Recently, someone wrote to ask why the Orthodox blogosphere and media seem to talk far more about converts to Orthodoxy than people who have been Orthodox and have left off coming to church. This is a hard subject, and it’s one I don’t recall seeing talked about much online. This (with some edits and additions) was my response:
I will relate why I think that the lapsed don’t get that much press, and it is indeed a largely untold story — at least publicly: It is grinding, mainly fruitless, almost impossible work. Nearly every priest I know (including me) has done a huge amount of work to try to bring back people who have left their parishes. It almost never works. The vast majority of clergy are simply stonewalled by the people who have left, and honestly, most lay people aren’t interested in doing this work.
I myself have sent literally dozens of messages, phone calls and even made home visits over the eight years I’ve been a pastor at my current parish, and I can’t recall a single time when someone responded and came back. Maybe I’m a horrible person and don’t deserve a response, but I have also learned that many of them did the same with my predecessor, and of course this problem is rampant at parishes everywhere. Most of the time they simply don’t even respond — not to a letter, phone call or even knocking on their door.
From what I can tell, they’re not attending other churches (even non-Orthodox ones), nor are they exhibiting any other observable behavior that suggests that Jesus is important to them. For whatever reason, most of them just don’t want to be in church. I’ve known priests who are so harangued on this issue (usually by members who expect them to bring back their relatives and friends) that they simply quit or ask for a transfer.
So should that story of fruitlessness and futility be elevated above and discussed instead of people actually responding to the Gospel and coming into the Church? This question in a form gets dealt with by the Lord Himself — He tells the Apostles to shake the dust off their feet and move on when people won’t hear them (Matt. 10:14).
And Acts isn’t really about those people but rather about how the Gospel takes root and grows — think of what a big deal is made over the Apostle Paul, for instance. There’s a reason we like to talk about people converting — we are, as the Scripture says the angels do, rejoicing over someone coming to Christ (Luke 15:7, etc.).
I know that what I say above doesn’t describe everyone who has left off going to church. But in my experience and in the experience of most of the clergy I know, it’s almost all of them. Yes, I know there are people who aren’t going to church any more who were burned by someone, whose employment won’t let them go, who just feel discouraged, etc. I’m sure that there are many good reasons, though they’re not insurmountable.
And I know that there are people who have stopped going to church who still try to live faithful, prayerful lives even while shunning parish involvement — this is dysfunctional from an Orthodox viewpoint, of course, since they are avoiding the sacraments and avoiding the Body of Christ. And maybe there are a few out there who have ferociously good reasons not to go (e.g., a truly abusive parish situation with no alternative within reach). But those aren’t most of them, and they aren’t the people I’m talking about here. I’m speaking specifically here of those who don’t go any more and then won’t talk about why, not even to leave a message of explanation.
Pursuing people who won’t respond is extremely disheartening and, in my opinion, a massive drain on the spiritual, emotional and time resources of those involved in church work. Yet while in the Orthodox blogosphere and media converts get more press, in parishes, I suspect that the vast majority of priests hear far more often from their parishioners about bringing back “our people” who have left. Meanwhile, there are people ready to receive the Gospel and to respond, yet they are often neglected because of the amount of energy spent on those who have a past association with the parish but aren’t responding any more.
Again, those who leave should be listened to, ministered to, etc. But that’s assuming that they respond when an attempt is made to reach out. They almost never do. Yes, go after the one sheep who is lost, but what do you do when the sheep keeps running away from you and won’t be “caught”? You can seek and seek, but some folks don’t want to be found. I wish I knew why.
Really, I think way too much effort is spent on people who don’t want to respond. They shouldn’t be forgotten, of course, but they also shouldn’t be front and center, not when there are people who are actually ready to engage with Christ and to live the Christian life. They should be included, but they can’t be the priority. That’s robbing other people who are much more receptive.
Yes, we should all try to help people to be saved, even the stubborn and stonewalling, but ultimately, each person will have to give an account for himself before the Judgment Seat. Blaming the priest, the bishop, the parish council, other parishioners, etc., probably won’t get people very far.
Even the lapsed have to be given responsibility for their own spiritual lives. If they’re not willing to take it, no one can take it for them.
They aren’t coming back, there been studies, showing many of these folks really not longer believe the doctrines they learned growing up in Church, let’s face it, it a waste of time to try and bring in the nones, I see it in my own parish, the priest goes out of his way, only to be dissapointed.
