Disappointment With Church Leaders

Last week we had our annual diocesan conference in Phoenix, AZ.  Although it was 45 degrees at the beginning of the week without a cloud in sight, by the end of the week it had cooled down to a comfortable 35 with a few showers—not the soaking, misty rain as we know it on Canada’s Pacific Coast, but rather big, heavy drops that fell about 30 centimetres apart and didn’t really wet the ground because the moisture evaporated before the next drop hit that spot.  But, it was rain nonetheless, so I can honestly say that even in Phoenix, AZ, early on a July morning, I was praying in the rain.

The big topic for conversation at the conference was the Great Council, or “The Meeting in Crete,” as we were encouraged to call it.  Our Metropolitan Joseph, who was supposed to be at this conference, was instead that a meeting of the Holy Synod of Antioch helping to frame Antioch’s response to The Meeting and provide a long explanation as to why Antioch did not participate, which can be read here (scroll past the Greek to the English version).   This statement was read aloud at the conference and discussed and explained to the clergy by those who have studied the matter.  While all of the reasons for Antioch’s inability to participate in The Meeting in Crete are reasonable and really do seem to necessitate Antioch’s non-participation, still it seemed to me that there was a palpable sense of disappointment among the clergy that something could not have been worked out.  It’s not that anyone thought the Holy Synod of Antioch had done the wrong thing.  Rather, it was disappointment that all of the leaders of the Church internationally couldn’t together find the humility to work things out before it got to this point.  As someone noted: “There is enough shame to go around for everyone.”

It’s this feeling of disappointment I would like to talk about today.  This feeling of disappointment with the Church’s leaders is nothing new.  St. Basil the Great, writing abut the year 360 says the following of the Church and its leaders in his day:

…While in the Church of God alone, for which Christ died and upon which he richly poured out the Holy Spirit, I found so many in great and boundless disharmony, both with one another and with the divine Scriptures.  And, what is most horrible, its very leaders are in such disagreement with one another in judgment and opinion, and act in such opposition to the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ, mercilessly tearing apart the Church of God and unsparingly throwing his flock into confusion, that now if ever…is fulfilled the Scripture: “from your own selves will arise men who speak perverse things to draw away disciples after them.”

(From the first paragraph of “On The Judgement Of God”)

St. Basil in quoting St. Paul points, I think, to the real problem.  It is from our “own selves” that leaders arise in the Church.  And in these leaders we find the same weaknesses, sins, stubbornness, pride and willful ignorance that we find both among ourselves and within ourselves.  In as much as I am not humble, how can I expect the leaders who emerge from among “our selves” to be humble.  If I will not follow the Gospel commandments to go the second mile, give to those who ask and turn the other cheek, why would I expect this of my leaders.? Why would I expect those who come from among us to be any different from us?

A while ago I was sitting with a group of people who were complaining about the weaknesses of their priest.  I’m sure most of the complaints were accurate and that this particular priest had a steep learning curve in front of him—the same learning curve that all priest spend their whole ministry trying to climb.  After over an hour of listening to complaints, I asked the group a question:  How many of you are encouraging your own sons to become priests?  The room was silent.  And so, I pointed out to them, that although this man was willing to do what they themselves were not willing to do and were not willing to encourage their sons to do—to devote themselves to years of study with no hope of financial reward only to spend thirty or forty years in obedience to the bishop and under the scrutiny of a parish—that if they themselves were not willing to do this, perhaps they needed to cut their current priest some more slack.

Priests and bishops come from the people, from families, from mothers and fathers.  It just doesn’t make sense for us to expect a high level of holiness and Christ-like humility and wisdom among our leaders if we cannot find similar holiness, humility and wisdom among ourselves.  But here’s the good news: if we want saintly bishops and priests, all we have to do is become the saintly fathers and mothers that produce them and the holy aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and friends that support and encourage them.

Actually, there has never been a time in the history of the Church when it has ever been much different.  Holy parents tend to produce holy children.  Sure, there are lots of exceptions both ways: holy parents with children who reject Christ, and holy men and women emerging from terribly ungodly families.  Sure, lots of exceptions.  However, the norm is that holy families produce holy children who grow up to be holy adults.  St. Basil the Great is an example of a holy leader of the Church who himself grew up in a very holy family.  His parents and grand parents are saints and four of his siblings were revealed as saints.  Holiness, generally, produces holiness.  And every now and then, God raises up holy mothers and fathers to produce holy men and women who grow up to become the voice and conscience of the Church.  And these holy leaders, like St. Basil the Great, come along when we need them; or rather, when we want them badly enough to produce them.

In the mean time, the Church muddles along.  And here’s an amazing thing.  Even without notable saints as leaders, the Holy Spirit still guides the Church, not only despite, but actually using the broken and messy and often retrograde work of sinful men who carry the same weaknesses and the same fears and insecurities as the rest of the Church from whom they emerged.  Many of the seven great Ecumenical Councils took years, even decades to complete (and then often with several mis-starts and false councils in between).  Who knows whether The Meetings in Crete are not the beginning of what may indeed turn out to be a Great and Holy Council on the same level of the early seven?  Who knows?  I  don’t.  But time will tell.

