Two years ago, during the pre-dawn hours of the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, the parish of St. Michael in Woonsocket (UOC-USA) suffered from a terrible fire. It got up into the rafters and destroyed the roof. It was only due to the bravery and proficiency of the firefighters that it was kept from being a complete loss. Through your prayers, the intercession of our patron and all the saints, and the grace of God, we hope to begin worshiping in that building again in just a few months. What I want to do now is share some of the lessons we have learned both through our own experience and the experiences of other parishes whose members have shared their stories with us. Please share your own lessons, both positive and (without passion) negative.
Practical things to do before disaster strikes (i.e. RIGHT NOW):
1. Have an SOP for Fire Prevention. Prevention requires more than just good habits; it requires that rules and procedures are written down, propagated, and enforced.
2. Check your insurance. Do a common sense audit of your insurance; some things that save money on premiums (e.g. coinsurance) may be penny-wise and pound foolish.
3. Foster love and community in your parish. The stress of disasters magnifies the strengths and weaknesses of people and communities. A healthy, loving, and united parish can thrive under stress; a sick parish is likely to suffer and die. When disaster strikes, it is too late to get into shape: you either reap the benefits of good preparation or suffer high costs of laxity. This includes having reliable and spiritually-mature people who are actively committed to Christ and the spiritual well-being of the parish in positions of leadership.
Practical things to do when disaster strikes:
4. Immediately call your bishop and key leaders of the parish. Don’t try to handle the crisis alone. Things will get and stay incredibly busy and stressful for a few days. You will need help getting everything done; more importantly, you will need the spiritual protection of your bishop and the Church.
5. Take advantage of the media. Newspapers, radio stations, and television stations will send reporters: have your best on-message communicators speak with them. This is a great opportunity to witness the power of Christ within your community. You should also solicit prayers and support from the community. Stay positive. Be sure to plug the first responders!
6. Do not let your insurance company’s emergency services contractors exceed their mandate. The only things that need to be done once the fire is out are: 1) cover the building (assuming it is not a total loss; for us, this meant covering the the roof with rubber tarps and the missing windows with plywood), 2) secure the building (for us, this meant a temporary fence), and 3) dry out the building. Emergency service contractors are equipped to do much more and will try to get started on rebuilding: don’t let them. Everything other than covering, protecting, and drying should be planned slowly and bid out using your normal parish processes.
7. Hire a “Public Adjuster” and let him do his job. This will slow down the process of getting your insurance settlement, but he will protect your interests during the process and get you a better settlement. This is likely to be your first time going through this process and you need someone who has your interests in mind to guide you through it. Trusting your insurance company (even if you like your agent) is naive and will cost your parish a lot of money.
8. Don’t cut back on services. You are about to be hit by the devil and all his hosts. This requires more worship and prayer, not less.
Practical things to do during the discernment and re-building process
9. Validate (and heal) the pain. Many people have a visceral reaction to their church being damaged: this is real and should not be discounted. While it is a time to teach community and the real meaning of Church, do NOT set this against worship in the church building (some people will – gently correct them). The church is not just a place where the people worship any more than the body is just a place where the soul and mind reside: it is sanctified space. Validate the pain and use the experience to teach the realities of the Orthodox Way. Guide your people through the healing process as you would guide them through the loss of a loved one. You can hear the words I shared that morning at our Festal Liturgy on our YouTube channel (the church was still smoking; the Liturgy was held in the rectory chapel). Below, you can read the homily I offered the first Sunday after the fire (the first time most of us had gathered together in prayer).
10. Guard against divisions. This has to be the priest and lay leadership’s first priority. It’s more important than budgets, paint colors, icon styles, and everything else on the list. There are a million little things that will come up, any one of which can become the thing that people take sides over. Once people take sides, those sides are likely to become polarized (the most common ones are historical “Hatfield and McCoy” and the “old/nashi vs. new/ne-nashi” divisions). And once this happens, the parish will cease witnessing the unity of the Gospel of Christ in favor of the gospel of the world … and the parish’s days as a source of healing and joy for the community will be over.
The parish board is key for this – it must pursue the kind of sobornopravnist (conciliarity) that our Ukrainian Orthodox Church was founded on. It can only work if people empty themselves (kenosis) of their own will and seek that which is holy and good. Despite their best efforts, unanimity may elude them. By ecclesiology and statute, the priest is the head of the parish. He has to be the one that makes the hard decisions when divisions threaten and the board has to support that.
There will always be temptations for parish board members (to include the priest) to take their dissenting opinions out of the meetings in order to find sympathy and support. This kind of political coalition building has been happening from the very foundation of the Church (read St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians!) and it is the worst kind of spiritual poison. Gatekeepers on the board will be tempted to preserve their power and preferences at the expense of unity and growth; self-proclaimed prophets and experts on the board will be tempted to make sure the parish does “what is right” despite the damage it will do. Gatekeepers and “prophets” may get their way, but it will be the devil that really wins.
11. Pray, pray, and then pray some more. Recovering from disaster will put every single member of the parish, but especially the leaders of the parish, on the front line of spiritual warfare. People and parishes that could “get by” with pleasant dispositions and reliable routines will be in serious danger when stress destroys their dispositions and new challenges overwhelm routines. As in physical warfare it becomes obvious once the bullets fly who the real soldiers are and who has been faking it; it will become painfully obvious when the temptations come flying who has been praying, repenting, and living the genuine life in Christ and who has been faking it. The one who has been faking it will try to make up the difference with willpower (or despondency!), but that will only make things worse. The only response to temptation is to rely on the unending strength that comes from surrendering everything to Christ and living the Orthodox Way. We MUST pray without ceasing.