I don’t think many of them learned the doctrines growing up. I left the church and came back, and the church I barely learned about growing up is not the same dynamic, mystical body I came back to.
Don’t give up Father. I came back to the Church after many years. I grew up Greek Orthodox. It is not easy living the faith but the rewards are eternal. Being a good example and accepting and loving everyone, although hard to do, is the best way to bring people into the Church and of course teaching and gentle guidance. Jesus admonished people but most of all he loved and forgave them, what a powerful tool for conversion. But even Jesus could not convert everyone. We can share the Orthodox faith with everyone but the ultimate choice is up to the individual. Thank you for your messages. I enjoy them so much. Aliki
No plans to give up! This is about prioritization.
A couple of thoughts…first, you just had a series of 10 articles on the Royal Priesthood of Believers…how even the laity have a responsibility of a type of priesthood in the Church. So when you say ” I’ve known priests who are so harangued on this issue (usually by members who expect them to bring back their relatives and friends)”, my response to those members is “well, why do YOU go out there and bring them back, make contacts, attempts…your priest needs your support to bring back “your” relatives”!!
Second, you touched on this, that converts, having found that “pearl”, blessed with that “zeal”, are the squeaky wheel that is going to be heard. They are not hiding, as the ones that left. They hide, want to be hidden….not the converts.
Third, if the people who quit can be termed as apostates, if that is what they are, then the fact that they do not return, at all, ever, no matter what, is a reflection of the very state of apostasy…a very dangerous choice to make. Could this be where God gives them up to a depraved mind, as only He knows who will forever quit? Is this the fearful thing that fell into the hands of the living God?
Nevertheless, we continue to pray for them, reach out, set an example, because we don’t know what the future holds for them…we can only hope.
Full Disclosure, I am the person who wrote Fr. Andrew on this matter. (Sigh)……I have many thoughts on this matter that I would like to collect and share but really….are people who wander away from the Church apostates as Paula speculates they are? The word Apostate is a powerful one in the history of Orthodoxy. It is not one to be tossed around lightly.
More than converts, I believe people who wander away from the Church are the single greatest untapped resource the Church has and it long past time to share their sufferings, anger, fears and their concerns no matter how they are manifested. They are our brothers and sisters who are seeking Christ -even if they do not know it. Christ comes to serve the lost sheep. Even Apostles like St. Matthew were lost before Christ called him. And let’s not forget the Apostle Thomas who was lost and yet Christ made time for his doubt. He did not say….. “hey, the other Apostles come first. I have priorities you know.”
Mother Teresa of Calcutta is right. “When you a busy judging someone you do not have time to love them.”
There are many parishes and clergy that need to learn this lesson. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best .“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
I agree with your post, I think it’s better to try and reach out to bring them back rather than not at all
The vast majority of clergy I talk to have reached out many times and almost never get any response at all.
Any suggestions for that circumstance?
I agree, Fr. As long as a priest can say in good conscience that he has made the effort, it’s time to move on. If they want to come back well, they know where you are. And as you have pointed out, if they won’t even answer the door or the phone call……
Fr., you are much more wise than I lol. Has Orthodoxy ever considered something similar to the Roman Catholic “Catholics Come Home” program?
Not that I’m aware of. Of course, we don’t tend to be very programmatic about anything.
It can be helpful to make a distinction between process goals and result goals. Result goal: “I will get x to come back to church.” Process goal: “I will visit x and listen, so that they know we love them.”
Frustration comes when pursuing results goals, because we are trying to control what’s not under our control. Process goals are achievable and bring joy.
I think this distinction is important in dealing with wandering sheep.
Yes, agreed 100%.
One of the problems that we can fall into in parish ministry is in assuming that we just need to find the right “key” that will open the door (get the result) that we want. So if people stop going to church, it must be because our system needs to be changed, upgraded, etc. But the missing variable is the free will of the other person. In fact, in doggedly pursuing systematized solutions for problems, we are largely assuming that other people don’t (or shouldn’t) have freedom. We just have to do the “right” thing, and then suddenly they will rush back into the Church.
I’ve got no problem with being more organized in reaching people (indeed, many parishes are unfortunately disorganized in this and in much else), but that’s no guarantee that something will happen in response. I’ve actually been asked many times if I have ever tried to contact one person or another who has lapsed. When I answer that I’ve called them, emailed them, sent them letters, and even knocked on their door, the look I get is usually incredulity. Surely all those things should work! 🙂 But that person has free will, and none of us can force him to come back if he won’t respond.
