Educators in the Church: Church Council
Previous articles in this series have focused on persons or institutions understood as being, in some way, "naturally" involved with educating others - children and adults - in the Orthodox tradition and faith. This perceived natural association may be based upon a familial relationship, sacramental ordination, professional interest or vocation, or participation in a formal program. Parents, grandparents, godparents, peer groups, priests, teachers, church schools, camps, workshops - all can provide opportunities and occasions for Orthodox Christian education to flourish.
If, however, an average parish member were asked to list those responsible for education in their parish, the resulting list would probably not include the parish council among its top choices - if the council appeared on the list at all! Yet, this very group of people has a unique opportunity to further the educational mission of the Church to the faithful of their own parish and to society outside the Church. How often do parish council members consciously accept a concern for the educational ministry of their parish as an important element of their official responsibilities? How many perceive of themselves as educators? Even the most summary consideration of a council's work will reveal an essential link with educational concerns which should involve its members, in a special way, with the educational mission and outreach of the Church.
Parish council members may be chosen for a wide variety of reasons: a personal desire to serve the parish; professional or vocational interests and skills useful to the parish; expertise needed for the internal management of the parish and its assets; association with particular constituencies in the parish, etc. Very occasionally, a member may be selected to serve because he/she can represent the educational programs of the parish.
If we were to take another poll - this time of council members asking them to describe their work and principal concerns, we would certainly find such words as "budget," "income and expenses," "deficit," "maintenance problems," "mortages," "loans," etc. appearing frequently in those descriptions. Council members have traditionally understood their role as one which is centered on the "business" aspects of parish life. Those concerns are, to be sure, perfectly valid ones. The Church does, indeed, live in the world and must be responsible in the management of its material assets. However, the "spiritual" activities of the parish - including education - are just too often set aside as the responsibility solely of the priest. They are considered his "job."EDUCATION - EVERYONE'S RESPONSIBILITY
Since the direct supervision of the educational programs of a parish is in the priest's care, educational questions or concerns are infrequently included as a part of the council's regular agenda. It is assumed that the priest will discuss these programs and any relevant needs in his regular reports to the council. The church school does occasionally claim the attention of the parish when, in the course of the annual cycle of parish activities, events featuring our children occur. Unfortunately, these special moments are all too infrequent and, in between, our awareness of our parish's educational work is usually on the fringe of our consciousness. Everyone would agree that education is important - but it's someone else's "job." We must, however, understand that education is every Christian's "job" since it is part and parcel of his or her vocation to stewardship and witness.
The self-imposed distinction between "material" and "spiritual" aspects of parish life is, of course, a serious error. Distinctions of this sort in the Church tend to develop into true dichotomies which, in turn, alienate and isolate people one from another. Simply stated, whatever can truly lead us into a deeper life in the Spirit is spiritual. There should not be anything in parish life which could not potentially be a spiritual experience. Every activity of the community must provide yet another occasion for the Holy Spirit to work among us, creating the Kingdom of Christ. Obviously, Christian education ought to be a spiritual activity. But ought not all concerns brought before the parish and its council for consideration be approached as opportunities for an expression of Christian spirituality? Why couldn't consideration of the annual parish budget be grasped as a chance to affirm spiritual values? All things being made new in Christ, we are presented the exciting challenge of realizing that new dimension in all aspects of our personal and parochial life, of making everything in the parish a vehicle for a richer spiritual life for all. That which cannot be open to the Spirit does not belong in a Christian community."GO" AND "TEACH"
Although Christ's commission to His Apostles (Matt. 28:19-20) had a specific meaning for those men in history and continues to define the episcopal ministry today, those words also speak to each Christian in every age and place. His desire for His Church is expressed in two verbs - "go" and "teach." The Church, as a whole, is commissioned a missionary body. When we fail to accept our share in this mission to make all men disciples of the Lord, we have diminished our life in the Church as the Body of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit and we, in fact, limit the Church itself.
The roles occupied by parish council members in their church community are not different from those of their fellow parishoners. They have the same responsibility for their personal membership in the parish - canonically and sacramentally. As members of a family-in-God, they must strive to be agents of God's love and pardon. They are most likely parents, or grandparents, or godparents, having obligations for youngsters in their care. And, they are called to act upon Christ's command to witness to the world.
