Entries with tag parish life .

In Praise of Sunday Church School

Sunday school is perhaps the single largest program in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. On a national level, assuming 550 parishes with an average of 30 students per Sunday school program (and that's probably a conservative number), on any given Sunday, there are 16,500 young people in a classroom. Assuming 5 teachers per parish, on any given Sunday, there are 2, 750 adult teachers. Add the approximately 700 clergy in the Archdiocese, on any given Sunday there almost 20,000 people involved in handing forward the Orthodox Christian Faith. 

So many people seem to be highly critical or doubtful about this mainstay of parish life. So it might seem counterintuitive to praise Sunday Church school. The cures for what ails the program are many, ranging from dropping it altogether to finding ways to make teachers and students accountable for what’s being taught and learned there. There’s room for debate about the best way the Church can hand forward its Faith and Way of Life to another generation. There’s room for discussion about what’s important for someone to know, to believe, and to do (three classic educational categories) as a member of the Church. Scholars in the academic discipline of religious education study and discuss these questions. So do clergy, pastoral leaders, seminarians, and the teachers who minister in the program, as well as the parents of the students themselves.

But as the discussion continues – and this discussion has been going on for decades – consider some of what Sunday Church school provides.

Sunday Church school builds a community and advances the parish and wider Church. Sunday Church school prepares a group of Orthodox Christians to work together by building their relationships with one another. It provides the learners with a place to study and hold conversations that matter about topics of Faith, moving beyond feelings and into reasoned discussion that revolves around the sources of Orthodoxy: Scripture, liturgy, theological writings. In a regular and systematic manner, these sources are introduced into the lives of learners. It can raise questions that will last for a lifetime.

Sunday Church school is a model of hospitality for the rest of the parish to emulate. Dedicated teachers, usually parents of students, welcome children and teenagers into their classes, even if they have not been in attendance the week before, or for weeks at a time (unfortunately, this is common). We say that parishes should be welcoming environments. We even try to teach hospitality! But hospitality is being modeled Sunday after Sunday.

Sunday Church school continues to teach liturgical awareness and sacramental participation. Many years ago, Orthodox religious educators began to teach that children and families should be attending the divine services, paying attention to what was going on in those services, and participating in the sacraments as often as possible. It’s been a huge success, to the point that we complain about the long lines and have now witnessed the development of the diaconate, if only to shorten those lines (and we are now learning that deacons can do so much more than administer Holy Communion).

Sunday Church school is a place where one’s Orthodox Christian identity can be informed, formed, and transformed. The “given-ness” of one’s religious identity cannot be taken for granted. In a “classroom,” and I put this in quotes to remind us that there are many places where we learn, information can be shared and experiences can be explored. Simply, a classroom is a good place to discuss, “this is what we do and this is why we do it, making us who we are.”

There are issues, of course. Parental involvement needs to be increased. We need to better equip those who teach. As parents are often teachers, more efforts at adult education are needed. Even a regular discussion between the priest and teachers would be a good place to start.

There are issues related to “losing” our youth. Some of them are demographic. There have been fewer children born into our families. But there have been over 160,000 baptisms in the last twenty-five years in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, meaning that there is a potential pool of that many young people under 25 or so in our parishes. There are issues with younger people in the US generally abandoning organized religion. The question is, how can we engage young people in Church life over a lifetime? On this point, there needs to be a recognition that there is no magic bullet for retaining people in our parishes, building a congregation of faithful, and advancing the mission of the Church in the world. Camp, more videos, or technological use are effective but still can’t replace sustained face-to-face work.

The discussion should continue about the ways we teach, the resources we use, and more involving critique and edification so that we may successfully hand forward the Orthodox Faith and Way of Life.

 

“Why Good Priests Matter”

I lost my patience recently. Then, I lost my temper. These are two things that I rarely experience, and, as self-flattering as this pronouncement may appear, they are behaviors I would like to believe would not be associated with me by those who know me. Yet, under the escalating weight of a host of professional demands and other pressures that had been building for several weeks, I reacted with anger and indignation at two young men, both of whom are my juniors in age and station, and both of who unfairly suffered my misdirected frustration. My immediate embarrassment and my subsequent apology to these two young men were genuine and sincere, but I remained very upset and disappointed with myself. I shared my distress with a Greek Orthodox priest and friend who himself was privy to the situation that had produced my pique. In so doing, I was reminded why priests—good priests—matter.