One of the insights I’ve learned from studying family systems theory over the past few years is this: No one can hear you who is not moving toward you. In other words, pursue all you want, but unless the person wants to be “caught,” he won’t be. And if he wants to be, there won’t be any stopping him. It’s like a guy who keeps calling a girl for a date but never seems to get anywhere — sorry, but she’s just not into you, dude.
I am assuming that the experiences Frs. Andrew and David have had with those that quit the Church is in fact true. So, what are they supposed to do, when the ratio of priests to laity is so wide? I suggested that the laity step in and support our priests. Apparently that doesn’t happen much. Knowing that parish priests must
prioritize their time, what exactly do you suggest they do in addition to what they have already done?
You are correct in saying I speculate whether the ones that quit are apostates. I do not know, in fact. It was a thought that came in wondering why so many do not return. It was not a judgement. Neither do I believe our priests are judging. Do you suggest that most of our priests do not regard the sufferings of those that left? Surely not. Regarding Sts. Matthew and Thomas, they are not ones defined as turning away from the faith. In the end, we as The Body, as I said, continue in hope.
Matthew immediately got up, left everything behind, and followed Jesus. Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God!”
I can’t imagine any priest who wouldn’t weep for joy if he got those responses.
“I myself will tend my sheep and cause them to lie down in peace”, says the Sovereign Lord. “I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.” Ezekiel 34:15-16
Indeed. I have every confidence that the Lord is working in the hearts of every person.
The question being asked here is this: In parish ministry, what are your suggestions for reaching those who don’t respond and/or don’t want to talk? What happens when you don’t get someone responding like Matthew or Thomas?
Pray for them, sure. Keep contacting them, sure. Encourage their relatives and friends to help, sure. These are all things that are happening. But if they still don’t respond, what then?
Dear Fr. Stephen:
Christ is Risen!
I very much agree with your perspective. As a fairly old priest (about to turn 63) I have learned that
most who leave have made a conscious decision to back away from the Church and from Christ over an extended period of time. I believe that you are describing the parable of the soils: only 25% of the seeds in that parable come to fruition and, even those, to varying degrees. I am convinced that most who leave do, indeed, understand what is required of them and they are simply unwilling to pay that price (If you love Me, you’ll keep my Commandments). I have had folks leave over the years and I reach out to them and a very small number have responded, for which I have shed tears of joy. Yet, in the end, it’s all about God granting them free-will and we have to allow them the freedom to make those choices. I only have so much energy and I choose to focus on the fields that are white unto harvest.
Thanks again for the article,
I enjoyed this article very much.
That a pastor would do his utmost to actively seek out a lapsed parishoner and want to know know their reasons for leaving is an incredible thing to me.
What are some things that you think we could do in Orthodoxy to reach out to the lapsed and bring them back in? I know not everyone is going to come back, but I would imagine that trying is better than not trying
If I may suggest, perhaps meeting with our priest, expressing the concern, and ask if there is anything we can do to help. If anything, it is a display of solidarity.
Here’s how I answered that question for myself (I’m a Priest at an OCA Mission):
I asked other priest’s about this situation and what they are doing. I also talked with people (those who would talk) who left and aren’t coming back.
It’s a vexing question for us all, isn’t it? The question, said another way is, “What do you want (from the Church, from the laity, from the priest, etc)?
What vexes me and “haunts” me is, that really, the response has been “I don’t know what I want.”
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I feel a little better now, realizing that I’m not the only priest who has experienced this with members who have left our church.
Have I ever been the victim of an abusive parish priest? Yes. Of an abusive laity? Yes. Do those encounters make me want to disappear from Church? Yes. But I haven’t and I won’t.
My mind always returns to the situation that Jesus had when many of his disciples walked away.
John 6:66 – 6:68
“From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”
Maybe the reason that people walk away from the Church is that they had entered it with unrealistic expectations. If they see the Church as a “club, with membership dues” then it becomes easy to “cancel their subscription” when a shinier object appears with the promise of making them happier.
