The Patriarch Of Alexandria Has Something To Teach Us

Did you hear about the Patriarch of Alexandria consecrating several woman to the office of deaconess? You can read all about it by clicking HERE. Readers of this article usually fit one of three categories: indifferent, appalled, or supportive. Which one are you?

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Consecration of Deaconesses by Patriarch of Alexandria, 2017

Biblical Precedent

I love that we have a history for this in the Orthodox Church. In Romans 1:1, St. Paul mentions St. Phoebe, who is known as a deaconess, and her service to the church. Even in apostolic times we had deaconesses! The Orthodox Church continues to amaze me. The world of Orthodoxy is bigger than most of us can imagine.

It is easy for both cradles and converts to think their own parish is the norm for Orthodoxy. However, I have visited about 100 parishes in the last three years as part of my work for the Antiochian Archdiocese. Most of those were Antiochian, but I have also visited Russian, Greek, and OCA parishes. What we do not realize is that there is a spectrum, and every parish is different in some way. There is no normal way to do the Liturgy, trust me I know. There is no normal way to sing Vespers on Saturday night, trust me I know. Maybe there should be, but I am trying to tell you that every parish is different in demographics, personality, and style.

We are a vast church with people and cultures all over the world. We are also known for incorporating parts of a culture into the worship and Liturgical cycle. Somehow we have almost perfected (or possibly perfected) the art of including culture without watering down theology. Have you ever seen a Divine Liturgy in Ghana? It looks familiar, but it also looks amazing and nothing like the Divine Liturgy at my parish. Click HERE to watch Ghanaians sing Christ Is Risen with amazing joy and passion. The video really takes off at the 25 second marker.

The Deacon And Deaconess

Visit as many parishes as you can. Learn about female readers. Investigate the Western Rite, its validity and value. Explore all the Orthodox churches in your city and when you travel. It’s a beautiful world waiting to invite you in.

Although their presence is rare in America, deacons or a deaconess is common throughout our history. The variety of Orthodox worship and style will stun most of us. This is not a bad thing, but rather opportunity. It speaks to the ability of the church, which is an expression of God’s love on earth, to meet people where they are. Jesus did this with each of his apostles. He met Matthew as a tax collector. Jesus did not accidentally call James and John “sons of thunder.” Peter denied Christ after following Christ for three years. The apostles were not all the same, and after Pentecost their personality continued in their leadership.

Our worship was not all the same in the first millennium. Although 99% of the Orthodox Church now uses the same Liturgy on Sunday mornings, we have still found a way to express our differences and remain united. What unites us is not our worship style or the presence or absence of a deaconess, but rather the truth handed down from the apostles.

 

My New Friend Wants His Loving Parish To Connect

My new friend, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, PA, wants to help his parishioners connect with each other and those in Emmaus. I was honored when Fr. Andrew invited me to lead a pre-Lenten retreat at his parish. The topic we settled on was, “Why Do We Avoid Evangelism?”

From my perspective the retreat this weekend went well. And then, I was even more encouraged when I heard Fr. Andrew speak to his congregation about what I was sharing. He told them his summary of the retreat, that we need to connect with people, and when he used the word connect I knew that he totally got it.

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The Holy Trinity Icon, a perfection connection.

Doctrine Is Scary

America is used to have people spew doctrine at them from many different places. The traditional method of evangelism in the Orthodox Church actually saves doctrine for later. The first step is to connect with people through fellowship, prayer, and self-transformation. Eventually people will want to know why we are the way we are, and then we can share the doctrine of Jesus Christ and how it has changed our lives. But the connection must always be there. We cannot start with doctrine, and we must maintain a connection once we start sharing doctrine.

For some of us our children have left the church, or maybe a parent has stopped attending church. The easy way is to ask them, “when will you come back to church?” However, the Christlike way is to say, “how are you? I want to connect with you.” I have been horrible at this, but I really do want to connect with those around me.

Do We Connect Like The Trinity?

When I think about the Trinity and how it demonstrates for us a perfect community, I think about the beautiful connection between the three of them. We are called to have this same beautiful connection with the humans in our lives. Not just friends and family, but all humans. For when we partake of the Eucharist, are we not entering into a connection with everyone else who is partaking?

Rules are good for us, but if there is no love, no connection, then the rules will be empty. I am glad the church teaches me how to live the Christian life, but if I simply follow the rules in  a Pharisaical way, then I am missing the point.  The rules are there so that I can shed my selfishness and begin to connect with those around me, and therefore connect with God.

Sheep & Goats

Helping people less fortunate than me always establishes a connection. I always hope for more than just, “here is a few dollars” because that is not enough. The dollars will help, or your time at a soup kitchen. However, while you are doing good works, consider trying to connect with the people you are helping.

