Increasing Participative Democracy in our Churches

Posted on November. 18. 2021

The last few years during the pandemic have been a time of extraordinary challenges and unprecedented learning. It is a shame that it takes a pandemic to teach us how to simplify our lives or to focus on what is essential, but times of crisis tend to do exactly that. Each of us has discovered something that has helped us capture an experience we may have lost or embraced a behavior that has improved the quality of our lives. It is far more satisfying to focus on the good we have learned rather than the obvious frustrations. Many of us have experienced the benefit of technology during these trying times. “Zoom” is a household term today but was barely understood two years ago. Video conferencing has offered separated families an opportunity to “see” each other. We should never underestimate the evolution of this technology. It wasn’t that long ago that video conferencing meant low resolution images and frozen screens. With improvements, grandparents were able to communicate with their blessed grandchildren during those stressful times of isolation. The economy continued despite the pandemic because working at home was enabled by sophisticated video conferencing and file sharing technology. In fact, this technology will permanently change the logistics of the work environment which may add some much needed flexibility for overstressed families.

I would like to apply this observation to the Armenian community. The National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) is an organization headquartered in the Boston area. After years of planning, a $7M center was opened in Belmont, MA shortly before the pandemic. The new center, similar to every facility, was closed shortly after opening. The inability to meet on site shut down all activity from the numerous public programs, organizational meetings and planned activities. NAASR resorted to online communication to continue its work. The programming area experienced a remarkable resurgence. With the use of Zoom, YouTube and other streaming technologies, programming was available live worldwide. The participation level skyrocketed with both live and replay participation. The technology includes interactive options for Q&A, content sharing and multiple site presenters. The quantity of programs has increased since the logistics are easier to schedule. Presenters and participants can be in the comfort of their homes. When the facility reopens, all programming will include face-to-face audiences with live-streaming options. The feedback from participants has indicated that they are pleased with the quality of the transmission and their ability to participate. Many other organizations are doing the same thing, and given the quality of the technology, an entire new channel has opened to reach our intended audiences. This is particularly gratifying for those who are physically unable to attend programs.

The next challenge NAASR faced was how to conduct its annual assembly of members. Prior to the pandemic, the meeting was held annually in the Boston area. The result of an ‘on-site only’ meeting meant that members who were unable to attend in the Boston area could not participate. The organization had considered solutions prior to the pandemic, but it was not until the shutdown that solutions were researched. A committee was formed to ensure that holding a virtual assembly would be consistent with NAASR’s bylaws. Ultimately, it was confirmed that a virtual assembly would be acceptable. Various Zoom platforms were researched, as well as secure voting software to conduct an assembly with integrity. We chose a Zoom platform that accommodated presentations to the membership and interactive dialogue. A voting package for elections was selected that sent the ballots to the email of those registered for the assembly and a simple return window was established. The results were electronically tabulated, confirmed and communicated to members the next day. They have experienced this process for two annual meetings with no issues of integrity or confusion. It has enabled members from anywhere to be a full participant. Those not living in a commutable distance from Boston are no longer at a disadvantage to fully exercise their rights as members. Those unable to physically attend can also participate.

(Photo: Facebook/St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church, December 2016)

Now, let’s talk about the Armenian church. Prior to the pandemic, most churches would hold their parish assemblies in January or February. In every parish, there are many long-serving dedicated members who may vacation in Florida or elsewhere and are unable to attend the meeting. There are also many elder members who are unable to attend in winter months. We also have young families where a meeting after church simply doesn’t work with children. Frankly, this has always bothered me, particularly since we have the technology to minimize the impact. Our job as a church institution should be to optimize the democratic foundations that we cherish. The parish assembly is the core of the participative processes in the local church. It is through this process that we review the past year, debate the direction of the parish and elect the leaders of the lay council. It is where individual members exercise their rights. Self-imposed limitations should be unacceptable if we are serious about including everyone in the life of the church. When I was kid, we used to have an adult entertain the youth with movies. Those days are over. There was a time more recently when ACYOA and AYF members would watch the children while the young parents participated. This is still done in some communities but has diminishing value since only a handful take advantage of it, and you are still under time constants with naps and other family routines. For many young families, participating from the comfort of their own homes is a better alternative than skipping the meetings. What about those who are vacationing or unable to physically attend? A virtual option would give hundreds a path to participation. These are people who have extensive experience, abundant wisdom and deserve the opportunity. It will increase the quality of the gathering and church administration.

The mechanics of implementation are fairly straightforward. In today’s environment, virtually everyone has access to a smart device such as a phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer. All of the churches that I have discussed this with (from both the Prelacy and the Diocese) have WiFi available in the church center and access to a monitor or screen for video transmission. The church camera would be focused on the live audience (very similar to the way we live stream badarak). Two pieces of software are readily available: the meeting software such as Zoom which can be tailored to the needs of the meeting process (participants, meeting format, etc.) and the voting software. The process is simple and assures the integrity of participation. The result has been a meeting run with confidence in the results and an increase in the participants.

For NAASR, this has meant that members from literally anywhere in the US or around the world can fully participate. For our churches, it is an opportunity to allow all members to fully engage in this important process and increase participation without compromising the integrity of the meeting. Both the Diocese and the Prelacy have experienced virtual assemblies at the diocese level due to the pandemic. This capability should be extended post-pandemic to all parishes. The use of this technology is a step in the right direction in addressing the increasing logistics challenges that our parishes face. Our congregants are spread out from the parish center. The days of community churches have passed us with the exception of a few communities with the population density to make it a short commute. We have seen the impact of this dilemma: part-time participation. The challenge of driving a distance is excessive for many families. We can encourage people to make the commitment but the complexity of a 30 to 60-minute drive with children is very difficult. The church must end its stubbornness that everything must be on-site. Remote Bible studies in other locales, online education programming and virtual meetings must be an integral part of the church’s vision in America. If your parish is doing this, fantastic. If not, then please embrace the opportunity.

There is no question that the tools for this vision are available and user friendly. The cost of implementation for the assemblies is minimal…essentially the license fees for the software. The main issue is our level of readiness. Do we feel enough dissatisfaction with the current reality that we will embrace or will we avoid change as we turn out the lights? Think about the evolution of online degree programs in universities in the last 20 years. As the demographics began to change in the university market, some visionaries saw online degrees as a new approach to access students and improve meeting their mission. For students, it offered a new level of flexibility to meet their goals. An entire generation has obtained degrees that perhaps would have missed the opportunity if on-campus programming was the only option. Many doubted the integrity and credibility of this strategy. Today, it is an integral part of every college and university. Our church needs a similar perspective. The market is limited with the current approach. Our performance the last 25 years is ample evidence. We don’t need to abandon our traditions. We need to create new ones that meet the needs of a generation that has learned literally everything from internet-based processes. Change is hard especially in a multi-generation community culture, but experiencing decline is more painful. What is being proposed is no different than what our people have brilliantly accomplished over the last centuries: adaptation. Our vision must be to expand participation with integrity. The use of selective technology provides us that opportunity. Don’t fear change. Fear decline.

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