In America, Christianity is all about health, wealth and prosperity. When someone rubs us the wrong way, we get all huffy and in some cases, people leave to form another church, across town. Oh, and this not an experience of only Protestants – it happens in our Orthodox world too. ALL because we want to avoid the painful process of repentance and reconciliation. “Iron sharpening iron” (Pro. 27:17) can hurt; but like surgery, the pain will lead to healing.
Lord, have mercy on us all!
Fr. Mark Wallace
I am a convert to the Orthodox faith for 10 years and am now a person thinking of leaving my church.I have sent emails to my church council and my priest is aware of my concerns.To many times the Orthodox church is more concerned about their nationality and using languages from other countries rather then the English language.In my church no one can understand romanian but it is becoming more and more obviose to me that it is more important to please those who feel nationality is more important to them then faith in God.I only want to pray to God and understand what is being said to me, not feel like a foreigner in an American church.
Please don’t leave, the Blood and body of Christ and thefullness of the faith is in the Orthodox Church, yes the Ethnic factor turns many off, even some lifelong cradles seeking Christ, however to be sure the English language is growing more in the liturgy, more Americans are converting, and the “old world” mentality, if one wants to call it that, is slowly dying out. My priest basically tongue lashed the Church lately , a few months back in a homily, for expecting there kids to remain Orthodox, if only Greeks raise their kids Greek. maybe more tough love like that is needed for the laity, to keep people like you around.
I hate that you have experienced that, is it possible just to move to a different parish? I would beg you not the leave the Church. This issue is not only an Orthodox problem, but prior to the 1960’s this was a major issue in Catholicism as well where you had “ethnic” parishes…as Orthodoxy become more common in America, English will start to be more common
Linda, I’m Syrian orthodox and chose to attend an OCA church for the exact reasons you mentioned. Once you truly experience the fullness of the faith, as I’m sure you have, you can never turn away for any reason. It becomes part of your DNA. You can find an OCA church ( all English). Allow nothing and no one to separate you from the best thing that has ever happened to you. I love being a mother and a grandmother, but my FAITH is everything to me. May our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ bless and guard your steps.☦️
a related topic: of those who leave, how many were serious practicioners but then gradually began decreasing their attendance?
And on the opposite side, of people who continue to consider themselves Orthodox, why are they only attending occasionally?
How are the numbers in these studies affected by those who call themselves Orthodox but are only there ‘part-time’ (due to something other than unavoidable work schedules)?
I agree with those above who said the laity have a responsibility to reach out to the lapsed — and perhaps a greater if not equal responsibility. Speaking as a former Protestant who’s left many a church, there’s a notion that if/ when a priest/pastor reaches out, it is because he is doing his “duty” and “responsibility” and job. If a friend says “hey, we miss you” it means more. I keep in touch with my lapsed friends and invite them to non-church events. Invitation to non-church events is a way to tell them that they are valued as a whole person, not just as “somebody who donates” or “someone needed to help do X” And pray, of course, as someone has already said. Maybe one of those non-church invitations will someday merge into an invitation to return. That involves accepting who & where they are now. Let them know they’re missed. The laity can do these things in some cases more effectively than the priest, I think.
I know my opinions and words are not worth much, and I am far from educated in any spiritual or theological matters, but reading this article has made me incredibly sad. Therefore, if you are kind enough to read this wall of rambling text, I would like you to reconsider your stance on those who have lapsed.
First of all, I disagree with the idea that converts should have priority over those who are already part of the Church. Those who leave the Church – as ones who have been taught the truth, shown the faith, participated in the sacraments, etc. – will be judged much more harshly than those who are ignorant of such things [Luke 12:48] As a result, great care should be taken to ensure that those of the Church do not stray, for doing so would mean they are condemning themselves. Likewise, this should mean exercising caution when dealing with converts – they need to be made aware of exactly what it is they are getting themselves into. These are your people, you are responsible for them. New converts are interesting and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and they feed the ego quite well with their unwavering attention, hanging on to every word anyone says. But these converts will eventually become regulars, and some will also become the very people who leave. By prioritizing converts, you are building a one-way factory to death and condemnation.
Second, it is my opinion (once again, not worth much) that the Matt. 10:14 passage you quoted cannot be applied as you do, to those who are in apostasy, as it refers to converts (visiting homes in Jewish lands) instead. Furthermore, earlier in Matt. 10:5 the prioritization is shown as lying in reaching the Jews first, rather Samaritans or Gentiles. Likewise, I feel that the ninety-nine sheep passages found in Luke and Matthew are not referring to new converts who “are coming to Christ” as you say, but rather returning to Him. Matt. 18:12-13 states “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray”, and not “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not say ‘well I sent them an email and they didn’t reply’ and goes out to find a newer, better, more obedient sheep”.
