As Armenians, we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our future to set the bar high. At times, we have succumbed to accepting mediocrity in our institutions. Some of this is attributed to a lack of resources or mental fatigue from our volunteer network. Other times we may be aware of lowering our standards, but are either unable or unwilling to confront the challenge. We must never compromise our vision because of current limitations. It is the vision that attracts community members and motivates us to reach new heights. This fuels sustainability. In its absence, we wander into a state of simply existing. Many refer to it as just “keeping the lights on.” It tends to fatigue those who are committed and limits attracting new resources to the mission. It can eventually lead to a spiral of decline. Thus we can see the relationship and necessity of real leadership. Leaders must enable others to advocate for the mission of the institution to sustain and thrive. It is not about egos and titles, but rather making a difference.
A great deal of attention has been devoted recently to what is perceived by many as a leadership crisis in the Armenian Apostolic Church. Much of the attention is focused on the corruption cloud hovering over the tenure of the current Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II. I would like to approach this subject from a different perspective. Much has been written about the impact of corruption from a financial and moral perspective. I would like to address the status of our church from a leadership impact perspective.
In our long church history, we have witnessed a variety of styles and experiences in our leaders. Through it all, the church has survived. Prior to the early 20th century, most Armenians lived on our ancestral lands, creating a somewhat homogeneous constituency from a geographic and cultural perspective. After the 1920s, with Armenian communities blossoming in the Americas, Europe and the Middle East, the needs and expectations became more diverse and challenging. At Holy Etchmiadzin, the Soviet control of the Armenian church from 1920 to 1991 somewhat masked this change as the Catholicos was limited as to what he could do in Armenia and to a larger degree in the diaspora. In fact, Catholicos Vasken I of blessed memory was the first Catholicos of Etchmiadzin to visit America. With the independence of Armenia in 1991, the Catholicos was in a position to address the revival of the church in Armenia and expand administration in the diaspora. With this euphoric evolution came changing expectations from Holy Etchmiadzin and the diaspora. After the passing of the venerable Vasken I and the tragic short tenure of the esteemed Karekin I of blessed memory, Karekin II was seated in 1999.
The diaspora has an expectation to be inspired. This is a reasonable belief. But what they have received is unnecessary control and a leadership style that does not enable it to thrive. While the diaspora expected some level of continued decentralization to accommodate the obvious cultural differences, they had to deal with micromanagement and even what many would refer to as meddling in matters traditionally the responsibility of the Diocese.
I can cite two examples in the last several years. One would be the drive by Holy Etchmiadzin to write and implement global bylaws. For many of the dioceses that lacked bylaws, the discussions were perceived as an improvement. For the American dioceses that have a 100-year history of bylaw development based on many western values, it created significant conflict and a residual feeling of being “strong armed.” Another example is the ordination of candidates to the Holy Priesthood—a responsibility that traditionally belongs to Diocesan Primate. Whether anecdotal or hearsay (primarily because communication is very limited), there has been a strong indication of influence on readiness and criteria candidates directed from Holy Etchmiadzin. The American diocese has a fully functional accredited seminary and a complementary infrastructure. The philosophical struggle in identity retention by enforcing strict compliance is flawed. The role of Holy Etchmiadzin should be enabling, inspiring and supportive. The current leadership shows little respect for the struggles of the diaspora—a group that is heavily relied upon to back Etchmiadzin.
Do we actually believe that the needs of the faithful in Armenia are the same as in America?
Most Armenians are unaware or perhaps even uninterested in these matters. Unfortunately, our lack of transparency has conditioned the faithful to expect the minimum. This allows for “palace intrigue” to take place outside the public view. What our faithful really expect from their leaders is to address matters in the areas that affect them on a daily basis. Utilizing the notion that “one size fits all” as the best way for the diaspora to retain its identity is flawed and dangerous. Our communities throughout the world are well connected by a set of common values and cultural norms. The entire infrastructure is built to retain identity. What the Diocesan regions need is the freedom to address the challenges that are specific to their constituents and are unique to the diaspora. Who better understands those needs than the leaders of a decentralized decision-making process? Is that not the reason for a Diocese? Do we actually believe that the needs of the faithful in Armenia are the same as in America? Incredibly, simply raising the question brings out attacks that the traditional integrity of the church is being threatened. This type of defensive posturing is not helpful or effective. When will our leaders embrace the concept that adaptation and tradition are compatible and have in fact been a formula for survival for centuries? Given that reality, is control versus enabling really an effective leadership style? I think not. Critical thinking is the real failing of our leadership today.
An alternative approach is to stop trying to control where it adds no value. Focus on securing the retention of the attributes that keep us whole and allow the diocese to do its job in optimizing the impact of the good news of the Holy Gospel. This would enable our leadership the mental and physical bandwidth to address issues that would help today’s faithful connect to an effective church. These challenges are usually identified as either those internal to the institution itself and those that are societal in nature. An institution that stands still while the world evolves runs the risk of irrelevance. Of course, institutions like the church claim that they are the vanguards of tradition in a secular society. True, but what is tradition? Is it retaining those elements of importance that define who we are, or is it the absence of change?