I have been a steward, and, in some cases, a parish council member, of Greek Orthodox communities in places as diverse as a predominantly working-class, immigrant parish in an industrial city in northern Indiana; an enormous suburban church in New Jersey; an affluent, professional congregation in Manhattan; and a large, once-thriving parish in a Boston area town. One thing that I found to be a constant in all of these different congregations was the decisive, determinant role that the priest played in shaping the life and character of the parish community. Priests clearly at peace with themselves and happy with their pastoral ministry tended to lead communities that were united, whole, and spiritually alive. To what extent each—priest or parish—had either a positive or negative influence on the other could be debated. Nonetheless, what was clear and recurrent in my experience was the simple, and perhaps not surprising, fact that priests who were in harmony with their calling not only deepened the unity and well-being of their parishes, but, in those instances where churches had experienced strife, they were able to restore health and love to their communities. Conversely, priests in personal crisis, whose calling was imperiled, inexorably exported their own crises into their parishes.

We are all “priests.” Indeed, Orthodox Christianity proceeds from the understanding that inasmuch as the whole body of the faithful—His Church—forms a holy and royal priesthood, we, the people of God, are all priests. Nonetheless, it is recognized from the time of the Apostles that within the universal priesthood of believers there is a special, sacramental priesthood, hence the distinction between clergy and laity. The sacramental priest—known originally and formally as presbyteros (from “elder,” as in the Jewish rabbinic tradition)—is established through the sacrament of ordination. Ordination, which invests a new priest with the ecclesial authority to administer sacraments, is performed by a bishop, with the consent of the people of God—meaning, in practice, a congregation which completes the ordination by shouting “Axios, Worthy!”

Dispensing the sacraments—holy rites, mysteries, in which Orthodox Christians experience the reality of God through the enacting of His Grace—are the exclusive responsibility and prerogative of the priesthood. Nonetheless, the effectiveness and fullness of the sacraments are not dependent on the personal virtue or character of the administering priest. Precisely because the sacraments are understood to constitute the presence of Christ acting through the Holy Spirit, the priest, despite considerable popular misunderstanding among Orthodox faithful (and even among some priests), is neither a vessel nor an intermediary between God’s Grace and God’s people. Instead, Orthodox teaching explains that the priest is an icon of Christ. His role is weighty, a fact reflected in every aspect of a priest’s life, both public and private, both pastoral and non-ministerial.

The priesthood is a calling, meaning a dedication to a way of life, not merely a chosen profession. In short, this means that a man has been called by God to commit his life to serve God’s Grace. The priest assumes throughout his life the responsibility of uniting all the people of God together in Christ and sacramentally manifesting the presence of Christ in the Church.

In carrying out his calling, the ordinary parish priest must do extraordinary things: he must preach the message of Christ; promote love and peace; enrich the religious and theological literacy of his communicants; deepen his community’s understanding of the teachings of the Church; and foster awareness and respect for the Orthodox Church’s history and traditions. Furthermore, he has to accomplish all this in the midst of answering the day-to-day needs and demands and challenges of a parish community. Above all, the priest must live a life that is always unwaveringly centered on Christ’s love, and that is consistent with the principles, morality, and ethics he—the priest—preaches. I recall from my youth, a visiting priest at my parents’ Sunday table confiding to my sympathetic father that the priesthood is simultaneously both the greatest blessing and the greatest cross to bear. Truly, only a genuine calling can lead to the making of a priest capable of facing and fulfilling such imposing, yet stirring, responsibilities.

I have known many extraordinary priests. Few among us have not had our lives blessed or have not been inspired by a great priest. All the same, Orthodoxy correctly affirms that priests do not manifest the presence of Christ through their talents, charisma, knowledge, or other personal attributes, but through their sacramental function, which is not affected or influenced by a priest’s qualities. But what is also clear is that a priest’s imprint extends beyond his sacramental functions. In that sense, and in that sphere of life in the Church, we most often encounter the benefit and grace of a good priest.

The priest in whom I confided my recent story of pressure, anger, and regret is an extraordinary priest and a good man. He responded to me with this liberating Christian perspective:

Aleko, I understand. Just know that there is so much love in the world, that no matter what others say to us it can never diminish God's love for us. Try to focus and search for this love even in the most trying circumstances. You will see that you will find joy in even the uncomfortable times and with the most difficult people. God loves you, as do I.

