According to the calendar, it’s springtime! Wait…don’t look outside. Just imagine what spring is defined as. With the trees and plants shedding their seasonal slumber, we are reminded that it is a time of renewal—a fresh start. It is the season that we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and a time of great hope.
I feel this way about our beloved and venerable Armenian church. Call me a hopeless optimist. Our faith is all about hope. You say (and I have also) that our church is in decline—falling attendance at parishes and Sunday School, financial problems and the challenge of an ever increasing secular society. All true, but still I have hope because I believe that with prayer and commitment we can meet our challenges and build a brighter future.
I also have hope because of two important individuals: Bishop Daniel and Archbishop Anoushavan. With due respect to the past, I haven’t been this excited about the potential of our leadership in the eastern US in many years. All leaders, especially those in our community, are graced with a “honeymoon” period for transitions and learning curves. Both of these fine men were elected at their respective assemblies (we’ll leave the unity issue aside for now) one year ago. For Anoushavan Surpazan, his transition was less eventful since his prior position was vicar of the Prelacy. For Daniel Surpazan (feels like we have been waiting a long time to say that), it was a different path. He was just consecrated a bishop of the church this past week, so his first year as Primate was as “Hayr” Daniel. Nevertheless, both are longtime members of their dioceses and have just completed their transitional year marked by each presiding over their respective assemblies this month.
With hope and optimism come expectations—high expectations. The hope that I and many others share is based on two reasons: the qualities of these men and the inherent role of clergy, particularly celibate clergy in our church. As leaders, they both have the ability to inspire. In my view, this is the most important attribute of a public leader. Both Surpazans have a long history of teaching, motivating and inspiring young people. I remember when Daniel Surpazan was elected a year ago, there was an excitement among the young people in our parish. They have had a wonderful relationship with him for years through the St. Nersess programs. Anoushavan Surpazan exemplified a similar narrative through the St. Gregory of Datev summer program.
What do the faithful need and want from our clergy leaders? They want to be inspired. They want their church to be relevant, and they want to have approachable leaders. In our particular church, the Diocesan Primate/Prelate has enormous authority. By definition, our priests are the presiding individuals over all aspects of the church. Generally speaking, the lay bodies on church matters accede to the wisdom of the Primate/Prelate. There are only two things that would undermine that authority: a lack of consensus within our administrative bodies and actions by the Vehapar to control the authority of the Diocesan bishop. We have experienced both limitations in our recent history. It is vitally important that neither limit the tenure of these leaders.
Of course this does not preclude healthy conflict and debate. In the case of our Diocesan bishops, it is essential that the lay leaders, priests and the Vehapars support these individuals by letting them do their job. With everyone’s support, we may get the very best of their capabilities. Our bishops are under significant pressure from a diverse community. Agreement can be challenging. I would suggest we do our utmost to support these leaders as a reflection of the confidence we had in electing them. Empowering them with our support will encourage appropriate risk-taking.
The Armenian church is not a case of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” We often say that we must be investing for the future. But what exactly does that mean? I would clarify it by saying we must invest in ways that bring the youngest two generations to the church. This is where the void is, but it is not where we spend the majority of our time and resources.
What we need from our leaders is to be change agents.
For example, every May both dioceses hold their annual assemblies. It is the highest legislative unit of the diocese. It is empowered to hold elections for the Prelate/Primate and Diocesan councils, pass budgets and enact programs for the diocese. Yet if you examine a typical assembly agenda or actually attend one, there are very few tangible items that one could say directly influence parish life. These assemblies, whether the Prelacy NRA or the Diocesan Assembly, bring together an incredible array of talent, dedication and commitment. But they usually take on the role of a grand reunion of people who sincerely love their church and each other, but have little legislative or financial impact on parishes. For years as a delegate to both assemblies, I would struggle with how to convey the content and output of the assemblies to a parish community dealing with the struggles of attendance, education and finances. Yes, elections are held and budgets are passed, but concrete measures to reverse decline simply never happen. The deliberations are riddled with formalities, “corporate” dialogue on the “headquarters” and endless reports of recent history. The mundane hours resemble more of a rubber stamp board meeting than an honest review of our challenges. These assemblies are designed to create goodwill and photo opportunities, but overall, they change little in an institution that needs revision. It is not an effective use of our resources. It turns into a “feel good” session for our shrinking core. I believe our leadership can alter that equation and create the processes to review our challenges and implement tactics that have a real impact.
What we need from our leaders is to be change agents. Rebuilding our Sunday schools, effective outreach to non-Armenian spouses and growing membership are all real problems that our leaders have the authority to impact. A diocese starts with a parish. A diocese exists because of the parishes it nurtures. A diocese doesn’t have a purpose without viable parishes. These basic concepts governed the establishment of the diocese of the Armenian church at the close of the 19th century. The same need led to the creation of the Prelacy in 1956. It has always been parishes that led to the creation of dioceses. This principle should guide our every action as we continue the sacred mission of the Armenian church. The “corporate” structure may be at the top of the pyramid, but the local parishes secure a solid foundation that is essential to sustainability.
My sense is that we have lost some aspects of the recipe based on how we spend our time and allocate resources. The centralized model of both dioceses should be reviewed for its effectiveness. The problem is not with the programs, but rather with their consistent execution in the parishes. A decentralized model where resources reside in the regions of the parishes would afford us the opportunity to work together on a daily basis on-site to find solutions. Training professionals to attract parishioners, building youth programs and strengthening stewardship would relieve many parishes of the spiral many are in. I empathize with the dedicated servants of our dioceses who deserve better results for their dedication.
Perhaps we could start with a pilot program in New England where the density of parishes would make it manageable to establish the resource base and measure results. We have a good product. We just need to improve our marketing. There is some very good news in that our church has succeeded in developing several highly successful immersion programs such as St. Vartan Camp, St. Nersess Summer Studies and the Datev Institute. These programs are teaching commitment and life skills to an emerging generation. They are very effective, but they are reaching a relatively small audience. Our vision must be to double these programs every seven to ten years. These are the most instrumental programs we have for our future. Instead of simply listening to reports, the Diocesan councils and assemblies should have the vision to expand and invest in our future.
The typical concern is how to fund these efforts. We must convince our benefactors that investing in the next generation is our primary focus. We seem to be able to raise substantial funds for anniversaries, pontifical visits and cultural activities. I am certain with the determination of our leadership we can invest in a regional structure that delivers results and expands immersion programs to guide our youth. The methods that brought us here today are not necessarily the ones that will ensure tomorrow.
These are meant to be just a few examples of what is possible. Imagine the possibilities if we focus on solutions. Our conservative strategies look more like an institution trying to maintain the status quo versus one that understands the challenges we face. This is the reality of the diaspora. The engaging style of our current spiritual leaders should create optimism that they will exercise their authority in a manner that will significantly benefit the future of our church. Our job, as community members, local priests, faithful parishioners and the emerging generation, is to encourage them with our ideas, our participation and our prayers. Leaders are sometimes criticized for inaction. In this season of renewal, let us remember that often it is the voices of the followers that empower the leaders.