What follows is the “From the Pastor” column, 2015 Fall Newsletter:
Looking Back, Moving Forward
This year marks the 20th Anniversary of Ordination (June 1, Feast of the Ascension to the Deaconate; August 6, Transfiguration of Christ to the Presbyterate-Priesthood). The deaths this year of my predecessor at St Matthew’s (Fr. Spyridon Papdemetriou, May 22) and the confessor for most of my life as in full time ministry (Fr. Roman Braga, April 28) have added to a time of reflection as well.
Both of the aforementioned men were ordained longer than I have been alive. One was married and the other a priestmonk. With Fr Spyridon, we experienced a priest who was trying to maintain the traditions of the Church and his cultural heritage. For Fr Roman, after suffering over 11 years of imprisonment under the Communist yoke in Romania, he came to America with the heart to share the Gospel with the land that was his adopted home. The loss of Fr Roman was especially difficult for me as he was truly a spiritual parent in the best sense of the phrase (though I don’t know how good a spiritual child I was to him), always encouraging the outreach of St Matthew’s in a Church culture that focuses on the “big and flashy.” Both men experienced difficulty, whether it was with certain key emotionally, verbally and financially abusive parishioners (with the excuse “because we pay you”) or serious persecution in prisons and labor camps. What these two clergy had in common was how they never held resentments against those who abused them even when the pressures affected their families and loved ones
As any married clergy know, there is an “us” in ordination (e.g. deacons wives are “diakonisa;” presbyter/priests wives are “presbytera”). When we were married, there was no thought with my wife or I about ordination (the hope was to eventually get a Ph.D. and teach). It would be from among the Parishioners of our Church in Colorado that, after 7 years of marriage (and 2 years of debate and self-questioning, aware of many of the many challenges), ordination took place.
A pastor learns who can be relied upon and trusted within the Community and to what degree. Preaching and trying to model the Gospel is trying to help people understand the reality of Christ versus “mine or your opinion.” In the GOA, one must go extensive psychological testing prior to ordination. But this is not infallible. One learns that you can never hide behind the robes from others and, most importantly, Christ and oneself trying to avoid the healings need to happen in one’s own life.
Each parish is often a microcosm of the Church at large in terms of what levels of spiritual and emotional health influences the direction of the Community. The main challenges, from what I’ve experienced growing up in Orthodoxy and now two decades of ordained ministry seem to be: 1. Seeing Parish “membership/stewardship” needing to be clearly synonymous with deliberate, conscious commitment to Christ in terms of belief and lifestyle (being a Christian means being a disciple, understood as being an ”apprentice” to learn to work with and on the Mentor’s project); and 2. What it corporately means to be intentional Church, from which the presence of Jesus reaches into the world with His healing activity. This means the network of relationships that make up the Community being a healing presence, integrating those desiring to join the Church as a sober member, regardless of their background and past struggles.
As more families have been coming to St Matthew’s, we continue to focus on our outreach and growth as a Community in terms of our worship, the health of our relationships and personal and family lives, and growing in fuller lay ministries. We look to being in a permanent home in the not too distant future as well. But the foremost concern is what and WHO the building will house (Christ reaching out into the world). We are thankful for all who support our Parish, those who, in more than words (sadly, of which we have too many of in Orthodoxy), understand the need for parishes like St Matthew’s.
I am especially grateful for the parishioners of St Matthew’s, lay people who want to live the vision, as well as clergy, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, who have been supportive in many tangible ways. May the LORD bless us to see the next stages of development that He will bring about by the operation of the Holy Spirit.