My first two years of priesthood were spent in Syracuse, New York, at Saints Peter and Paul Church on Hamilton Street. Matushka Laura and I were newlyweds, and she had enrolled in the graduate Speech Pathology program at Syracuse University.
We were fortunate to begin our life together this way. I was able to learn in the role of assistant priest to Father John Chupeck. We have fond memories of those first two years, and so for our vacation we planned to be in the area for the parish’s 100th Anniversary celebration.
While many parishes struggle to reach 100 years, Saints Peter and Paul is thriving, having just completed a significant capital campaign. Here are three lessons we learned from the celebrations to help us reach our centennial:
The right thing isn’t always the easy thing.
For years the parish depended on Bingo to fund the budget. By worldly standards it was a great success. At one point, it held Bingo almost every day of the year. The proceeds even helped to fund a summer camp and a nursing home.
But the easy money from games of chance absolved parishioners of their holy responsibility to support their church. And those supporting the church – the Bingo players – rarely took the one-block trip from the hall to the magnificent temple, which boasts beautiful frescoes from the hand of Pimen Sofronov.
Bingo didn’t end overnight. The decision was difficult, and the parish had to plan so it could continue to offer parishioners a rich liturgical life, education programs, and fellowship. Generous donors stepped up to the plate, and now the time that used to be spent on Bingo is spent at Vespers.
We are often tempted to take the easy way out when the numbers go into the red. But we are called to have faith that the Lord will preserve us if we serve Him, striving to make our parish a place for people to encounter Christ and His Holy Church – not a watered-down version of it.
The priest can’t do it alone.
When he became rector of the parish, Father John worked to inspire dedicated parishioners to serve on the Parish Council. The members boast years of experience in business, trades and leadership, and their faithful service on the council places these talents at the disposal of the church.
While it’s obvious that a faithful parish council is not a source of division and arguments, it’s also not a rubber stamp. Matters of faith are not open for a vote, but the business of the church – and its growth – can’t be the responsibility of one person alone. The true ministry of the parish council is to work with the priest, the father of the parish, for the upbuilding of the church. This ensures that the people come to church for Christ – not the priest, and not the parish council president.
A priest in a growing parish said: “If you don’t have to be a priest to do it, the priest shouldn’t do it.” The more we take part in the life of the parish, the more deeply we feel our holy responsibility to the Church, and the priest is presented with more opportunities to expand his ministry. No work in the church is unimportant; every task we perform with faith is blessed by God and has the potential to grow the church.
Plan for your great-grandchildren.
Hedgerows in England were planted to demarcate land boundaries and aide in the rotation of crops. The men and women who first planted them did so knowing that it would take decades for them to grow to maturity.
We aren’t programmed to think this way. It takes effort, sacrifice, and forethought. None of which are in great supply in the era of brain-numbing “what-are-you-doing-right-now?” social media.
In a culture that values instant gratification, we should think beyond five year plans, valuing quality over quantity, discipleship over membership. What good habits do we want to begin now? What seeds do we want to plant? What can we do to ensure our parish is thriving well past our 100th anniversary?
How will we live so that we honor our ancestors and inspire our descendants?
Father John invited Father John Parker, head of Missions and Evangelism for the OCA, to be the guest speaker at the anniversary banquet. While painstaking effort went into chronicling the history of the parish, most of what we heard at the banquet – from Archbishop Michael, Father Parker, and Father Chupeck – was about the next 100 years. The future always comes faster than you think; we don’t have the luxury of stopping or taking a break.
Wisdom holds that whatever we do in haste will pass away. No quick fixes present themselves, and we thank God for this. Because anything temporary and fleeting will distract us from the question at hand: How will we be faithful to Holy Orthodoxy now? How will we express our faith and order our lives so that our great-grandchildren are faithful Orthodox Christians?
How will history look on us? Will we succumb to the pressure to accommodate and fit in, or will we be judged faithful stewards, a sturdy link in the unbroken chain of Orthodoxy?
May the Lord help us to be worthy of our calling as Christians, so that we can look forward not only to the 100th anniversary of our parish, but to a place of honor in the memory of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
(More photos of the 100th Anniversary celebration can be found here.)