On Mission Parishes – A New Series


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#1 in the Series

Those who have known me over the years or read my vitae, know that much of my ministry as a priest has been in small congregations, often called ‘missions.’  It’s actually my comfort zone – and for me the press of a larger parish is difficult if not unmanageable.  Rather, a smaller mission context allows a priest to explore what he really thinks is important and salvific in terms of the community he serves and the people who comprise it and you can really get to know the people because you rely on each other for everything.

Much of what I may write on this topic is the fruit of this experience, and often through my interactions with mission parish members through it.  Often, it’s their demeanor, beliefs, posture, service, prayer and love of God and others that has shown me what missions are all about.  I’m aware that, to share anonymity, I’ll have to work hard to make sure that nothing is said here that is demeaning or embarrassing to others, and I’ll ask forgiveness ahead of time if inadvertently something like that happens!  Likewise, if any readers have experiences[i] or insights that can enhance or correct what I write that input is most welcome!  All of this is recognized as only my limited (perhaps myopic) perspective, but it’s about all I have to offer.  Still, I hope that it’s of some value to those who would be open to reading it especially priests and lay members of mission churches – Orthodox and non-Orthodox.  I welcome your comments personally or if need be, anonymously.

Introduction

I’ve always loved the spiritual trajectory of this time of year, beginning with an inner focus on repentance and conversion during Lent, being joined to Christ and His saving Paschal mystery during Holy Week, the spiritual teaching on the gift of salvation through Baptism during the Paschal Season and the Ascension as the fulfillment of Christ’s work on earth pointing toward His Second Coming.

Sort of.

The trajectory as stated above falls short.  There’s more to it. Not that Christ didn’t accomplish his mission (Jn.17), but there’s more – a sense of the fulfillment after Pentecost of all that went before in Pentecost.  Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to accomplish in the hearts of men and women what Christ begins in Baptism – salvation, theosis, etc.  But there is still another question.  How does that happen? 

It happens through Mission[ii] – explicitly, the mission of the Church.  During the weeks following Pentecost the faithful of the Orthodox Church hear the Gospel stories that recount how the Lord called and raised up His disciples to become His Church, to continue His work!  Our Lord’s Ascension was literally and figuratively a ‘point of departure’ – not only His leaving earth (so to speak) but His launch of His Mission, to be continued through the work of the Apostles in the Church, and by His continuing Presence working through the Holy Spirit.

This series will explore this second part of the New Testament story as it unfolds in Acts and in Church life and history reflected in the Epistles and Holy Tradition and eventually up to our own age.  It all begins with The Mission.

So – What is the Mission?

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with members of a mission parish for a talk, speaking about what it means to be a mission and how to go about the work.  It took me back to my own similar experience – two days plus 25 years ago when we celebrated our first Divine Liturgy in a hotel room in Charlottesville, Virginia.  At that time, I was rather pleased, amazed and challenged when I met those who showed up. God was mysteriously at work. And it was only the beginning of many moments of amazement, most pleasing – and always challenging as we tracked how a mission parish could be started, encouraged and grow and over time by grace, mature.

So the first question I asked was, ‘What is your mission?’  I think it’s a question we don’t ask enough.[iii]  What is a mission parish supposed to be about? What’s the point of it all?

Dumb Question?

We might be tempted to think this is a dumb question – of course we all know (especially clergy) what we’re all to be about. But this is not a stupid question – It’s the most important question.  Get this wrong and eventually things will go south.

I can recall a situation where I was approached by a couple of people who wanted to start a mission in another part of the state of Virginia.  I thought it was a worthy desire and I was intrigued about it.  They began by saying, there’s this Protestant church that had closed and those who it fell to manage the building wanted to reopen it, or get rid of it, so why not make it into an Orthodox Church?[iv]  A good question – and I’m sure there are mission churches that started just this way.  I eventually found out that the building had issues with construction, and most importantly, location – but it was a building, and of nominal cost, and available immediately!  Ideal situation, right?

Similarly, my late classmate Fr. William Wojciechowski and I used to joke about a most likely apocryphal story of one of our Byzantine Catholic hierarchs who stated that he wanted to send a young, inexperienced priest to the middle of nowhere in Nebraska because he found out that ‘we have three families in Topeka!’[v]  I don’t think they had enough guys to send someone to Topeka, and if they did, whether or not he ever came back.

So, to use the old cart-before-the-horse analogy we are accumulating carts and horses, and goods to haul.  But is this business of hauling things what we are to be about, that we need carts and horses? What are we supposed to be doing?  Is the way we go about ‘mission’ supposed to be getting a building, finding a handful of people to serve and having at it?  I don’t know – but I don’t think this was Christ’s model for church missions.  Yet this is how Orthodox missions are started all the time, and have been for centuries.

The Needs of the People

The vast majority of churches since 1900 in the US popped up because people immigrated to the US in large enough numbers, somewhat larger than three in Topeka, that they formed communities of like-minded people from which their church, whether Byzantine Catholic, or Orthodox would sprout and grow.  And often these fledgling religious communities would struggle financially, argue, split up, reconfigure or just die, instead of thrive.  For most of these folks, including my own family, these churches served as lifelines to their roots and identity, of which their Faith was an integral  part.  I am a Christian because of them. Yet, as that identity shifted in time, as immigrants grew Americanized, their church often no longer fit into their new emerging sense of American identity and the life work they were about.  In some social circles, in the mid-twentieth century,  being part of a ‘hunky’ church would hurt you professionally and socially. People would keep a dotted line affiliation to their church and maintain a relationship for feasts like Christmas and Easter, and for big life events, but not be committed or active in the real work of the Church, nor would they worship weekly.

