An Open Appeal to Major Church Benefactors

Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin (Photo: Facebook)

This column is directed to the major benefactors of the Armenian Church, specifically those who are from the American diaspora and focus their philanthropy on Armenia through the Apostolic Church. All Armenians should be indebted to you for your continuous generosity that has transformed Armenia and its citizens. Building infrastructure, enhancing education, caring for the children and attending to the medical needs of the population are an incredible legacy of your commitment and humility. We should never underestimate the importance of the decisions that have led to investing in others with your hard-earned assets. We frequently refer to the Christian principle of offering our “time, talent and treasure” as our obligation in stewardship. Your efforts clearly have been significant in this “trifecta,” as your talents have enabled your good fortune, and committing your time has made your treasure such a gift, which brings me to the intent of this appeal. No, I don’t have any specific requests for funding. That would be a bit audacious on my part given your superb self-motivated record of generosity. I have a request that is a natural byproduct of your investment. It is based on the respect and influence that you have acquired as a result of your philanthropy. There are a growing number of concerned Armenians, of which I include myself, who feel that our church is experiencing a leadership crisis. Some of that is the result of the leadership style of our Vehapar, and some of it is attributed to the increase in expectations as Armenia and the diaspora mature. Many of us are not interested in character criticisms or in creating turmoil. What we desire is for our church to reap the benefit of what we are capable of, particularly in the diaspora. It is my belief that today we are constrained by a leadership process that is not empowering and is, in fact, stifling. In order for Armenia to continue receiving the support of the diaspora, the latter must remain strong and adapt to changing needs.

we are constrained by a leadership process that is not empowering and is, in fact, stifling.

There is a prevailing view at the top today that change is bad and that adaptation is not compatible with tradition. The irony is that selective adaptation is the formula of how Armenia and its church have survived countless invasions, pogroms and demographic changes. The reality of the diasporan church requires us to empower those living in these regions and not fear that their decisions will weaken our “Armenian identity.” Frankly I would welcome a stronger position from Etchmiadzin on retaining and growing our faith in an increasingly chaotic and secular world. An empowering atmosphere from Holy Etchmiadzin would increase its own credibility, encourage appropriate change, and most importantly, increase the impact of the church in our Armenian society. Unfortunately today, ignoring the problem has led to a credibility issue for the Vehapar and, as a result, the church in general. This becomes clear only when we emerge from our myopic Armenian institutional world and discover how many we are losing. If the mission of the church is to bring the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ, then we cannot be satisfied with merely existing.

What does this have to do with you, and what is the appeal? In our world, your generosity has afforded you the opportunity to become an influential member of the community. I am sure that most, if not all, of you did not pursue this as a desire. Your love of the church and its needs has driven your philanthropy, and for this we should all be grateful. Nevertheless, our value system does, at times, deliver unintended outcomes. Your generosity avails you the opportunity to meet people of authority that most will never meet. It also enables you to participate in discussions and venues that are limited to the general public. Whether intended or not, you are a “player” in the dynamics of the church. Our Vehapar is in need of sound advice that will alter his approach in managing the church. I am sure with your vast experience you have observed that the established vehicles for dialogue and decision-making are either not empowered or incapable of influencing the thinking of His Holiness. These vehicles such as the Diocesan assemblies, Diocesan Councils and the Spiritual Council do an adequate job of “keeping the lights on,” but are not in a position to recommend and get approval for the type of breakthrough thinking to address issues such as secularism in the West, integrating the impact of intermarriage and the role of women in our church. They simply cannot or will not take the risk. Apparently, these issues can only be addressed with substance when the Vehapar directs or empowers the dioceses. I am a pragmatist. We need the help of those who love the church and have the ear of the Vehapar. He responds to the philanthropy of our benefactors. It sounds like a reasonable approach to encourage appropriate change and improved leadership in our church. Sometimes the best way to get someone’s attention is through the financial resources that provide them opportunity. A growing plurality and perhaps now a majority of the church are frustrated with the limited innovation and outright refusals to address these issues at a time when innovation is a core requirement to our survival in the diaspora. I am convinced that innovation, adaptation and tradition can co-exist and enable our diaspora to thrive.