In my friend priest’s earnest words to me I sensed the presence of Christ’s message of love, and so I was reminded of why good priests matter. Their commitment to live according to God’s love, along with their ability to fervently convey that love to the world, is what makes priests not only important, but also, good.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Being a Lenten Apprentice

Great Lent is often called a time to return to basics because we focus on central dimensions of our Christian faith: we read from Scripture to remind us of the need for a Savior; we become more focused on matters of prayer and worship; we increase our philanthropic and charitable efforts; and, of course, we follow the ascetic discipline of fasting from certain foods.

In some ways, we return to being novice Christians, doing things we were taught years ago. To borrow a concept, we become apprentices once again. According to the dictionary, an apprentice is someone who is “learning by practical experience from more skilled workers.” Parish life could and perhaps should be thought of as an “apprenticeship program” in Christian life.

We learn how to be an Orthodox Christian by participating in the life of the Church with more experienced teachers. The experienced share what they have learned with new generations of participants. The wisdom of experienced people is really important. They have internalized the wisdom of the community through their practice of the Faith. This is best shared in face-to-face encounters.

Who are the “more experienced” in our parishes?  First, of course, are the clergy. They have been educated in the Faith at a fairly high level and should be considered the chief teacher of the Faith in a parish (of course the bishop is the chief teacher in the Church). Second, there are the adults in the community who have years of experience living as Orthodox Christians. Don’t underestimate the influence of grandparents and senior citizens. Studies have repeatedly shown that grandparents have enormous influence on the religious lives of the young. Third, there are the teachers and youth advisors. They are a specialized group because of their focus on intentional instruction, class work, discussions, and activity.

Who are the apprentices? First, the young. They are learning and need a great deal of guidance. Second, there are the new to the Faith. They may have read about Orthodox Christianity in a book, but are now trying to apply what they’ve read to their lives. Finally, all of us are apprentices to one degree or another. We are continually learning. We are always disciples – students -- of Christ and the way of life He invites His followers to observe.

 

How we do this?

Work together, alongside one another. We don’t just bring prosforo to church; we can bake it together. It’s learning by doing.

Advice and guidance. There’s a great deal that is learned “on the job,” especially what’s unwritten or can’t be explained easily. Apprentices are often observed performing their jobs by more experienced teachers, and if possible, being corrected or reminded of things along the way. To continue with the prosforo baking example, someone probably has to show us when the dough has been kneaded adequately. That part of the process can’t be found in a book.

Small jobs, in time, become large jobs. Being a GOYA officer can lead to Parish Council membership. Serving on a committee leads to chairing the committee. Small liturgical roles can become larger ones in time. In this approach, the lived work of the Church is handed on to newer generations, little by little.

Classes are useful. Apprentices often take classes, to learn the theory about their job and to deepen their knowledge of an area. It’s often in preparation for performing a new task. Let’s not underestimate the power of teaching groups. Jesus often His disciples, privately, apart from the crowds. He explained his teachings to them.

Great Lent offers opportunities to place all of these qualities into practice in our parishes, teaching one another, but especially the young and new to the Faith, the way of Christian living.

 

Three Things that Make Faith Personal (Yet Not Private)

Last post, I addressed some things that we can set up in our lives in place of Christ. We looked at the temptation we might have to reduce the spiritual life to feeling a certain way, to doing religion the right way, or even to simply believing the right way.

We saw how even good things can become idols if we allow them to take precedence over our relationship with Jesus Christ.

I’ve been reading along each day with Y2AM to finish the Orthodox Study Bible in a year, and I’ve been reflecting on the “idols” in my own life. Over and over again, we read in the Old Testament that the people of God chose to worship the gods of their own making rather than to submit to God’s will. When they repented and returned to God, it was always by coming back to the community.

The remedy for our individualized spirituality is to return to the spiritual life of the community.

Last week, Father Andrew Stephen Damick wrote a great post entitled “Christianity is Not About Your Spiritual Life.” Fr. Andrew argues that even the Orthodox faithful have turned the spiritual life into a private matter where the individual Christian is a consumer and the priest is elevated to a “religious professional.” Our purpose, as baptized Orthodox Christians, isn’t our own salvation, but the building up of the whole Church. As he writes, “Our faith is indeed personal, but it is not private. And there is nothing more personal than when persons are in communion with one another.”