In those days, when a new parish came into being, it  grew as a community to serve a small population, managed that successfully, thrived as that population grew (even explosively), plateaued, then as it often declined over the years, as they experienced the loss of their parish membership due to the economy, demographics or other societal forces. The people for whom the parish was meant to exist, were gone.  People have literally told me that their only desire was to see the church doors open long enough until they could be carried in and out for their funeral. After that, feel free to close the doors.[vi]   Later in this series, I hope to write an article or two about the trajectory of parish growth and decline that hints at how the end is often made a reality long before anyone is willing to even think or talk about it, but that’s for another time.

Chaplaincy

In these examples, the parish as an entity was established for certain known purposes, to take care of a certain group of people.  A long time ago, someone wise wrote about this, describing it as a ‘chaplaincy’ model of ministry or priesthood. In a chaplaincy, the clergyman is sent to simply take care of a given set of people, in their needs.  As long as the needs are there, the chaplain has a mission (job).  Those needs, are often determined by those requesting the chaplain.[vii]  Often in America’s past, parish boards viewed their priests as chaplains, hired to carry out certain spiritual tasks and services (weekly services, Christmas and Easter, baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.) and compensated accordingly, and dismissed when these lay leaders perceived there was no longer a need, or the person was deemed incapable of doing the job to their satisfaction.  The mission in this case was taking care of these needs as were spelled out.  In Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the role of the bishop blunts this tendency, but sometimes in Protestant churches, this same dynamic is very much in operation today.  A minister may be hired with an understanding that they are to build a youth ministry, seniors ministry or a church building for example.  When that’s done, they can look for a dismissal letter in the mail.[viii] 

There are many reasons why priests and lay people want to see a mission parish started. If you ask the right questions you may find that the reasons for this may be very, very different – and even clash.  Some people are driven by the memory of past forebears who were ‘founders’ of churches and feel a need to live up to the same, just as a son might go to law school because his dad was a lawyer.  It really is a question of vocation, and not just for the clergy, but also for the laity.  To be a member of a parish that is a mission parish (i.e. a parish with a mission) brings a different set of assumptions and requirements than attending a ‘chaplaincy’ parish, where the parish is viewed as being there to serve you. Among the reasons cited, and present but sometimes present but not cited include:

  • A desire for a specific ethnic presence in a community – for festive public celebrations, dance groups, etc.
  • The unwillingness or inability to travel distances to another parish that will serve one’s needs
  • The desire for a church fellowship for people who are lonely
  • The emotional/psychological satisfaction in exercising one’s ego in the midst of a smaller group that can be controlled
  • Desire for a visual expression of one’s inner faith as a church building in a locale.
  • Desire to inform others about one’s religious identity, ethnic background – especially if it’s a minority.
  • Need to meet and know others who share similar perspectives, culture or life experiences.
  • For priests – the ego satisfaction of being a ‘successful’ parish founder of a mission and the peer approval that comes from that

Etc. Like most things human, these are not all bad, but often touched by personal agendas and goals.

I think if we are honest, most of us can admit that our parish communities meet many of our needs and not all of them are perfect or pure or in accordance with the Gospel. And it’s another question as to whether such a parish community or mission reflects what Christ sets forth as what the Mission is. 

So we’ll take a look at what that mission is in the next edition!.


[i] During my 40 years of service as a priest, 95% has been in small parishes, in West Virginia and Pa, Texas and eventually in a start-up mission in Virginia.

[ii] I’ll use the term ‘mission’ a lot.  Hopefully by the context it should be clear whether I mean the broad mission of the Church, or a specific local incarnation of that mission which we would eventually call a mission parish or something similar.  Another common use is in terms of a charitable outreach type of mission. The context will hopefully make this clear in the future.

[iii] More often than not, I find asking the question, ‘Why am I here?’, or ‘What am I doing here? to be really helpful.’ Often enough, when the answer to that question is unclear or lame, it’s time to go elsewhere or do something else. It’s a question that mission parishes need to ask as they begin and frequently thereafter.

[iv] There is an Orthodox mission near this location now.  Maybe an opportunity was lost!

[v] There is a Ruthenian Rite Catholic parish in the Kansas City area that had roots in the early 20thc immigration. It’s about an hour from Topeka so I’m sure those three families are being served if they have a car!

[vi] One rather interesting fact is that when a declining parish is facing closure, sometimes people think they will be financially enriched because they’ll sell the property (in some cases the land significantly appreciated).  They’re always disappointed to hear that first, in most cases, especially for Catholics, the deed to the property names the mother Church-diocese as owner. But even if the property somehow passed to the board members as owners, they would lose any IRS protection and all funds received by the parish from its inception would now become taxable and due immediately!

[vii] I can recall in seminary the recommendation from a senior classmate to read the book, The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough.  It tells the story of the challenges posed to a Catholic chaplain sent to an Australian outback sheep herding community.  It’s very well written, and insightful.  Not necessarily good reading for celibate clergy though.

[viii] Let’s be clear here. Many Orthodox priests have been effectively ‘dismissed’ by their parish boards through a similar process if perhaps a little less obvious.  It usually involves making life miserable for the clergyman and his family, so that eventually the decision is ‘mutual’.  I can recall one tragic case which led to the divorce of the priest and his wife, when every action was micromanaged, including the purchase of a broom for the rectory (owned by the parish board). This is a parish whose mission, at the time, was seemingly to destroy people.

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Author: Fr Robert Holet - UOC of USA Office of Stewardship

A semi-retired Priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

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