by Fr. John Whiteford
This article from Fr. John is excellent. It is focused on suburban and urban American environments. While it may look basic, don’t be deceived. Starting and growing a mission may seem easy, but it isn’t easy to do well, and an innumerable number of factors can make it immeasurably more difficult. Fr. John knows how to do it well.
The following suggestions are going to fit best in a missionary situation that is in urban or suburban America. The more rural the situation, the more other factors would have to be weighed into the mix, and I can’t speak from experience about that.
1. Starting from Scratch
It generally takes at least three families (including the priest’s family) to start a viable mission. This insight came from Matushka Ann Lardas, but my experience and observation have found it to be true. An Orthodox parish needs a lot of basic liturgical items. When starting off, you should talk to other clergy in the area and see if they have any older items that they no longer use that they would be willing to donate to you. You can make do with homemade versions of some items. For example, a nice censer stand can cost several hundred dollars, but you can make one by buying less than twenty dollars worth of matterials from Home Depot. If you talk to priests who have started missions from scratch, you can get many good ideas from them. You should also put a wish list of items that you need on your parish web site. People who want to make a one time donation, perhaps in memory of someone, often like to buy something specific for a parish and donate it. One thing you should be cautious about at this stage: do not put yourself in the position of having services in a location that is under the control of a parishioner, but which has no lease. You may think that beggars can’t be choosers, but you may find yourself having the rug pulled unexpectedly out from underneath you, if that parishioner becomes disatisfied with your parish, and that might happen during Holy Week, or at some other very inopportune time.
2. Be Patient
A priest starting a mission has to be prepared to be patient, and to gut it out over the long hall. There may be more than a few services that are not attended by anyone other than your own family (and sometimes, it may just be you), but you have to be persistent and not give up. It can be frustrating, and disappointing. There may be many times in which you ask yourself why you are wasting your time preparing for and doing such services, but unless there is some other barrier in the way of your parish growing, this will pass, if you don’t give up. Also, you should keep in mind that services are primarily our service to God; not a service for the people (though one hopes that the people come, and benefit from it). God will always be there, if you will be. If you remind yourself of that, you will never feel that a service to God is a waste of time.
3. Having a Predictable, Dependable, and Full Liturgical Life
A schedule of services has to be predictable and dependable. Matushka Ann Lardas also said that people expect a parish to be like the light bulb inside your refrigerator. When they open the door, they expect the light to be on. And, for another example, someone may not want to ride a bus system today or tomorrow, but when they do, they expect it to be running, and on schedule. If you cancel a Sunday service, and some family shows up and finds the doors locked, chances are good that they will not make a second attempt. There may be occasions when cancelling a service has to be done, but it should be very rare, and you should communicate with as many people as possible who might be coming, to avoid such things unnecessarily. And if you do cancel a service, you should post a map to the nearest parish in the area that will be having services, with a note telling whoever may be showing up why the service at your parish was cancelled, and when services will be held at the other parish.
You should try as much as possible to do a full cycle of services for Sundays, Feasts, and other major commemorations of the Church year that are most commonly observed on a parish level. Not all of these services will be as well attended as you might wish, but over time, attendance will improve, and this makes for a stronger community. When your Saturday evening services are not well attended you might be tempted to just do Vespers until you get bigger, but once you get people used to doing Vespers only, it will become difficult to get them used to doing a full Vigil. Vigil in a parish should normally not be more than about 2 ½ hours, though sometimes it will be because of the particular commemoration. I first heard this rule of thumb from Archbishop Gabriel (Chemodakov), but have also heard other bishops such as Archbishop Alypy (Gamanovich) comment along similar lines. Also, if you follow standard Russian parish practice, that is about how long the Vigil will be.
Trying to do the services like an Athonite monastery will keep people from attending, because of the difficulty.* However, cutting down the services to the minimum robs people of the chance to experience the beauty of the services, or find their spiritual treasures. *I am aware of some parishes that do much longer Vigils, that are very well attended, and so can’t say that it is impossible to make that work, but I think for the average parish, striving to just be a normal parish (by historical, and pious standards) is probably what most missions should shoot for.
