Podcast Monday – Three Successful Parishes

In our previous “Podcast Monday,” we listened to Ancient Faith’s Kevin Allen interview Fr. John Ivanoff and Steven Christoforou on the issue of whether or not our churches are “declining” here in America. We considered what it means to be a practicing Orthodox Christian, how the vitality of a parish can be measured, and what we can do as individuals to lead to growth (both physical and spiritual) in our communities.


After listening to and pondering Kevin’s interview, I asked myself, “Are there any models for success we can look to? What is ‘working’ for our parishes, and where can these ‘successful parishes’ be found?”


Fortunately, Ancient Faith Today was not done exploring this issue.


Last week, Kevin continued his discussion with an interview (found here) of the priests of three successful parishes of our Archdiocese: Fr. Lou Christopoulos of St. Catherine in Greenwood Village, CO, Fr. Theodore Dorrance of St. John the Baptist in Portland, OR, and Fr. Evan Armatas of St. Spyridon in Loveland, CO.  



As you listen, consider:

  1. What is the relationship between “quality” and “quantity” within the body of a parish? What emphases draw “quantity”
  2. What are some qualities that the parishes being discussed all seem to share? What mindset have they adopted, and what are their demographics?
  3. How important of a factor is knowledge of the Faith in the vitality and growth of a parish?
  4. In the interview, it is brought up that “God provides the growth.” What does this mean, and how might it influence our approach to growing our churches?
  5. How might we be leaders in our parishes in addressing faith enrichment, church fellowship, community outreach, as well as other opportunities for growing our communities spiritually and physically?

- Anthony


Anthony Ladas is a student at Fordham University and currently an intern for Y2AM.


Being Spiritual, But Not Relgious

A friend recently described himself to me as “spiritual but not religious.”  Having grown up fairly immersed in the richness of Orthodoxy, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that you can believe in God in some sort of nonspecific way.   


But my friend had interesting reasons for his beliefs and, because he’s far from the only young adult who thinks that way, they’re worth considering.  


He explained that he believes there is a higher power; he’s sure of it, in fact.  But he also feels that he has never been moved by any religious experience.  If anything, religion leaves him feeling like an outsider.


As I said, this belief isn’t unique; I’ve had this conversation with many friends over the years, and it’s fascinating to hear why they choose not to belong to a religious organization or church.  Their choice almost always stems from their perception that religions get in the way of spiritual experience.  


In short, people avoid organized religion because they don’t find God there.  


I mean, I get it.  I have those moments, too.


I don’t have a profound experience every time I participate in Liturgy.  Sometimes I’m simply sitting through the service, bored out of my mind.  And I see how those moments, when you think everyone around you is experiencing something incredible and special and you’re the only one who isn’t, can make you think you are doing religion wrong.  


I have those moments of doubt.


I’m really just an average Orthodox Christian.  I go to Liturgy on Sundays, I try to be active in the Church, but I sometimes struggle with my normalness.  There are times where I think that the immense faith I see in other people means that I’m not experiencing my faith deeply enough.  


I don’t get worked up by Byzantine chant in the way that some people do.  I’m not moved by the smell of incense the way that some people are.  


It makes me think that I’m doing something wrong.  And that fills me with doubt.


Should I be having a profound experience every time I set foot in a Church?


It would be nice if I did. It would be very reassuring to me if I had the sort of spiritually fulfilling moments other talk about, as often as they seem to have them.  Then, maybe, I would know for certain that I was on the right path.  


But I don’t.  And I struggle to remember that the way I experience my faith isn’t always going to look the same as it does in other people.  


My sisters and I were in Cyprus a couple of years ago, as part of Ionian Village’s young adult trip Spiritual Odyssey; it’s awesome, go.  We went to this beautiful little chapel in the mountains.  It was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, on a perfectly clear afternoon.  The moment was peaceful and the chapel was filled with stunning iconography.  It was beautiful but I’ll admit, I appreciated it more as art than anything else.  It didn’t inspire a religious experience.