So in light of this, how can we practice an authentic, Orthodox spiritual life in the world today? How can we cultivate this sort of personal, yet not private, spiritual life the Church calls us to?

Here are three things to keep in mind:

1. Private and communal prayer work together

Our private prayer should reflect and build upon the prayer we experience in community. Remember, when we’re in the liturgy, orthros, vespers, or paraklesis, we’re more than a bunch of disconnected individuals praying separately (while happening to be in the same room). We are there to join as one voice in our common prayer. But to truly experience the fruits of this unity, we need to be praying our private prayers at home. Because both private and communal prayer, when done together, are personal: they work together to bring us into relationship with both God and neighbor.

Setting aside time, not only for silent meditation but also for praying the words that have been handed down to us, helps us to align ourselves with the rest of the Church. Private prayer helps keep us connected not only to God, but to the saints and the rest of the Body of Christ, as we all pray together for God’s mercy and salvation, no matter where (or when) we may live.

Being strengthened in our prayer at home, and nourished by the sacraments we receive in the Liturgy, we will then have the strength to live out this faith in community.

2. Parish life extends beyond Sunday morning

If we only came to Liturgy, did our prayers, and then left, we would certainly be approaching our faith as a private affair. Instead, the Church calls us to grow in community, to grow closer to Christ together. Getting involved in parish life and in the ministries of your local community are an important part of a lived out spiritual life, one that’s easy to forget when we make faith private rather than personal.

What gifts and interests has God given you and placed on your heart? How can you bring those to the service of His Church?

Fellowship is an important part of community, but we are called to be more than a social club. Saint Paul reminds us that we are given gifts to assist with the building up of everyone in the Church; it’s not about our private spiritual lives (Ephesians 4:11-13). Additionally, when we are involved in ministry, it reminds us that the role of building up the saints is not only in the hands of the parish priest, but of all baptized members of the Church.

And besides formal parish ministries, we should look for new ways to support one another.

The Holy Spirit makes His home not only in us individually, but in a special way when we live in community. Like Saint Paul says, “Don’t y’all know that y’all are God’s temple, and that the Spirit of God dwells in y’all? (1 Corinthians 3:16, my Southern translation). In other words, God lives in us when we are together.

And that togetherness even extends to those we don’t live with.

3. Monastics are part of the Church, just as much as we are

Everyone needs to set aside time for retreat. I once heard an abbess compare monasteries to the inn where the Samaritan took the injured man (Luke 10:25-37). The monks and nuns recognize that, while they are not the Doctor (only Christ can heal us), monasteries can be places to regain our strength and encounter Christ.

In addition to finding some solitude in our busy world, we go to monasteries to remind ourselves that the Church is much larger than our local parish community. The monastic lifestyle is counter-cultural and demonstrates that the Christ transcends the expectations of the world. It’s a good reminder for us to see Christians who put Jesus first in their lives. Monks and nuns have committed their whole lives to the service of Christ and to pray for the world. Even if we take just a bit of this spirit of prayer with us when we leave from our visit, it will be easier to remember to pray throughout the week.

Do you have Orthodox monasteries within driving distance? This directory can help you find out. Check out what their visitor policy is and see if you can stay for a night. Most monasteries have rooms available and a prayer schedule that is open to visitors. Usually, visitors can help with chores too. Depending on the monastery practice, meals may be held in silence while listening to a spiritual reading. Even a short visit to a monastery can help those of us in the world to reorient our vision back to Christ and motivate us to get more involved in our local parish community.

*****

The Orthodox spiritual life is never just about my private relationship with God. But it is about an intimate personal relationship with Christ, rooted in a community. This community helps us break out of our own heads, to encounter the people around us and see that our Church extends even to the counter-cultural monastic communities around the world.

The truly refreshing thing about Orthodox spirituality is that it doesn’t rest in our isolated abilities and efforts. Our spiritual life is about letting go of our need to do things alone and reaching out to the rest of Christ’s Body.

How are you connecting to and cultivating Orthodox community? What can you do to reach out to others and to live Orthodoxy 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.

Photo Credit:

The Sick Man by Vasili Maximov (1881)

Stewardship Ministry

Sam with Sister Soulamitis 

 

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