And as we wait for time to tell, I think there is a lot to be hopeful about.  At least our Church leaders are talking to one another.  At least issues that very few cared about, issues of great importance, are now being talked about and becoming better and more broadly understood.  At least we have begun.  And using the leaders that we, the married, child-producing part of the Church have provided, God the Holy Spirit is doing the best He can.  Who knows, maybe even now there are holy mothers and fathers raising holy sons and daughters who themselves will be the parents and leaders of the future Church?  Maybe even now, my own repentance, my own striving for humility and virtue will create a context from which men and women will emerge who will forsake all to follow Christ.  It seems the future of the Church, the future of the next Great and Holy Council (or the continuation of the one that has already begun) depends mostly on us, the people: the moms and dads, the brothers and sisters, the laity in general and the married priests and simple monastics.  We’re the one’s whose holiness or lack thereof determines the holiness of tomorrow’s generation of leaders in the Church.

At least that’s how it seems to me.

18 comments:

  1. My first response to this article is that I want to break out in torrents of weeping, because none of our sons are in the church. But I realize that a purely emotional response will not result in anything but tears. I know I need true repentance and a will to die to my passions. I find it very difficult to honestly take up my cross and embrace it joyfully.

    1. Dear Helena,
      We live in very difficult times. It takes a miracle to raise kids who grow up and stay in the Church. And we are all responsible for each other. We all weep for all of our children. May God call our wandering children home.

  2. Yes, it is precisely this disappointment that keeps me away from Church. I had so much of it, and so I read where ever I find True Teachings with a hope and prayers in my heart. It is OK not to be in Church for me, because most are only Church-goers and not living it. (my experience) It feels like being fooled, when I take my faith serious and believed all my life and lived it (of course the best I could), and find out that Priests, Pastors or Bishops etc. proclaimed the truth by mouth and never lived the Truth from their Heart and Soul and settled for mediocre. In other words avoiding the cost, and in it for the blessings from others. (bountiful everywhere) It throws the whole Church, or the healthy economy of the Church out of balance. Then, one perceives “God have Mercy” with trembling’s in their heart. There is this awareness of hypocrisy. As hopeful as I always try to be, if we do not all come together, especially the men with their lack of humility (inflated egos), we may all experience this imbalance to some degree or another and know what this trembling with the ” Fear of the Lord ” really means and is. In the meantime God, please have Mercy on all of us, open our hearts and minds so we can see. And when we can see, we will do. There is No other way. (an open prayer) Please no backlash and thank you for reading me.

    1. Dear Maria,
      I understand how you feel. Sometimes it does seem as though no one is taking their relationship with God very seriously and that the leaders of the Church are especially weak in faith. Nevertheless, we are children of the Church. The Church is our mother, as we say. And even if my mother is sick or even abusive, she is still my mother. Of course, there may be times when I have to take action so that she cannot abuse me, which would not be good for her or me; but still, she is my mother. As much as we are able we must strive to honour our mother, for without her, we would’t be here. There would be no Christians if there were no Church. It is only through the Church that we can know Christ. (For example, there would be no Bible if the Church had not put it together and copied it and made it available throughout the ages.)
      This is part of the irony of the Christian experience, which is the crucified life, the life Christ lived. Just as Jesus lived a holy life within the synagog amid many religious hypocrites and a few sincere disciples, so we too, sometimes, are given the same cross to bear.

  3. Today ,being in a more objective frame of mind , I retread your blog and I want to thank you for the hope and encouragement you have inspired, Fr. Michael. I am so thankful to be in the Orthodox Church.I am continually amazed at the wealth of wisdom and truth that is available from the generations of Godly people who have gone before.I find so much rest and peace knowing that God has been faithful to keep His church through so much upheaval . Lord have mercy and equip us through your church to meet the challenges that we will face in our time.I am pleased to say I have met so many Godly men and women who are truly seeking Him.

  4. Father,

    As far as your “solution” of one’s own (particularly of parents and others responsible for the formation of children – who then obviously grow into the next generation of leaders) holiness being the way forward, is this not a chicken or egg problem? How do I myself, or how do I teach/form/guide my children (I speak as a father of two young children) if the “leadership” can not guide me because of their own sin and lack of wisdom/holiness/insight? If as St. Basil notes the leadership is a mess and always has been, but somehow the Spirit works with us “common” folk, well then what is the point of the leadership – why not just dissolve their place in a pseudo-protestant admission of a “mystical” Church/Body?