Yesterday Fr. Andrew read the gospel of the last judgement during the Divine Liturgy. We see in this gospel lesson how to minister to those around us and how to connect with them, and in doing so, connect with Christ.

When we connect through ministry with those less fortunate, we are connecting with Christ. When we avoid the less fortunate in our lives, we are avoiding Christ. We all know what it is like to have a bad phone connection. We walk around, ask the ever popular “Can you hear me now?” until the connection improves. Re-position yourself in your life so that you can have a good connection. Move around, move closer to people, and make sure that they can hear you. Connect.

What To Do When Someone Leaves The Orthodox Church

What should we do when someone leaves the Orthodox Church? John left the church several years ago. After repeated negativity and bickering, he lost interest in the elitism so many in Orthodoxy like to display. He lost interest, not in this statement, but in the arrogance of, “we are the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith.”

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This is how many Americans view Christianity. Leaves of the Christian tree

Leaves Stick Together

Please hear me clearly. John did not stop believing the statement above. He tired of the arrogance people displayed when saying the statement. Especially when these arrogant people lived a different life on Facebook. The arrogance, although said about a true statement, can be a source of division. This division pushes people away from Orthodoxy. I still pray for John and hope you will too.

What can we do when someone leaves the church? First, we need to follow up with people in a loving way and find out why. This does not mean you have to maintain a long term relationship (if you can that would help). Just inquire on how they are doing and that you miss them. Second, avoid anything that will impart guilt or shame. Just “love on them” and tell them you miss them. Spend time listening to their story. Let them know they can still be leaves on your community tree if they ever want to come back. You are a leaf, just like them, and they need to know you want them around. You cannot assume they know that you care.

Loving Thy Lost Neighbors

Several people have asked if they should reach out to John, “Absolutely! I worry that no one will reach out to him besides me.” Not one of those people has followed up. Maybe they are legitimately busy or some crisis took priority. I don’t know. However, I do know that there are many like John who need us to reach out. God uses people to express his love. God wants you to be a conduit of his love to those around you. We need to love our neighbors and our lost neighbors, those who have fallen away.

It can be easy to dismiss someone who leaves as an apostate. John chose to leave so what does that have to do with you or me? What if they left because of a sin you or I committed? Keep this in mind (from Dn. Michael Hyatt), “you are more likely to be hurt by people at church than anywhere else.” This means the opposite is true, that you are more likely to hurt people at church than anywhere else. We could be the very cause of our lost neighbors.

When The Leaves Fall

Many people are leaving because no one cares about them. They leave as a leaf falling from a tree. There were no calls to check on them. No one has even noticed they are gone. In so many of these situations no one cares.  Here is the good news. You can.

3 Shocking Things I Tell Every Protestant About Orthodoxy

Last summer at Camp St. Thekla, the site director for the Methodist camp that we rent (who was not Orthodox) struck up a conversation with me. He was curious about our worship. As the conversation started to increase, I warned him that I needed to tell him a few things before we moved forward which would help him understand the big picture of Orthodoxy.

The Three Things On Orthodoxy

First, I told him I believed that the Orthodox Church was the fullness of Christ’s intention when he established his church with St Peter as the rock. Then I warned him that it gets weird from there.

Second, I let him know that not every Orthodox Christian will go to heaven, and that I don’t believe that you have to be a visible member of the Orthodox Church to go to heaven. This usually inspires a weird expression, as you may have now. I explain that just because I am Orthodox does not mean I am Orthodox on purpose (borrowed from Fr. Barnabas Powell with permission). Also, we have not been given information about non-Orthodox, so I really don’t know.

Third, and this is the weirdest, I believe that from a certain perspective it is harder to get to heaven if you are Orthodox. This is my favorite because it adds the humility we all need. It is very easy to say the Orthodox Church is the true church with pride and arrogance. However, I am responsible for what I know, according to St. Paul.

So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. Romans 14:12-13

God Is A Perfect Judge

Well, if I have been blessed to be a part of the one holy and catholic apostolic church, then I am responsible for that. The site director is not Orthodox and therefore does not carry that responsibility. God is a perfect judge and will judge each according to his path and heart.

These three items generate enough interest and humility for the person to genuinely be interested in the Orthodox Church. From there, I try to focus on that person’s background and how that relates to what I just told them. At all times it has to be a genuine conversation without an agenda on my part. I just like to start with my disclaimer, which usually serves as a great discussion starter.

What is the first thing you say about Orthodoxy?

Laity Who Disagree With The Church On Same-Sex Marriage

Day 38 of 40: What is the purpose of marriage? We have entered into an era of difficult conversations for Orthodox Christians. We know what the church teaches, but does your congregation agree with the teachings on marriage? Not only that, more and more clergy families are experiencing one of their own engaging in a same-sex marriage, which puts the priest in an awkward position. What are we to do?

