“Facing Forward” Part 5:  What growing parishes share in common

Every parish is distinctive and unique.  And while no two communities are alike, experience has shown that growing parishes share a number of “common traits.”  Below—in no particular order—are ten traits that surfaced at a recent workshop aimed at discerning the “vital signs” of a healthy, growing parish.

1.  Christians first.
Workshop attendees emphasized the importance of helping parishioners remember that too often we focus on the specifics of “being Orthodox” to the detriment of the basics of “being Christian.”  Versions of “I remind my flock that to be Orthodox is to be a right believing Christian, that we’re Christian first—precisely by being Orthodox” and “we try to lay a strong foundation of the basics of the Gospel” surfaced throughout the workshop.

2.  Focus on the neighborhood.
Growing parishes make their presence known in their local neighborhoods and communities in a variety of ways—through ministerial associations, chambers of commerce, “buying local,” maintaining lines of communication with the media, involvement with community-based charitable endeavors, partnering with various agencies in reaching out to the needy, and other venues.  One priest offered, “We work hard to avoid allowing our parish to turn inward on itself.”

3.  Diversity.
None of the growing parishes represented at the workshop was dominated by a single, “traditionally Orthodox” ethnic background.  Newer parishes were not “ethnically consistent,” while older parishes had often transitioned into pan-Orthodox communities or convert-centric parishes.  Participants also noted the importance of generational and economic diversity among their parishioners.

4.  Find a ministry.
While many workshop attendees mentioned the need to be sensitive of various levels of engagement on the part of parishioners, efforts to encourage everyone to “find a ministry” were seen as central in a growing parish.  Many parishes reported a broad set of ministry areas—“something for everyone.”  [One parish reported how it had developed 37 distinct ministry areas.]  Equally important is the identification of members’ gifts and talents and channeling them for proper use within the Church.

5.  Say “thank you” often.
Perhaps the simplest yet most commonly expressed idea from participants was the tremendous importance of clergy and lay leaders expressing collective—and personal—thanks to parishioners for their good efforts.  A measure of praise and appreciation goes a long way in building a hopeful community outlook.

6.  “Yes more than no.”
There was a palpable sense among the workshop’s clergy participants that in order to help parishioners connect with the work of the parish, lay persons need to be trusted.  Efforts to delegate abound.  In growing parishes, fresh new ideas are more often met with “okay, lets try that” than “not in this parish” or—even worse—“we’ve never done it that way before.”

7.  Web sites and social media.
Participants almost universally agreed on the importance of effective web sites and a social media presence.  Many of them mentioned that their web site and/or Facebook presence were by far the primary ways enquirers—Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike—find the parish.  E-mail and blogs were also mentioned as important tools in parish communication.

8.  Limited fundraising.
When the commitment to stewardship is evident, fundraising efforts become quite secondary, often limited to specific fellowship or charitable causes rather than “making ends meet.”  Growing parishes tend to expend little energy on fundraising, and many do not engage in it at all.

9.  Parish council.
Growing parishes maintain a “give and take” attitude—a synergy—between clergy and laity.  Effective parish councils are concerned with “more than money and minutiae.”  Working hand-in-hand with the parish’s clergy, councils can focus on “what is God calling us to do” and “how do we face forward” rather than “how do we make it through the end of the month?”  Maintenance issues become secondary to taking action that builds up the health and vibrancy of the parish.

10.  Broad stewardship.
Probably the most consistent theme that surfaces when surveying common traits among growing parishes is the sense of broad stewardship of the community.  One participant noted that in reasonably healthy parishes, members are more likely to see the parish not as “their own,” but as belonging to Christ—and ascent to their roles as caretakers of something they have received from the Lord Himself.