Growing a Parish

[Ancient Faith Radio; December 3, 2008]

FMG: Today I am at St. Justin Martyr OCA Church in Jacksonville, Florida, just south of Jacksonville, in the area of Mandarin. My family has owned a small farm here since 1880 or so; it’s been in the family, or with the in-laws of the family, since then. I came down to visit my sister, Dorothy, who’s a member of this church, and to visit my mother, who’s in a nursing home here, and now I’m talking to one of my favorite priests, Fr. Ted Pisarchuk. “Ball of fire” is what they call him behind his back, because he’s always up to something. You especially have a love of missions. Were you the founding pastor of St. Justin Martyr?

Fr. Ted Pisarchuk: Yeah, St. Justin was founded in 1994. Originally it was Fr. John Ealy in 1987, I think. He started coming here and doing Sunday night vespers once a month. The funny story is, when I was in college, at the University of Florida in Gainesville, that’s where I got to know Fr. John Ealy. When I graduated, I prayed, where can I get a job? I sent out more than fifty resumes, and we looked at moving back where Leann’s folks lived. Anyhow, long story short, I got a job offer in Jacksonville. My prayer was, where can I go to work in missions. So, I got the job. I knew I had the job at the interview. I drove up, interviewed, came back, had the job, and my wife wasn’t too happy about Jacksonville, but she wasn’t against it. So I said, I know this is God. So we moved up here, we started attending the Greek Orthodox church. Great people there, St. John the Divine. I was very happy there. Then a few months later, Fr. John Ealy called up and says, Archbishop Dimitri wants to start a church in Jacksonville, and we’re gonna use you as a pointman. I said, No, no, no, I’m happy, I’ve got the Greek church here. After about fifteen minutes, I said Okay, you can use my phone number. You run the ads, I’ll give you my tithe, and that’s it. I’ll meet you for services, but I’m not going to do anything to promote this. Little did I know… (laughs)… that I would feel led to go to seminary, which didn’t make sense because I didn’t want to be a priest. I was very happy with my life vocationally.

FMG: You were a contractor? Is that right?

FTP: Yeah. I love construction. To this day I love it. In fact, I’m building the OCMC building right now.

FMG: Really! The OCMC is not too far from here, in St. Augustine, about 45 minutes south of here?

FTP: About 35 minutes.

FMG: Orthodox Christian Mission… oh, what does OCMC stand for?

FTP: Orthodox Christian Mission Center. It’s not a good name for it, because it’s no longer a center. We send people out. But that’s the old name that we have. We need to come up with something maybe a little bit better. But, they built a new building, and they asked me to be on the building committee. The building committee president then became the president of the board, so I was given the responsibility. So, I’m the owner’s representative for hiring the architect, to finishing up the job, and just representing the owner on it. Working with the staff there on it.

FMG: And this building here, the building you actually have for a temple- did you design this as well as build it, or supervised the parishioners who built it? Or something like that.

FTP: Yeah. We hired a contractor, because I couldn’t do it myself. But I supervised the day-to-day, helped design the building with the architect, and of course the council. It wasn’t just a one-person thing. They came out here all the time, we did everything we could to save money. Parishioners- we hung sheetrock, we built stages, we did everything. We painted, we did everything we could ourselves. We laid sod… and then, we moved in without carpet- we did everything we could just to get into the building. And that’s when the economy was going crazy and prices were going up as we built. And thanks be to God, our bishop even gave us $100,000 as a loan to get in here because the banks, the prices went up anyhow.

FMG: I have to return a frisbee. We’re sitting outside during coffee hour. There you go! (laughs) I just got hit in the knee, and I was like, what was that? So, you were able to get the loan that you needed in order to bridge over, and you were just saying that you’ve got a large cemetery here—are there a thousand spaces in this cemetery? And you were saying if you can sell some of them, you could even pay off the loan for this whole property.