The first thing we should do is change the subject to something more important. When asked my position on same-sex marriage, I respond with

“What is the purpose of marriage? I feel like we need a mutual understanding on that topic before we can move forward.”

This transition helps us have an effective conversation about the more important issue of marriage. Also, this opens the door to talk introduce why you disagree with same-sex marriage in a respectful and non-emotional way, which is very important. As lay members, family members, and friends approach you about this subject, and more often lately because they disagree with the church, you can transition back to the real topic: the purpose of marriage. This also allows you discuss that not every hetero-sexual couple is allowed to get married, because not every couple is respecting the purpose of marriage.

One more tidbit on same-sex marriage. Not long ago I was invited to a same-sex wedding. I honestly did not know what the right thing to do was. I spoke with a bishop, who shall remain anonymous, about the issue, and he said this,

 “What is the end goal? We want this person to be Orthodox, and if you make it difficult or make a fuss that person will never be Orthodox. Go to the wedding to support your loved one. Don’t make a fuss, be pleasant, be friendly. As long as your loved one knows you do not agree but will attend out of support for him or her, you are doing the right thing. That person needs your love. Be a conduit of God’s love.”

I don’t know if I got all of the wording exact, but that is basically what the bishop told me. So I went to the wedding, it was pleasant, I showed my love in a genuine way, and I am thankful for going. In closing I will say this, look for the opportunities to be a conduit of God’s love.

The Orthodox Prosperity Gospel

Day 37 of 40: At the end of 2014 I was leading Holy Apostles mission in Bowling Green, KY through the Becoming Truly Human ministry. During one of the sessions I noticed a strange piece of paper on the public bulletin board.

Our weekly sessions were taking place in the fellowship hall, and the bulletin board was behind me as I spoke. A couple of weeks into the course I noticed this sheet of paper. It was a detailed printout of the financials for the mission for everyone to see. At first I thought, “well that’s interesting.” On my 90 minute drive home from the mission my mind stayed with the peculiar paper. I started to visualize all the positive outcomes this paper was creating. At some point on that drive I pondered what visitors would think.

How many of our churches are 100% transparent about financials? This public posting tells the world, “We have no secrets!”

Both Christians and non-Christians are obsessed with money in America. We have all seen the misuse of money by churches and church leaders. A public posting of your financials makes this difficult and unlikely. Posting your financials tells the world that we care about a different kind of prosperity.

The Orthodox prosperity gospel concerns the human soul. God loves us and wants us to love him in return. He wants our souls to prosper with love, joy, and hope. Suffering helps our salvation, our soul (Romans 5:4). While we are not all called to be financially wealthy, we are blessed when we are “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:30).

Only one man can create this financial transparency in the parish: the priest. I say man, because sometimes the priest’s wife can make it happen too!

Every Priest Needs This One Thing

Day 36 of 40: The last time I checked there are not a lot of human resources or business classes at seminary. I am not saying there should be, but there is one resource every priest needs to use: an organizational chart. If the mission is starting from scratch, then under every job title will be your name. If you have an established church or mission, then put your name where the blanks are.

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Once you have filled out the chart with every possible job title, it is time to prioritize. What job do you want to fill first, second, and third? Do this until every job title is listed in a sequential order. This is the beginning of a strategic plan for your parish. You might also need to have some people step down and be replaced with someone else. I know this is easier said than done, but as the spiritual leader of that parish you need to help people discern their strengths and weaknesses. That might mean moving some people around, maybe some people take a break, while others need to step up and help out.

With the chart you also need job descriptions. Every position on your chart should have a well defined and explained job description, whether it is a paid position or volunteer. If you are hiring a cleaning service, then the job description needs to be clear. If you need a Sunday school teacher, then that job description needs to be different than the one for the Sunday school director who is over all the teachers.

This organizational chart might sound like a headache to you, but it will actually make your life easier. Anytime you feel like someone is not doing their job effectively, you can refer back to the job description. Maybe someone is overstepping their boundaries? Now you can refer back to the job description. Maybe you are expanding and adding a ministry? This means the chart can help you see on paper how this will be organized and fit into your existing parish structure.

You can run a parish without an organizational chart, but why?

4 Reasons To Stop Inviting People To The Divine Liturgy

Day 35 of 40: In America there has been a misconception surrounding our Sunday morning service. In traditional Christianity Sunday morning is meant for the faithful, for those who are worshiping God or considering doing so as an Orthodox Christian. However, many of us use Sunday morning the wrong way. The Divine Liturgy was never meant to be an evangelistic tool. Inviting someone to the liturgy can have the opposite effect you desire in the following four scenarios.