Third, I have full sympathy and admiration for the work that you do. The amount of time and effort that is required of any person involved in church life is great, let alone the dedication expected of clergy. And unlike a regular job, it also comes with the added burden of spiritual expenditure. I am very thankful for people like you, because I know that I would not be able to accomplish even half of the work that you do, and definitely not do it well. So, I can understand why you would not want to deal with a seemingly impossible task, or at least one that seems to bear no fruit. But, please, continue in your efforts. If you succeed the reward is great [James 5:19-20] both for you and for the person you have reached. Take the example of Paul, as in 2 Cor. 12:14-15. At the very least, you will have a clear conscious.
Finally, I must admit that the majority of my feelings on this opinion stem from a selfish fear of God seeing me in the same way you see those who have gone astray – “Really, I think way too much effort is spent on people who don’t want to respond”. I would, beyond a shadow of a doubt, be completely screwed. If I haven’t committed at least 10 sins before breakfast it’s probably because I’m still in bed. I am completely reliant on the patience and mercy of God, the Theotokos, my guardian angel, and the saints, and I can only hope that they never find me to be way too much effort.
As for practical advice for your question as to what more you can do, I cannot say, not knowing the situation or what has been done. However, here are a few things I can think of at the moment:
– Find out the reason for their leaving.
– Make sure your emails do not sound like you are seeking their attendance just to make the numbers work out right. You need to be interested in them coming back to church, not in getting a body back into church.
– Appeal to those who requested this effort from you: include their names in the email to the person (e.g. “Sam and Jake were wondering where you had gone to, and if everything was alright”), and ask those people to also send emails/contact the person.
– Try doing most of the work for them, and don’t emphasize having to go back to church as the only option. Oftentimes there is no time in church for conversations, and if there is an issue you may never find out because of this. Try something like “Hello, I’ve noticed you haven’t been attending church recently, and I was wondering why. I would love to have a conversation with you to address any concerns/issues/problems you may have. I’m available on Mondays and Tuesdays from 6-9pm, let me know if you would like to meet sometime on those days. If you can’t come in, give me a call at ####. Additionally, if you would like some resources or advice on keeping up with the faith outside of church, please let me know and I will provide you with all that I can”.
– What type of person were they? Did they do a lot of volunteering, but received only criticism on their work and no thanks for it? Did they ever talk to other members, or does it seem like they may have nothing in common with the others (age, marital status, etc)? Do they have kids, and there is no good way to get them involved (Day care, Sunday school, camping trips, other children they can interact with during services)? Do they have a high-profile job in which they can come under scrutiny for actively participating in religious organizations?
– Is there a mismatch of resources in the church, and are you reaching all of your audience? e.g. are there a lot of catechumen classes and meetings, but nothing for those who are more spiritually mature but would still like a discussion?
There’s a lot here, but I’ll respond to a few things. You write:
First of all, I disagree with the idea that converts should have priority over those who are already part of the Church.
I also disagree with that idea, and it isn’t what I wrote. The point here is that those who leave and then do not respond to contact (not just anyone who leaves and also not those who are simply part of the Church) cannot be a parish’s #1 priority. I did not say that they should be ignored, nor did I write that converts should be the #1 priority for a parish. I simply believe that a lot more effort is spent on those who aren’t responding than is appropriate, and that that effort is often to the detriment of those who are ready to respond — no matter who they are (convert, cradle, etc. — doesn’t matter). Again, I’m not saying that those who leave and then stonewall the Church are worth no effort, just that they can’t be the main focus of outreach.
Also, thanks for the practical advice regarding outreach. Those are exactly the kinds of things I and many other clergy do. There are bad clergy out there, of course, but most are genuinely concerned on a personal level for the lost sheep, and so they take a personal approach when trying to get in touch with them. So what you’re saying here is what we’re doing. We really do care.
And I also think it’s important to try to find out why it is people left. But I’ll also be honest and say that, in my experience and in the experience of most other clergy I’ve talked to about this, most people aren’t telling. We unfortunately cannot read minds, and the grapevine knows only so much.