    In any case I admit I was not disappointed with the recent meeting at all, but then I don’t believe in the direction that the EPcate has been heading for the last 100 years and the soft/squishy language of the secular lexicon that he so readily adapts in these “position papers” and what not. Indeed, I have little doubt the Spirit of Truth Himself is keeping destructive “dialogue” and agreement from occurring. I speak as a person in a Church “of diaspora” whose Metropolitan falls under the EPcate. The next REAL “Great and Holy” Council will occur when it occurs, and any anxiety we have over it is a distraction…

    1. Dear Christopher,
      I’m sorry I gave the impression that St. Basil says that the Holy Spirit works with us common folk despite the mess. St. Basil says that God works with the whole church despite the mess.
      I think you ask exactly the correct question when you ask how can one guide and lead without him/her self having a good leader. That’s exactly the right question because it helps us reflect on the fact that I too (as father, teacher, priest, etc.) am quite messed up. How do I expect my children, students, parishioners to be led by me who am so screwed up? The answer I have (which is by no means the only answer) is that I hope that they will see in me what is good and imitate it and learn from it; and when they see my many messed up bits, they will be charitable and learn not to imitate those things. And if that is what I hope for from those who must follow me, that too is what I strive to do as I look to those whom I must follow.
      By the way, I love the abbreviation for Ecumenical Patriarchate.

      1. Father,

        Of course! The “leadership” is included in the mystery “of the mess” as much as the rest. Actually, I needed to be reminded of that as I had been banging my head (disconnected as it is from the heart) against that particular wall lately. I picked up that little abbreviation off the internet somewhere, useful in a comment box 😉

  5. Fr. Gillis,
    I get the point and I often said these same words to others defending the faith. But after 2000 years of History the ongoing strivings for this or that, one being the right and all other wrongs faiths, Pastors, Pope’s, Bishops of all stripes, some for this and some for the opposite, like parents always fighting and so seldom loving and in agreement, that pains all children of God. It pains me, because I end up with nothing and left to figure out who and what is God, the Church with being male dominant, and traditions that are either so antiquated or so bizarre modern one thinks or feels like being in a rock concert where I have to plug my ears or go deaf. Christians are more lost than the folks out on the streets, because they know nothing, but some have believed and tasted this love from the Father in their souls, drank from the rivers of living water and know that Paradise is not a place, but a state of “being”, or the kingdom is at hand…here and now. And I want to find my brothers and sisters in faith and” being”. All I found so far is intellectual discourse, praises where I get the impression people don’t even know whom they are praising, praying not in spirit and in truth, but going thru a lot of rituals and motions. To have communion with God, we need to have it with one another as well. We need to know each other vertical and horizontal to know God with the Bible as our Guide/precepts etc. And the Church is to provide such a place of fellowship and it is not. At least not for me. And I wonder where my life is supposed to be. I know I can not be the only one. Immigrant or not, we are all Human Beings, souled by the Creator Almighty God and Father, for him to dwell in communion with us and I am with him, and I am determined to find my church and others.

    1. Hi Maria,

      Forgive me for butting in to your conversation with Fr. Michael. I am curious as to what you consider “the Church?” You mention “2000 years of history” with “Pastors, Bishops, Popes” and you mention encountering a modern service that is like a “rock concert.” It sounds like you are describing modern Christendom (largely as it manifests here in the West and in the U.S.) comprising mainly Catholicism and Protestantism, with Orthodoxy perhaps serving only as an example for you of what is “antiquated and bizarre” in our services? Please correct me if I’m misreading here. It’s hard enough navigating all the ups and downs of Eastern Orthodox history and her various contemporary institutions (which is the subject of Fr. Michael’s post), but trying to find your way through the maze of a “Church” (in the modern view of some) that is Protestant, Catholic and all manner of Orthodox (some not in communion with each other) is truly an impossible task! If this is how you are thinking, no wonder you are so confused, distrustful and discouraged.

      If I am reading you correctly, and you are finding the writings of some Orthodox Priest bloggers helpful, I believe you should find a local Orthodox parish or monastery if you can that uses the local language–here in North America, English–and try to find a sympathetic Priest or monk or nun with whom you can open your heart and ask questions. You need a kind spiritual father or mother it seems to me to help guide you through this maze. Lacking that opportunity, you might find reading some contemporary Orthodox Saints helpful (as I have). I would recommend perhaps “Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit” published by Protecting Veil Press, “Wounded by Love” by Elder (now Saint) Porphyrios of Athens, and “Everyday Saints” published by Conciliar Press. My local public library does interlibrary loan, and I have used that many times when I have not wanted to purchase a book–perhaps that would be a possibility for you as well. Perhaps there are even Orthodox books available in your first language, which would be even more accessible for you. The books I mention are part of my permanent library because I find I return to them frequently for encouragement.

      God bless you as you seek true communion with our loving Lord! I hope my suggestions will be helpful, but if not, please forgive my forwardness and accept my good wishes!

      1. Thank you Karen, I acknowledge your sincere intentions. You are right, I do need some help guiding me thru this crazy American Church Jungle. I will take your advise. Your good wishes are accepted. Love and Peace.

      2. Karen, just want to let you know that I meant following up on your advice and ordered 2 of the books from Amazon.com. Looking forward to reading them and again thank you for having the courage to get involved. Blessings and best wishes to you too.

  6. Thank you for your paragraph about the lamenting group of parishioners. I found it both encouraging and humbling.

  7. You make some excellent points, but the issues are SO IMPORTANT that it is imperative they get on the same page before moving forward. I think that’s possible. – Success in Crete would have resulted in the schism of all schisms, which would have been a tragedy. I think the Holy Spirit WAS at work and prevented this.

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