15th All-American Council a watershed event for Orthodox Church in America

From Monday, November 10 through Thursday, November 13, 2008, members of the Orthodox Church in America gathered in Pittsburgh, PA, for the Church’s 15th All-American Council. Over 600 delegates and 200 observers attended the Council, which opened with a Service of Thanksgiving celebrated by His Eminence, Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas and the South, Locum Tenens of the Metropolitan See. During his opening address at the Council’s first plenary session, Archbishop Dmitri stressed the need for all members of the Church to recommit themselves to the OCA’s vision, which is driven by Christ’s Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

Council participants also heard a greeting at the opening session from His Grace, Bishop Tikhon of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania and Locum Tenens of the Archdiocese of Western Pennsylvania. At this session, greetings also were read from His Eminence, Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia [ROCOR], by Archpriest Alexander Lebedev of ROCOR’s department of inter-Orthodox relations.

A key item on Monday evening’s agenda was a discussion of the Town Hall Meetings held in the summer of 2008 in preparation for the Council. His Grace, Bishop Nikon of Boston, New England, and the Albanian Archdiocese, reviewed the Town Hall process and objectives. He stated that the hierarchs and Preconciliar Commission members who took part in the meetings clearly exprienced the pain, hopes, and concerns of the clergy and faithful in attendance. Bishop Nikon shared his hope that the Town Hall Meetings, together with the All-American Council, would be instrumental in the healing that is necessary in the OCA at this time. Following Bishop Nikon’s remarks, a question and answer session began, during which Council delegates presented written questions to the hierarchs. Members of the Holy Synod began responding to the questions at that session, offering additional responses the following day.

Monday’s session ended with the celebration of Compline with the Canon of Repentance and a meditation on repentance delivered by Bishop Tikhon, who stressed the importance of understanding one’s own brokenness in light of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. It is the reality of the Lord’s death and rising again, he said, that gives context and strength in the face of all suffering.

The second day of the Council, November 11, 2008, opened with a hierarchical Divine Liturgy concelebrated by Archbishop Dmitri, Bishop Tikhon, and His Grace, Bishop Alejo of Mexico City and the Exarchate of Mexico. At the end of the Liturgy, in honor of Veterans Day in the USA and Remembrance Day in Canada, both of which fall on November 11, the hierarchs and military chaplains celebrated a Memorial Litiya for those who had fallen in battle and veterans of military conflicts who had entered eternal rest.

Later in the morning, Council participants were saddened to learn of the that the Archpriest Stephen Karaffa, rector of Saints Peter and Paul Church, Burr Ridge, IL, who was attending the Council, had fallen asleep in the Lord shortly after the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy. At the beginning of Tuesday afternoon’s session, Bishop Tikhon served a Memorial Litiya for the repose of his soul.

On Tuesday afternoon, Council delegates discussed the report and recommendations of the OCA’s Special Investigating Committee [SIC] that was charged with looking into past financial mismanagement at the OCA Chancery. His Grace, Bishop Benjamin of San Francisco and the West, SIC chair, and other members of the committee moderated these sessions, during which other hierarchs sat among the faithful rather than at a head table. Council participants engaged in a frank, open. and respectful dialogue about the SIC’s work, conclusions, and recommendations.

On Tuesday evening, Council participants heard reports from three of the four OCA Chancery administrative team members—Archpriest Alexander Garklavs, Chancellor; Archpriest Eric G. Tosi, Secretary; and Archpriest Andrew Jarmus, Director of Ministries and Communications. Each officer summarized their written reports, which can be read here. The fourth administrative team member, Priest Michael Tassos, Treasurer, gave his report on Church finances on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 12.

At the end of the day, Council delegates and observers heard responses from OCA hierarchs to a number of the written questions presented to the Holy Synod the previous evening. Among the hierarchs offering responses was Bishop Nikon, who spoke of the need to nurture unity within the Church and stressed that this internal unity was critical before unity with other Orthodox jurisdictions could become a reality. His Eminence, Archbishop Nathaniel of Detroit and the Romanian Episcopate explained the ongoing dialogue between the Episcopate and the Patriarchate of Romania as they examine the possibility of uniting all Romanian Orthodox faith in North America into a single autonomous Church body. Bishop Tikhon also spoke, stressing that the most important task before the clergy and faithful of the OCA was to “seek the light and allow the Lord to act.”