Critical thinking is the real failing of our leadership today.
Critical thinking is the real failing of our leadership today.
My experience is that our church has resided more in the latter category. We are standing still in a rapidly evolving and somewhat dangerous world. For many the irrelevance has become their reality, and they simply vote with their exiting feet. Apparently, the response to this crisis from the Catholicos has been more control, less innovation and not to mention, little visionary thinking. This is a formula for decline. This is not the definition of leadership. It is not about personalities, but rather the lack of results. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary this year of the elevation of Karekin II to the throne of patron Saint Gregory the Illuminator. Many churches have been built and priests have ordained, but the leadership crisis at Etchmiadzin hovers over our beloved church as a dark cloud that hasn’t moved. We don’t like to talk about it. We like to focus on the positives, but look up. It’s there.
The opportunities for effective leadership are everywhere. Let me offer a few examples where the leadership void is felt and where the silence is deafening. One of the most controversial issues within the faith community today is the language of the Soorp Badarak. There are really two dimensions to this issue. One is the conflict of using the Armenian language versus selective applications of the vernacular of the diaspora. Another dimension is the practicality of classical (krapar) Armenian in the liturgy. I have a perspective that addresses both issues. Instead of allowing our people to languish (don’t ask those who attend, ask those who left), what if our church considered offering the Badarak in our spoken language—either Eastern or Western Armenian? It will retain the “core” but actually assist in parishioners learning the mother language for use in their lives. I am sure this will generate debate, but debating change is a sign of life versus the paralysis caused by fear of change.
The church is also a social institution and has a responsibility to bring Christian principles into the lives of our people. I have a question for all of us to consider. Why is the church so silent on the issues of domestic violence of women, in general and specifically in Armenia? This is a significant problem and a stain on our society, yet the church is silent. Why? This is shameful. The church should be the first to defend the human rights of the faithful. Is this an uncomfortable issue for a patriarchal institution such as the church? Perhaps Karekin II should invite women from the laity to the Spiritual Council to bring the church into the 21st century. For many faithful men and women, this is a major disappointment and credibility issue for the church. If the institution wants respect, then it should expect to offer it to all the faithful, including the countless women who suffer from this disgrace.
I believe the leadership crisis can be improved upon when the church begins to address the issues that our communicants live with. They are not looking for more control or aloof mandates. Those with authority have a responsibility to use that position for the good of the church or empower those in the church to do so. Preventing necessary change in order to maintain authority does not equate to leadership. Patronizing the Catholicos with accolades and protocol does little to help him lead. Those in advisory capacities should take this to heart and understand the impact of a leadership void.
It’s a great concept if it were to actually be applied however I see no sign of any empowerment of anyone other than current leadership and mega donors to the current Armenian Orthodox Church organization – in fact living at my level within the church I see repression rather than encouragement I can supply details if needed
Stepan Piligian’s views about Leadership in the Armenian Church is very refreshing. Control, in any situation, is a loosing leadership approach accept in a battlefield theater. The issue of control within Echmiazin is a carryover from the past Soviet mentality. This phenomena of “control & rule” exists in all formal Sovet Repulics at all levels of Goverment and Institutions. The mindset needs to be reprogramed to see meaningful changes in leadership style. It will come over time, perhaps in a generation ot two. Church politics is a very complex matter, more than any other political situation.
Former State Minister
Republic of Armenia
Thank you Stepan, for voicing this opinion. As an Armenian American woman, your points hit home.
The traditions of the Church liturgy are beautiful and beloved, but the cultural baggage dictated from an ‘old world’ mentality drives many American families away. We want to come to church to maintain connection to our Armenian community and to seek communion with God.
In generations past, the Church was a beacon to Armenians in diaspora. Yet time and time again over the past decade, I feel alienated in a church embroiled in regional politics and a strict definition of ‘Armenian Identity’. The many controversies around the role of language and of women in our churches are perfect examples. I am third generation American, a working professional with limited ability to speak/understand Armenian and married to a non-Armenian – is there a place for me in this Church?
Even the country of Armenia is embracing a new cultural world through policies that empower the vast talents of the Armenian population – with technology and business development, support of education and the arts, and equal rights for women. The Armenian Church cannot flourish unless it also moves forward in a similar way.
Your comments get right to the heart of the leadership crisis. A “strict definition of Armenian identity” and “ is there a place for me in this church”. If we can not answer these questions with a resounding yes… not just a patronizing response but through actions, behaviors and practices … then the future will be limited. We must demand more of our leaders at every level adjust to new realities. Thank you. Keep the faith.