One of the icons included a bunch of fish that looked like they belonged in a Dr. Seuss book.  When my sisters as I saw that, we shared a quiet smile.  And in that moment, something clicked in my heart.  God was there, in that remote chapel, just like He was there in my bedroom while I flipped through the pages of my Dr. Seuss books.  


It was silly, it was fun, it was weird.  And it was exceptionally beautiful.  


Even if it wasn’t what you would think a profound spiritual experience should look like.  


Like many young adults, I will always have my moments of doubt. Moments where I think it would be much easier to say that I was spiritual and not religious.  Moments where I would like to be able to pick and choose what parts of Orthodoxy I like and make sense to me, and which parts I struggle with.  Moments when I worry that I’m not “doing it right,” that I’m somehow the only one struggling.


But the struggle defines my faith.  It shapes, and even strengthens it.


This struggle is often resolved in unexpected ways.  I may not always find comfort in ways that we immediately associate with piety.  At times, I find it easier to see God in a beautiful sunset than in Church architecture or hymnography.  Just as we all speak different languages, our hearts may be touched by different kinds of experiences.  


But I disagree with my friend who’s spiritual and not religious.  Even if I’m not always fully connected with the Liturgy, I know that the God we worship in Liturgy is the same God who made the mountains, the same God who paints the sky every sunrise.  And it’s the same God who made me and my sisters smile in that chapel, by reminding us of a piece of our childhood.


By reminding us that He truly is “present in all places and filling all things.”


Some people experience God outside of Church, and that pushes them away from religion.  I experience God outside of Church and am reassured that we worship God, who entered the world and fills every bit of it with Himself.  I have to be religious precisely because I’m spiritual.


I understand why my friends identify as “spiritual, but not religious;” in fact, I share their experience.  But I interpret that experience in a totally different way.  I couldn’t fully appreciate the world without the Church.


Even if I don’t always experience Christ like everyone else does.  



Charissa is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM.  Charissa grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah where she studied political science at the University of Utah.  She enjoys sunshine, the mountains and snowcones.  Charissa currently lives in New York City.   


Living with Gratitude

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude lately, and not just because Thanksgiving is coming up.

Being grateful for what I have, right now, doesn’t always come naturally to me. Being the perfectionist that I am, I can often focus on problems more than I should.  If I get a stain on my shirt, for instance, I’ll refuse to wear it because all I’ll be able to see is the stain. I have a tendency to focus on what needs to be done or what needs to be fixed, rather than focusing on what is already right.

This tendency towards perfectionism can keep me from living with gratitude. My over-anxious aiming for perfection keeps me focused on the problem (something’s not perfect) rather than on the Solution (Jesus Christ).  I see this when my prayers begin to focus too much on asking forgiveness rather than giving praise. The more I focus on my own imperfection, the more I focus on my own sin, the less I am able to see how God is already at work in my life.

And the less I am able to live a life of gratitude.

It’s like getting frustrated your camera isn’t working when all you want is to take that perfect scenic shot. You focus on the broken camera and, when you look up, you’ve missed the sunset.

And who doesn’t love sunsets?

Lately, I’ve been especially aware of the beauty of a sunset over the New York City skyline. It never gets old to me.  I still feel like a kid from the country in awe of city streets and skyscrapers. It reminds me of that time my friend from Brazil saw snow for the first time: he had this look that was something between confusion and joy. New York sunsets are always new and exciting for me, and I’m grateful for each of them.

Yet, as we get used to something, and begin taking it for granted, we can lose our appreciation for it. We can get so used to snow that we forget to see the beauty of each unique snowflake. We can get so used to the city that all we see is the smog and traffic. We can get so used to driving during rush hour with the sun in our eyes that we forget to see the sunset.

We can get so used to the good, so desensitized to it, that all we see is the bad.

Just like how we might get so used to being Christians that we forget to see the beauty of Christ in our lives.

We sometimes need to have someone awaken us to the beauty that is around us. We need someone to remind us of what we have and to open our eyes.