The council is, of course, a microcosm of the parish in all its dimensions. In that gathering, we find revealed all human weaknesses which can become the channels of God's grace and power. As the individual Christian ought to be focused upon the spiritual growth of his/her life, so the parish council must help provide a spiritual focus for the local community. In their individual capacities and talents, the men and women of the parish council must be ready to accept with deeper sense of dedication the call to Christian stewardship and witness as they labor to care for God's temple and to assist His ministers in building up the Kingdom. How can parish council members respond to Christ's commission? How can they make real their special responsibility for witness to the Church and society at large?ROLE MODELS FOR THE PARISH
The differing, but inter-related, roles which council members occupy in the parish each have their own particular educational opportunities. For example, because of their very visibility in the community, council members will be watched, whether they wish it or not, and will provide important role models for young and old. Like teachers in school, they are closely observed by those around them, and, indeed, actions do speak louder than words. The way in which council members respond to Christ's commission, the means by which they realize their particular call to stewardship and witness, will inevitably impress others.
The parish council member begins his/her service for the Church where all ministries begin - at the Eucharist, which is the well-spring of the Church's life. The offering of ourselves at the Altar defines and consecrates all our work in the Church and parish. Council members, if they are not already regular communicants, must renew their spiritual effort here. The regular reception of Holy Communion will not only prove the source of the grace and peace needed to bear the burdens of council membership but will also be a continuing personal witness to a commitment to strengthen the parish as a witnessing community. Regular participation in the Eucharist of course implies a discipline of personal prayer and devotion as well as frequent attendance at the Sacrament of Penance. Such a life of spiritual renewal testifies to the joyful certainty that we are a forgiveable people. It is our faith that we are forgiven in Christ Jesus and that in Him we have found the fountain of Eternal Life which makes the Christian life a viable alternative to the despair and alienation of the world. This light shining in the darkness must be the content of our witness.
Parish council members must be among the first in seeing that they have faithfully fulfilled all canonical obligations towards their parish, diocese, and the national administration. They cannot, in good conscience, expect others to be faithful in these matters if they do not do so themselves. But while financial support for the Church is always a crucial factor, council members ought to encourage the equally vital gifts of time and talents to fill the Church's needs. In fact, for those parishoners of limited means, these special gifts can be a blessed way to offer their best to God. Council members must always be ready to assist the parish in finding creative ways to utilize these offerings of special talents and resources.
As persons responsible for children or grandchildren, council members ought to have a deep personal interest in the programs of Christian education carried out in their parish. Active participation in and support of the primary, elementary, and secondary programs (if one is so inclined or possesses the ability), assurance that one's own children or godchildren regularly attend religious instruction and worship, encouragement of adult educational programs, identification of families not now participating in these programs and encouraging their interest and involvement, serving as a voice for education on the council and working to see that the parish commitment to religious education in every form is established as a top priority - all are simple and obvious ways to publicly stress the importance the council attaches to this ministry of the Church.
While committed support for educational programs is certainly important, individuals are still the most effective educators. Council members should ask themselves if, in their personal lives, they appear as committed Christians to others? Do they devote time to the reading of Scripture, the Fathers, devotional and spiritual works? Are they making the effort to grow in understanding of their Faith? As adult men and women, are they desirable role models for their children? Do they encourage and lead their spouses and children in a life of faith and personal devotion? Do their familial relationships reflect a family truly centered on Christ and the Church?
Just as within the family a personal witness is the most powerful lesson in teaching others, so, in the parish, council members must be especially attuned to the influence they have upon others. The apparently most insignificant word or deed can be the most enduring in its impression upon others. In their dealings with parishoners, council members are presented any number of occasions to bear a witness to our common faith, to preserve the apostolic authority of the Church, to sustain those who need help, to mediate and reconcile disputes, to comfort and encourage the sorrowful and depressed, to see to the care of the elderly, sick, and lonely - to truly be a brother or sister in Christ. They can even, indeed, directly assist the priest's ministry by bringing to his attention those in need of the sacraments or his counsel and help. In the healing and reconciliation of personal relationships, council members will manifest to all the full extent of the "priesthood of all believers."STEWARDS OF GOD'S TEMPLE
In their most visible role, council members are the "stewards" of the parish assets. The local community has given them the serious responsibility of managing and disposing of the resources given to the Church for its use. While a personal Christian witness is itself a stewardship of an intangible treasure, council members are most public in the exercise of their managerial responsibilities. It is also true, however, that this particular aspect of their parish life provides the most exciting and creative opportunities for educating others.
