The spring election season in our dioceses is complete. As we discussed last week, there has been a change in the Diocese with the election of Hayr Mesrop Parsamyan. The post-election period, regardless of whether the incumbent is re-elected (Prelacy) or a change occurs (Diocese), is an opportune time to discuss our individual and collective relationship with our leadership. I would like to thank those of you who took the time to express your perspective on the election via email, Facebook and over text. The intent is always to encourage participation on topics of importance to the community. At this juncture, it may be beneficial to peel the onion a layer or two on the relationship between our diocesan clergy leadership and the lay faithful, particularly how we choose to support our leaders. I would describe it as complicated because there are always an abundance of opinions on our bishops, but in comparison, relatively few have a direct relationship.
I am sure you have all heard over the years “too religious, too Armenian, not Armenian enough, aloof, not a good communicator or can’t relate to our youth.” Our bishops have a very difficult job in Eastern America. They live in New York, but the work is with the faithful in their parishes throughout the region. This matter of a New York presence has been debated for years. It gives our church a sense of organization and prestige to have our locations on 2nd Ave., 27th St. and 39th St. I believe our respective Prelates and Primates do an admirable job attending to the responsibilities at the “headquarters,” both spiritually and communally, yet both are wise enough to realize that without healthy parishes the dioceses will cease to exist at some point. I have often wondered if the bishops are advised properly on how to proceed in shepherding such a diverse flock. Most of the lay people tell our bishops what they want to hear or offer opposition. It is a difficult balance to find, yet it is our challenge.
I grew up in a small parish in Indian Orchard, MA where this reality is ingrained in your thinking at a young age. The community is sustained because no job is too small or too big. The emcee of a banquet may also be sweeping the floor later in the day. There is an inherent respect for our leadership but a constant vigilance to make the work in “New York” relevant to the local parish. This is a significant challenge as the trickle-down effect can slow in the lay ministries. The Primate/Prelate holds the key to the inspiration recipe. How well do we really know them that we judge their performance and spread information (not always accurate) from a distance? I can think of no other job in our community where they are surrounded by people constantly but can still feel alone. Who do they trust? Who do they seek advice from? They are given a diocesan council that they must build a functioning relationship with, and yet the accountability of the council is minimal. How many times have you gone to a National Representative Assembly or an Eastern Diocese Assembly and the council is really held accountable? The elections of the lay council are rarely based on performance. I spent many years as a delegate to both assemblies and witnessed the politicking based on popularity, block voting or their position on certain issues, but rarely on overall performance. Many good servants have been swept away by the winds of politics. In a Christian institution, we are first called to display love and trust in order to rally around our church’s mission.
This brings us to the matter of defining a “respectful” relationship. We are an Armenian Christian organization, yet at times it can feel like a corporate board attending to business. I would offer this litmus test. Review the agendas of the diocesan councils and National Assembly. Then, compare that list to the needs of a local parish. Generally, there is a mismatch between the “corporate” environment of our national institution and needs of the parishes that are the foundation. When this happens, the faithful tend to express it as a reflection of the Bishop. He is the leader, but the followers must be passionately committed or the results will not be sustainable. Again, I refer back to the term respect and how we define it. When the work of the church can be connected to the health of the parishes, support will be abundant. When our primates/prelates remain representatives of a distant authority structure, our support can be complicated with identity issues. We must break down the walls between the “corporate” world of our church and the parish faithful. This is a two-way street: vision and decisiveness by our leaders and trust from the faithful. There can be no probationary period in our institution. When obstacles to that vision come into play, we must act openly and honestly and not with a cavalier “I told you so” attitude. Self-fulfilling prophecies are usually a reflection of withholding tangible support. Our opinions are at times driven by shallow and distant observations. It starts at home, and we are all guilty of it. Some of us have an instinctive love of our clergy. Others require trust to be built over time, and still others have a chronic distrust of our priests. Most of the latter take on gossip or other wasteful methods. There are times, of course, when there are legitimate issues with our priests. Our challenge remains in how we choose to channel our energy. Is it a respectable discussion that is motivated by love, or is it intended to diminish the effectiveness of the clergy in an almost punitive manner? If you don’t like some things about your clergy, help them in a non-threatening way without expecting your view to prevail. Let’s check our egos at the door. Our respect for our bishops must go far beyond our formal greetings. Our respect must embody a common bond with the work of the church. We should really take a moment to understand the incredible stamina and skill required to visit different parishes with limited operating knowledge of their condition and attempting to make a favorable impression primarily through an inspiring message. This is the challenge that Hayr Mesrop will be facing soon. We should display open support for our new leader to accelerate his transition. As you may realize, I tend to ignore the artificial walls created by the church division. In light of that, I would suggest that Hayr Mesrop have a conversation on this matter with his Prelacy counterpart Archbishop Anoushavan. This man is tireless in his parish visitations. He is literally everywhere and always exudes warmth that makes the flock feel special. As soon as he was allowed to visit during the pandemic, he resumed his schedule to local parishes. These men work every single day in their ministries. Let’s all try and put ourselves in their shoes before we express criticism. Trust first with love and support. If we elect a primate/prelate, then we also have the responsibility to actively support them in their ministry. It would be shameful to think our job is done with an election.
The relationship between the faithful and the Primate/Prelate is bonded in our faith and the mission of the church. Respect and support do not eliminate opinions or even criticism. Patronizing our leaders does not help them in fulfilling their responsibility to us. Advise them with love and humility. Our Primate/Prelate have a responsibility to provide leadership through the articulation of a unifying vision and authorizing its implementation. We have a responsibility to support such actions with responsible inputs at the appropriate time. This has been where the wheels have fallen off. We haven’t always had a vision. We haven’t always authorized implementation, and our following has been inconsistent with more criticism at times than support. This creates a dysfunctional environment and only hurts the church that we love. People come and go either in their roles or our time on this earth. The one constant is what we leave for our children. There was a great man who led his community in Providence for years named Mal Varadian. He used to say to many of us on community participation, “Make it better than before.” In other words, we need to add value. When we withhold support, bicker or engage in divisive and endless dialogue, we are not able to “make it better.”
We all have different perspectives, and many of them can be traced to our upbringing. I grew up in a fairly traditional American-Armenian household. My father was the deacon of our church, and my maternal grandparents were deeply spiritual in New Britain, CT. As a result, whether in our home or at my grandparents, we had many parish priests and bishops visiting. I became very comfortable in their presence and gained an appreciation for their calling. Many of these men in the early days of the Prelacy, traveled to many communities leaving their families to bring the sacraments to the faithful. I was in awe of their sacrifice. As I grew into adulthood, I carried with me a value about our clergy and have always tended to be close to the priests in the parishes I have attended. Some of the best clergy relationships I have experienced are the ones where we have discussed points of disagreement but in a discreet and respectful way. Embarrassing or disrespecting our clergy or the Primate/Prelate distances us from a Christian institution and paints us with a corporate culture. We must view our presence as an opportunity to make our priests, including our Primates/Prelates, more effective. We are all humans, and there will be exceptions, but they must remain exceptions and not the norm. Seeking forgiveness when this happens can be liberating and life-changing. It is a new day with a new Primate. How will you and your parish faithful approach his leadership? In a Christian organization, there should not be a “trust window.” We need to be all in from the start. We must lead with trust and love, not reluctance and ambivalence. The bond is always based on mutual respect. I have heard very good things from the St. Louis parish where Hayr Mesrop served. Let’s make that example the standard for the entire diocese. The only beneficiaries will be our faith, the Glory to God and His church.