Monday, June 5, 2017

The Indian Orthodox Church in the US

Indian Orthodox Church in Raleigh
My wife and I returned to India in 2012 after being in the US for twenty years. Recently in 2017, which is after a break of five years, we visited the US.

I noticed that the Malayalee church communities are more vibrant and active in the US than in Kerala. People there are more active in the church activities. The primary reason for this seems to be that they are immigrants in a foreign land. They need to get together to see one another. The other six days they spend time with the general public, which consists of people of all races. On the seventh day, they get together to meet other people like them, to speak their own language, and to satisfy their nostalgia. The people encourage their children to be friends with others like them so that they may find life-partners from within the community itself.

Although the Malayalee community enjoys a higher living standard in the US than in Kerala, they still have a longing for the native land where they were born and raised. Although they have better food, better roads, and better comforts in the US, still they are aliens where they live, and their hearts long for their homeland. They satisfy this longing to certain extent when they get together on the seventh day in their church.

The parish I used to go while I was there earlier looked radically different. Being in Texas it gained a lot more people than it used to have. More and more people have been migrating to the south. It used to have the same vicar for over twenty years, and as he was directly involved in the administration of the parish, there were always conflicts between the vicar and some members. The bishop effectively implemented a transfer system for the priests, and this parish got a new vicar who could help the community grow to become a very lively and vibrant one. People enjoy being there.

The priest who was in charge of this parish has been transferred to another parish, where he is being successful. He is giving leadership to build a new building. This shows beyond doubt that the problem was not with the priest or with the people, but with the system. 

A transfer system is not yet implemented in the North. We had the opportunity to visit a couple of parishes in New York. The ones we visited were managed by very mature priests, who could keep the parish together in spite of the fact that they have been in the same position for a long time. I learned that they did not involve themselves in the church administration very much. They assumed the role of a father-figure, and not that of an administrator. So they could avoid conflicts with the members to a great extent.

As I understand, a priest has three different roles in his parish:

1. A Father-- leader of the community life. From this position, he is expected to care for the well-being of the community. Anyone should feel free to approach the priest in times of emotional distress. He is a leader or shepherd who will guide the community. He is also a role model young people can look up to. He should be able to counsel and teach people. From this role, his service should be available not only to the members of the community, but also to all others who seek help and support. If a community does not have a strong father-figure, it can’t have a healthy existence. In order to perform this role, one needs maturity and counseling skills.

2. A Priest-- leader of worship. A priest leads the community in conducting the worship-- its sacraments, its holy days etc.

3. A Vicar-- leads the administrative matters. Representing the bishop, he leads the group of people elected for the administration of the church property, its activities and its income and expenses. 

Of these three roles, the first one is undoubtedly the most important one. Lay people in the community, who are mature and have counseling skills, can help and support him in performing this role. Regarding the second role, only a priest can lead the community in liturgical worship.

Regarding the third one, his role has to be minimal. He may preside over the General body meetings and committee meetings, but his role should not go beyond being a moderator or a facilitator of the meetings. He can even designate a vice president to conduct these meetings. He needs to be like the president of India, without having a direct involvement in the administration. He needs to let the elected lay people directly involve in the administration. If he directly gets involved in the administration, he won’t be able to do his primary role as the father of the community. Wherever a priest gets involved in the administration, he fails as a father. He becomes the leader of one party or group, and fails to keep the entire community united.

Priests need to heed to Jethro’s advice to Moses, his son-in-law. Jethro saw all people coming to Moses with all sorts of administrative problems all daylong, and Jethro advised him to designate assistants who would take care of administrative matters, so that Moses could devote his time and energy to perform his primary role, as the father/leader of the community. Priests also need to follow the example of the apostles when they handed over the administrative matters to the seven deacons, so that they could focus their attention to prayer and preaching.

In the seminaries, where the priests are trained, they are trained primarily to perform their second role-- to lead the worship. I think a shift of focus is needed. They need to be trained primarily to perform their primary role -- as a father of the community. They also need to be taught how to be a vicar without directly getting involved in the administration.


Mathew Samuel said...

Well articulated article. I read this yesterday at ICON. Having the elected leaders take care of the administration, with the priest in a more passive role while still guiding everything, seems a viable alternative for our age -- for transparency, as well as to allow for the democratic process and change in the administrative setup, which helps keep the focus on the right priorities. At the same time, a more permanent priest and spiritual father is needed for spiritual vibrancy, and such a model allows for that. In our age, information is at everyone's finger tips and also everyone is more prone to mistrust and misinformation much more than in earlier times. So such a model seems most practical and good.Let us hope for a time when this gets widely accepted. Thanks uncle for writing.

Unknown said...

Well written John

I like to add a few words

This was the vision of our late Osthathios Thirumeni which was empowering our lay people for church mission

Priests in our church has limited time for mission because they have to take care of the spiritual needs for his church members . Our mission board also has limitations to expand due to lack of manpower and resources. Mission should be a part of each parish level not only at diocese level or mission board level.

According to our church mission board constitution adopted in 1979 each parish should have Suvishesha Sangham unit as a spiritual organization to carry out church mission and evangelism which was never materialized in its true meaning to this day .Recently I spoke with Our Mission board Thirumeni regarding this at our Aramana .

Our parish St. Thomas Cathedral in Houston started this unit with the blessing our Metropolitan Eusebius Thirumeni working well

We are planning the following outreach programs

Food ministry
Medical Mission
Prison ministry
Sponsor A Child Program

Satish Abraham said...

Great! Your views are very valuable for the betterment of the Church specifically.

Willy John Daniel, Australia said...

Very well thought out account, John. I enjoyed reading it.

Fr. P.A. Philip said...

A vivid description of the transformation that takes place in the Church outside India....... Congrats Dr. Kunnath.