Posted on June. 7. 2024

A great deal of our internal discussions as a community predictably include the term “leadership.” It has become somewhat of a catch-all, identified as the source of many of our challenges as a global nation. Is there a pragmatic set of expectations from our leaders that we should embrace, or are we content with unrealistic assumptions that feed our considerable criticisms? 

We should look at our institutions, such as the church, as pyramids. A broad base rises to a focused point. The base of the pyramid includes the faithful and the recipients of our outreach. Our church is a hierarchical structure, with the point being the Catholicos elected by representatives from the lay and clergy ranks. Although many Armenians complain about the decision-making processes of the church, in reality it is essentially a democratic institution. Nearly all church officials hold elected positions. This is expected in most lay organizations but is also true among the clergy in the Armenian church. All diocesan prelates or primates are elected for finite terms based on the bylaws of the region. The Catholicos is essentially a lifetime assignment but is elected by an assembly of representatives of lay and clergy delegates. The singular leadership position not elected are the parish priests who are assigned by the Prelate or Primate. Even with local clergy, in more modern times, there is collaborative dialogue between local leaders and the diocese. It is rare that unilateral actions are taken regionally. 

One could conclude that there are ample interpersonal processes within the institutional pyramid. The caveat of this transparency is that the model works only with the engagement of the base, or in the case of the church, the congregants. The faithful are the resource engine and the accountability vehicle. Practical expectations of leadership should be defined within the vast diversity of our global church. The common denominator for our church leaders should be the ability to articulate a unifying vision with a clear set of priorities to support the mission of the church. The work of executing the vision occurs in the bottom two-thirds of the pyramid. The bulk of resources need direction, synergy and inspiration to be effectively utilized. The authority structure at the top must provide a rallying point that moves the group in unison towards the endpoint. I recently read an example of this approach that illustrates pragmatic and meaningful leadership. 

The Prelacy’s National Representative Assembly (NRA) was held last week. Both the Prelacy’s NRA and Diocese’s Assembly (usually held earlier in May) are the representative legislative bodies of the eastern region. They have the authority to elect lay and clergy leaders, review activities, approve funding and define specific actions. The assemblies are usually opened with messages from the respective Catholicoi. This year’s assembly was blessed with an important vision from Vehapar Aram. Frankly, I find these assemblies (having been a delegate to both gatherings) to be long on ceremonial protocol and obligatory reporting while falling short on critical analysis and impactful decision making. They are less about the dedicated attendees and more about our structural obsession with ineffective dialogue. I found Catholicos Aram I’s message to be critically important because of its potential for establishing a clear vision for our church, which too often suffers from a lack of focus due to the diverse responsibilities it carries. A broad array of activities can be attractive but may dilute the unifying direction. 

The Vehapar spoke of the parishes as the “core” mission of the Prelacy. This may be intellectually obvious, but bears repeating in light of gaps in the pyramid. I have used a simple barometer for years to illustrate this point. If we were to make a list of the top priorities of a local parish and compare it to how time and resources are allocated at the national assemblies, how much alignment would we discover? Using simple logic, if the church is the most important institution in our communities and the church believes that the parishes are the “core” of their mission, then one could easily conclude that strong parishes are the key not only to our church’s future but the entire diaspora. 

Vehapar went on to speak of the essential synergy between parishes and communities by turning parishes into the “center of the community’s spiritual life.” His point is critical to the future of our diaspora. A weakened church would create a more secular environment for our people, fracturing the eternal bond between faith and nation. The consequences would be devastating. The Catholicos established priorities for the “reorganization and revitalization” of all aspects of parish life. He stressed the role of community outreach in what he referred to as “community oriented actions.” He closed by addressing the challenge of making the church “a living reality in the life of the community.” 

It would be a mistake for any of us to view his message as ceremonial rhetoric. I interpret his words as articulating a clear vision for the regional prelacies and their parishes. He is defining a vision for the faithful to rally around and delegating the responsibilities to where the work must be completed. He also seems to suggest broad freedom for implementation within these boundaries. Catholicos Aram I has always been a critical thinker who has embraced his role as a scholar, ecumenical trailblazer and public inspiration. He is another one of the fine clergymen in the Holy See of Cilicia who were mentored by Catholicos Karekin I of blessed memory. His Holiness has a keen understanding of the diaspora experience and clearly understands what must be done to maintain sustainability. In my opinion, there is a significant difference in focus between a diaspora-based Holy See in Antelias and the Mother See in Holy Etchmiadzin that we have yet to take full advantage of in our contemporary church. 

Catholicos Aram I has fulfilled his role by sharing a vision, articulating key priorities to support that vision and empowering the prelacies to execute that vision. What will we do with this message? What will we in the pyramid do that will make a difference? Do we get his message? When the Vehapar speaks to a vision or endpoint, it is obvious that our current state falls short of that goal. Leaders must always raise the bar for the people from the current reality. It is a positive way of defining our problems and challenges. One of the themes that excites me the most is the notion that this is not about improving the church as a stand-alone entity. It is about positioning our communities and global nation for success by increasing the effectiveness of their most important institution. The church encourages our faith, which is the embodiment of love and hope. Without love in our hearts as our motivator and hope to inspire us, we will wither as a nation. 

What should we do tomorrow to move closer to this vision? Let’s look at our parishes and their challenges. It is my view that an Armenian parish will never decline because of money. Churches decline because of a lack of faith and the faithful. I previously shared with you in this column an experience I had many years ago when I was learning how to serve our church. A debate ensued among some of the more senior leaders about a financial crisis in the parish. The prevailing view was that by ensuring God’s work was the priority, our finances would recover. Bringing our people closer to God will strengthen the faith and well-being of the parishioners. As a result, they will never let a church fail due to finances, because it is a source of nourishment. I found this to not only be true, but it has served as a guiding light in our ministries. 

For this reason, Christian outreach, according to the Armenian church, is not only a critical factor but something that each of us can do each day. There is a vast difference between seeking the guidance of our parish priests and expecting them to do all the outreach. As faithful Armenian Christians, we are disciples called to bring all into a relationship with Jesus Christ and His church. We can pray on our own, but we worship as a community. Our Lord has commanded us to do both. We worship through the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic church to praise God and receive the Holy Eucharist. Every day, each of us has an opportunity to help bring someone in our lives closer to God through our beloved church. Another area of immediate opportunity for this vision is to model love and respect. The sincerity of Christian love should be shared without constraint. If we truly believe His command to “love one another as I have loved you,” then we should work to resolve the personal conflicts, egos and disunity that plague our churches. The Vehapar’s message is incredibly substantive, and it should inspire us to look within ourselves and renew our approach to community life. 

Once we renew our love and hope, the faithful will multiply, and parishes will begin to be relieved of the burden of insufficient resources. The church will become a place not of guilt or obligation for some, but of joy and fulfillment. This is the message from Vehapar Aram I that brought me such joy both in its content and leadership example. Inspiration enables renewed energy and innovation. There is nothing more fulfilling than being a part of a parish full of love and support. We all need moments to pause and reflect. The Catholicos has provided each of us that opportunity. Read his message a few times, and then bring it to your Board of Trustee meetings and family dinner tables. Absorb it, internalize it, take it personally and let the renewal begin. 

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