This past Sunday was a beautiful day in many ways. I was reminded of simpler times of family and the joys of youth. But that wasn’t only it.
I experienced something new, fresh and exciting. My wife and I participated in the inaugural Bishop’s 5K Run/Walk in the Boston area. This was the third of three regional events held this year. The Bishop is Daniel Findikyan, and it’s my understanding that it was his idea to have the ACYOA sponsor this event to promote our spiritual and physical health. Similar events were held in Chicago and New Jersey earlier this month. The idea is creative, contemporary and very appealing to a wide spectrum of the community. There were 123 participants, probably another 40 to 50 observers and all the trimmings of a well-organized event (tee shirts, timers, route markers, medals, water stations, and of course the Armenian fellowship that followed). Many area priests participated with their families and parishioners. It was a grand event, an incredible success and a proud moment for the community. But that was not the reason why it was so unprecedented.
It all started when the Bishop arrived. Normally when you utter the phrase “when the Bishop arrived,” it suggests heavy protocol, formality and people repeating traditional clergy greeting phrases almost robotically that tend to remove any intimacy from the encounter. This was an entirely different experience. The Primate arrived dressed in his running attire (well, it was a 5K) in his usual humble manner, enabling a most approachable demeanor. The “moment” for me was an image I will remember forever of Bishop Daniel spontaneously surrounded by 30 to 40 young Armenians who simply wanted to say hello to their friend and now, their leader.
The order of those descriptors is important. He has been their friend as their teacher and dean at the seminary, from the retreats he has led, from the St. Nersess summer programs that are a magnet for our youth and countless other educational encounters through the years. Now he is their designated leader as Primate, but for most of the young that was an “adult” acknowledgment of what they already knew. This is a man who was visibly overjoyed to see many young people he knows and who know him. No formality. No protocol. No awkwardness. Just a lot of love. He was in his zone.
With Bishop Daniel, the future is now with the emerging generation. If you ask any of the young faces who know him (and there are many), they are not surprised by the decision to elect him Primate. At a time when the challenge of engaging the next generation has never been greater, the Armenian church has elected a leader who is loved by many of the young faithful, and as my daughter says, “gets it.”
For years, we have all heard the question asked when a new parish priest, vicar or Primate/Prelate arrives, “How is he with the youth?” This was the one time that the question has been answered with clarity and a resounding endorsement from the youth. They didn’t cast a single vote for his election last year, but they are clearly the most important demographic in his flock. It doesn’t matter if you attend a Prelacy church or a Diocese church. This is joyous news for the Armenian church. I will add that if you ask the youthful participants in the St. Gregory of Datev program of the Prelacy, you will find similar love and admiration for Archbishop Anoushavan. The point is that having clergy leaders who are respected and admired by the young generation is great news for all of us. In my view, of all the attributes of a church leader, the ability to effectively communicate with and inspire the youth is the most important. This is his gift.
The question remains for each of us: how do we maximize the impact of this Bishop’s ministry? In order to consider this challenge, each of us must look in the mirror.
In the Armenian church, the Diocesan Bishop or Arachnort has impressive responsibilities according to our canons, bylaws and traditions. The global Armenian church, by definition, has a very diverse faithful base. This is driven by the culture of the host nations where Armenians reside. As the generations continue, it is critical for regional leaders to understand the psyche and the needs of the faithful, especially the youth. Managing the global church as a centralized entity with top down control decision making is not only counter intuitive and decidedly ineffective, but also contrary to the traditional empowerment of Diocesan bishops. If our bishop is to take on the challenges of today’s church, he will need the spiritual, operational and moral support of the many branches of our institution.
Our Vehapar seems to believe that his primary role is to keep us “Armenian” in the diaspora. That’s a noble mission, but it usually translates into anti-change policies and rigid centralized decision- making. For example, the push for global bylaws for the last decade is essentially focused on a matter of personnel control.
Another example is the matter of St. Nersess seminary, which has existed here in the United States for decades. It produces highly trained clergy who advance through a very structured program of language, theology, liturgy and ministry applications. They graduate with advanced degrees. Candidates are then “required” to go to Holy Etchmiadzin for additional studies. Although, it may be appropriate in some cases, it should be at the discretion of the Diocesan Bishop who is canonically responsible for the ordination of priests. The readiness of the candidate is a function of the seminary program and the Diocesan Bishop. Today’s process, in my view, makes St. Nersess appear to be less than a full seminary. This is unfortunate.
Everyone has a role in the sustained role of the American Diocese as vibrant and empowered. The Diocesan Council must work primarily to advance the Bishop’s agenda and provide him the “flank support” or “air cover” needed for success. In other words, they have to internalize their role to “have his back” when necessary. It would be a terrible waste of his talent if he is consumed with conflicts, finances and errands from Etchmiadzin. Administrative duties and financial issues can bog down the time of a Bishop and keep him overly allocated with one constituency. This is where a strong Vicar is important, as well as the focus of the council. Obviously, the Bishop’s presence is needed and photo opportunities are important, but the Diocesan Council must help him stay balanced. It is clear that the primate will naturally gravitate towards the youth and growing the spiritual core of the church. We need to make sure he has the support to maintain that focus. It is a difficult job. The lay support could be the difference.
On a local level, parish priests and councils must be overtly supportive of the programs and strategies. We have all heard of or experienced an anti-diocese view from local faithful. I have met people in the past who will not join a parish because they do not want funds to go to the diocese. I believe the Bishop will help heal these “credibility” wounds.
But these problems can be more subtle. Are parishes optimizing their participation in St. Nersess Studies Programs, St. Vartan Camp or regional retreats? The fair answer is that there is room for improvement. Participation and support are directly related to the central issue of how we can impact his ministry. The Bishop advocates for a “back to the basics” approach, reconnecting our faith, the individual and the church. Our faith and heritage teach us some core truths. Over-complicating can lead to a default of inactivity. It’s all about understanding and living our faith according to the teaching of the Armenian church. Clear and concise yes, but we live in a world of distractions. Some of those are within our community and can inadvertently lead to endless debate and decisions with no substance. This describes many of the outputs of our “democratic” assemblies. When baseball players lose their swing, they look at film and make adjustments to mechanical errors they are making or how pitchers are handling them. They try to get back to the basics of balance, physical readiness, footwork and technique. They try to get back to what made them successful and update it. I believe this is why the Bishop is successful with the youth. He doesn’t lose the message. He connects with his audience. He focuses on the foundations of our faith and heritage. The question remains: are we doing our part? Are we helping him to be as effective as possible in his new role?
These are truly remarkable times. We have an American-born Bishop with a German mother. He was born in Texas and raised in Binghamton, New York. A teacher. An intellect. A mentor to many of our youth. A friend to all. He never asked or campaigned for this job. His humility is inspiring, and he is simply following God’s plan. I go back to the image of this past weekend of him surrounded by a loving group of those who will lead this church shortly. And I just said to myself…“Wow, what a door God has opened. We simply cannot miss this opportunity.”