That said, I was asking for suggestions as to what to do when people don’t respond at all to any of that kind of thing. Because I haven’t seen anything yet that will override the free will of those who just (for whatever reason) don’t want to respond.
Finally, I’ll say that your comment suggests to me that you read my post as saying that I don’t care and that no one should care about those who leave and then won’t talk to the Church. If so, I understand entirely why you responded this way. That is far from what I’m trying to communicate, though. My basic message is this: Let’s not neglect those who are ready to receive the Gospel (whether already in the Church or not yet in the Church) because we are spending so much time on those who (for whatever reason) don’t seem to want it. This isn’t about convert vs. cradle, etc. This is about who has ears to hear. Those who do not have ears to hear can and should still be given the message, but it makes no sense to give them so much that there is little to nothing left over for those who actually want to receive it.
Yes, apostasy is a dangerous thing, and I’m a big believer in helping people not to leave the Church. But you can’t force people not to. They still have their own free wills. And we have plenty of examples in Scripture where even God Himself honors the bad choices people make and lets them experience the ramifications until such time as they choose to repent. But of course He is also still like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal — always on the lookout for the returning son.
Fr Andrew, I share at least 99% of your experience. The only thing that has not been my experience is knowing priests who transferred because of being harangued by relatives about lapsed members, but I am a little country priest in a city, and I think you have more contacts than I do.
I took a long time to deal with this problem in a way that was not dysfunctional. One thing I did right, from the beginning, was to keep good dyptichs and commemorate everyone in my dyptichs, at every liturgy. I always have a changing list of those for daily prayer. Some touch the heart, and the heart hurts more than for others. I also do a prostration for the lapsed every day. This keeps me more sane, and at peace. In general, prostrations seem to take away the pain, and never dissipate my energy, as other forms of ministry sometimes do.
We do a lot of stuff. Most of it is like spitting in the ocean. The only thing I do which does not bring on that great sadness that is present in your article is prayer. Like you, I often get sad, but forgive me, at least for me, this can by a sin. I am convinced more each day, despite my physical activity of ministry increasing, that prayer is (should be) 99% of my ministry.
I make no assumptions about any other Priest and how he handles this terrible burden. The only assumption that is easy to make and will always be true is that we priests have a terrible burden because of people who fall away, barely care, and don’t get it.
“…prayer is (should be) 99% of my ministry.”
Oh, how true! This is our priest’s view as well and this is what he does. How comforting it is.
I can totally commiserate as a Lutheran pastor.
I am going to go out on a limb here. In returning to these posts over the past couple of days I sense…and maybe this is me, I don’t know…but I sense a disconnect between laity and clergy. I get the impression by reading the responses of the priests that only clergy take the ‘full’ responsibility for the quitters and by extension, most of the problems encountered in church. (And please don’t misunderstand. I understand and respect the hierarchical order and where the burdens fall) I get this impression not by what is said, but by what is omitted, that being how problems within the church affect both laity and clergy. After all, we are all one Body. Again, I have in mind your series of articles on the Priesthood. Does not the laity have a responsibility as well? So here is the question….if there is a disconnect, can that contribute to the reason why some folks leave? That they may sense they are not really part of The Body? They hear the words, they are told they are “one” with the church, but still sense a wall of partition? I am only asking.
That said, I’m sure the article is meant to be read from a priest’s point of view. In that case, my perceptions may be a bit skewed. But even so, I still sense that disconnect.
The reader may here want to brace him/herself for a catharsis: Longterm retention of converts is a conversation that needs to be had. I wonder what Orthodoxy’s track record even is? I am a convert of about 5 years and it’s gotten to the point where I cannot stand the dysfunction in my church anymore. If I did not have kids, I would have taken off a while ago. But my parish is consumed by an overbearing priest with outrageous expectations not only of parishoners and minor clergy but of himself. “Convert burnout” is a real thing (and my parish is 95% adult converts). The general feel of the parish is quite cultish and ingrown. It’s really skewed my whole sense of what Orthodoxy is and can be, and it has driven me to detest much of it – the fasting, the calendar, the liturgical razzle-dazzle, all of it. My family and I have been going to a Catholic church every other Sunday just to get a breath of fresh air. The pressure to conform within Orthodoxy can be oppressive and puritannical, and I predict I am not the last young convert who will be driven away – far away – by it. I think the attitudes of clergy have a lot to do with this, as well as a latent clericalism within Orthodox spirituality and the whole idea of the “spiritual father,” among other things. Such, anyway, has been my experience. If I left now, I would not go back if my priest did 8 years’ penance and pilgrimaged to Jerusalem on his knees to beg my forgiveness. It’s far easier to break trust than to build it. And as a convert, it’s easy to think one has “come home” or “arrived” and even be led to believe so by those who should be giving you wise and temperate counsel, when in reality, things inevitably get harder than anyone ever expects.