We need the help of those who love the church and have the ear of the Vehapar.  

The Vehapar obviously is a “street smart” individual. His ability to rise to the very top of our church reflects his ability to manage many dynamics. He surely understands with the revolution in Armenia that much more is expected of him and that the days of the past are…well exactly that…the past. The irony of the request is that we have many fine diocesan bishops who simply need his support for their actions. For example, the Eastern Diocese is blessed to have Bishop Daniel as its primate. He understands the mixed marriage challenges having been raised by an Armenian father and a German mother, who embraced our church. His years of working with American-born youth make him immensely qualified to connect and integrate that generation. My fear and the fear of many is that his capabilities will be underutilized in the current environment of centralization and control. He needs to be given the freedom, the empowerment and the enthusiastic support to bring our diverse community under the umbrella of the Armenian church.

Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, August 19, 2019 (Photo: Facebook)

We are at a significant crossroads. The methods of today must be different, just as we have adapted in the past. One size does NOT fit all. You can help our Vehapar to understand that, or he will continue to hear the sound of the people exiting.

I apologize if this seems rather forward, but extraordinary times call for creative measures. The reality of our current dilemma is that there are two growing forces that cannot be ignored. One is the rising number of vocal opponents. In a church culture that is generally very passive and respectful, this is quite remarkable. I am less concerned about the rhetoric than the fact that tolerance levels of frustration are being reached. When they are exceeded, people leave. This is but one reaction. It is vocal and should be concerning. The other is much more passive and ironically more destructive. These are people who simply leave…quietly and without much discourse because they have lost their identity with the church. Both represent a preventable decline. I am convinced that this tragedy as a systemic problem can be reversed with adaptive leadership in the great tradition of the Armenian experience. In order to accomplish this with our current leadership, we need the influential laity of the church to use their perceived leverage to carry the message of the Diaspora’s needs to the Vehapar. We need catalysts to paint a picture of what we could or should be. We are a very talented people. The accomplishments of the diaspora from a poor, under-educated and scattered group of survivors to a powerful, committed force is a reality that the Vehapar enjoys the support of. In the age of an independent Armenia and a diverse diaspora, it would pain us all to witness any decline in the strength, stature and credibility of our Holy Church. Staying ahead of the critical dynamics is the key to maintaining strength. Institutions that succeed are able to see those risks in their infancy and have the foresight for prevention.

My request is simple. You may think it is audacious to ask something of those I may not know personally, but when it comes to the future of our church and nation, there is little pride on my part. I believe that your influence can make a difference. Many of us feel dis-empowered, but not without hope. We all have a responsibility to make our church more effective in its core mission. The job gets more difficult if you consider the scattered diaspora a major part of the “market.” Even though we feel frustrated, we must continue to search for answers, for ways to help Karekin II see the light through this crisis. Our people want to follow leaders. All they ask is that the leaders use their authority to help our generations find an identity with God through our church. I know that all of you understand this because of your years of service to this beloved institution. Please consider taking that next step to discuss the need for empowerment and positive change with the Vehapar. It is as close to a “win-win” as we could hope for. Thank you for your commitment. God bless you. I know that you can make a difference.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

1 Comment

  1. People rarely change their beliefs and or behavior unless it is made clear “what’s in it for them” if they change. Most are satisfied to go with the status quo. Small Armenian communities are already suffering the pains of generational change. They’ve already left a couple generations behind because the basic traditional venues are holdovers from the days when our immigrant forefathers needed those venues to survive the trauma of being dispersed because of the genocide. But now our first, second, third and even fourth generations, mostly non Armenian are fully acculturated and highly respected in their own neighborhoods. Time is of the essence. Marrying non Armenians is no longer a taboo. It’s an excepted evolution from being immigrants to being Americans of Armenian heritage. Please continue pressing your agenda. You are a gifted writer and stand a god chance of being heard.

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