What is identified by many as the turning point of the Council came with the words of the first hierarch to speak, His Grace, Bishop Jonah, who had been selected by the members of the Holy Synod to offer responses to questions submitted on Monday evening on their behalf. Bishop Jonah spoke openly and forthrightly about the crisis in which the OCA had been mired over the past several years. He emphasized that the days of leadership by intimidation were over in the Orthodox Church in America. He stressed that Christ-centered leadership is based in love, and that obedience to leadership is cooperation out of love and respect. “Authority is responsibility. Authority is accountability. It’s not power,” he stated emphatically. He also said that members of the Church must put aside feelings of bitterness, acknowledging that these emotions are harmful to oneself and to others—especially to those who are closest. Instead, he added, the Church’s clergy and faithful must choose to move forward in love. Bishop Jonah’s honest and heartfelt answers drew such a positive response from Council participants that in the hearts of many the necessary outcome of the following morning’s session seemed clear.

On Wednesday, November 12, several clergy involved in misison work across the OCA concelebrated at a Divine Liturgy at which Bishop Jonah presided. In his homily, Bishop Jonah said that the task of evangelization not only belongs to people who go out to establish new parishes, but is the work of every Christian. “Each and every one of us has been anointed with the gift of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to reveal through our lives, through our actions, by how we treat one another—by the nature of our relationships—and then by our words that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, that Jesus Christ has given us forgiveness, if we repent,” he said. “And that Good News of forgiveness of sins, of repentance, is what our world is so longing to hear.”

Following the Divine Liturgy, the much anticipated special session at which a new Metropolitan of All America and Canada would be elected commenced. According to the OCA Statue, delegates at an All-American Council vote for a candidate or candidates to be considered for election by the Holy Synod of Bishops. If the delegates select one name with two-thirds majority vote on a first ballot, this name is forwarded to the Holy Synod. If no name receives the two-thirds vote, a second ballot is taken and the top two names are forwarded to the hierarchs for consideration. On the first ballot, the two hierarchs receiving the greatest number of votes were His Eminence, Archbishop Job of Chicago and the Midwest, and Bishop Jonah; neither received the two-thirds majority. On the second ballot, Archbishop Job and Bishop Jonah again received the greatest number of votes, after which their names were submitted to the Holy Synod of Bishops for consideration and canonical election.

The members of the Holy Synod retired into the the chapel’s altar for prayerful deliberation. Shortly thereafter, Archbishop Dmitri announced that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to this sacred Council of the Holy Orthodox Church in America, to elect this 12th day of November, 2008, to the office of Archbishop of Washington and New York, Metropolitan of All America and Canada, Bishop Jonah of Forth Worth. Axios!” The announcement of Bishop Jonah’s election, who had received the greatest number of votes on both ballots, brought an overwhelming, joyous response from Council participants. Amid chants and calls of “Axios—He is worthy!!” Bishop Jonah was brought into the midst of the hierarchs, clergy, and faithful and installed as the new Metropolitan of All America and Canada.

After the Rite of Installation, the newly-elected Metropolitan remained in the plenary hall, blessing the clergy and faithful who approached him to offer their prayerful best wishes. News of Metropolitan Jonah’s election quickly spread, especially via the internet, and it was not long before greetings from hierarchs, clergy, and faithful from other parts of the US and Canada and throughout the world began to be received as well.

On Wednesday afternoon, Council participants turned their attention to reports on the financial state of the Church. During this session, moderated by OCA Treasurer, Priest Michael Tassos, delegates first heard a report from Mr. John Barrone, a partner in the accounting firm of Weiser LLP engaged in the external audit of the OCA’s 2007 financial statements. Mr. Barrone stated that his firm would be issuing a qualified opinion on the 2007 financial statements, as a result of inadequate accounting records related to the time period addressed by the SIC. He concluded by stating that what was necessary to maintain good financial practices in the Church was a proper attitude toward the importance of sound accounting procedures, competence among financial personnel, and diligence in assuring that financial practices are appropriate.

Later during this session, the OCA’s internal audit committee, chaired by Archpriest Paul Suda, reported that with only a few minor exceptions, financial matters at the OCA Chancery were in good order. He attributed this to the diligence of the Chancery’s financial staff under the supervision of Father Tassos.

