Prune Your Soul

I am an amateur gardener at best. We have a few flower bushes among which are my favorite – roses! How I love my rose bushes! There is little else like a newly blooming rose that can inspire awe in my heart and a love for the beauty of God’s creation. I recently, FINALLY, heeded popular gardening advice to give a thorough pruning to my bushes. The noticeable results got me thinking about the spiritual truths that can be reaped through the experience of caring for plants.

I used to be fearful of pruning my rose bushes, wanting them to have full freedom to grow any which way they would. I didn’t want to be like a highly caffeinated hairdresser lopping off more than enough inches, leading to something that looked like a shearing rather than a trim. ‘Don’t be afraid to prune’ gardening experts say, “pruning leads to new growth and continued blooming”.

A few days ago, after my favorite bush bore its first blooms and their glory began to fade and wilt, I gave it a thorough pruning. Dead branches, diseased leaves, old blooms and skewed branches were removed “opening up the center of the plant to light and air circulation.” My eyes were amazed at what I found the next morning! New reddish green branches already over an inch long were stretching up and outward, and the older branches and leaves looked greener and sturdier. How interesting that my bush needed me to “injure” it for it to get healthier and stronger.

Is not our spiritual life the same? Is not holy scripture full of references to planting and reaping, pruning, uprooting, grafting and weeding? Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. (John 15:1-2)

Let the Vinedresser Prune Your Soul: Go to Confession!

Our heavenly Father is the One who can prune our souls perfectly. He is the Vinedresser that knows what is dead inside us, what is diseased and what is threatening to cause stunted growth in our lives. The act of praying before the sacrament of confession for knowledge of what to confess, the humility to confess thoroughly without excuses, and for our confessor to see in us that which needs to be exposed, all lead to a thorough and mysterious, spiritual cleansing – “opening up our center to light”. When we are pruned it can be uncomfortable and even painful. Cutting out diseased areas is just as difficult spiritually as it is physically, but also just as necessary for healing. It is only when we have consistent and good pruning that the true “center” of our personhood has unimpeded room to grow. Symmetrically and intentionally and beautifully, He shapes us into the person He means for us to become.

Let the Vinedresser Prune Your Soul: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone!

I am reluctant to embrace change boldly. “Keep it the same” is the motto I would be inclined to live by if left to my own unchecked devices. This is so deeply a part of my personality that it comes out in the most minute ways. For example, I’m not able to envision how a room would look if furniture is rearranged, so I keep it the same. I get anxious at the thoughts of an uncomfortable silence if I call someone I have been thinking about, so I don’t call. And to a greater and more realistic degree, I fear having new experiences as a family. This is realistic because our son has physical challenges including sensory processing issues: in the past, small excursions have felt like hellish tragedies. This tends to stifle my already cautious decision-making.

The recent simple act of pruning my rose bushes got me thinking about taking some chances this summer in our family life. It’s time. We are not getting enough air circulation and light. New experiences may be uncomfortable at least, and painful at best but without them our family will not grow healthier. We have a church outing to a local amusement park scheduled for our youth group. The time and effort it will take to prepare for even a half day at the park will itself be a drain of energy, but I plan to take the hit. My goal is for us to get through a half day excursion, trying out a few rides that might be enjoyable to Michael. He loves to spin, and he loves water play– surely there are a few attractions that have the potential for enjoyment for him. However, even if the whole outing proves to be a disaster, it will have been a success for trying. We need to get out of our comfort zone, I can feel the stifled air of stagnancy choking me and I’m ready for our family to breathe in a fresh experience. Even if I cannot see the fruits or “blossoms” I have a feeling new growth will follow.

Prune Your Soul - Even a Bad Pruning Does Good

“It is generally agreed that most mistakes will grow out very quickly and it is better to make a good effort at pruning roses, even if you make a few mistakes, than to let them grow rampant.”This gardening wisdom can truly be applied to our efforts toward spiritual growth. Looking back, even my most unprepared and least sincere confessions have led to some healing or clearer thinking. The most difficult family outings have become learning experiences, and sometimes even funny memories we reminisce about!

What about you and your family? Is it time for some soul-pruning? Schedule confession! Time to break the monotony in your family’s schedule? Do something new together! It can be as simple as taking a walk in the park for some families, or as big as embarking on a mission trip for others. Whatever you set out to do prayerfully, remember “it is better to make a good effort…even if you make a few mistakes”. In time, the sting felt when our Vinedresser cuts off unhealthy “branches” in us and our family life will lead to new growth and beautiful blossoming that glorifies and inspires awe and trust in Him.

