Remembering Our Past and Embracing the Challenge Set Before Us (Part 2)

In this, the second of three parts of my 2020 Pastoral Address given a few weeks ago at our annual General Assembly, I encourage us to take a look back at our past, both to remember and honor it, but also to see how it shapes our trajectory into the future. If you missed the first part, that can be accessed by clicking [PART ONE].

We recently entered into this new year which ushered in a new decade, and in particular this new decade will be the one in which our Parish enters a new century, as we prepare to celebrate our 100th Anniversary in the year 2022. This raises the stakes for us, as we have grown to realize we need to move our attention to not simply planning the next year, but setting goals for the next 10 years, which themselves are connected to a long-term vision which can offer direction for whatever time God gives us in the future. This reflection is useful and I would say even vital as we contemplate even the shortest term goals. It brings us to deep and even existential questions: How does the trajectory of our past inform our present and future? Where are we now as a parish? What kind of parish do we want to strive to be? What goals do we set, given the resources we have today, and what resources do we work to increase in the future? What kind of parish do we want to hand to today’s youth when they take their places of parish leadership in the future?

To begin to address even some of these important questions, let’s take a moment to look at the past. I will not review our almost 100 year history, but let me mention quickly that honoring our past is crucial to any community, and in the coming year you will enjoy some wonderful results from the nearly five years of efforts that our Archdeacon and his dedicated wife Jenny have undertaken to preserve our past. You’ll be hearing–and seeing more about this–in the year to come. It will be good for us to know better our early beginnings on Cass Ave that only a few of us ever experienced. While we have a storied history the entirely of which has led to the present that we know, in my comments today, I will focus on only one aspect of our past which most strongly impacts our present: the decision to move from the Boston Street church and forge a new future in this location and in this facility. It might surprise you to know that close to half of our current parishioners do not know the Boston Street St. Nicholas, including myself. So it’s even more important that we all remember why we’re here now.

From what everyone tells me, Boston Street was comfortable; Boston Street was adequate; Boston Street could have sufficed. So why the move? The process which began as a project to simply add more beauty to the church through a new icons and possibly an apse began a cascade, not of projects, but of new ideas, new dreams and new goals. Although the facility on Boston Street was adequate, a completely new facility would bring new potential, from the power of a breathtaking church temple to  expanded facilities to educate and inspire the youth of that generation and the ones to follow. A larger facility would make room for the many who would come and join us, if we both took our rightful place as an established church in Grand Rapids, as well as accepted the task to shine the light of Holy Orthodoxy to those around us. In short, we wanted to build a home to grow the church, and grow it far beyond what our comfortable home on Boston Street could hold.  As I listen to those of you involved in leading our community in those days, I still hear the excitement for all that a new location and new facility would bring.

I arrived a full decade and a half into our time here on East Paris. On my arrival almost five years ago, I found a parish that had accepted and completed the challenge to build a facility we could grow into, and found this parish brimming with potential, in three key aspects. First, I learned about the many skilled priests who had each served the parish with their unique gifts. My first funeral here was to bury Rosemarie Sears, the daughter of our very first priest. Her father, the Economos Philip Abuassaly was the first of several blessed clergyman, each of whom provided invaluable leadership and each left a lasting imprint on the parish we have become. Second, I found a strength among the laity that is widely-regarded as remarkable in terms of skills and resources, and which was put on magnificent display in hosting the Convention last year. Last, but certainly not least, I found a facility that is beautiful, beautifully maintained, and provides a vast array of offerings for worship, education and fellowship. In short, I came to a parish overflowing with possibilities.

In addition to all the above list of opportunities, upon my arrival I also soon discovered a variety of challenges. First, this same facility that is second to none in terms of beauty and scope, is one that was built for a community at least twice the size that existed at its building and in the present day. This comes with a large cost to operate, and therefore requires a large community to sustain. Second, I learned that while we received donations across a wide spectrum of amounts, the parish had been overly-dependent upon a few very generous donors, of whom some had passed away in recent years, more passed away in the time I’ve served here, and still others have retired or moved away. This over-dependence on a few has begun to improve, but the rate of increased giving by the other 95% of us has often lagged in covering for the large loss in donations as each top giver departed. The third challenge is one that could not be foreseen when this facility was being dreamed, planned and built: the unprecedented drop in religious involvement in our modern culture. Of the various generations currently alive, 88% of the oldest generation attend religious services regularly, but among the current generation of young adults, that number has dropped to 8%. While I wish our parish were immune to these trends, those generations within our own parish have not differed substantially from those of the wider society. Sometimes change comes so slowly as to go unnoticed. This change has come so quickly, we find ourselves shell-shocked and dumbfounded. I believe it just may be the greatest challenge the church has ever faced, wreaking havoc like no persecution was ever able to do, be it from the Romans, the Muslims or the Communists.

