Let’s Fix It:  The Inherited Legacy of the Greek Orthodox Church in America Continued

The National Herald Archive

Archbishop Elpidophoros of America in Athens, May 20, 2019. (Photo by TNH/Anastasis Koutsogiannis)

Congratulations and Prayers for His Eminence Elpidophoros of Bursa, the new Archbishop-elect of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America. May the promise that His very name implies (Elpidophoros – the bearer of hope) coupled with the extensive and impressive body of work, experience, and dedication help take the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America to the next level. This momentous juncture in the history of the Greek Orthodox Church in America was the impetus for this follow-on to the one published previously in The National Herald last August.

Piling on as to why the present system is in place, the change from the previous diocesan regime was the result of a power struggle.  Today, from an administrative perspective, we have nine fiefdoms accountable to the Planar.  Power struggles when viewed through the Church’s long history and tradition have been commonplace.

Suffice it to conclude, that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese under a diocesan rubric was quite different from the present-day.  His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos’ authority and style were very different from how His Eminence Demetrios conducted himself throughout his tenure and limited scope of authority. In the past, each of the nation’s diocesan bishops was held accountable to the Archbishop. Today, each Metropolitan is accountable to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

It is apropos that Church leaders think, feel and react like men of the Church.  Within the context of the spiritual life of the Church this is as it should be.  However, in the domain of modern-day context of administrative and managerial decision-making, irrespective of intention, the right calls are not being made by the right people.  The failure can have catastrophic consequences as evidenced by the decision tree surrounding the St. Nicholas Shrine Project at Ground Zero in New York.

A laundry list of experts and their respective companies could have been called upon to assist at every step of the way.  Bad calls were made by well-intentioned individuals with little or no expertise, experience, and background.  The result is an overbudget project and cost-overruns of $40+ million, a national public relations fiasco, embarrassment, disgrace, and a devastating loss of integrity, trust, and accountability. The attorney general and federal prosecutors continue to investigate while wealthy donors are called upon to subsidize the shortfall.

Today’s Greek Orthodox Archdiocese suffers from a drought of reliable, accurate, and objective information and more importantly, an objective introspective mirror of itself and the modern ecosystem in which the Church functions. There are no quantitative benchmarks of success. Again, this article should be viewed through an administrative critique and commentary and does not question the hierarchal, liturgical, canonical, and spiritual aspects of the Church and its traditions.

If success is to be measured in the number of Church congregants, the trend of demographics is spiraling downward: substantially less marriage and baptism sacraments, increased funerals. Attrition translates to an unstainable base of members that can support the 550+ parishes.  Attrition means less financial support.

At the national level, the same people that built such institutions as Leadership 100 and Faith are also called upon to fund shortfalls at the local/metropolis level and “giver-burnout” is certainly evident. Will the next generation of very successful individuals be as inspired as Mom/Dad and Pappou & Yiayia were taught to give?

Administrative decentralization leads to a disparity of managerial performance and success.  At the grass roots/parish level there are shining success stories and stars and an equal number of failures. Fr. Spencer Kezios’ visionary work in Southern California saw the emergence of a thriving, co-located Greek Orthodox community: a beautiful Church, senior citizen housing center and charter school, each complementary to the Church’s mission. Contrast Fr. Kezios’ story with so many other parish and mission Churches struggling to keep their doors open.

Financial transparency is the exception rather than norm at every church level from parish to Patriarchate. Transparency creates financial flexibility.  When transparency is coupled with the managerial expertise to plan, strategize, implement, and maintain marvelous things can happen.

One Church’s need for an iconostasis, altar boy vestments, prayer books, or the funds to build a new parish servicing new bedroom communities is everyone’s problem, not just at the parish level.  Several emerging communities in bedroom communities are forced to rent, and borrow at high rates.  Wouldn’t a centralized funding vehicle be a more prudent, reliable and effective use of resources.

We pray his Eminence Elpidophoros shall weigh-in for a concerted, uniform administrative approach and programs aligned with modern-day realities and norms. The following are but a few areas where lay people can assist and perhaps engage in the next Clergy Laity Congress:

  • Modernization of real property church assets:
    • Establish a national real estate development/investment fund that works with parishes and metropolises to leverage, utilize and maintain assets prudently:
      • Holy Cross/Hellenic College sits on 60 acres of prime real estate—developing even a small parcel could generate substantial revenue
      • Similarly, St. Basil’s Academy sits on hundreds of choice acres
      • Develop a registry of bequeathed real property assets
  • Establish national camp strategy
    • Maximize camp usage & develop national scalable programs
      • Metropolis of San Francisco’s Our Greek Village immersion camp program is a crown jewel as is the Metropolis’ Faith Dance & Fellowship Festival (FDF)
        • Establish camp programs for interfaith/intercultural couples, families and coordinate with other groups
        • Metropolis of San Francisco the first to develop/implement a strategic plan
      • Establish a national “festival strategy” and cooperative that assists individual parishes maximize the success, reach and impact on the local community
        • Aggregate buying of goods/services
        • National marketing/advertising support
        • Take advantage of the opportunity to evangelize our faith/heritage nationally to the millions of festival goers

In James Collins’ seminal 1971 book on the finances of the Catholic Church, Worldly Goods, several of the author’s concluding suggestions based on extensive research and analysis on how to remedy the Catholic Church’s administrative problems are also applicable to the Greek Orthodox Church today:

“the American church can still remedy its administrative problems…[f]formal management training for priests…better short-term planning, the acceptance by church leaders of their accountability to the lay public – these are the immediate answers.  None of them does violence to the great tradition of decentralized control. On the contrary, they free local administrators to strengthen the local institutions which are the economic base of the church.  From these first moves, other should follow. At the national level, the church urgently needs an office of economic research, where financial data can be collected, processed, studied and where continuing financial records can be kept.  As urgently, the bishops…need central financing arrangements to ease the movement of money between dioceses and provinces nationwide.  Development banking…and investment management services for pooled endowment capital should be part of the central financing operation. And non-Catholic laymen as well as Catholics should be invited to play a professional part in the management of money for the church.”

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s most valuable assets are the hearts, minds, and precious souls of the flock entrusted to the Church’s care.   The people filling those pews are highly capable men, women, and young people that worship, support and serve with their time, treasure, and talents.  We the congregants have the experience, know-how, and resources to help rebuild, rejuvenate and repopulate the Church.  A Church that is an oasis in a desolate spiritual desert with people wandering about for a spiritual home.

This moment is the opportunity for the physician of souls and body to be called upon to heal and care for those that love him. Now is the time and opportunity for a fresh start.  The number of qualified, expert physicians wanting to heal the patient are at the ready.

If there is a way to centralize administrative authority while maintaining the present system of metropolises, so be it.  If not, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Americas should return to a diocesan system of bishops and hierarchs accountable to Archbishop-elect, His Eminence Elpidophoros.  Under that model the Church thrived, under the present system the Church is in hospice.  May His Eminence be Blessed with many years and the Grace of the Lord to guide him in the leadership of a beloved flock.

(Ari Stone is a lawyer and journalist living in Washington, DC)