12. Take a break. The pace of work and the spiritual demands of this kind of work takes a serious toll on leaders. They will all need a break once the main part of the recovery has been accomplished. I know of heroic warriors who suffered break-downs because they refused to take time-off to recover. Good leaders can suffer the same fate. Everyone – to include the priest – will need serious time to recuperate. Few of them will want to (they are servants!), but discernment will usually show this reluctance to be more from pride than the real needs of the parish.
The parish of St. Michael’s has been through a lot, but (all glory to God!) a reliance on the Gospel of Christ and a willingness to keep all of our decisions in perspective (i.e. that everything – even the number of pews and colors of the walls – pales in comparison to the “One Thing Needful”) has brought us through the war of temptations even stronger than when we entered it. The last two years have not been easy; every one of our leaders has made serious and real sacrifices. But thanks to their efforts, priorities, and witness, we are being transformed into a living icon of the joyful Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!
Notes from the homily given on the Sunday after the fire (2012)
This is an incredibly difficult time. And difficult times call for eloquent speakers. I tried to find one…
I am no more eloquent today than usual (probably less so – there has been precious little time over the last few days for research and reflection), but I am your spiritual father and shepherd. With God as our guide, I will lead you through safely through the dangers that this calamity has brought. Part of that is done by sharing a good word.
This is painful loss. It is stressful. It is hard, full of incredibly busy days and sleepless nights. All this has affected me. I am worn out.
But throughout this, despite the heartbreak, despite the tears, despite the tons of stress, I have not lost the joy of being your priest or of being a member of St. Michael’s; or of simply being alive, despite these hard times. My goal today is to share with you both the reality of this joy – and describe the reason for it. This is not easy and it will take some time, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit (which will guide both my tongue and your ears in order to correct that which is lacking), it will be time well spent.
Three FALSE Ways to Maintain Joy and Sanity in a Crisis
1. Apathy about this community. Apathy about our parish home. No! Even if I did not love it myself, I would love it because I share your joys and sorrows and you love it. But I assure you: I am as committed as all of you. I cannot begin to express to you how deeply I experience this loss. If I tried, it would tear me apart. So that is not it.
2. Nor can we harden their hearts to deal with their grief. There is within Orthodoxy the call for simplicity, passionlessness, but that does not separate us from one another or our temple.
3. “It is only a building.” People who say this mean well, but they are wrong and we know it in our hearts: our parish home is MORE THAN A BUILDING. This is a very western, utilitarian way of thinking, and it is a way of thinking that is both cold and – if taken very far – just plain heretical. This is where we have experienced baptisms, first communions, first confessions, weddings, funerals… and all the time spent here being perfected in unity with Christ. So many of our memories are connected with this place. We cannot pretend those things did not happen or that they did not matter.
But this our parish home is important for more reasons than sentimentality. It is sanctified space. Perfect love changes the world around it; nowhere is that transformation more powerfully manifested than in our holy churches. Our church is more than a building, just as the body is more than a shell. Your body is a living temple – you are called to treat it well. It is not just a vessel for your mind and soul, but an integral part of you that is being sanctified [no to cremation]. (Summarize: our loss is real because we have lived so strongly within those walls and even more, because it is a Holy Place).
The beauty of our parish has been marred by smoke and ashes. We will count every brick and beam – there will be a finite list of items and building parts. But that structure is more than the sum of its parts because the God who blesses and sanctifies it is beyond all measure.
So Why was I still smiling in all those news reports on television? How can I maintain this joy? How can I dare call you to have this same joy and hope? Three reasons (to keep me from talking all day and into the night – because there really is no end to the reasons):
1. Mundane reason: we are already rebuilding. Insurance. Generosity. Hard work. For so long we have tried to maintain past glory. The temple that will be brought forth from the ashes will be rooted in that glory, but it will be a physical treasure both to us and to future generations. This is enough for the rational among you, and should ease and occupy your minds enough so that we can see the real reasons to be joyful in the midst of all this love and sorrow.
2. Because the strength of Orthodoxy – and the strength of this parish – is the unity of believers, joined in Christ; empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit. I have made clear that this does not mean that the place we meet is just a building – but it does mean that our foundation is not the slab beneath the basement of our church; our foundation is Christ. And Christ is in our hearts and is present whenever we gather in His name. He is here with us now.
I am the pastor of people, not of stone. And we are strong. We are prepared. Why? Because we have given our lives to Christ and enjoy the unity that this offering brings. [as a parishioner said on the news] “you cannot expect something like this, nor can you prepare for it.” But we were ready. We are prepared. We are ready for this trial because we are strong (compare to the life of the soldier and the life of the athlete). We are always ready to give a reckoning for our lives – we look forward to the end of this world and the beginning of the next. If you can run a marathon, you can run a mile. I can smile because, as your pastor, I know your strength. I do not worry.
3. I have joy because God has given me joy. This is the fruit of accepting His love; of giving our lives to him without reservation. I sleep the sleep of a simple man, and my life is the movement “upward and inward” from one blessing to the next; no matter what happens in the world around me.
This joy is your inheritance, too. You can claim it. Give your life to Christ. Keep Him in your heart. Live the life of His saints. The fruit of this life is everlasting joy – everlasting joy for you and everlasting joy for the community of all those perfected in Him.
End by paraphrasing St. Paul:
I … beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Ephesians 4:1-6).