 

 

Presvytera Melanie DiStefano - Presvytera Melanie has recently joined the Center for Family Care as Resource Developer. She graduated from Youngstown State University (BChemE), and from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (MDiv). Married to Father Joseph DiStefano for 16 years, they have one son, Michael Seraphim. Michael has special needs that greatly impact his health and his level of independence. One of her goals is to reach out to other families who are facing similar parenting challenges in order to provide faith-based perspectives, resources, and overall encouragement in their unique walk with Christ.

1Ianotti, Marie. “How and When to Prune Roses.”The Spruce, 10 June 2019, https://www.thespruce.com/roses-how-and-when-to-prune-1403040.

2Ianotti, Marie. “How and When to Prune Roses.”The Spruce, 10 June 2019, https://www.thespruce.com/roses-how-and-when-to-prune-1403040.

3Ianotti, Marie. “How and When to Prune Roses.”The Spruce, 10 June 2019, https://www.thespruce.com/roses-how-and-when-to-prune-1403040.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND PARISH OUTREACH

To say social media is ubiquitous (for good or for ill) might be the greatest understatement ever - there are 1.2 billion Facebook users alone. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat and YouTube are a few examples of the way people are connecting with one another online. That means your parishioners are there too. Fr. Vincent Minucci, assistant priest at St. Demetrios GOC in Weston, MA, has developed a successful social media presence for the parish and offers his best practices in this video. Fr. Vincent has involved every ministry and organization of the parish while using a variety of outlets to reach as many parishioners as possible. Click HERE to view Fr. Vincent's presentation.

4 Things Leslie Knope Taught Me About Church Work

There’s nothing we can’t do if we work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives.
-Leslie Knope

The first episode of Parks & Recreation aired on April 9, 2009. The internet was flooded with thoughtful posts and reminiscences on the 10th anniversary as people shared funny and sweet stories about why the show remains so much fun to watch.

(I’m currently watching it for the third time, and I’m not the only one on our Team who’s rewatched the show. Plus we explored the show on an episode of our podcast, Pop Culture Coffee Hour, a couple years ago.)

As I enjoy Parks & Rec again, I find myself really connecting with the character of Leslie Knope. Leslie is a hard working, energetic, and dedicated public servant. She begins the series as Deputy Director of Pawnee’s Parks & Recreation Department, and during the series finale, we learn that she eventually goes on to serve as governor of Indiana (and maybe even president of the United States).

Leslie is a flawed yet well-meaning person who works in a difficult (often dysfunctional) system that doesn’t always appreciate her. She’s a person who often feels like she’s swimming upstream against the current; yet despite the mistakes she makes along the way, she keeps working to help the people about whom she cares so deeply. 

In short, she reminds me of a lot of the dedicated ministry workers (both clergy and laity, both paid and volunteer) that I’ve met across the Church.

Working in ministry can be tough. And it can help to draw strength from characters that somehow thrive despite setbacks and complications.

So here are four things I’ve learned from Leslie Knope--not just about how to survive as we serve the Church, but about how to thrive as we do so.

1. Honesty is the Best Policy

No one would ever doubt Leslie’s love of Pawnee. Yet she doesn’t view her hometown through rose-colored glasses. She loves Pawnee while being very honest about the town’s many problems.

Leslie doesn’t close her eyes to Pawnee’s serious challenges. She knows that the government can be, not just inept, but downright corrupt. She knows that the people of Pawnee don’t always make the best choices. And when it comes to the town’s vermin problem, she’s very blunt:

The raccoon problem is under control. They have their part of the town and we have ours.

How great can a town be if it’s overrun by raccoons?

But Leslie’s honesty isn’t designed to tear down; it’s meant to build up. She’s honest about Pawnee’s flaws because she wants to work hard to make things better. It might be easier to pretend her town is perfect, but that won’t make Pawnee the place Leslie knows it can be.

And this honesty isn’t directed outwards: both the show and Leslie are honest about her own shortcomings. 

Leslie is clearly one of the good guys in Parks & Rec. Yet she’s also deeply flawed. Her strong vision for the future of Pawnee can sometimes make her steamroll her friends. Leslie is so confident in her convictions that she can sometimes forget to listen to others.

Yet Leslie matures as a person thanks to the people around her and her relationships with them. When Lesie says goodbye to her best friend, Ann Perkins, in season 6, Leslie thanks her for helping her grow as a person. While it may not always be her first instinct, Leslie often (eventually) listens to the constructive feedback of those she loves.

