Much of the public attention on corruption in Armenia has been directed at the government and business structure. Corruption takes on many forms that erode the innovation in a society. It renders the majority powerless. It creates a victim mentality that extinguishes hope—the fundamental element for prosperity and happiness. Given the financial implications of corruption (bribery, theft, monopolies and deceit), it is natural that most of the visibility is focused on the government and business community.
Another outcome of the corruption in Armenia has been poor governance, stagnated job growth and of course the resulting emigration. Armenia suffered from this malaise significantly during the first 25 years of its independence. This is the environment that led to the Velvet Revolution and the emergence of the Pashinyan era. Timing is everything. PM Pashinyan and his allies read the will of the people and their limits of intolerance correctly. It led to a rare circumstance in modern nationhood—a street movement that quickly evolved into the governing structure without violence and short term chaos. This is a remarkable achievement by the Armenian people. Clearly governing in a parliamentary democracy however, with a long list of pent up challenges, is much more difficult than the Revolution itself.
Nevertheless, Pashinyan should be applauded for two major reasons. He restored hope in Armenian society and credibility in the diaspora. This accomplishment—from despair to dreaming again—should never be underestimated. Honeymoons in government tend to dampen some of the initial euphoria, but Armenia is a better place when its citizens have hope. Talk to the people on the street and in the villages. It is a prerequisite for any progress.
Pashinyan has also introduced the concept of transparency into the leadership environment. He speaks openly, honestly and often. He is accessible, visible and focused. Is everyone happy? No, of course not. But he is addressing some of the tough issues that have been avoided by past administrations, thus granting voice to many who have been silenced. Transparency in leaders is what inspires followers. We have witnessed the impact of its absence.
There is another equally important institution in Armenian life that has been the subject of corruption perceptions and has failed to embrace transparency. This is, of course, our beloved church in Holy Etchmiadzin. It is one of these not so well kept “secrets” in our community. Everyone talks about it, but in unofficial capacities. Corruption perceptions are typically directed at individuals in leadership. Our church is no exception to that general rule as our Vehapar in Holy Etchmiadzin has developed this reputation. What I find amazing is that many faithful Armenians privately or in casual discussions routinely share their disgust with the corruption perception, yet either feel powerless or ambivalent about doing something to address this matter. Incredibly, we acknowledge the issue individually, yet apparently we haven’t connected it to the health of the institution we revere. When leaders lose credibility, for whatever reason, we become leaderless, as our direction becomes unclear.
At the top of the pyramid in our church should be our faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ followed by our identity with an institution of our faith which in this case is the Holy Apostolic Church. The “mission” is our salvation through Christ Jesus according to the traditions of the Armenian Church. Our leaders are elected to serve that mission. Period! It is a mission filled with sacrifice, love, faith and commitment. This is why corruption can be so devastating in an institution that exists primarily to bring us the Good News. Corruption and God? I don’t think so. But we all know that despite the holy mission, His church is run by humans—imperfect and subject to sin.
But He also granted us free will with which to manage our earthly life. In my view, part of that responsibility is to protect our institutions from harm’s way. So we have a problem! Perception becomes reality when it impacts people and their relationships. I am sure we all know people who have witnessed, experienced or heard stories of the leadership style of our Vehapar. Let me say politely that it is control-oriented. At a time when we should be empowering the dioceses in the diaspora to find a balance between keeping the church relevant in diverse societies, he seems to feel that his job is to keep us Armenian by insisting on a set of centralized commands. One size does not fit all. That was decided a long time ago when we became a dispersed people. We are bonded by our heritage and faith but are all influenced by the environment in which we reside. If our discussion were limited to management style, it would be concerning, but not critical.
Unfortunately the perceptions go beyond style and into the realm of overt corruption. Again, let’s ask ourselves a question. Why do many responsible Armenians privately acknowledge this perception of corruption, yet fail to bring it into the designated forums of our church? I have asked many of those in this predicament. The overwhelming response is, “What good would it do?” Not…“I don’t believe it.” They essentially feel powerless. Confronting problems is difficult for many in our community. It is easier to talk about it socially, vent to friends or simply ignore issues when they become problematic. Most of us prefer to be on the “inside” of the community. Let’s face it. If you confront a perception of corruption in leaders, you are taking a risk of social isolation.
Our church likes to talk about itself as a democratic institution. Parish councils, Diocesan councils and Diocesan bishops are all elected. We even have elections for the Catholicoi that include lay and clergy delegates. The problem is that once the election took place for the Catholicos, the democracy ended. Most of his decisions are directives. The Supreme Spiritual Council, an advisory group of lay and bishops, is appointed by him and essentially confirms his decisions. In other words, the ongoing process is very dependent on the “management style” of the leader. Given the top-down control focus, it does not exactly encourage the faithful to take any risk in bringing real issues into the church. As a result, we avoid substantive dialogue, and perceptions of corruption are certainly in that category. We just tolerate the perception, and all that comes with it.
I am particularly concerned about infringement in the authority of Diocesan bishops. The canons of our church have traditionally empowered the Diocesan bishops to “run their show.” For example, the readiness of a candidate for the priesthood is the responsibility of the bishop, yet we have several examples of “meddling” with criteria and readiness. Most of these are not public and therefore remain “under the radar.” This is not a healthy environment for our church. The church belongs to the faithful, and leaders are elected to serve God and the faithful. We can ignore these perceptions and relegate them to substantive rumors, but they chip away at the credibility of the church and its ability to carry out its mission.
We suffer today from silent leadership.
But there is a solution. It is seemingly absent in today’s leadership, but if allowed to prevail, it would bring fresh air into our beloved church. Transparency! When we have credibility issues, our leaders have a responsibility to “clear the air.” Whether it is perception or reality, denying the corruption does not eliminate the concern from the thousands who have this view. We suffer today from silent leadership. It is the “elephant in the room,” yet it is never acknowledged. There is still enough respect for the institution that an open dialogue on this matter would be received generally with respect. The church is accountable to the faithful like any other institution to its constituency. However, our extreme hierarchical nature can sometimes reverse that accountability. It seems the faithful are left out of their own church.
Fortunately , we have many wonderful clergy who understand their sacred role and use their authority for the faithful. They are keeping the church functioning across the world on a daily basis, while these other less attractive perceptions persist. Why won’t our leader(s) embrace transparency? Is there something to hide? Does the arrogance of power make them not feel accountable? Do they not see the damage this is causing?
The answer is probably all of the above. I have met literally hundreds of Armenians who say, relative to helping Armenia, they will not donate through Holy Etchmiadzin because of a fear of corruption. True or not, it is influencing personal decisions. Of course, there will always be a few major benefactors who will have their names on a new building or underwrite major programs, but cash flow is not necessarily an indication of the problem. Identity with the institution is how it manifests itself. It is rarely binary. Rather it leads to a slow “turn off.” Here’s a sports analogy for you. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is now famous for the slogan, “Do your job.” We all need to “do our job.” The faithful must ask questions and not be ambivalent. Elected leaders must be challenged, even if it is uncomfortable. The Vehapar must embrace transparency and address these perceptions. The Spiritual Council should immediately advise him as such. If the assertions are false, then prove it. If they are true, then show remorse and seek forgiveness. Take responsibility as the elected leader. To date, neither path has been chosen, which simply encourages more conflict, aloofness from the church and decline. We all need to do two things in this regard. First we need to pray on this, and then we need to “do our job.” We all have a role in elevating our church, including the Vehapar. Questioning authority is not disrespectful. It is about checks and balances. At the end of the day, it is the mission that remains sacred. Whatever we do, it should be with love for our church.