by Fr. Aris Metrakos
In this article, originally entitled “Brother, Can You Spare A Paradigm?”, Fr. Aris makes clear that misconceptions about what the priest is, and isn’t, are failing, and that there is one legitimate alternative, and it is catching fire across America, and beyond! This essay was first published June 30, 2006 on Orthodoxytoday.org, and not only uncovers the dangers of old paradigms of priestly identity, but also reveals the only one of value in the Church. We reproduce it here with permission.
Is it time to retire “paradigm shift?”
This overwrought cliché is used to describe everything from new laundry soap to the wireless mouse. Even worse, religious types have taken a liking to it. Clergy and lay leaders are convinced if they could just figure out how to shift their paradigm, the pews and offering trays would overflow. (Do we really need to sit through one more mission statement formulation?)
The late physicist Thomas Kuhn coined the term to describe how scientific thought advances. A paradigm shift occurs when a radically new way of framing a problem makes all previous methodologies obsolete. Newtonian physics replaced the Aristotelian model of the universe, for example. Relativity, quantum physics, and string theory trumped Sir Isaac and company.
Kuhn would wince at how people use the term today. Putting crumbled instead of block feta cheese on the salad at the Greek Festival is not a paradigm shift. Shifting correspondence from snail mail to email is.
If we are going to use the term, let’s use it correctly. I propose a true paradigm shift in the way Orthodox priests in America conduct their ministry. It will sound the death knell for the ways some priests have served in America in the past century. If we can’t adjust to the paradigm shift, we’ll end up like meteorologists tracking a hurricane using only algebra.
First let’s dispense with some of the traditional paradigms priests use.
The Priest as Shaman
This style of ministry imparts good feelings through invocation and ritual. The Shaman’s parishioners don’t recognize that the ministry of the priest finds its source and end in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Grace, forgiveness, redemption, sanctification and other dynamics of the Christian life seldom penetrate conscious awareness. Instead, the warm fuzzies that accompany ceremony, or the recollection of a childhood hymn and the like fill the void. No real depth here but some emotion might be felt.
A popular shamanic practice is waiting to receive the light at Pascha (Easter). The parishioners arrive fifteen minutes before midnight, light their candles, and scurry home five minutes later making sure their candle does not go out before they get home. (Bad luck you know.) Never mind the Gospel and Eucharist in the service that follows.
Sometimes hospital visits have a witch-doctor feel. The patient may just barely understand that the Great Physician works through the hands of doctors and nurses. He has no understanding of the power imparted by the Eucharist and Unction. Instead, the pastoral visit is regarded as part of the incomprehensible dance of life in the hospital. If you don’t think that people don’t hold magical beliefs about hospital visits, think about how many times you have heard the words:
“Don’t let the priest visit Papou (Granddad). He will think he’s dying.”
Shamanic parishes have their own social rites. One important ritual is the coffee hour handshake. The shaman is obligated to recognize and shake the hand of every person in the social hall. If he misses a few, they complain all week. That he just stood before the people on behalf of God and before God on behalf of the people and that he proclaimed the Gospel, offered the Eucharist, taught through the sermon, and read the prayers doesn’t matter.
Who is to blame here, the tribesmen or tribal elder? Both. Too many priests are comfortable with the role of village medium. It’s easy. We feel important when we sing “Come Receive the Light” at Pascha while ignoring that those who come to receive it value their candle more than Christ. We walk into the hospital room with the presence of a Darth Vader. Some of us even look like Jabba the Hut. Paltry teaching and a muting of the offense of the Cross is our legacy. We prefer instead to stride confidently into the social hall after Sunday Liturgy coveting those important words:
“Nice speech, Faddah.”
“Priest as shaman” is a dangerous paradigm because it encourages a cult of personality within the parish. It divorces liturgy from pastoral duty. The grace that can be imparted by preaching and sacrament dries up. It hovers perilously close to the unforgivable sin: blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
The Priest as Cruise Director
Remember “Love Boat?” Remember the chirpy cruise director? She scampered about with that ever-present smile making sure all the passengers were sufficiently entertained. Parishes have a cruise director. He’s called the pastor.
The cruise director has one over-arching responsibility: keep the parish calendar and personal date-book filled. The scheduled event is not as important as the fact that something has been scheduled. In this paradigm a trip to, say, the country to see the changing colors in autumn is as important as a weekday Divine Liturgy. Cruise directors become anxious when the schedule is empty.
Why the flurry of activity? First, many parishioners love it. They feel somehow that the sacraments are insufficient, and that worship isn’t stimulating enough. “Can’t we have water aerobics and a support groups for persons recovering from knee surgery, like the other churches do?” they ask.
