The joy of experiencing humble leadership

Many of our challenges or shortcomings as a community are identified as a leadership problem. A great deal of time has been devoted to the leadership crisis in many of our institutions in the diaspora. How do we define leadership? In order to justify our seemingly endless criticism of each other, we expect leaders to be virtual miracle workers. In other words, for many critics true leadership is the absence of problems. In fact, the attacks on our leaders make me wonder if we understand that open-ended criticism of leadership (without practical solutions) actually weakens the institutions that we claim to support. It can foster division and conflict, creating a negative impact on their functionality. We also have a tendency to be one-sided in our input. Once leadership or leaders are on a “criticize” list, it seems they are incapable of anything of value. This, of course, is absurd and suggests we should be more balanced in our commentary. 

The Armenian church, as one of the most important institutions in our global diaspora, has received a significant amount of criticism as a church lacking vision, flexibility and leadership. It is reasonable to accept that as a major force in the community, the church is a large target of opinions. The church also lacks transparency, as protocol and tradition limit many positive views from internal sources. There are independent sources that rarely comment on the church and leadership, except to define what is lacking. In my view, this is not an accurate representation. Most of the criticism is heartfelt and motivated by a desire to see the church remain strong or by frustration with unresolved challenges. Comments on the church vary based on the faith component. For example, many critics advocate for a more assertive church in tackling challenges, while others view prayer as the solution. There should be plenty of room for collaboration, since both are essential to our success.

When describing leaders, we often hear the word “vision” as a critical attribute. The absence of vision leaves us in a directionless state without the ability to identify a common endpoint. Humility is frequently overlooked but is particularly important when the goal is salvation and bringing people closer to our Lord. One of the ironies in our public perception of leaders is that most of our opinions are formed from a distance. Relatively few members of the general public have a close relationship with our leaders, and their opinions are formed based on media content and “a face in the crowd” image. Some of our current leaders in the diaspora church maintain job responsibilities that bring them into the public view frequently. One such man is the Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy, Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian. 

This past weekend I had the good fortune to spend time with Surpazan Hayr during his visit to the St. Gregory parish of Indian Orchard on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the groundbreaking of the original church. I was particularly fortunate, as master of ceremonies for the banquet celebration, to sit and talk with this unique leader in our diaspora. Many years ago, when he was a young bishop in the Prelacy, I recall attending a Soorp Badarak at St. Gregory when he was the celebrant. His angelic voice chanting and singing praise to our Lord through the sharagans left an indelible impression on me. I always feel close to God in our churches, but two experiences stand above the rest. In 2011, I attended Badarak at the ancient St. Hripsime Church at Etchmiadzin. The impact of the experience in this iconic sanctuary in our homeland left me weeping tears of joy. The other moment was that first Badarak with the Prelate. He lives and shares the spiritual beauty of our beloved church. His humility and respectful nature are natural expressions of his deeply rooted faith. Surpazan’s presence at St. Gregory was particularly important beyond the celebration of this incredible anniversary. The St. Gregory parish is a small but proud community in an area that has suffered economic decline for decades. The impact on the parish is reflected in the fact that fewer people are moving into the area, and many of the children raised in the parish leave after college to seek employment in locations offering more diverse opportunities. This is a reality for many of our traditional parishes as demographic shifts impact once thriving locations. The community has carried on valiantly and has courageously confronted these challenges. Communities such as Indian Orchard are perfect recipients for the inspiring leadership style of Anoushavan Surpazan

HE Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian addressing the faithful at the St. Gregory 90th anniversary celebration banquet

The anniversary celebration began in the morning with Badarak and the Prelate as celebrant. It was an uplifting experience as we praised our Lord through the traditions of the apostolic church. During the service, I was reminded that through our Lord, all things are possible. I felt the spirit of hope and love as we received the body and blood of Christ after his sermon with words of encouragement. The banquet followed at a local country club filled with parishioners and many people whose lives have been influenced by the life of this parish. I watched the Surpazan mingle with the crowd during the reception hour. He spoke easily with a variety of attendees from the youth to seniors regardless of their background and involvement. He is a true ambassador of God. The smile on his face and respect in his eyes are clear indicators of the faith he holds in his heart. While I circulated to greet many friends and meet new ones, I was astonished by how many individuals commented on their conversations with Surpazan Hayr. We don’t always realize the impact such chance encounters can have on attitudes towards the church. 

When the Prelate spoke during the program, I watched the reaction of the crowd while listening to his words. It is one of the few advantages of sitting at a head table. We are past the time in our communities when leaders are respected simply because of their titles. As fewer understand protocol and traditions, respect must be earned and not simply assumed. At times we lament the changing traditions among our youth, but perhaps building relationships on direct encounters will afford us a stronger foundation. There were times when the faithful were in fear of church leaders. This is not an issue with the warm and engaging Anoushavan Surpazan. The same can be said about the Diocesan Primate Mesrob Surpazan. As we fight secularism and assimilation, perhaps humble and gregarious leaders are God’s gifts. 

Surpazan’s address was well received based on the facial expressions of the attendees. I watched the university students, parish leaders and senior members of the community. His message of love and hope was a perfect fit for this noble and challenged community. Hope is the greatest gift we receive from our Lord and Christianity. Our faith gives us the armor to deal with life’s adversities. This is what we should expect from our leaders—hope through God’s love. Our faith gives us the promise that earthly death is not the end but the pathway to eternity through Jesus Christ. It is the hope of salvation that gives us the ability to confront and overcome problems in life. A community sustains itself through trials and tribulations when its members have hope. 

Our faith gives us the armor to deal with life’s adversities. This is what we should expect from our leaders—hope through God’s love.

Many years ago, when I served on the Board of Trustees in this parish, we had a major financial deficit. I was young and wanted to hear what some of the more experienced members had to say. Many were overtly concerned about the revenue shortfall and had a corporate approach to balancing our projected deficit. One member offered an alternative thought. He said that if we were doing the work of God in the parish, our deficit would vanish because the people would respond. As a result of that meeting, several changes in programs and outreach initiatives were made. Within a year, the projected shortfall vanished, and the financials of the church remained favorable. The current group of local leaders is creative and determined. They have delivered positive financial results, and more importantly, instilled hope. Hope is what generates ideas, energy and determination. This was the message the Prelate delivered with such humility that everyone could relate to the essence of his words.

This is what effective leaders do best. They articulate a vision filled with hope delivered with such humility that it is not hierarchical. When listening to Surpazan, I felt connected to a fellow Christian Armenian who provided leadership by the content of his message. A message of hope is a solid foundation that leaders can deliver with commonality. Our excessive criticism of leaders is somewhat rooted in unrealistic expectations. Our leaders’ primary role is to inspire us to carry on with renewed vigor and purpose. Hope restores energy when fatigue is enabled by obligation. The job responsibilities of a Prelate are almost overwhelming. He works during the week on Prelacy matters and travels on weekends to visit the parishes of the Eastern Prelacy. The physical toll can be significant, and the expectations from the faithful can be unrealistic, yet Anoushavan Surpazan carries out his ministry with such joy in his heart that his energy seems boundless. We should all take a moment to appreciate leaders who are driven by love and humility. I know that he made a difference to the parishioners in Indian Orchard this past weekend. We are blessed to have a leader driven by his love of God who is approachable and brings a message of hope to the faithful.

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.

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