To present the financial report, Father Michael was joined by Archpriest Matthew Tate, chair of the Metropolitan Council Finance Committee. Father Matthew reviewed the steps taken by the Metropolitan Council over the past four years to address the financial mismanagement that had taken place at the OCA Chancery. One of the significant changes implemented by the Metropolitan Council was to no longer pass deficit budgets, which in some cases had been as great as $1.2 million.

Father Michael then presented an outline of his activities as Treasurer from the time of his appointment in November 2007, including a review of the 2007 financial statements. He continued by reviewing Church finances to date in 2008. He concluded by listing a number of action items that require attention, which include expenses related to legal matters; ensuring that financial reporting is done in a regular, timely, and accurate manner; and implementation of the Blackbaud accounting software. He further emphasized that, while finances must be cared for properly and responsibly, the life of the Church was not about money, but about doing the work to which Christ had entrusted to His People. Keeping finances in order helps to ensure that the Church can do its primary task effectively.

The final financial report of the day was given by Archpriest Michael Westerberg, Group Leader of the OCA Pension Board. Father Michael noted that approximately 62% of eligible OCA clergy are members of the Pension Plan. He also noted that as of November 7, 2008, the Pension Plan was worth over $19,000,000.00. Although the worth of the Plan had dropped as markets dipped, the worth increased from 2007. In response to concerns resulting from pending legal actions against the Church, Father Michael stated that the plan’s assets are separate from those of the Church. All Pension Plan assets belong to participants.

Wednesday’s sessions concluded with a formal dinner for Council participants, guests, and faithful from local OCA parishes. Special dinner guests included His Grace, Bishop Mark of Toledo and the Midwest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, who was present at the Council throughout the day, including at the election of Metropolitan Jonah. Another special guest was Archpriest Alexander Lebedev, who represented ROCOR Metropolitan Hilarion.

The keynote speaker at the dinner was the OCA Chancellor, Father Alexander Garklavs, who stated that conflicts are not new to the Church. He said that the scandal the OCA faced was “a sign of our coming of age.” It represented a part of the maturation process of the Church. Acknowledging that there will be ongoing challenges in Church life, he stated that the faithful will persevere to a large extent through the legacy of the Church’s living Tradition. He then went on to speak directly to the clergy, stating that although very difficult at times, the priestly ministry is the most noble of vocations. He concluded by expressing his gratitude to the members of the local planning Committee and the volunteer staff that assisted them. He also thanked the clergy of the Church and the Holy Synod of Bishops. Referring to the election of Metropolitan Jonah, he stated that, although there are complaints that the bishops do not speak out enough, this day they spoke out clearly without even saying a word.

Other presenters during the dinner were Mr. Nick Chakos of International Orthodox Christian Charities [IOCC] and Priest David Rucker of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center [OCMC], both of whom highlighted the work of their respective organizations. Both presenters made it clear that ministry, such as that undertaken by IOCC and OCMC, is the core work of the Church.

The final speaker of the evening was Metropolitan Jonah, who began by stating again that Christian leadership is grounded in service, not in power. He went on to share his vision of the work that lies before the OCA, stressing that the heart of the Church’s work was ministry, such as campus ministry and evangelization. These ministries provide a safe haven and a place for healing in a society filled with pain and disillusionment. He also identified inter-Church relations as an important priority for the OCA; in order to be respected and affirmed by other Churches, he said, it is essential that the OCA respect and affirm them as well. The most important thing that each believer can do, he stressed, is to live out the Orthodox faith and life, making a new commitment to spiritual discipline and sacramental life. He further stated that making this commitment bears much fruit in one’s personal life and ensures that the initiatives taken on by the Church are filled with grace.

The final day of the Council, Thursday, November 13, 2008, coincided with the the Feast of Saint John Chrysostom. The hierarchical Divine Liturgy celebrated by Metropolitan Jonah, who in his homily reflected on the words of the day’s Gospel reading from Saint John, in which Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd, Metropolitan Jonah spoke of the task of the pastor. “When we exercise our own pastoral office in whatever context it is, whether it’s the father in a family, whether it’s the mother in a family, whether it’s the priest in a parish, a bishop in a diocese, or—I will be finding out—the Metropolitan of a local Church, we come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly, that they might be filled with joy, that they might be able to banish despair, that they might have hope.” He continued by stating that the only way this life is achievable is for the faithful to place Christ above all else, because “very few things cannot be worked out and resolved if we approach them with good will, if we approach them keeping Christ first and foremost as the criteria of our life and our judgment.”

