“Facing Forward” Part 3:  Nurturing healthy parishes

In Orthodox Christian circles we talk a lot about “healthy parishes.”  And we occasionally hear people making great sport of criticizing definitions and concepts offered on this topic.  But what do we really mean by the term “healthy parish?”  What do “healthy parishes” look and feel like?  What does on therein?  And how to we help put every parish on the path to living a life in Christ in a more complete manner?

With these questions in mind, a Parish Health Summit was convened by the Diocese of the Midwest of the Orthodox Church in America in 2008.  It brought together clergy representing over a dozen growing parishes—parishes that had more than doubled in aggregate size over the preceding two decades.  The participating priests offered a combined total of over 250 years of pastoral ministry.  The primary aim of the summit was to “pick the brains” of these clergy in an attempt to generate a model—or a set of principles—that are essential to maintaining and expanding “healthy parishes.”

Subsequently, the “Parish Health Inventory Model” [PHIM] was developed, based on all that was shared, discussed, debated and defined during the summit.  The PHIM provides a valuable and specific set of eight focus areas—enumerated below—summit participants discerned as essential for parishes in developing a Gospel-centered ministry and in building/rebuilding/injecting vitality.

[At this point, you may wish to download the PHIM, titled “Building Healthy, Hopeful American Orthodox Parish Communities”.  Its contents can easily be applied to any and every parish in reflecting on its present and ongoing ministry.]

Gospel Vision

The model examines Orthodox parish life in terms of eight essential areas.

1.  A Gospel-centered vision:  Self-awareness and perception, atmosphere, growth and replication.
A healthy parish clearly understands that its reason for existence—in a word, its “mission”—is to serve the Living God and to share its love of God with others.  This vision provides a foundation for how the parish behaves, how it presents itself to its neighbors, and what it truly values, based on a realistic context that integrates its past, its assets, its strengths and limitations, and its environment.

2.  Worship: Liturgical preparedness, congregational participation, effective preaching.
Above all, the People of God are a “worshipping People,” called not only to share and proclaim the Gospel, but to celebrate it through the Liturgy, the sacraments, the psalms and the overall worship of the Church.  Building on the vision of the Gospel, healthy parish communities remember that the fundamental “purpose” of the liturgical services is the worship of God—the very thing that the Church, and the Church alone, can “do… in Spirit and Truth.”  The members of the community strive to please God, not themselves—the Church’s worship is “God-centered/focused,” not “Me-centered/focused.”  And the People of God must strive consistently to offer their best through worship that is holy, joyous, peaceful, enlivening, inspiring and filled with thankfulness.

3.  Shared Leadership:  Sharing/delegating responsibility, leading change, functional structures and administration, open financial practice and reporting.
Healthy parishes craft administrative structures that are appropriate to the size and vision of the community.  Ministries are defined, appropriately funded and equipped.  Parish lay leaders see themselves as stewards of a Christian community collaborating with the parish’s clergy to build and expland the community’s health and vibrancy.  They are not the parish business managers, trustees, owners, or disinterested commentators and/or critics.  While “functions” may vary, the individual gifts and ministries of every parish leader, clergy and laity alike, is one and the same.

4.  Open Communication:  Consensus and dialogue, dealing with conflict, internal communication.
Putting a collaborative leadership structure into action requires the ability to effectively communicate as a body.  To do so, healthy parishes work to establish a clear competency for consensus, dialogue and listening and the ability—and desire—to humbly “speak the truth in love” to one another.  They seek and integrate multiple perspectives and marginal views.  Then they consistently reinforce communication by appropriately harnessing multiple forms of spoken, written, visual and electronic communications forms.

5.  Authentic Community:  Atmosphere of love and honest fellowship, entry and incorporation of new members, connectedness to larger Church, appropriate facilities.
Enabled by an ability to dialogue openly, healthy parishes work hard to establish a culture in which their identity as Orthodox Christians is lived out in such a manner that anyone who enters can see the hallmarks of Christian community: love, selfless giving, mutual encouragement, forgiveness, kindness, patience, hospitality and compassion.  Christ can be recognized in their midst.  People linger, smile and laugh.  Healthy parishes think through ways to assimilate new members; that is, they “make room” for others.  They see themselves not as independent congregations, but as interdependent with other Orthodox Christian communities.

6.  Christian Formation: Spirituality, education, financial generosity.
Supported by an appropriately comprehensive parish-wide education effort, vibrant parish communities develop a commitment to life-long learning and personal spiritual growth and change.  Educational efforts are informational, formational and transformational—incorporating self-study, experience events and mentoring in addition to books and classes.  There is a clear focus on understanding and living Orthodox spirituality—life in the Holy Spirit.  Stewardship is taught in the particular context of gratitude and generosity and love of neighbor.

7.  Active Service: Discernment of gifts, effective ministries.
Clergy offer consistent endorsement to members as they discern how they can best contribute to the community.  Members are regularly and actively encouraged to discover their gifts and to use them for the glory of God.  An appropriate set of internally and externally focused ministries provides ample opportunity for people to put their gifts and talents to work.

8.  Spreading the Gospel: Parish evangelization atmosphere, personal evangelization practice, sensitivity to spiritual needs of others, external communication.
Healthy parishes do not see themselves as “closed” communities—coveting the Good News as “our little secret” delivered to “our people.”  They consistently work to shine their light in the community in which they exist with an evangelistic intent not primarily centered on numerical growth, but rather on the desire to bring others to Christ.  The parish does not want to get everything “right on the inside” before reaching out, but consistently works to make things right on the inside while reaching out.

This PHIM is especially useful to

  • healthy parishes who wish to review and assess their strengths and weaknesses and to identify and focus on areas that may need improvement.
  • plateaued parishes that are neither growing, nor diminishing, but find the need to propel forward.  The PHIM can help discern what such parishes “could be” by stimulating ideas and renewing commitment.
  • parishes in early decline in which some members see the need for change even though the symptoms of decline are not readily noticed.  The PHIM attempts to describe one version of a stronger future.
  • parishes in peril, stuck in “yesterday” without a vision of tomorrow or existing in a state of denial, may experience a useful “nudge” by simply discussing one or two portions of the PHIM, allowing the parish to face facts and to develop a sense of urgency about its future.
  • parishes in transition—that is, parishes awaiting the arrival of a new pastor that wish to assess their current situation, where they wish to go, and how to share their vision with newly assigned clergy.

A word of caution.

While many Orthodox Christian parishes have used the PHIM as a framework for discussions on renewal and expanding their mission, it is critical to keep in mind that the Model is

  • not a catechism.  While the Model has formative value for parish leaders, parishioners and clergy, it is not designed to teach the Orthodox faith.  It is a collection of good practices and principles that have worked well in many parishes.
  • one model, not the model.  Disagreeing with or rethinking the contents can be useful and healthy.  On the other hand, we caution users not focus solely on disproving the contents, as there is abundant evidence that most ideas are effective when properly contextualized.
  • a point of access to a broader view of good practice.  The PHIM was developed with the input of a dozen rectors from growing parishes.  As a result, the items in the Inventory provide a partial view into the life of a number of vibrant parishes—a resource not readily available to most clergy and laity.
  • not the next “big thing.”  There are those who reject using any resource simply because it appears to be “oversold” or “hyped.”  Heed well.  The Inventory is not a “silver bullet.”  It is a tool that, when used well, can help accelerate action, build consensus and raise the quality of the discussion.  Ultimately, you must still “do the work!”