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I have written (and subsequently deleted unpublished) posts on this topic numerous times.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.
Fr Jonathan Tobias says
In general, I agree with this article. Knowing the author as I do, I especially sympathize with his general grievance about poor communication on the part of us priests.
But “communication,” these days, seem to fall under the rubrics of the marketplace. Emails are like phone calls, tweets and texts. They generally operate at substandard levels of English. They can arrive at any moment — rather unlike the civilized ritual of the post. They are offensive, at times.
My favorite (dripping irony here) is the phone call on my cellphone where the vocalist immediately launches into the middle of some mental paragraph (of which proposition I am unaware), without a single, helpful announcement as to who this caller is or what he is talking about. Again, the lack of the ritual courtesy.
So I agree that priests (including, most notably, the instance of myself) are guilty as charged. I should do much better at responding in a timely fashion. And that means responses to 1) phone calls on 2 lines; 2) voicemail on 2 lines; 3) texts (which are always written in demotic code); 4) emails (which are usually written in today’s “special” grammar and spelling — I used to not believe in the existence of Neandertals, but now I do, at least linguistically); 5) comments on my blog; 6) Facebook messages; 7) Facebook comments; 8) Facebook comments about comments; 8) knocks on my door — I live at the church — asking for bus money to Dallas; 9) coffee social requests/reminders/subtle-demands for sometimes very arcane actions; and 10) actual snailmail letters (these are usually official forms from the chancery or other parishes, which, in turn, are about spaghetti-dinner-lamb-roasts-ethnic-dance-egg-decoration-bake-sale-raffle-anniversary-banquet-extravaganzas).
No. I have not been timely, hardly. Mea maxima culpa.
But what is timely? A handwritten letter usually lets me answer in a week or fortnight — that is, in the old days that were more sedate (and humane).
I do not have a secretary. Most of my brethren are in the same boat. And frankly, even more of my colleagues worry about the risks of a paid secretary being so intimately involved with parishioner matters.
I must say that in the aforesaid article about the Paschal Basket blessing that I really didn’t see much wrong with the priest’s response to the lady on the phone. Perhaps the “Liturgy is eternal, my dear” was a bit snarky.
I am not sure what my friend — who wrote this piece — intended with this concluding anecdote. I really do like his numerated list of advice for improving priestly communication.
But I will say this. A lot of complaints (excepting, of course, the author of the article) about clerical failures in communication are blind to the general lack of courtesy in this culture, and — maybe — patent discourtesy on the part of the complainer.
N Dujmovic says
For me, the most important thing in this essay is:
People take unanswered communications personally. Be sensitive to that fact.
If I take the time to write or leave what I consider to be a thoughtful message/proposal/question, the lack of any response at all does sting a bit.
I hope my priest reads this.
I have to say that in my search of Orthodoxy, I have been ignored utterly by many. No response to multiple emails for churches to attend while traveling (thought I do use proper and respectful greetings, proper grammar and English usage and contacted with plenty of time for a response). Upon arrival without a response, could not find anyone to tell me when service times were and found the church gate chained with no apparent other entrance. The person at the Orthodox store next to it would not tell me anything about services either. I had an Orthodox member contact them on my behalf weeks before my trip. Neither of us received a reply. One of the local mission churches to this day has never responded to my message asking about services and new-to-orthodoxy type questions.
My more recent experiences have been far more friendly, however. The church I have been attending for the past year-plus, where I was chrismated, responded to email, to phone calls, and was open and willing to answer my questions. I had a similar experience on a recent trip to Colorado Springs, where Father Anthony of Holy Theophany Orthodox Church was gracious and responded to my emails, kindly greeted me when I was there and made the experience of going to a church where I knew NO ONE very easy and welcoming. I am delighted to be able to recommend Holy Theophany to friends who might be curious about Orthodoxy.
Fr. John A. Peck says
I feel very blessed to have a priest who responds to email, text messages and phone calls typically within the hour. Not only that but I once missed a liturgy and he contacted me to see if I was doing ok. When I was initially looking into converting to Orthodoxy I had called and emailed a few churches in my area and was ignored by several of them, it was frustrating and disheartening but in the end God lead me to the exact place I needed to be. I pray that all clergy would recognize the importance of this communication and that parishioners would respect that communication and not abuse it to bombard him.