Recently, a friend of mine did just that for me. He was telling me, with great excitement, all the good things that the Lord was doing in his life. He was so joyful because he was aware of what Christ had done for him. He was joyful because Jesus wasn’t just someone he heard about on Sunday, but someone he encountered and who impacted his daily life. His eyes were open to see how Christ was present with him.

But are my eyes open?

If I’m not watchful - if I’m not constantly keeping Christ in my thoughts - it’s so easy to forget where I’ve been, what I’ve experienced, and all the people I’ve been blessed to meet and to know. If I forget all those blessings, I can’t be grateful for them. Yet, through Christ, I’m slowly learning to be thankful for bad times, too, and how to use them to develop rather than to challenge my faith.

There’s a beautiful prayer written by Mother Alexandra of Romania (also known as Princess Ileana) which says “I thank you for the darkness for it has made me to see the light more clearly. I thank you for the enmity for it has taught me to forgive.” When I see my experiences in light of this prayer, it’s easier to trust in Jesus in all things; everything can be turned into an opportunity for gratitude.

So, when I find myself not living with gratitude, I try to remember my life without something I take for granted: like when I lived in Cairo, Egypt without organized trash pick-up or water drains in the streets; or when I visited the Turkana people in Kenya and saw how they have to carry water by hand for miles from the well. 

Or when I remember what my life was like before I committed myself to Christ.

Without Christ, I can be weighed down by my own imperfection. Without Christ, I am like a lamp that’s not plugged in, like a life half-lived.  But when I put my trust in Him, when I lay all of my worries on Jesus and I commit my whole self to Him one day at a time, He gives me rest (Matthew 11:28), quenches my thirst (John 7:37) and gives me life in Him (John 14:6).

A life truly lived.

As I reflect on what Christ has done for me in the past, it’s easier to trust in Him today. The more I trust in Him today, the more I’m able to live in gratitude in all circumstances.  I’m no longer bound by imperfections or sin, because I trust that Christ is greater than those things.

Jesus is at work in your life today, too. But are your eyes open to see what He’s up to? And how are you living with gratitude for it, today?


Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.


The World is Scary; Jesus Wins - Ninth Sunday of Luke

Now that I have a wife and children, I’ve come to realize something: I’m afraid.

I’m so very afraid.

I’m afraid of what will happen if our bank account runs dry one day. I’m afraid of what might happen if ISIS actually does something in Phoenix while I’m traveling for work. I’m afraid that I’m just not doing enough to make sure that I’m actually safeguarding my family against danger.

I’m just very afraid for them.

And I’m afraid for me.

The world is a scary place. When people can get killed during an outing to a concert hall or while simply going to school, it’s easy to let my imagination run wild when my wife takes our soon-to-be-five-year-old girl and six-month-old infant out for the morning.

I realize increasingly, however, that the more afraid I become the more preoccupied with earthly cares I am.

I’m scared about finances. GET ANOTHER JOB.

I’m scared for my family’s safety. GET A GUN.

I’m scared that my little one will get sick. GET BETTER INSURANCE.

The more scared I become, the more my mind becomes firmly anchored in this life, in this world, in this imminent frame and all the “good things” it promises will protect me and mine, with the good things it promises will make our lives more valuable. Lives worth living.

Worth saving.

Ultimately, I recognize that my fear of having no money, of not being safe, and of getting sick stem from my fear of death and all its friends.

Of course, as the husband and father of three girls whom I love very much, it is my duty to ensure that everyone in my house goes to bed and wakes up safe. But beyond the natural impulse I have to protect my family, I definitely realize that as I grow more preoccupied with earthly threats and earthly cares, I become more dead-set on earthly solutions.

Earthly solutions, which, at best will not defeat death, but rather, will only delay it for a little while.

The reality of this world is terrifying, but what is even more terrifying is the realization that no matter how scary it gets, death is still going to get me and it is still going to get my family. No matter how much I try to run, no matter how big my bank account gets. No matter how low my deductible is, death is coming.

