“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity!” (Ps. 133)
In early January of this year, Father Nicholas Solak invited me to take part in a Clergy Peer Learning Group which was being started in the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania. Father Nicholas is the rector of Holy Trinity in East Stroudsburg, PA. I met him first as a guest lecturer at St Tikhon’s, and our association picked up again when I served in Syracuse. I can’t imagine a finer priest than Father Nicholas, especially in times of difficulty. So I was honored by his invitation, even if I didn’t know what a peer learning group was, why a priest of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey was invited, or how I was going to make time for the group as I rushed to get up to speed here in Paramus.
Our first meeting in March filled in some of the details. The Lily Foundation provided a generous grant to the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania to fund Clergy Peer Learning Groups. These groups are not meant to be support groups or academic study groups. They instead serve to encourage pastoral study and practice. Under the direction of Father Nicholas, two groups have been established so far.
Our group, which includes Father Victor Gorodenchuk, meets at a cabin in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. There are six of us, all in our 30s and 40s, and though most are from the OCA, we have one Greek and one Antiochian priest.
Our first meeting helped give us an idea of what the group was about and introduced us to each other. The second meeting, which took place last week, gave us an opportunity to determine the format and goal of the group.
Father Alexey Petrides (Assistant Priest at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem, PA) suggested we read through Archbishop John Shahovskoy’s The Orthodox Pastor. The book, one of my favorites, contains 30 short reflections on various aspects of pastoral ministry. Archbishop John was of royal lineage, and his advice carries the warmth and dignity of a prince. He is encouraging without being cloying.
The fathers received the suggestion with enthusiasm. And so we decided to use Archbishop John’s book as a starting point. We want to know not only what he had to say, but what the saints tell us about the life of a pastor. We plan to investigate two or three themes each meeting, our goal being to learn about Orthodox pastoral life and, more importantly, to live it.
Initiatives like this aim to encourage accountability and authenticity in our lives as pastors. The idea is simple: Healthy clergy, healthy parishes. May the Lord bless this work, especially as challenges increase and tempt us with the spirit of worldliness!