FTP: It’s a two thousand space area. We just developed one thousand right now. It’s almost finished developing and then we’ll go public with availability. And we’ll talk to Vladyka Dmitri about whether we can sell them to non-Orthodox, maybe on the perimeter. And we can still pray for the people and minister to the people. But that’s a bridge we need to cross in the future. It’s really nice. When we bought the property, we thought we bought six acres. It was priced for six acres that wasn’t prime. And then the engineer came through, a friend of mine, and he said, Fr. Ted, you got the last best good piece of land in Mandarin, and you don’t have six acres, you’ve got eight acres. So we paid for six, we got eight, and even before we closed, the value of the land went up 75%. Because we bought the land, and in one week they announced developments, a new interchange with I-95, a four-lane road, everything on our street—we literally bought at the last possible moment. It was just God. I was so humbled. We had looked for years, and it was just God, all the way. It was amazing. And we were able to build the building, the contractor was extremely fair, he’s a personal friend of mine, so we had the trust factor way up on that. He made his money, no doubt. There was nothing cheated.

FMG: That’s terrific. You have quite a heart for missions, as I was saying, and you’ve had such a successful church plant here at St. Justin Martyr. What kind of advice would you give to pastors of struggling missions in other cities? What kind of tips would you give them for how to have this kind of wonderful success? Besides pray a lot.

FTP: First off, forgive me, I don’t know if we’ve had very much success. I think we just have really a wonderful group of people who love God. And I’m fortunate to pastor them, I’m fortunate to share a family with them. I love them. That’s not to say that we don’t have a bad day or two. But I would never trade this experience for anything different. Advice I would give is: love your people. I work really hard on preparing a sermon. I know that, um, like I said, I was a contractor, then I went to seminary. Seminary was difficult. I only knew numbers and business. I didn’t know how to write an essay. So I really poured myself into my studies. And I realized I needed to pour myself into teaching my classes, preaching, 8-12 hours a week. I’m embarrassed. Some priests can wing out a sermon in one hour. It takes me 8-12 hours a week. But I also use it for my own spiritual growth. But I think some of it is just loving other people. And knowing that, as Fr. Peter Gillquist says, if the Gospel is worth anything, it’s worth everything. And that rings true in my life. So, it’s the ultimate commitment. And as I would never cheat my children anything, nor should I cheat my parish anything. Find a balance between work and family, but, you know, this is everything. So just pour yourself into it. It’s all about relationships. My brother is my neighbor. As a church, just try to love each other. Try to fast. Try to come to the services. If we make a mistake, God forgives. We don’t get legalistic. We try to just be good Orthodox Christians. Whatever that may mean. For everybody it’s different.

FMG: Yeah, yeah, and obviously that’s the core. And it wasn’t what I was expecting you to say, I thought you’d have sort of practical… but you just cut right to the heart, that if you love your people, that’s how it happens. Now, I do have another question. I think that there are a lot of Orthodox pastors or mission pastors listening to this and thinking, the hard thing is knowing what God’s will is. Like, should we buy this property or that property? Should we move here, should we move there. I think discernment is one of the hardest things a priest has to do, because I feel like there are so many times I feel like saying to God, “I’ll do whatever you want, just speak up. Could you be a little clearer?” Do you have any advice for how you discern what the will of God is, if you’re open to do whatever He wants?

FTP: It’s really hard, and I don’t understand it either. Some people have a knack for discernment. My wife has a knack for discernment. I’ve always surrounded myself with- and this is the advice I would offer to a priest- I have always surrounded myself with what I call the rock star priests in my life. Fr. Paul Kucinda taught me so much about being a pastor. Fr. John Ealy. Just, how to be a liturgist. How to take care of your community. Practical things. Like, Fr. John Reeves on how to do missions and evangelism encouraged me to go to this kind of conference, read these kinds of books, have this kind of perspective. Fr. John Breck, my spiritual father, taught me how to have a spiritual life, how to go to confession. And from a distance, Fr. Tom Hopko is… I quote him so often. I haven’t seen Fr. Tom but maybe five times in fifteen years, and never spent more than five minutes together. But his influence in my life, reading his books, hearing his tapes, listening to him on Ancient Faith Radio. Surrounding myself with the stars. Fr. Peter Gillquist, I’ve called him up over the years and asked him for advice. People who are really good, just having them around you, asking them for advice. I ask them questions, ask them to show me, ask them to guide me. I seek their advice. And just because they tell me something doesn’t mean I’m going to do it that way, but it seasons what I’m going to do. But then over the years (I graduated from seminary fifteen years ago, I think), over the years you develop a little bit of an understanding of what needs to happen and you don’t need to bother everybody. But still I call up older brothers and say hey, what should I do? Or even a younger brother. Even the guys in the altar here. I’ll say hey, how do you want to handle, how should I handle that? Of course, things that aren’t confidential.