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First, is the person prepared? Walking into an Orthodox church unprepared is like walking into the wrong movie theater. It is confusing and creates the desire to leave as soon as possible. Some of us think the beauty of the temple and the singing will win them over, but it can also repulse those who are not ready. Help your parish understand to only invite those who know what to expect.

Second, is the person interested? Many of us can talk someone into visiting church, but does the person want to visit? Let your congregation know we need to inspire interest before inviting someone. This is best done by finding out what the person has in common with Orthodoxy. For example, if the potential visitor loves history, share the historical aspect of Orthodoxy. Or if the potential visitor is passionate about humanitarian aid, talk about the aid your parish is doing.

The third reason we should stop inviting people to church involves our laziness. I hinted at this before. Some of us want the liturgy to do the work of evangelism for us. Evangelism requires effort and action. Even the Great Commission from Jesus begins with a word of action, “Go!” Encourage your parish to have energy, action, and effort in their relationships before inviting someone to church. Tell then it is their job to do the evangelism, not the job of the liturgy.

Last, we have fear. Because of the nature of fear, this is one of the harder obstacles for people in evangelism. I know some people who are immobilized by fear. Inspire those with fear to focus on finding a way to gain confidence. For example, many new runners have shared that running has boosted their confidence. Most types of exercise or sports will boost our confidence and morale. Help your parish overcome its fear.

If you have overcome the these four scenarios, consider inviting the person to Vespers instead. Sometimes this can have a negative effect as well, like when there are so few people at Vespers the guests wonders, “Is this church dead? How come nobody is here?” If that is your problem, then it might not be a good idea to invite them to Vespers. Otherwise, Vespers is a great introduction to the life of the Orthodox Church. First of all, Vespers includes everyone, unlike the Divine Liturgy where some visitors feel left out during the Eucharist. Second, Vespers is a calm and peaceful service. The environment is already overwhelming, so Vespers can help calm the experience. Last, Vespers is short. The length of Sunday morning is too much for many first timers.

How Often Does This Happen At Your Church?

Day 34 of 40: Several times a year, maybe even more than that, the gospel reading for Sunday morning has an evangelistic message. In addition to that, every baptism is a reading of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). How often does your parish hear a homily about evangelism when there is an evangelistic gospel reading?

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This may be one of the best ways to encourage evangelism in your parish. Let’s visit several gospel readings which can be used for this purpose: Nativity, the story of Nathanael and Philip, before, during, and after Ascension, Palm Sunday, Pascha, and Holy Week.

We need to communicate to the faithful that Orthodoxy is evangelism. When we read the book of Acts, we seen an entire book of the Bible dedicated to evangelism and fulfilling the last commandment of Jesus, also known as The Great Commission. We especially see evangelism as a primary mission of the church for the first three hundred years, when it was a faith to die for. The Orthodox Church has always been a missionary church.

The Great Commission has three parts and all three need to be preached on throughout the year. The first part is to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:18). Making disciples could also be described as “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Next, people are baptized “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). This is the formal ritual of people joining the visible body of Christ. Third, the people must be taught to “observe all things I (Jesus) have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Many of us are skipping the first and third parts of the Great Commission and focusing solely on number two. Two is vital, but so are one and three.

Are you ready to have more evangelistic homilies at your parish?

The Plague Of Bi-vocational Priests, Bonus

Day 33 of 40: Maybe you enjoyed my first two posts on this plague and were bothered by my offering of stewardship as medicine, or even more plainly the idea that stewardship is the missing puzzle piece for a bi-vocational priest.

To those of you still against this idea, I recommend finding the answer yourself. Here are four ways to find a solution:

Parish Council: Discuss the idea of stewardship, at all levels, with your parish council. Discuss its foundation, its presence in scripture, and how the fathers have spoken about it. Hopefully the parish council can give you a pulse of how well your parish is doing with stewardship.

Survey: Offer a survey to your parish. The survey must be anonymous. There are a number of people in your parish who will not be honest around the priest. Anonymity promotes this honesty and sharing of valuable information.

Other Priests: Ask people outside of your parish. Ask priests, deacons, bishops, and laity. 

Stewardship Calling: Here are two resources from Bill Marianes. First, he hosts a live call-in show the fifth Sunday of every month about stewardship on AFR. Second, visit his website for lots of free resources on stewardship by clicking HERE.

Yesterday I speaking with Fr. Lawrence Farley about bi-vocational priests. He agreed that the two key ingredients for him at that time in his ministry were outreach and stewardship. His journey from part time to full time took 6-7 years. His journey is the shortest one I have found.

If you are a bi-vocational priest and wish to change that, then feel free to contact me and I will freely share all I have learned.