Fr Aleksey's report at the Annual Parish meeting held on Sunday, January 29, 2023
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Let me begin with some statistics for 2022, before I get into the meat of my report.
Funerals: 6 (2 were members)
By my count, we had three families (4 people in total) join our parish as registered members.
Reflections on the past year
We basically had a full liturgical year of services and events in 2022. Under the direction of two choir directors, Sergei and Bill, and sometimes Sergei’s wife Olga, our choir has been consistent. Unfortunately, from Sunday to Sunday the choir directors were not sure who would show up to sing. So there is still room for improvement on consistency and quality of our singing. Our readers, Chris, Emma, and Daniel, have been doing a good job, being always prepared and reading attentively.
We have continued our online Book Study, which meets every other week on Friday. And we have re-started the Bible Study every other Tuesday after the Akathist service. For the 2022-2023 school year, we had to move the Church School from Saturday afternoon to Sunday after the Communion. After the first day of Church School, the attendance just plummeted, and we had no other choice but to move it.
Throughout the year we had our usual potluck fellowships: Christmas, Maslenitsa, Pascha, our patronal feastday, and parish Thanksgiving Day dinner. Thank you to everyone who always readily brought a dish to share.
The Church School had a two-day garage sale, where they were able to raise obscene amount of money, and donated 10% to Ukrainian families devastated by the Russian bombs.
Reflections on the present
Last year I took sort of a negative approach to my report. The approach will not change for this year’s report, mostly because things haven’t changed much, in either good or bad direction. As a parish, we are still merely surviving; we are not living, much less are we thriving as a Christian Church.
At our Parish Council meetings sometimes a sentiment is expressed that we have two problems: (1) we have no people; and (2) we have no money. There are two issues with this sentiment: (1) these are not the problems plaguing us, they are symptoms of the problem; (2) taking this kind of approach – that our problems consist in others not doing something (namely, not showing up to church and participating), and in things we don’t have (money) – with this kind of approach, we, consciously or not, omit to do one very important thing – look in the mirror.
And I have to admit upfront, I have no idea what the problems to our struggles are. But it is definitely notthe other people and/or money, or lack thereof. These are the symptoms.
Christianity is about self-reflection, self-examination. It’s about finding the log in my own eye before attempting to pull out a speck from my neighbor’s eye (Matthew 7:3). It’s about looking in a mirror and continually reflecting on my state of being. I think it’s a sign of a sickness to actively avoid self-examination and look for the cause of my problems in others.
In order to begin this process of self-reflection in our parish, we have created, what I’ve dubbed, the Parish Rejuvenation Team. This team is made up of 10 members, ranging from 18 years of age to 78; of those who have been part of our community for just a year to life-long members.
The goal of the team is to develop the Mission and Vision statements for the parish. Just so that we are all on the same page – the Mission statement expresses our core values and purpose. It states what we do, how we are doing it, and most importantly why we are doing it. The Vision statement describes our goals and ambitions, in such a way as to inspire us to work toward the greater goal of our parish. The Parish Rejuvenation Team will also consider ways of implementing these statements into the practical life of the community.
Even though I did not plan it that way because, frankly, I do not really know what I am doing, the work of the Parish Rejuvenation Team began with self-examination of ourselves as a community. We began by reading and analyzing the Parish By-laws, since this is the only guiding document that the parish has intentionally created that gives us some sort of purpose and direction. The Bible is, obviously, the guiding document of any Christian community, but we did not create it; we inherited it.
As we were reading the By-laws, I asked the team to look for answers to the following two questions: based on the By-laws, (1) what is the Vision of our parish? And, (2) why is the parish here? The consensus was that, basically, the By-laws do not really answer these questions. This is not surprising because the challenges the founding members were facing were very different from our own. So, in a way, the By-laws are a historical document because they reflect the challenges of the past, not the present. And yes, we do have in there things like what makes a member and the dues we are to pay, but if we are honest, we are very selective in the way we follow even those things from the By-laws that may still apply to the present.