And this terrifies me.

Sadly, my attempts to stave off the beast of death, often keep me oriented toward this world and protecting my life here. This, in turn, doesn’t lessen my fear of death; it feeds it.

With my eyes turned toward this world and toward this life, I realize how much I stand to lose. The things I love are here, I realize, and one day, death will take it all away from me.

This Sunday, in the Gospel reading, I see a man who is far too much like me. Whose eyes are turned toward his things and his life here. So much so, in fact, that he realizes that he doesn’t actually have enough storage room for all his grain, and so he decides to tear down his barns to build bigger ones.

Unfortunately for him, however, his life ends that very night. Tucking himself into bed, he congratulates himself for his earthly prudence, saying, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” Yet the man is asked, “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The obvious answer is nobody’s, as these goods decay in their own right. And of this man, the Lord says, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Lk. 12:19-21).

Though we don’t read it this week, in the passage that follows Christ exhorts His disciples not to be anxious for anything, but rather to trust that God, who makes sure to clothe lilies and feed birds, will be sure to provide for our needs.

Clearly Christ sees here, and asks us to see, the correlation between anxiety – fear – and the nervous act of attempting to secure a “good life” for ourselves in this world. Since our heart is placed with our treasure (Lk. 12:34), the Lord encourages us not to lay our hope, not to lay our value in the things of this world; but rather, to become rich toward God, placing our hearts in His Kingdom.

Perhaps this is the sobering reality I need to face when I’m so confronted by fear, so confronted by the temptation to lay up treasure for myself in this world, trusting in “building bigger barns” to keep at bay anything that might “get me or my family.”

So instead of worrying about bank accounts and ISIS, instead of preoccupying myself with how I can avoid death, perhaps my time is better spent accepting my inevitable (and seemingly imminent) mortality and concerning myself with the only question that really matters: what kind of death will I die?

This question is essential, as the parable reminds us, because we have no idea when we will be forced to reckon with death. While we are busy occupying ourselves with establishing earthly security, our individual world may end at any given moment, forcing us to confront what kind of life we lived, and whether the time we spent worrying about these things will actually benefit us or anyone else.

So while I cannot pretend that “setting my eyes on God’s Kingdom” necessarily makes me feel any better about the threats this world presents to my family and me, I know that I need to orient myself in that direction. I must concern myself with how I can more tightly cling to God’s promise of Eternal Life in His Kingdom, and how I can lead my family to courageously trust that God has overcome death with life.

To trust that none of us need to be afraid.

To trust that Jesus wins.

I must listen to the words of Christ in the Scriptures, hearing Him promise life to those who follow Him. I need to attend Church and regularly receive the Sacraments, participating in the Mysteries and the Pledge of God’s coming Kingdom. I have to turn to my Lord in prayer, commending myself, others, and all our life into Christ.

I must hear and taste regularly of Christ’s Words of Life. And I hope that the more habitually I do this, the more likely I stand a chance of actually coming to trust Him when He says that He is with us, and that He has truly Risen from the dead, having trampled down death by death.

I am prepared to do war with fear, turning to Christ in love, hoping that His Perfect Love, does indeed, cast out fear (1 Jn. 4:18).

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.



The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Recently, I heard about a man (let’s call him John) who went to his 25th high school reunion. John never felt very comfortable with himself during high school. He always felt too skinny, and admired the other guys in his class who were athletic and popular. But at this reunion, one of those athletic popular guys told John how he always admired how confident John was in high school.  

You see, the way John saw things didn’t match with how others did. John and his high school classmates looked back on their four years of high school very differently; all because they perceived them differently.

Experience is shaped by perception. We see ourselves one way, while others see us differently. We worry about how others perceive us and whether they will accept us.

Sometimes we even worry if we’re good enough for God.

It’s easy to get stuck inside our heads, lost in all of these questions, and forget that each person is just as bound to their perception as we are to ours. More often than not, this perception is shaped by insecurities and fears, and even traumas.  