As "stewards" of God's temple, council members must take care that it is suitably arranged and furnished and that, above all, the building itself is an image of our faith and a witness to the very best of Orthodox traditions. Questions concerning icons, artistic style, appointments for the Altar and church windows, etc. are not, therefore, inconsequential. The creation of a church which preserves our Orthodox heritage and which still speaks to the world is a matter of some import and one in which parish councils will play an essential part. It is a matter which requires knowledge and the application of that knowledge to create a space which truly glorifies God.
The attitudes of individual worshippers in the temple, however, are just as important. In this regard, council members can take advantage of their visibility and prominence to set positive models for church deportment. They must always convey to others by their actions that they are fully aware that God's temple is a place like no other. Even so simple an act as lighting a candle - or, for that matter, selling one - can be made an act of piety and devotion. All our actions in the church ought to testify that, though we are surrounded by the material substances of this world, these earthly elements have become for us the means by which God's grace is revealed and that just so shall we be transformed by His grace to be the means by which His redeeming love and power may work in the world.
The ways in which parish resources are committed, dispersed, and used reveal the values which guide that parish's life. The parish council can exercise its corporate Christian conscience by leading the parish in setting values which are consistent with and faithful to the Gospel. While the determination, forexample, of a parish budget may seem a relatively mundane affair, yet it is in fact an ordering of priorities and values for the coming year.
In such an evaluative process, the educational opportunities for parish council members now come into sharpest focus. Locally, is ample provision made for the maintenance and welfare of the church and its properties? Does the parish adequately provideforthe church's ministers so that they are truly free to devote themselves to their pastoral duties? Does the parish effectively minister to its own communicants? Are there needs we could serve but are now neglecting? Does the parish present a consistent public witness to Orthodoxy? Are we satisfied in our isolation? Do we reach out to others?STEWARDS IN MISSION
Can the parish council provide the leadership for the parish to realize the full dimensions of its Christian corporate life? All too often, the parish's line-of-sight stops at its boundaries. The council has the responsibility of helping to educate the local community as to its involvements furtherafield. Just as the parish belongs to the larger communities of the diocese and national church, so its obligations of stewardship and witness extend to the whole Church in all lands. Does the council faithfully and joyfully fulfill the parish obligations to its diocese and the national church? Are monies (or resources of time and talents) set aside to further the missionary work of the Church locally, nationally, and throughout the world? Do our parish council members encourage others to give of their time and talents for the support of our diocese and national church? Are we encouraged to seek out those Orthodox not affiliated with a parish or participating in church life to bring them actively into our community of faith? Are we challenged to witness to the non-Orthodox? Are we concerned for the fate of our Orthodox brethren in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America, eastern Europe?
Surely, this extended vision of the Church is what Christ intended. A parish faithful to that vision reaches out to Orthodox Christians everywhere. It preaches the Apostolic Faith to the world. It speaks and acts in the name of Christ to those who hunger, who thirst, who are alone and strangers, who are naked, who are sick, and who are in prison (Matt. 25: 31-46). It accepts joyfully the mission to "go" and "teach" all men. It continues a mission in this land which springs from the enduring work of those first monk-missionaries in 1794 and the generations of Orthodox who carried their faith to a new land and sacrificed to keep it alive. Resting upon the foundation of saintly witness and martyr's blood, the Orthodox Church in America has already opened her arms to the peoples of the New World but her mission here has only barely begun.
If such a vision of the Church and our role in it is to become the reference point for parishioner's lives, parish council members must then be among the first of those who offer themselves as instruments for its realization. Only through a deepened spiritual experience can the way be prepared for an authentic Christian stewardship and witness - personal and corporate, and this cannot happen unless those who have been chosen to lead the parish accept the challenge of a personal selfexamination of their life in the Church. However, the priest and council who have together made the daring commitment to strive to live in the Spirit will together lead many to God. They will not need to preach. Their lives of joy will be all that is needed.