Moreover, a full program makes us feel like we are doing something, even when we expect others to do it. Several years ago I asked, “Should our parish have weekly Saturday evening vespers?” Four out of five respondents said “yes.” Then I asked, “Would you attend Saturday evening Vespers?” Four out of five said “no.”
A priest’s insecurities contribute to the dysfunction too. We are a goods and services society. We measure a person’s value by how much they produce. “What good or service do I provide?” frets the priest. “Salvation? That’s so vague. Besides, what if the Gospel really is just the ‘Jesus story?’ I’ve got it! I’ll stay as busy as possible. That way people can see how important and indispensable I am. Who knows? Maybe if they see how hard I work, they’ll give me a raise next year!”
The priest as cruise director paradigm slowly poisons a parish and the priest. It reduces church life to entertainment and commits the priest to a course of service empty of meaning. Parishioners become like grade-schoolers addicted to video games; they can’t get enough stimulation no matter how busy they become. The priest becomes a bizarre hybrid of dancing bear and precocious four year-old dragged out before the dinner guests to spell “antidisestablishmentarianism.” No matter how many strokes and free cookies he receives, his lack of faith will gradually cause death by spiritual starvation.
The Priest as CEO
Some priests are meeting guys. They structure the administration of their parishes so that there are at least three weekly meetings to attend. They love these meetings. There are committee members to be spoken down to, decisions to be vetoed, and bold proclamations to be declared. When these priests feel a meeting deficit, they get appointed to the board of the local soup kitchen to find more opportunities to review minutes and budgets, follow agendas, call the question, and go into executive session.
The CEO priest fancies himself a power broker. There are the “meetings after the meetings,” the business lunches, the rounds of golf, and the urgent cell phone calls. Oblivious to the fact that the First Baptist Church has more members in its dodge ball league than he has congregants, Father CEO fails to see that in the eyes of the greater community he has all the prestige of the mayor of Chernobyl.
Some communities like CEO priests. “Father’s a take charge guy. He cuts to the chase. He gets it done.” Translation: “Father validates my excessive needs for power.” CEO priests like this paradigm because it creates an illusion of control, masking the reality that most of parish ministry exceeds the management skills of anyone but God. Besides, what other mountains are left to climb after winning the prestigious “Church History Award” at seminary? Where can you go after becoming a Protopresbyter? Why not become the satrap of the local Orthodox province?
The perils of this paradigm lie in the nature of boardroom politics. A confrontation across a conference table is the antithesis of the intimacy between confessor and penitent. The hours spent in meetings displace liturgical or educational events on the parish calendar. A pastor in power is a perverse parody of the servant leadership that Jesus modeled for us.
The Priest as Museum Curator
Many of our non-Orthodox brethren regard the local Orthodox congregation as a convenient place to go to learn about icons, enharmonic scales, and other curiosities of a past era. Our processions, vestments, and incense fascinate them. When all is said and done however, no Orthodox ritual could ever take the place of preachers dressed in business casual, power point slides, and $100,000 sound systems in their eyes.
I’d be offended that many folks view us as a living museum except that we priests often cultivate this perception. What else could anyone conclude after encountering clergy who are mesmerized by the minutia of Church music, bewitched by Byzantium, or enraptured with Mother Russia?
While this paradigm may seem harmless on the surface, deep down it’s corrosive. The Museum Curator is not aware that what we teach and preach is absolutely true: God became man, dwelt among us, was crucified for our salvation, rose from the dead, and reigns supreme in heaven while still in our midst. Instead, the Gospel is reduced to adornment; an artifact from a past era safely ensconced in a gold plated and jeweled box.
Priestly callings come in all varieties. Maybe you became a priest because that’s what your mother told you to do. Perhaps it was the nice things people said when you mentioned that you might be going to seminary. Or was it because you thought all the vestments and stuff in the altar were really spiffy?
Now here you are, ordained. Since you’re not sure if the Gospel is true or not, you search for a higher purpose. If you were a liberal Protestant you could go into pastoral counseling or open a soup kitchen. But you’re Orthodox so you chose the “Orthodox” option. You begin preaching about the need to preserve our nationalistic and cultural roots. Instead of retreats, your parish hosts seminars with titles like “Philanthropy in the Age of Peter the Great.” You show up at your child’s middle school graduation decked out in a cassock and pectoral cross.
Sermons are easier now. People used to feel uncomfortable when you preached about things like “There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female.” They really squirmed when you mentioned, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But now that your homilies cover hot topics like “The power and diversity of the participle in Koine Greek,” no one complains anymore. Some of the eyes in the congregation might glaze over but enough people say privately “Father, you should teach at the seminary” that you’ll never stray again.
