Posted on June. 10. 2022
by Stepan Piligian | The Armenian Weekly
One of the most important roles of participants in our Armenian diaspora communities is to have an opinion on critical issues that is hopefully based on direct experience and facts. Our problem is not that we are lacking in opinions. There is an element of truth in the saying that with four Armenians in a room, you will have five viewpoints. Having a perspective ensures you are engaged and feel a sense of responsibility. The alternative is a community of ambivalence. Of course, a multitude of opinions is helpful only if there is a commitment to a consensus that will allow us to move forward. Subordinating our egos is the key variable in that case. We’ll save that challenge for a future column. When it comes to our leaders, particularly in the church, it is essential to engage directly. Opinions are best formed from experience, not rumors. This requires outreach on our part to meet and share perspectives with our leaders. Only then will they become the beneficiaries of support through dialogue, and we will develop a stronger bond. As we discussed last week, the walls that keep the relationships formal or indirect need to be taken down. The church is the Body of Christ made up of the faithful. No one primate or prelate is going to move the mountain of success without the “pull” of the laity.
Last week, I attended a beautiful badarak on the Feast of the Ascension at the Church of the Holy Ascension in Trumbull, CT. I have many friends there as my sister and her family have been active for many years. The parish and their pastor, Der Untzag, will always hold a special place in my heart because it is where my mother spent the last years of her life in the warmth of that community. The service was attended by over a dozen members of the clergy including the former Primate Bishop Daniel and the newly elected Primate Hayr Mesrop. I was looking forward to meeting Hayr Soorp to offer my congratulations and begin the individual commitment of supporting his leadership. To my delight, I found him to be very outgoing, humble in his approach and quite refreshing in his discussion on issues of the church. I must add that the presence of Bishop Findikyan was a class act and most worthy of our admiration. We understand the clergy are all Christian brothers but they are also subject to the emotions of human beings. My understanding is that Bishop Daniel accepted the invitation prior to the primate election. He could have found any number of excuses not to attend and avoid all those awkward questions. Let us not underestimate the humility and love required to minister at that level. I know that God has a plan for him to continue his important service to the church.
I am certain that the new primate has and will receive an incredible amount of input in the form of complaints, opinions and ideas. Processing that information into usable content will be a challenge. In a perfect state, our primate should initially focus on listening, and once he has an understanding of the needs of the diocese, he will share his vision and the programs that support it. I would like to take this opportunity to offer some essentials for the primate to consider in the interest of our beloved church.
Articulate a Unifying Vision
Too often our leaders go about their role by simply managing the institution. This is particularly true with the church where the work continues regardless of leadership changes. A new leader has a window to paint a picture of a vibrant growing church that nourishes the needs of the faithful with energy and inclusion. It is very important for leaders to visibly lead. Our people want to follow, but they need leaders with ideas that will attract their support. They need to be inspired. For the church to have a future in America, the vision must be bold and bring people to the loving sanctuary of our church. Our people need to be unified within a landscape of our Christian faith according to the incredible depth of the Apostolic Church. New ideas must be encouraged to implement outreach to gather the wandering flock of the diaspora and to rebuild the spiritual base in the Armenian home which was always the core. Our nation suffers when the center of our community is wounded.
Rebuild our Sunday Schools
We are missing a major point today. Our tolerance for the decline of our Sunday School programs is embarrassing. In this increasingly secular world, it is no guarantee, but a solid home life and a strong youth education increase the probability. We have experienced decline on both fronts. Our approach with education seems to be that while the Sunday Schools decline, we will focus on teenage programs such ACYOA, St. Nersess, Datev Institute and camps. They are excellent, but it assumes we have strong feeder programs such as Sunday Schools. Education begins with pre-school building values on communal education and familiarity with attending worship. The rebirth of our Sunday Schools must consider alternative methods to reach an increasingly geographically diverse demographic and children where one of the spouses may not be Armenian. Animation streaming programming and other internet-based learning must be a part of increasing family support and re-igniting the strength of our schools. We cannot expect a bright future if we do not expose thousands of our children to the teaching of the church early in their lives. Addressing our Sunday Schools will advance our impact in the area of outreach.
Build an Advisor Group that Understands our Challenges
The primate or prelate rarely has a shortage of individuals advising him. They may be elected such as the diocesan council, individuals who are financial benefactors or those seeking to influence the direction. All are an important part of the amazing complexity of the primate’s role. It is, however, critical that the primate have an advisory group that truly understands what we are up against and have ideas on how to navigate the challenges. I have great empathy for the primate. He is surrounded by a plethora of individuals who may be well intended, but don’t always help him do his job. This may be because they are focused on symptoms and not root causes. For example, most of our deliberations are dominated by financial discussions: not enough income, new sources of revenue or the simple implementation of fundraising ideas. Money issues are a symptom, not a cause. When I was a young board of trustees member in Indian Orchard, we had a few lean years financially. I was told by one of the elder members something I have never forgotten. He told me that if we are doing the work of God and His church, that the money will come. As we became more focused on serving the needs of the faithful and the church, the financial issues vanished. There is a direct relationship. I believe our parishes and the diocese will become healthier financially as we focus primarily on the mission of the church. Our primate needs advisors who understand this challenge and can help address youth initiatives, intermarriage integration and family spirituality to grow the church. Less focus on money and more on the mission will lead to improved finances. What parent or grandparent will not be happy to give to a church building a future for their children?
Perception is Reality | Leadership In America
There are times when we choose to avoid topics that should be aired. There are more than a few in the Eastern Diocese who will need time to reconcile with the election results. I encourage all of them to move on (as would Bishop Daniel) and embrace the leadership of the new primate. Some will say, “Why are you bringing this up?” Simply because there is no forum for this does not mean it is being considered. Some of the diocesan faithful are fearful that the Holy See may have more direct influence and perhaps reversing some of the principles of this 123-year-old American diocese. I believe that Hayr Soorp is an intelligent and thoughtful man. He is quite well aware of this perception. If he is successful in articulating a unifying vision, that risk will fade quickly as the diocese will rally around the mission, not the personalities. The Hayr Soorp has stated that often we focus on one individual for results rather than looking at our mission as a team. A team has a leader and individuals with roles that together accomplish more than the mere sum of the parts. I think he wants to build a team, and our response will be critical to whether he is successful. I pray that the Catholicos understands this dynamic in the Eastern Diocese in America and empowers the primate to create a new reality. We all have a role in building this team: the primate, the Catholicos, other clergy and the laity. Let’s all focus on this sacred mission.
We have devoted several columns to this most important topic. The most universal institution in our community is at a critical juncture in the diaspora and has a new leader in one of its dioceses. Encouraging discussion with a pure heart during the earliest days of his tenure can offer critical support to build momentum. I am hopeful that Hayr Soorp will develop a strong primate to prelate relationship with Archbishop Anoushavan to exchange ideas and to ease the pain of our divided people. When I see our spiritual fathers together, it renews my hope. Our church has too many challenges to be burdened by any division. While we wait (impatiently) for the Catholicoi to resolve their issues, important progress has been made between the Prelacy and the Diocese at the parish level. The brotherly respect of the clergy is now quite common with worship services and sacraments. It is vital to maintain these gains as new clergy rotate in the geography. During these early months of his tenure and prior to his expected elevation to bishop, take a moment to offer your prayers and support for Hayr Soorp. For those whose paths may not cross, we have social media and email to communicate. Leaders can do little without followers. I hope that we all use this window to listen, to learn and develop a vision for our church that re-establishes our growth and prosperity for the glory of God and our beloved Armenian church.