And her friends stick by Leslie even despite that initial friction. Because the truth is that Leslie, despite (including!) her flaws, is pretty great. Take this exchange between Ann and Leslie’s husband, Ben Wyatt:

Ann: Listen, I know she can be strong-willed and difficult, ok. She once made me eat an entire cheesecake at a potluck so she didn’t look bad. But I really think she is ready to listen.
Ben: You ate an entire cheesecake? Why didn’t you just throw it away?
Ann: Because with everything she’s done for me I would eat ten cheesecakes for her. Also because it was delicious and amazing, like everything she does.

Leslie is honest about the ways Pawnee can be better. And, thanks to her friends, she can be honest about the ways she needs to improve as a person.

What Does that Mean as a Church Worker?

Our communities and dioceses face real challenges. And we as Church workers bring plenty of sins and shortcomings to the table. But repentance is impossible without honesty, and repentance should be our constant goal (both individually and collectively). Whether personally or organizationally, there’s a lot of room for improvement. 

And we won’t be able to work towards that unless we (together) can be honest about it.

Which leads us to our next point:

2. There’s No Substitute for a Great Team

Leslie is an absolute dynamo. Her vision, drive, and relentless energy fuel many of the Department’s successes. 

Yet, as Leslie herself realizes, she can’t do it alone. She needs a great team.

Everyone in the Parks Department brings unique talents to the Team. Tom Haverford is the smooth-talking salesman who can make deals when people are put off by Leslie. Ron Swanson is the serious realistic who keeps the Team grounded when Leslie’s idealism runs a bit too far (more on him in point 3 below). And Ann, Leslie’s best friend, is a constant source of kindness and encouragement when Leslie’s energy runs out and she needs a reminder that she, too, needs some love.

This surprising group of people, so different in so many ways, come together to do important work. For instance, in season 4 Leslie faces an ethics investigation. Everyone on the Team is ready to defend Leslie and help clear her name. She has a particularly sweet job for Ann:

I need you to text me every 30 seconds saying that everything is gonna be okay.

It’s this Team, working together, that pulls off incredible projects like the Harvest Festival and Unity Concert. 

Yet, as great as Leslie’s Team is, it could always get better. Even the writers of Parks & Rec appeared to see the need to change things early in the show’s run. So they made some changes to the cast.

Mark Brendanawicz was a main character for the first two seasons. While he was involved in some pretty important plot points, and gave us some memorable moments, most people agree that the show (and Leslie’s Team) was stronger after his departure. 

Brendanawicz was a solid character, but he wasn’t the right fit for Leslie (thank God) nor for Parks & Rec.

Late in season 2, the show introduces two new characters that would prove indispensable to its success: Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger. Chris is the relentlessly positive, health-obsessed City Manager who helps leads Pawnee through budget turmoil and eventually settles down to raise a family with Ann in season 6. Ben is Chris’s perfect partner, a quirky, nerdy accountant with a penchant for details, who eventually becomes Leslie’s perfect partner; the two get married in season 5. 

(Mark Brendana-who?)

Parks & Rec certainly wasn’t bad in the first two seasons, but it also got significantly better with the addition of Ben and Chris (and the subtraction of Brendanawicz). 

And the show’s creative team didn’t stop there. We continue to meet new characters who play important, though minor, roles right up until the finale. Perhaps there’s no better example than Billy Eichner’s hilariously high-strung Craig Middlebrooks, the only character who can plausibly claim to care more than Leslie--or at least more vocally.

The success of both the Pawnee Parks Department and Parks & Rec itself is due, not just to Leslie, but to the amazing Team that surrounds her. They complement her weaknesses and even build on some of her strengths.

What Does that Mean as a Church Worker?

The Church is the Body of Christ. And just as a body has a variety of different parts, each designed to do particular things, we should never feel like we’re alone in the work God has called us to do. 

The Church is full of talented and committed people. Find them and work with them. 

But that doesn’t mean you have to work with just anyone. 

There are times when you’ll have to make tough decision about who you work with. When we hold fast to a vision of the Kingdom (more on that in point 4), we realize that not every project is worth completing and not every person should be partnered with. There may be times when you have a Brendanawicz but need a Traeger and/or a Wyatt.

Sometimes building a healthy team is also about saying “no.”

But there are some people that we should definitely team up with. Which takes us to our next lesson:

3. Find Someone You Can Learn From

Leslie is a confident and principled person who has a vision for Pawnee and works hard to actualize it. While she’s right about a lot of things, she also has a lot to learn

And she does so from a very unlikely source.

