The first two articles in the ‘Fix It’ series (August 28, 2018; and, May 25, 2019) reflected on the history and evolution of the Greek Orthodox Church in America within the context of mainstream congregant assimilation. The shift from the early immigrant church to today’s interfaith/intercultural familial norm has created new challenges for a Church priding itself on unbroken tradition over the past two millennia. Recommendations were proffered with a suggested call for a return to a centralized authority model.
We are witness to 3rd-5th generations of the descendants of those immigrant pioneers that established the bulk of the 550+ parishes comprising the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Professor Alexander Kitroeff, of Haverford University, recently published an outstanding work, The Greek Orthodox Church in America: A Modern History. This important work is the culmination of years of research providing an excellent of the Church’s evolution with challenges popping-up at each step along the way.
The recent Pew Foundation’s Religious Landscape Study is a compelling analysis of religion in America. The corresponding Eastern Orthodox Christianity statistics warrant mention. Eastern Orthodox Christians in America comprise only .05% of all religious groups. However, the role of religion/God in their lives continues to impress given the following highlighted findings:
- 60% are of 2nd or greater generation Orthodox
- 65% are less than 50 years old, with 25% of those aged 30 and under
- 65% of Orthodox have incomes exceeding $50,000
- 75% are college educated
- 50% are married & 70% do not have children
- 90% believe in God, 7% believe but are not totally convinced
- 85% pray with frequency
- 85% believe religion is an important aspect in their respective lives
- 30% attend weekly Church services, attend for all others is sporadic
These statistics suggest there is a spiritual thirst and need among Orthodox congregants to include God and faith in their lives in some fashion. Borrowing from business nomenclature: there is demand. Then why the waning church attendance and alarming statistics when key sacraments statistics such as weddings and baptisms in the Orthodox Church are waning? Why the bad news?
The Fix-It series honed-in on several contributing factors that have led to the Church’s decline with decentralization as a culprit. The analogy from the business world is to look at the Archdiocese solely through the prism of a business franchise model. The model comprises 9 independent geographical/regional units operating with autonomy at many levels regarding their interaction with the respective 550+ franchise parishes under their bailiwick. Decentralization yields inconsistency, a lack of uniformity, difficulty in communicating/implementing national efforts.
The Communique of the Holy Eparchial Synod and related moves suggests a shift back to centralization and the promise of a new Charter to codify the shift. The mechanics of how to put the plan into place canonically are simple: Metropolitans retire, and/or are reassigned, they are replaced by an auxiliary episcopacy under the bailiwick of the Archbishop. The fact that His Eminence Evangelos will receive a pension package of sorts quells tensions. De facto: centralized authority and control in the guise of the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The timing of the announcement is noteworthy given the 16 strategic initiatives recently announced by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA. Long-term solutions necessarily involve concerted pan-Orthodox resolve and execution.
A New Charter
The Synod’s Communique proposes the establishment of a new Charter to be formulated with the input and collaboration of the Church’s Hierarchy, clergy, and laity in tandem with “the new centennial of Archdiocesan ministry...” Pursuant to the provisions of Article 25 of the existing Charter, the Charter may be amended in its entirety after a proposal of the Holy Eparchial Synod submitted to the Ecumenical Patriarchate following the appropriate procedure in the Archdiocesan Council and the Archdiocesan Clergy-Laity Congress, and after the approval of the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to which the proposal has been submitted.
His Eminence Elpidophoros has broadcast the need for bold reform early in his arrival in the New World. The Charter arguably will be an instrument helping define the vision that will facilitate needed change. The challenges Orthodoxy faces are shared by all major faiths in America, and certainly real within the Orthodox family.
For example, in northeastern Pennsylvania within a 50-mile radius of the Scranton/Wilke-Barre area, there are 30+ Orthodox parishes, two large Monastic communities and an Orthodox Seminary (St. Tikhon’s). Canonically, the region should have one overseeing hierarch which clearly is not the case in Scranton. Long-term viability of these parishes with attrition levels and support is tenuous at best.
This is further exacerbated for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese given the role ‘Greek Festivals’ play on parish balance sheets. COVID restrictions, extraordinarily unfair, create a huge vacuum in parish finances. Houston’s Cathedral alone lost $1+ million in revenues from the cancellation of their 2020 Greek festival.
Is disposal of Church assets a long-term answer? Considering the Pew statistics, the answer is an unequivocal NO. The focus needs to be on how do we go about filling church pews and getting the next generation wanting to participate. There is a need for an Orthodox version of evangelization that will inspire the next generation with Orthodoxy’s untold treasures, Holy tradition, and the rich mystical aspects of the Church that through God’s Grace enlighten, fulfill and center us.
Connecting and engaging translates to effective empowerment of the next generation which satisfies their spiritual thirst for the Good News. By nature, people are physical, intellectual, and spiritual. Sadly, today’s age is reminiscent of past eras of moral decline. The focus is again set largely on the physical and material with the co-equal parts of the individual ignored. The result is imbalance, a loss of direction, confusion, and search for meaning and belonging. Paradoxically, social media while connecting billions has the effect of producing even greater alienation, despondency, and a sense of being deserted on a social island.