FMG: So you don’t have to look like you have all the answers.

FTP: I absolutely don’t have any answers. I’m nothing. Just whatever is, is.

FMG: Well, it’s a wonderful community here. Every time I come, it seems like it’s growing and growing and growing. And I know that’s some of the stress, too. Being a pastor of a little group of people is different from being a pastor of a large group of people, and you’re almost compelled to not be as close to everybody as you used to be, and that’s painful. I know you feel a lot of ambivalence about whether that’s right, but there’s only so many hours in the day.

FTP: I struggle. I’ve struggled a lot in the last few years. I’ve told the community, but my boys, I have two boys, 12 and 16 years old, and they’re number one as far as me being- I’m first and foremost a priest in my home, with my wife, that’s number one, because they’re going to be gone, so right now that’s where a lot of the ambivalence comes in, because I can’t pour myself totally into the church like I did when they were younger. I’d get home, and they were home at more times, so things could be balanced and I could be away in the evenings. I used to be gone thirty nights in a row. And that was tough. I didn’t realize it, but now with the kids going to school. There’s different ways to lead churches of different sizes, and again, thanks be to God, Fr. Steve Freeman in Knoxville, he coached me, he said, Fr. Ted, you need to do this. He set me on a whole new path on how to approach ministry. And really, again, that’s borrowing from a brother. Calling somebody up and saying, hey, this is what I’m struggling with. The church isn’t growing as fast as it used to. Or, I can’t handle it anymore. And he’d say, well, you need to change your style. You need to do this. Or, read this book. It’s really common sense stuff. The business world is really organizational. The church is an organization too, and really it’s common sense. But yes, it’s painful, it’s sad. There are times that I hear about somebody being in the hospital after they get out. Or a death, I just heard of a death after the funeral. Not in my parish, but of a parishioner, somebody close to them. And now I just learned of something in the parish today I’m very sad about. But if the church was smaller, I’d be right on it, but I found out after the fact and there’s nothing I can do but just go love the person. And I will go love him unconditionally, no matter what their issue is.

FMG: We’ve seen that at Holy Cross too. There was a time when we were just a church meeting in people’s living rooms, and it was so easy to know everything that was going on in each. It was just such a family feeling. But gradually it’s grown and grown, and become more of the next- I guess, the family church, and then the pastoral church, and then the corporate program, and then corporate is the last level. So, yeah, those are, according to the Alban Institute, an Episcopalian institute that has studied this a great deal, those are the four phases. And it’s sad when you find out things you think, ten years ago I would have already known about that. To see that it’s growing to the size that you can’t really be on top of everything anymore. The one thing that does comfort me is that I see when new people come and join Holy Cross, that they can get right into the center if they want to be. The thing would be, if you had like a clique, the initial group was so bonded to each other, that nobody else could get in. And praise God, it’s a priority to make sure that new members have duties and they have things they can do. They can wash the dishes, so to speak, and feel part of the family. I know that must be the sort of thing you do, too, to make sure that new members feel just as engaged as the old timers.

FTP: It’s really hard. I try to make people assimilate, and get the other people, because we see each other all week, we love each other, we want to get together with our friends, and forget about the visitor. Matushka Leann and I and a few other people make sure we come here, and then we say, hey, so and so, go talk to this person. I just did this a few minutes ago. And then get other people to start talking to them. Because we just want to be with our friends. But we have to remember to reach out. And that’s a hard, hard- I think that’s probably one of the hardest things to do. But somehow it works.

FMG: Somehow it does. It looks like it’s working very well here. Fr. Ted, thanks for your words this morning.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

Christian LifeOrthodoxyPodcast