Next, the team reflected on the present, answering two more questions: based on what the parish is already doing, (1) what aspects of our parish life are working well; and, (2) what aspects of our parish life are not working well. And here are a few examples of the replies,
The parish as a whole is cohesive with a new crop of people who embrace our parish. Our choir has new young voices. All readers are outstanding and altar boys are an interesting group of fine individuals. The services – in all the liturgical aspects, including sermons, readings, singing, etc.
Not doing well:
Communication and transparency. What we lack is a viable system of communication at all levels. Not doing outreach ministry well. Lack of preparedness for future administrative leadership. More people need to be encouraged to host the coffee hour.
After this, we allowed ourselves to dream, contemplating questions such as (1) In your eyes, what makes a successful/thriving/stable parish? And why? And, (2) As an Orthodox Christian parish, what do you wish we were doing? And why? This is what the team came up with, just a couple of examples:
A successful successful/thriving/stable parish is one that has a rather consistent group of parishioners who look forward to attending Sunday Divine Liturgy, and hopefully the other services as well. It is a parish with a blend of cradle Orthodox and converts. It also includes an active, engaged, enthusiastic priest and a dedicated choir.
As to what the team wished we were doing:
I wish we were able to connect with many parishioners who stopped attending services over the last two plus years. We should strive and perfect our liturgical life, both as a community and personally, properly understanding the Liturgy, the Eucharist and other services.
This process of self-examination is important, in my mind, because in order to develop the Mission and Vision statements that will effectively guide us, we need to be sober and brutally honest about our current situation.
After the Parish Rejuvenation Team went through the process I just described, I browsed the internets for the websites of other Orthodox parishes that state their own Mission and Vision and ways those parishes put these statements to life. These were used as examples of motivation, not to copy, because each parish is unique. We all share the same Faith, but the way each parish lives it out is specific to that parish.
The Parish Rejuvenation Team is continuing its work. We are currently brainstorming ideas – words and phrases – that may be included in the Mission and Vision statements of our parish. Once we have a good list, we will draft the initial Mission and Vision statements, and edit and refine them until we come up with the final product. That’s when they will be presented to the whole parish. They will be posted on our website, all social media, announcement board, and every Sunday I will start my announcements with reading the Mission and Vision statements of our parish. This will be done until they are drilled into our brains, so that, if you’re woken up in the middle of the night and asked to recite these statements, you will do it without thinking because it will be like breathing to you.
I envision the Parish Rejuvenation Team concluding its work with coming up with specific ways we can apply the Mission and Vision statements into the life of the parish. These are not just some nice statements to put up as decoration on the website; they will be the practical guidance in the life of the parish.
So, the natural question is – will this solve all (or some) of our problems? I do not know. Most likely no. If you noticed, the stated goal of the Parish Rejuvenation Team is not to uncover problems. The team has never explicitly entertained the question – “so, what are our problems?” instead of focusing on what is wrong, we chose to focus on how to properly move forward, how to exist as a truly Christian Church.
One of the underlying purposes in the work of the Parish Rejuvenation Team is to establish (or to highlight, if it’s already established) the culture, tradition, and expectations of our parish. So that parishioners will know what to expect from their parish; so that a new person that comes through the doors will know what we are about and what we will expect from them; so that a new member, upon joining the parish, will know the expectations; so that a new parish council member will be able to come in and contribute right away, instead of trying to figure out where a whole box of documents is; so that every new priest will know the expectations and will not have to re-invent things, but will add his talents into an already established parish life.
Are these goals lofty? You bet! If our goal is to survive another day, another year, then yes, we can do that, for about another 10-15 years (maybe a little longer if we sell everything). But as a parish, as the Church of Christ, we simply cannot do that. We do not have the luxury of surviving. We do not have that choice. Survival was not a commandment ever given by the Lord. It may be that no matter what we do, our situation will not be improved. We need to always be mindful of that possibility.
The work of the Parish Rejuvenation Team, when it will be completed, is only the beginning of self-examination and repentance. The rest will depend on all of us working, doing the work of Christ in this specific place and time He has put us in, for as long as He needs us to do it, be it five more years or 225 more years. Survival is not an option.
Priest Aleksey Paranyuk