Loss of converts is a real thing. I’ve observed that most are tested in some way (with a lot of variety in terms of specific situations) at roughly the 3-5 year point. What you describe of your experience isn’t the group being discussed in this article, but it’s definitely an issue.
I’m sorry to hear about the experience you’ve had. I will say, though, that not every Orthodox parish is the same. I know of churches that are intense and overbearing like you describe. And I also know of ones that are far on the other end of the spectrum, where the leadership and other parishioners are super hands-off with just about everyone. Most are, in my experience, somewhere very much in the middle. And I’ve also observed that particular experiences of the same parish can vary widely depending on the person.
I also have a problem with an inflated view of the “spiritual father” and don’t even like the term applied to myself. No one can take responsibility for every choice in another person’s life, and frankly, I don’t want that responsibility. I have a hard enough time just trying to be saved myself! But I do what I can to assist people in their journey with Christ. This is actually one of the things I talk about often. I prefer the term father-confessor for what a parish priest does with the flock entrusted to him in terms of spiritual counsel.
Clericalism is definitely a problem, but I don’t think it’s inherent to Orthodoxy. It is an abuse of Orthodoxy. But it’s an abuse found in every kind of Christianity, even the most ostensibly democratized. Nor is it a problem only with clergy. Laity can be clericalist, too, in which they expect clergy (as “professionals”) to do all the “real” spiritual work which isn’t expected of “normal” people. But clericalism is wrong either way. Clergy aren’t better, nor are they somehow “more” Christian than laity. Indeed, all are part of the royal priesthood, and some are ordained to give sacramental leadership within that priesthood. And of course there is that famous saying from Chrysostom about the roads of hell being paved with the skulls of bishops and priests — one might take from that that it’s actually worse to be ordained than not.
In a couple weeks a two-part conversation will air on the Areopagus podcast on spiritual abuse. I hope you’ll take the opportunity to listen to it. You might find it helpful. If the email address you used to post here is your normal address, I’ll be happy to email you when the first of those episodes releases. Let me know.
I appreciate your response, Father. Thank you.
I’d be interest to hear the podcast you mention; this is not my normal address (for the sake of anonymity) but you can send the link to it and I will receive it.
Spiritual abuse is something I came into Orthodoxy having already experienced, and so much of my experience thus far is also still dealing with my own baggage and (over)sensitivities. But when your parish feels like a redux of a previous traumatic experience, and the nearest alternative parish is an hour away where the elderly priest is already a notorious spiritual abuser and the deacon literally is a round earth conspiracy theorist, it’s real easy to give way to despair and just want out.
That said, I value your feedback and validation and ask your forgiveness for my frankness.
No forgiveness needed. These are real problems that need to be addressed. I’ve made a note to myself to email you the link to the podcast when it airs. It will probably be a week or more likely two. We ended up talking so long about the issue in the first one that we added a second part. So it’s about 3 hours of material.
Dear Father Andrew,
May God bless you and all Orthodox priests for your efforts. You are crucified continually for the people of God, even those who exercise their gift of free will and get the heck out of Dodge.
I tend to have a diacono-centric view of the Church, but even so my suggestion would be to A) have a deacon in your parish, or preferably two or more, and B) assign one to pursue the lapsed.
Maybe this was mentioned above in the commentary which I didn’t have time to read. But the reason why people left the Church is worth finding out because a lot of people left in the 40’s 50’s 60’s and 70’s as a matter of convenience., They had never been really catechized and the ‘family’ church was, more often than not in the bowels of the inner city in a neighborhood which had drastically changed in the years subsequent to the found of the parish, and it was just a lot more convenient to start going to a neighborhood institution of whatever variety where there were activities for the children, etc.– and keeping in mind that: ” there’s just one God, and and it ‘doesn’t matter’ how you worship him” mentality. A lot of those people even those in the second and third generation away (if not necessarily all of them) are ripe for RE-conversion.
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