status. I was the only student/parishioner in the entire school whose parents were not both Greek, worked really menial jobs because they did not own a business, and were in the midst of such a divorce so acrimonious I didn’t have chance to even visit Greece until my majority. The church members and staff always found a way to express their disdain for mixed ethnicity and economic status. More than once I was told not to take communion. A child subjected to that. After one last humiliation in front of the congregation (which incident was written about in a letter to the editor) I walked out and didn’t set foot in an Orthodox Church for many years. I’m not even comfortable accompanying my father once a year for επιτάφιο. When I was warmly invited, in the course of community volunteering with a lunch program run by a friendly well connected Episcopalian organization, to a service, it took me three months to get up the courage to accept and when I was warmly invited to share communion, although I was baptized Christian, my past experiences left me so embarrassed about receiving for the first time since elementary school. I’ll never forget the reply of my friend the program director, a woman of humanity and caring such as I never saw within the Αρχιεπισκοπή structure with all its financial resources. She told me Episcopalians never refuse communion to one who wishes it, because “we don’t judge, God judges”. And then I remembered another aspect of orthodox liturgy. The Συνοδικον της Ορθοδοξίας with the inhumanity of its ανάθεμα. I’m about as secular as they come, but that doesn’t diminish my right to exercise the benefit of my baptism if I so choose, and no religion which professes love and salvation has the right to retain such a reprehensible component within their liturgy. And I speak Greek and have feel pride in my Greek heritage more than most of my generational Greek American contemporaries. And part of that is knowing I don’t have to be orthodox in order to be truly Greek.

  3. Orthodoxy in America I believe is growing. I say that because Ephraim has built 19 monasteries with so many monks and nuns, Greek but mostly non Greek. This is real Orthodox Christian Faith in action.

    The churches of the cities and towns are run by a small group of parishioners. Why is that? Maybe because there is an order of doing things that cannot be changed, a tradition foreign to growth.

    Why is the church of St Nickolaos in San Jose growing fast? Lets copy their methods.

    Money plays a great role in the survival of our churches, well it should not!
    The Faith can survive without abundance of money. If the priest believes in God he does not need a big salary. Monk priests have no salary, yet they and their monasteries thrive.

    The Church should not include organizations that are foreign to the ideals of the Christian Faith ie Rotary club.

    Why can’t the Greek Orthodox Church in America unite with AOC and the other Orthodox churches?
    Is it because of egotism or money sharing?

    People in this time are knowledgeable and do not accept the old methods.
    If the mainstream Greek Orthodox Church changes the doctrines then we will also loose the converts.
    We must live by the traditions of the Church, create schools of high standards like the Catholics where Orthodox children and non orthodox can attend. This is a model for growth.

  4. What did Batman say to Yianni? You go first and I’ll be at the end of the gyro.

    And that, my fellow Greek friends, is why we are in the shape we are in.

    1. I do not know who is using the name Fr. Lambakis, but there is one Fr. Lambakis in this Archdiocese, and I did not write the comments above.

  5. London, England.
    Καλή και ευλογημένη χρονιά σε όλους τους αναγνώστες του Εθνικού Κήρυξ / Happy New Year to all National Herald readers.
    – As a child and a community servant of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, I read with sadness, concern but also optimism the situation in the ‘American territories’ of our mother Church, the Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. America is the land of the possible.
    – As a historian of Greek Britain I found the synopsis of Archbishop Iacovos’ stand presented here, quite inspiring.
    – As someone who sees value in trying “to mainstream Orthodoxy without retreating from its Hellenism”, it seems vital that our Greek schools should reduce emphasis on language lessons – though they should remain central – and expand the service. For instance, exploring in English (and Greek) what it means to be of Greek heritage, the values of Hellenism as a shaper of world culture, some great diaspora figureheads (be they ecclesiastic, scientists, rock musicians, business people, writers, etc).

    Well, these are my 2 cents’ worth.

  6. I believe that all of us Greek Orthodox should be welcoming to all comers to our churches. However, let’s keep in mind, that we should not have anxiety of how our church will survive. As Christ said, have no anxieties, even the lilies in the field are dressed by God. He will also take care His church. Bottom line, churches are made up of people that want to contribute and support it. If they would rather attend sports on Sunday, or stay in bed, its their life. We can’t change their mind and make them believers. So, let’s not worry at all about this. Let’s just be welcoming

  7. @bob karp – I agree with most of your response to this article except for one thing…the anxiety. We must be anxious for the “Church”s” survival. Christ entrusted Her to all of us! And the church that was gifted to all of begins in our hearts because that is where Christ is. The church which is in our hearts must be protected.
    “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18,KJV)
    The one way the church will not survive is if we lose heart and faith in Christ.

    How many stories of scandal, corruption, and incompetence can the Orthodox faithful listen to before they lose heart.? Adams original sin resulted in “lost divine grace” and blindness. Is our generation living in blindness and the loss of divine grace. Are we becoming apathetic? Todays church ( under the present circumstances) is missing the fellowship and the spiritual edification needed to bring healing.

    We “the laity” are charged with a ministry to teach, especially in our homes and with people we encounter in our everyday lives. We are the bearers of the spirit! The church needs passionate leaders full of the Holy Spirit not nominal ones.

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