Ron Swanson is perhaps the most out-of-place person on the Team. Ron is the head of Pawnee’s Park Department. He’s also a libertarian who took a job in city government with aspirations of “taking it down from the inside.” As you can imagine, he’s a fantastically enjoyable character. And while Ron certainly doesn’t share Leslie’s vision for Pawnee’s government, he does possess moral clarity that helps Leslie make sense of the many setbacks she endures.

For example, as we already mentioned, Leslie is the subject of an ethics investigation in season 4. It turns out that Leslie isn’t innocent; she bribed someone to keep her blossoming relationship with Ben (her supervisor at work) a secret.

This was a no-no intended to cover up another no-no.

Leslie was deeply disappointed in herself for this moral lapse. Yet, while not condoning her mistake, Ron gives Leslie the advice she needs to keep moving forward:

Leslie: I’m a bad person.
Ron: It’s not that simple. You know what makes a good person good? When a good person does something bad, they own up to it. They try to learn something from it and they move on.

Ron gives Leslie the grace to admit her mistake and the strength to learn from it.

Perhaps Leslie’s most difficult challenge comes in season 6 when, after being elected to the City Council, she faces a recall vote. In the season premiere, Leslie is in London to accept an award from the International Coalition of Women in Government. As the recall campaign intensifies, she is disappointed to learn how much support her fellow honorees receive from their hometowns. What a contrast with the way Pawnee is treating her! Yet, tired and beaten down, Leslie is lifted up by Ron’s wise observation:

You choose a thankless job, you can’t be upset when nobody thanks you.

Ron’s words are convicting yet encouraging. Leslie realized what she was up against and emerges from the disappointment ready to get back to work. 

When Leslie stumbles, Ron is always there to lift her up again. Ron is a guide and mentor that helps Leslie take her first steps in a career that does a lot of good for the people of Pawnee.

What Does that Mean as a Church Worker?

We often talk about the importance of spiritual fathers in the Church. But we also need mentors, especially if we’re involved in ministry work. We need people who can help bring out the best in us and help us do the work that God has called us to do.

This is especially true in the Church, which is a unique target of the evil one. If Leslie’s work in city government faced challenges, how much more opposition will we face in the Church when our goal is the salvation of souls? Ministry work demands a particular form of resolve and a particular form of guidance and grace.

Which takes us to the final lesson:

4. Find the Courage to Keep Going

Leslie’s career in government wasn’t fair. The recall vote in season 6 is perhaps the best example of this. Right after being elected to the City Council, fulfilling her lifelong dream, the people of Pawnee turn on Leslie: not on corrupt Jeremy Jamm or perpetual pervert Bill Dexhart, but on Leslie Knope. 

This could have crushed her (and it almost did). 

Yet Leslie bounces back from this setback, and every setback she faces in her long career of public service. And there are two things that were always there for Lesie during times of trouble; two things that consistently give her the courage to keep going: her Team and her vision.

People like Ben and Ron and Ann, her friends and coworkers in the important work of building a better Pawnee, are always there to help Leslie remember who she is and what she was called to do. As Leslie herself reflected:

In times of stress or moments of transition sometimes it can feel like the whole world is closing in on you. When that happens you should close your eyes, take a deep breath, listen to the people who love you when they give you advice, and remember what really matters.

Lean on the people who love you, and let them remind you of the vision. 

What Does that Mean as a Church Worker?

We will encounter difficult times as Church workers; it’s inevitable. No matter how daunting the challenges ahead may seem, we will always have brothers and sisters in Christ that we can turn to.

And we can remember why we work: not for personal success or glory but for the upbuilding of the Church and the coming of the Lord’s Kingdom

This is what really matters

In the series finale of Parks & Rec, we take a look into the future to see where our favorite characters end up. In one scene, we see Leslie address an auditorium full of graduates. Her words are a fitting way to end this reflection:

I started work more than 30 years ago in the Parks and Recreation department here in Pawnee, Indiana. I’ve had a lot of different jobs, including two terms as your governor, and soon a new unknown challenge awaits me, which to me even now is thrilling because I love the work. Not to say that public service isn’t sexy because it definitely is, but that’s not why we do it. We do it because we get the chance to work hard at work worth doing, alongside a team of people you love. So I thank those people who’ve walked with me, and I thank you for this honour. Now, go find your team and get to work.

 

***

Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM. He and his Team are working on a new ministry training course, Effective Christian Ministry, which will help Church workers develop a Christ-centered vision for ministry and implement it with the core practices of formative and transformational ministry. 