But what if we were able to let go of this bad thinking? What if we could get out of our own heads and see things, not as we fear they are, but as they really are?

So let’s briefly look at three areas of perception and try to look past the lies we tell ourselves to discover the truths that God is trying to tell us.

1. How we see ourselves

On a daily (or even momentary) basis, it’s easy to fluctuate between feeling confident and feeling unsure of ourselves. We are constantly sizing ourselves up against all of the goals and expectations that we have, whether self-defined or given to us by our family or society.

If we’re feeling insecure, we can find imperfections in just about anything: our looks, our voice, or our smarts. We can doubt our abilities in school, sports, and work. And then on the other extreme, there’s pride. We can see ourselves as the best at whatever it is, ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

But somewhere between insecurity and pride is a balanced self-worth. It’s the ability to look honestly at ourselves without being destructively critical; to see when we have done well and where we could use improvement. If we’re struggling with something, we need to be honest with ourselves and ask God to be with us and guide us. If we’re battling insecurities, we can ask God to give us clarity and to guide us to see the truth of our situation.

It’s a balance that we can only strike through regular self-reflection, which includes the sacrament of confession and the guidance of a spiritual father. It’s a balance between acknowledging our sins and shortcomings while putting our hope in Christ and the salvation He offers.

2. How we see each other

 It would be great if we only looked inward. But unfortunately, most of us are constantly comparing ourselves to others. Judging others and worrying about how others see us are related problems we can face.

If I’m preoccupied with what other people are doing, I neglect looking at myself. It’s like during Lent, when it’s all too easy to look at what others are eating instead of looking at our own plate. Or maybe we worry people will judge us if we don’t fast properly, and so Lent becomes a time to worry about whether we look pious enough instead of a chance to turn more and more towards Christ. And since we catch ourselves judging others, we worry how other people are judging us.

But worrying about these things does no one any good. How others perceive us doesn’t necessarily reflect who we are, and our relationship to Christ. And we can never know what’s really going on in another person’s heart, and the secret struggles they bear. All we can do is work on our own struggles, and try to honestly see ourselves, which takes us back to the first point.  

3. How Christ sees us

But all of this worrying over ourselves, judging others and worrying how they see us…is just noise.

It’s noise that keeps us from hearing the truth that, regardless of whether we live up to expectations, or whether we are as good or better than anyone else: the God who created us, who fills us with life each and every moment, that God loves us unconditionally just as we are.

We come to God as we are, and through our knowing Him, He transforms us into the person we can be.

The person He made us to be.

We are His masterpiece. We are His unique design, imperfect though we may be.

Jesus Christ sees our imperfections, but not according to our specifications. He sees the difference between who we were and who we are today.  He sees the difference between who we are today and the person we could be if only we trust in Him.

You see, we were made in His image (Genesis 1:27), and through a relationship with Jesus Christ we can become more and more like Him. We are living icons of Christ. Each Christian, regardless of our past mistakes and struggles, is an adopted child of God (Galatians 4:4-5). Through our faith in Christ, we have a connection to God the Father.  

Our worth is no longer dependent on what anyone else thinks; our worth is revealed in our relationship with Him.


It can be tough trying to walk the line between humility and self-pity, between a healthy sense of worth and pride.  It can be tempting to want to worry about how other people are living their lives, to wonder why we aren’t like them or why they aren’t like us. This temptation is so disruptive because it keeps us from living our lives as they actually are; it keeps us bound to some other person’s story instead of living the story that God wills for us, personally.

When instead we allow ourselves to live as Christ sees us, when we see ourselves as icons of Christ made for a specific purpose, we can begin to live according to His purpose for us. Whether we are the best or the worst at something isn’t as important as doing whatever we do to the best of our ability and to the glory of God.

We can ask the Lord to help us keep our eyes on Him. We can ask Him each day to keep us from being overly preoccupied with other people and what they might think of us, or what we think of them.

Then, free from the burden of the world’s expectations and our judgements, we can come to Christ ready to follow His will for us today.


Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.


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