Following the Divine Liturgy, delegates gathered for the closing plenary session. The first item on the agenda was a continuation of the discussion on Church finances initiated on the prior evening. A central issue was the approval of the per capita assessment for the next three-year term, which included a discussion on the resolution proposed by the Diocese of Western Pennsylvania to reduce the assessment to $50.00 per adult member. In the ensuing discussion, Metropolitan Jonah shared is conviction that funding the central Church by a “head tax” must come to an end. The proper way to fund Church life is through the biblical model of tithing—a target of 10% giving. He identified the goal of scaling down central administrative operations so that they may be funded by tithes received from dioceses. However, he added that it will take time for the Church to embrace this model as a whole, and that in the interim there are financial needs that the central administration must meet. He said that a radical reduction in assessments would not allow the Church to meet its responsibilities and would hinder the effective operations of the central Church, including the work that he would be able to accomplish as Primate.

After much discussion, Council delegates passed a per capita assessment of $105.00 per adult member for the next three-year term. With this decision, the Council also expressed the expectation that the OCA would move to a model of percentage giving for funding the work of the Church, ideally by the 16th All-American Council. A related motion stated that dioceses may pay their assessments by means of proportional giving during the next three years instead of waiting for this issue to be discussed at the next All-American Council.

Delegates also heard a brief presentation from OCA General Counsel, Mr. Thaddeus Wojcik, who defined his role as OCA general counsel “as helping Church leadership comply with the law.” Another brief presentation was given Mr. George Caravakis of the Orthodox Health Plan, who spoke about plan benefits and announced that the plan was having an open enrollment through the month of November.

The final session of the All-American Council also heard a report from the Council’s Resolutions Committee, chaired by Archpriest John Erickson. Among the resolutions considered, Council delegates unanimously recognized former OCA Treasurer, Protodeacon Eric Wheeler, who brought to light the financial mismanagement at the OCA Chancery, and offered an apology to him for the mistreatment that he had endured as a result of his actions.

New officers to serve on the Metropolitan Council and Pension Board also were elected. The clergy delegates elected to the Metropolitan Council were Archpriest David Garretson, Saints Peter and Paul Church, South River, NJ, who will serve a six-year term, and Archpriest Theodore Bobosh, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, Dayton, OH, who will serve a three-year term. Elected as Metropolitan Council lay delegate for a six-year term was Dr. Faith Skordinski, while Protodeacon Peter Danilchik was elected to serve a three-year term. The alternate delegates are Priest Thomas Moore, Holy Apostles Church, Columbia, SC, and Dr. Paul Meyendorff.

Clergy members elected to the OCA Pension Board were Archpriest John Zdinak, St. Theodosius Cathedral, Cleveland, OH, and and Priest Gleb McFatter, St. Demetrius Mission, Naples, FL, who will both serve six-year terms, and Priest John Hopko, Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, Terryville, CT, elected to serve a three-year term. Archpriest John Adamcio, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Chicago, IL, was elected alternate. Lay members elected include Mr. John Sedor, elected to serve for six years, and Mr. Gregory Shesko, who will serve for three years. Mr. Martin Brown will serve as alternate.

Delegates also passed an amendment to the OCA Statue which mandates that the Metropolitan Council appoint members to the Church’s internal audit committee and requires that all members of this committee be qualified with appropriate financial experience. The other proposed statue amendments, concerning the procedure for electing a Metropolitan, was tabled with the hope that, given the age of Metropolitan Jonah, the need to elect a new Primate would not arise for many years to come.

The overwhelming majority of participants at the Council spoke of the gathering as a watershed moment for the Church. Many delegates and guests shared the belief that what was accomplished came to be by the action of the Holy Spirit. In a spirit of open dialogue, “speaking the truth in love,” and with the election of a new Metropolitan, participants stated that they could return to their parishes to report that the OCA had turned a corner and that there was much hope for the Church’s future.

More information about the 15th All-American Council and about Metropolitan Jonah is available on the OCA web site and will be featured in the Nativity/Theophany issue of “The Orthodox Church” magazine, which also will report on the installation of Metropolitan Jonah at the end of December 2008. Further details and minutes will be posted as soon as they become available.