Meet Demetra Ganias Soterakis: An Oratorical Teen turned News Anchor and Mom

 

Similar to many first-time Oratorical Festival Teens, Demetra Ganias Soterakis decided to participate in the event alongside friends and classmates because it was an annual Sunday School tradition at St. Spyridon Cathedral in Worcester, MA.

 

Taking that initial step to take part in the event ended up changing her life in a big way. While Demetra was nervous to present her speech at first, she quickly recognized the power of the spoken word and developed an affection for public speaking that shaped her career path.

 

After graduating from high school, Demetra pursued a career in broadcast journalism. She began her career in upstate New York and ended up working as a news anchor and reporter in New York City. Now, Demetra’s daily life is spent doing what she is most proud of, being a mother to her three amazing children, Iakavos, 6; Konstantina, 5; and a new baby, Peter.

 

Demetra participated in the Oratorical Festival in the 1990s and made it to the national level in Pittsburgh in 1994. She currently lives in Greenwich, CT, and is still involved with the event today as she mentors participants at the Church of Our Savior in Rye, New York. In addition to her work with Oratorical Festival participants, Demetra is active in the Philoptochos, teaches 4th grade Sunday School, and runs the Mommy and Me program.


Want to become an Oratorical Teen? Learn more by reading the Participant Packet. Were you an Oratorical Teen? Share your story with us by emailing [email protected] for more info.

Women Who Bloom: The Intersection of CSW63 & Women in the Church

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was established on June 21st, 1946 to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. The Commission, supported by UN Women, establishes multi-year programs to promote discussion and action worldwide with annual priority themes. This year’s priority theme for CSW63 is: “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” This blog will give an overview of the priority theme areas and notable achievements around the world.

 

Infrastructure

Imagine you urgently need hospitalization, but there is no road on which to travel. Infrastructure is a crucial organized structure for transportation, electricity, water, and other public services. Around the world, many people travel on dirt roads to get to work or school, travel long distances at night without light and are subject to violence, or do not have access to transportation because of a physical disability. CSW63 demands strong infrastructure for women to feel safe and empowered to prosper through paved roads, lights at night, accessible transportation, and safe community spaces like parks.

 

Social Protection

Social protection systems are in place to shield people from poverty, injustice, and exclusion. CSW63 commends States for new policies which protect women as equal parts of society. In Albania, victims of domestic violence are given access to affordable housing or rent bonuses to establish themselves. In Guatemala, new laws aim to improve working conditions for domestic workers with set pay and time off. Denmark encourages women to take almost 300 days of maternity leave, without the fear of job loss, to spend time with their child.  

 

Public Services  

Public services are offered equally for all people in a State by their government. Around the world, women do not have access to banks and financial services, water for farming, or affordable childcare. The CSW has worked alongside local women to improve the lives of women with childcare in Georgia, financial services in the Philippines, farming water in Kyrgyzstan, and financial banks in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

 

Women in the Orthodox Church

Women are a vital part of the Church. The Mother of God is the ultimate example and icon of humility in surrendering her human will to God’s. What worldly honor can surpass the honor we give her as “more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim?” During this time of Great Lent, we celebrate the triumph of Orthodoxy established by St. Theodora the Empress and we learn from the witness of women saints as we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt on the fifth Sunday. We will experience the sorrow of the Virgin Mary and her lament at Christ’s tomb and the unfailing love of the Myrrh Bearing women who became the first to preach Christ’s Resurrection. We turn to the women saints of our Church as examples and models of how we can unite with God and become Saints. St. Paul reminds us that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, male or female” because we are all One in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Both women and men are called to be united with God. In our parishes and in personal interactions, we are reminded of living icons in the God-loving women who sacrifice themselves to serve others by offering their talents for their church and who carry Christ in their personal and professional lives. We are surrounded by incredible women.

 

Orthodoxy & CSW

Infrastructure, social protection, and public services contribute to the wellbeing and prosperity of people. CSW63 illumines the lack of strong structures for women worldwide and advocates for better protections to allow women to prosper. In the Church, women are vital because of their historically equal role in proclaiming, witnessing, and preserving the Faith during persecution. Our women in the Church today, especially young women, need to be given the support, empowerment, and tools to offer their talents and bloom. Our women need to feel empowered in our church communities to ask questions, to allow healthy doubt, to advise and build ministries, and to deeply share in the community of the Church. The work of CSW63 reminds us to be grateful for the powerful presence of women in our Church and to encourage each woman blossom as members of Christ’s Body.

 

Other Resources for CSW63:

 

Photo Essay adapted from UN Women photo exhibition at the UN Headquarters in New York

Official Documents of the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women

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