The Museum Curator paradigm provides a gutless way out of the corner of doubt into which too many church-types have painted themselves. Belief in the crucified and risen Lord can be optional when we confuse the Church and her interesting history, intricate rubrics, and complex music with the Great Commission. But this style of ministry leads to the slow rot of the Church. Museums house things that are dead. The Church is the Body of Christ vivified by the Holy Spirit. Let the dead bury their dead.
The Priest as Chaplain
Of all of the obsolete paradigms of priestly ministry, the Priest as Chaplain is the most appealing. Here the parish priest dutifully tends his flock by visiting the sick, celebrating the services, and maintaining the parish programs. What could be wrong with this?
Nothing, if we still lived in a Christian society. Back in the fictitious “old country” of Slobovia (which is 90% Orthodox), the local priest devotes all of his time to “meeting the needs” of the thousands within walking distance of his church. Even when Slobovians immigrated to the New World the Chaplain paradigm worked. Back then the parish was the epicenter of Slobovian life.
Not today. Declining Slobovian-American birth rates and increasing intermarriage means the parishes are shrinking. Slobovian emigration has slowed to a trickle, and those who come are so secularized that they are indifferent to the Church. Slobovian parishes in the South boast of increased memberships but their gains come at the expense of parishes in the Rust Belt and Northeast Corridor.
The logical outcome to this paradigm is extinction. As comfortable and familiar as Priest as Chaplain might be, its day has come and gone.
A New American Orthodox Priestly Paradigm:
The Mission Priest
The old paradigms had a certain albeit meager utility. They worked as long as the surrounding culture remained basically Christian. They don’t work anymore. The time has come to return the priesthood to how it was first practiced – in a hostile culture, with wisdom, and concrete and authentic encounter with Christ.
Becoming a Mission Priest begins with a change in governing values. Mission Priests don’t confuse faith in the Gospel with a soft assent to its social principles or moral utility. Rather, they know the veracity of the Gospel through first-hand experience. For many, faith was strengthened when they changed careers and entered seminary. Enduring the patronizing and petty atmosphere of “theological school” clarified the eyes of their soul. Facing down and even defeating parish antagonists and persecutors revealed the strength of the Gospel and cemented their conviction once and for all.
Knowing the Gospel to be true, Mission Priests hold to the imperative that the Gospel must be preached to all people. They recognize that their time on earth is limited and regard each day as an opportunity to bring others closer to Christ. Their witness is not confrontational or manipulative because they know that Jesus is most powerful when He is most humble – as His crucifixion attests. They humble themselves in the presence of others so that the light of Christ might fill their words.
Mission Priests are men of prayer. Their days begin and end with prayer. Their life is filled with it. One important prayer they pray is for the spiritual growth of their parishioners and the numerical growth of the Church.
Recognizing that a large part of parish administration involves the three C’s — calendar, cash, and communication — they ask themselves three questions when the calendar needs an event, the budget needs to be planned, and the bulletin needs to be written:
- Will these things help my flock know Christ better?
- Will they add to the numbers of my flock?
- Will they lead us into helping the least of our brethren?
They ask the same questions when planning their personal calendars.
The Mission Priest is a linguist. When it is necessary to feed his sheep in a foreign language, he does so. In some cases this means developing fluency in Greek or Serbian or Russian. That Greek or Serbian or Russian priest might even find himself studying Slobovian when immigrants from Slobovia fill his city. When the neighborhood around the parish begins to change, it might mean learning Spanish or Cambodian.
In all instances the Mission Priest must have an absolute mastery of English. We live and work in America. There is a difference between “abyss” and “abbess.” Speaking English also includes situational awareness. You don’t preach with an affected JFK-esque accent in Dothan, Alabama and you don’t say “y’all” in South Boston. Summer camp sermons should avoid words like “hypostasis,” while the vocative case of “dude” is never used at banquets.
Mission Priests are fearful. They fear losing their communion with God by being caught up in the things of this world. They worry about losing their courage in the coercion and compromise of ecclesiastical politics.
And they are moral. Nothing damages the credibility of the message more than a messenger who is sexually perverted or chemically dependent. Morality also means telling the truth about the rules articulated in the Bible and the Canons. Jesus dined with harlots and tax collectors but he never condoned their behavior.
Finally, the Mission Priest refuses to conform to false expectations of a priestly personality type imposed by others. God has called him — not the Parish Council, not a benefactor, not his boyhood parish priest, not even the Bishop. And God made us different. Each priest has a distinct role and service in the Church. In the end, only God may judge his faithfulness.
Parish priests need to change or else go the way of the IBM Selectric. Being a Shaman, Cruise Director, CEO, Museum Curator, or Chaplain doesn’t cut it anymore. We need a true paradigm shift. We need prayerful servants in whom the Good News of Jesus Christ rests deep.
For Orthodoxy in America, the era of the Mission Priest has arrived.
Fr. Aris P. Metrakos is the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in San Francisco, CA.