The good news is the reversible nature of the status quo. We Orthodox are blessed with exceptional lay people eager with the right approach, albeit vis-à-vis a new Charter and plan to be involved in the rebuilding efforts. His Eminence Elpidophoros has called: from the ground-up. Towards that end, the following are presented with the assumption that skilled, knowledgeable, and experienced experts would be called upon to enlist in the reconstruction plans and process:
Recruitment & Engagement Strategy: Addressing the need of how to identify/groom & support strong clergy candidates
- Establish best practices to identify the best of the best
- Coordinate with the Monastic communities to assist vet/identify candidates
- Develop Diaconate Program(s) in tandem with Holy Cross, St. Vladimir’s, and St. Tikhon’s seminaries which include distance learning classes
- Apostolic order of deaconess/subdeacon warrants serious consideration given the importance of women in the life of the parish and community
- Consider establishment of a Synodal committee to advise and develop plan to extend diaconate role to dedicated women
Establish a Washington, DC Permanent Presence:
Non-cleric professional/staff representing on a full-time basis the voice of the Archdiocese, Ecumenical Patriarchate and Synod
- Representative(s) will coordinate efforts that educate, inform and advocate lawmakers, institutions, coalition, and opinion leaders on a wide range of issues affecting Christians and Orthodox faithful
- Representative(s) will build and engage a coalition of Orthodox faithful professionally involved within government, policy/think-tanks, media, and advocacy organizations
- Representative will serve as liaison between other faith-based religious groups
- Dedicated budget supported by targeted donors, separate from Archdiocese budget
Professional Standing Committees: Archdiocese to establish two advisory standing Committees (under Archdiocesan Council’s Administrative Committee) to advise, guide and counsel the Archbishop and his delegates:
Real Estate Professional Committee: focused on leveraging Archdiocesan assets to yield income streams for the long-term
Finance/Banking/Wealth Management Committee: focused on leveraging income to fund operations, pension liabilities, and develop low/no-interest lending facilities supporting growing parish needs and mission (new parish, renovations, iconography, special missions)
National Camp Strategy: Develop national programs that leverage camps – not just for the youth
- Best practices/programs need to scale nationwide (e.g. the Our Greek Village program in Metropolis of San Francisco)
- Expand/enhance the camp experience and extend to intercultural/interfaith couples & families to disseminate/teach Orthodoxy and Hellenic heritage
- Establish objective to send all Greek Orthodox youth to Ionian Village at minimal expense with the quid pro quo of volunteerism & engagement
- Develop strong Ionian Village Alumni Network and task them with fundraising and other efforts
National Festival Strategy: Parish Greek festivals cater millions of festival goers nationwide and create millions of dollars of revenue
- Evangelization: Adopt best practices to facilitate effective evangelization for festival-goers eager/curious to learn more about Orthodoxy
- Effective & meaningful Church tours & follow-up workshops for those interested
- Church tours led by clergy/stewards that can train online through Archdiocese experts
- Take-away literature/recommended reading lists (The Orthodox Way/Kallistos Ware)
Purchasing Cooperative: Establish a national cooperative to aggregate purchasing which yields substantial rebates
Heritage & Culture: Develop & distribute Hellenic heritage ‘kits’ that festivals can use to disseminate Hellenic heritage, culture, and traditions in tandem with other organizations: AHEPA, National Hellenic Museum, National Hellenic Society
National Education Strategy:
- Centralization: Establish stand-alone, non-profit entity to undertake national coordination of Greek language/culture charter plan
- Hub and spoke paradigm allowing parishes to plug-in to a best practices network of resources including curriculum, online network of digital media, workshops, downloadable resources
- Engage stakeholders to assist formulate and implement the strategy, provide support, resources and to energize the grass roots level
- Education, catechesis, and inspiration should also include adults
These are a few ideas that might serve as a springboard for other ideas that improve upon and add to successful strategies and tactics. Reverting to a centralized system is a first step towards long-term sustainability.
Pan-Orthodox solutions are needed for the long-term. There is a tendency to panic in bad times, and adopt band aid, ill-advised solutions. Several efforts are underway that seek to sell-off Church assets as a means to shore-up finances. If the right experts were engaged, especially in real estate matters, a develop vs. sell strategy could prospectively yield permanent income streams as it shall for other organizations such as the AHEPA Housing family and the thousands of apartments nationwide they will one day have title to (BRAVO AHEPA!).
Our nation is spiritually thirsty, there is void in the lives of millions of Americans supplanted with vapid fleeting distractions. The spiritual need is visible when one sees the myriads of people flocking to the televangelists preaching the Good News in a style and manner that spoon-feeds their congregants, giving them hope, strength and resolve.
In Plato’s Republic a marvelous didactic describes a hypothetical battle fought by the body parts of a universal body, each of the body parts appearing as protagonists vying to demonstrate their paramount importance. Plato concludes with a moral lesson that each body part is best left to fulfill the respective role that each was designed for. Together they work in harmony and the body flourishes. Likewise, in a society, the bricklayer is not a good heart surgeon, or a quantum physicist an electrician to call upon to rewire one’s home. The Parable of the Talents (Matt: 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27) expands on this theme highlighting the endowments, gifts, and charismata bestowed upon on all in respective measure and the concomitant obligation to use the same to one’s potential.
Meeting the spiritual needs of congregants, engaging them, bringing them back to the Church and ultimately leading us to salvation is the primary focus for the Archdiocese to undertake over the course of the next century and beyond. If the best of the best in their respective fields are empowered to lend their talents to the best of their potential – success is inevitable. The ancient Greeks instructed us to open our eyes and set them agaze upon the stars – Orthodoxy provides the means to reach them.