Taking both these opportunities and these challenges into account, it became clear to me soon after I arrived that St. Nicholas was at a crossroads, and that the direction set in the next several years could, without exaggeration, put the parish on a course to either flourish, or–without a significant course correction–could well threaten the very viability of the parish.

This was the St. Nicholas found upon my arrival: brimming with potential and beset with enormous challenges on the horizon. So what did we do? First, I listened. I listened widely and deeply. Perhaps many of you will remember conversations from my early  days here with my probing questions. I consulted with our Parish Council, and have always valued their partnership in the leadership of the parish, arriving at each with careful consideration and almost always by complete consensus. I also entered into regular consultation with our Diocesan Bishop, His Grace Bishop ANTHONY on a near weekly basis. We are blessed that our own Bishop happens to be one of the leading thinkers in world Orthodoxy today on issues of modern challenges facing Orthodox parishes.

The goal of all involved was to acknowledge the opportunities and challenges in our current societal climate, as well as those particular to our parish community, and devise a strategy that addressed them all, and positioned us to most effectively face a challenging future. Over three years ago, the process developed to the point where the planning was ready to become more formalized, and a strategic planning process was begun, with the assistance of Dr. Anthony Bashir and Dr. Richard Robbat of the Archdiocese’s Department of Lay Ministries. Leaders beyond our Parish Council who headed up our various fellowship groups and ministry teams spent two days hammering out a Mission Statement. It beautifully summarizes how we see ourselves and what we hope to accomplish. It reads: “We are a worshipping community in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian tradition that preserves, proclaims, and practices the Faith given by Christ to the Apostles, serving Him, one another and our neighbors. We manifest His love through sacramental and liturgical life, education, hospitality, works of mercy, and fellowship.” A second weekend was spent honing down the first goals based on this newly-adopted mission statement. I’m happy to share that we have made great progress on all four of our stated goals, which were: 1) Growing A Welcoming Community of Parishioners, 2) Developing Responsible Financial Stewardship, 3) Building Ministries to Support Evangelism and Charitable Outreach, and 4) Cultivating a Liturgical and Sacramental Life that Reflects the Beauty of Our Tradition. These four goals have all set the course for our activity in the years since we met to set them.

Various efforts were taken in support of accomplishing these. Allow me to share what I think the most notable of these steps would include: first, the hiring of a Parish Administrator in 2015 to support the expansion and improved effectiveness of both our Fellowship Groups and Ministry Teams. As you read the many reports from these groups in our Annual Report, know that none of these would be operating or operating at the level they are, without Keith’s efforts and dedication. Please join me in thanking him for his tireless efforts. Secondly, the 2020: Vision to Reality Campaign, and its twin goals of both paying down the mortgage and funding the needed improvement projects it set as priorities. Mike Simon will share the incredible progress we have made on both fronts, and will introduce the relaunch to complete that campaign’s goals. Third, at last year’s special assembly called to renew our mortgage, you decided to add a Parish Secretary back into our staffing to allow Keith to return to the principle reasons for the creation of his position, from which he had been consistently pulled away from amid the growing administrative demands of a more active parish. Soon you will hear from him on the important work that has been done due to this important expansion of our staffing. Fourth, our Chapel was renovated to allow for more opportunities for an expanded and beautified worship space, which was lovingly funded by a generous memorial donation. And most recently, a Committee was established to develop a more effective Youth Ministry program. Our Parish Council has declared 2020 “The Year of our Youth,” and we are pledged to do whatever it takes to engage our young people powerfully in the life of the Church. You will hear from Amy Amash later in this meeting on our initial steps in this vital effort.

As each of these positive steps were being taken, we began to hear some confusion as to what our direction was. The old saying that “it’s hard to see the forest through the trees” has been perhaps very applicable to our parish during this season. Among the concerns that I have heard from time to time is that it feels like there’s “too much going on” and “we seem to be going in lots of different directions.” Understandable sentiments, to be sure, and I regret that I have not always communicated effectively how our various efforts have been connected to a greater plan. Both the Parish Council and I are committed to working harder to communicate better in the days and years to come. But I hope as we pause to take stock of where we are and where we hope to go, we can all begin to see each of these efforts as part of a greater whole, and in pursuit of greater goals which were set long before I arrived five years ago, and even before we arrived in this facility 20 years ago this year.