From Byzantine, TX
I have written (and subsequently deleted unpublished) posts on this topic numerous times. Usually I write while aggrieved by some clergyman in particular, but, as I find myself with only a few unrequited missives in clergy email boxes, I have the necessary apathy to put pen to paper.
It is a surprise to few that priests don’t answer emails. They also don’t answer the phone. If you go to a church during the week they might well not answer the door.
This is not true of all clergy, but it’s true enough about many of them for me to be able to bring this up in Orthodox company and receive knowing nods of agreement.
This morning I read a comment from a priest that said:
Evangelistic methodology submitted for your consideration: Orthodoxy in America could be a lot bigger if all parishes would answer their phone, return phone and email messages within a day, and install doorbells prominently on the church.
I answered in the affirmative. When I travel, I often use the phone number and email provided by a parish’s website to confirm service times. Having experienced the East Coast predisposition to change the Divine Liturgy time to “Summer Hours” without reflecting such on their website or diocesan directory listing, I always check first. Parishes move to new buildings (happened to me in Georgia), unmarked side doors are opened instead of the main doors for weekday services (in Philadelphia), being in-between priests allows for only monthly services (in Seattle), no one will open a locked door for you unless they know you’re coming in advance to Matins (in Brooklyn). In short: check first.
The problem is that confirmations are hard to get. A few months back I emailed 2 weeks before a trip to confirm service times. I received an answer two months after I had returned from the conference. This is not an isolated incident, it might well be common enough to be considered the norm.
Leaving voicemails is not much more efficacious. For as often as I have had someone pick up the phone or call me back, I have had twice as many calls fade into the ether. It should also not be forgotten that not talking with some Slavic parish priests beforehand will ensure you will not be communed. I have visited parishes where such a requirement is in place and it doesn’t take much imagination to grasp how disheartening it would be to be turned away from the chalice for want of a returned phone call.
As one woman replied to the above priest’s comment (I paraphrase),
“We aren’t mega-churches. Orthodoxy is about stillness and listening to God. We were here before telephones, emails, and doorbells.”
My response was that communications from laypeople are as apt to be about deaths, births, and family traumata as they are to be about pirohi sales, pysanky painting, and Pascha basket blessings. Is it reasonable to make a corollary between hesychia and the distractions of modern communications? Certainly we want our shepherds to be prayerful, but I am reminded that we are instructed to seek after the lost sheep as well as tend the sheepfold (Matthew 18:12-14).
Looking at the life St. Raphael of Brooklyn, is he remembered more for his liturgical attendance or his response to the cries of those in need?
Troparion for St. Raphael of Brooklyn (Tone 3)
Rejoice, O Father Raphael, Adornment of the Holy Church! Thou art Champion of the true Faith,
Seeker of the lost, Consolation of the oppressed, Father to orphans, and Friend of the poor,
Peacemaker and Good Shepherd, Joy of all the Orthodox, Son of Antioch, Boast of America:
Intercede with Christ God for us and for all who honor thee.
If you agree with me that there is a problem, what is the solution? The ready answer is money. If I picked up the phone right now the three nearest Greek parishes would pick up. They are staffed with secretaries (and not presbyteras in disguise either) and have real offices with phone systems. Though, when I last called one of those parishes for something only the priest could answer the message was taken by the secretary, but the return call never came.
I submit that things will change only when the directive is given from the top down (bishops to clergy) and, if possible, from the start (in seminary). There has to be some middle ground between a priest being constantly barraged with calls at all hours and the priest who is doing a poor imitation of someone in witness protection. By all means let there be a standing rule that all but emergencies will be tended to in 24 or 48 hours on weekdays. Let phones ring to voicemail, but have a system for returning those calls. Have the church email box auto-respond with a blurb on what the sender should expect for a response. Put large signs on doors leading people to the alternate entrances for daily services held in the chapel / downstairs to save on cooling costs / which doors are left unlocked to prevent theft.
If I might proffer a short checklist:
- Have a communications plan.
- Make it available online and in the narthex.
- Be willing to bring it up for discussion at regular intervals in parish council meetings.
- Think about who might call or email. Design the plan with the visitor from out of town, the non-Orthodox seeker, and the average parishioner in mind.
- People take unanswered communications personally. Be sensitive to that fact.
- If a parishioner wants something official (e.g. a baptismal record) then asking for letters is perfectly reasonable.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other side of being available to your flock.
A woman called a parish I used to attend to get some scheduling information:
Woman: “Father, what time will you be blessing the baskets?”
Priest: “Directly after the liturgy or maybe 15 minutes after.”
Woman: “What time will that be? What time will you be done?”
The priest, knowing the woman was of the ilk to pop in to have some tradition fulfilled, but never actually came to the Liturgy, responded, “My dear, the Liturgy is eternal!”
My recollection is that she did not show up for the Paschal service or the basket blessing. The story, though, is a good cautionary tale regardless.