4. The Stages of Development
The further your parish is from having a nice building and a full liturgical life, the harder it will be for you to attract new members. And so, if you are having reader services in someone’s home, it will be very slow going. If you start having a regular liturgy in a home, that will help, but it will still be relatively difficult to get the average person interested in coming. When you get into a store front location, or get the use of some portion of some other Church for services, that will make a big difference, because then it looks like there is at least the beginnings of a serious mission. And at each step in the process of getting into a nice free standing Church, with a full liturgical life, and a good choir, you will see the rate of growth accelerate. At each stage, you need to build up the critical mass of people and money to make the leap to the next stage, but generally it will get easier with each leap. If, however, you experience a set back in your mission, it is only fatal, if you give up as a result, unless the set back is of an extremely serious nature. Again, patience and determination will normally win out in the long run.
5. Limiting Factors
Your growth will be limited by the smallest capacity of your worship space, fellowship space, and your parking. You may have a very large fellowship space, and a large worship space, but if your parking lot can only accommodate 30 people, that is about as big as you will get until you expand it. And the same goes if your worship space can only handle 30 people, though you have a huge hall and parking lot. And this is also true if you have a huge Church and parking lot, but can only handle 30 people in your fellowship space. When you get to about 80 percent of your maximum capacity, you will see growth level off, and then fluctuate up and down, but on average, it will stay about 80 percent. When you reach that point, you either need to expand, or begin thinking about starting another parish. Remember, everything that is living, is either growing or dying.
6. Be Welcoming
If someone visits your parish, and they walk out of the service without anyone saying hello to them, there is a good chance they will not be back. It is best if someone takes them under their wings, and guides them, especially if they are not Orthodox. It is also best if you have some system for following up with those visitors after they have visited. You should make a point of welcoming children, and encouraging your people to be welcoming of children too. In our anti-child culture, many people do not like to be around children, but a parish without children is a parish that will soon die off. It is good to express your happiness that small children are present from time to time, and remind them of this undeniable truth about our need for the “inconvenience” of children.
Having a meal (trapeza) after the liturgy is a key way to build fellowship in your community. After a Liturgy, when people have fasted, if you want them to stay and visit, you need to have something to satisfy their hunger. You do not have to have a seven course meal. It could be soup and bread, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and coffee, but it needs to at least tie them over until they can eat a fuller meal later. In an urban American context, there really is not going to normally be another time when your people can get to know each other. It does require work, but people will look forward to it, and will feel like they belong to a real parish family.
8. Have a Plan
Map out a plan for growth. Think about where you want your parish to be when it is full grown. Then lay out the steps between where you are, and where you want to be and set realistic goals for growth. People will surprise you with what they will do to make things happen when they see a plan, and get excited about where things are going. On the otherhand, if you shoot for nothing, you will hit the target everytime. When you get to the point where your parish can seriously begin looking for property to buy, talk to clergy who have bought property in recent years, and get their advice. There are a lot of expensive lessons that can either be learned the hard way, or learned from other people’s experience. Generally, you will find that you will have a lot fewer regulatory hurdles outside of a municipality. Sometimes crossing a county line will make a huge difference in how hard it will be to develop a piece of property. Inside of a city, you may be better off trying to buy an existing Church building. In either case, buying property that has an existing structure that can be used for services, at least initially, is a good idea, because buying the property alone is hard enough. Building a new building right off the bat is probably more than a small parish can afford, and you don’t want to have a new property that you can’t make any use of for several years.
Do not even begin to talk about parish dues. Encourage your people to tithe. Dues systems focus on a minimal amount of financial support, and that is generally what they manage to get. Define a parish member in your by-laws as someone who is in good standing with the Church, financially supports the Church (without defining a dollar amount, or a percentage), and trust that your people will step up to the plate. You shouldn’t have to beat the drum on this, but just like you should not be afraid to preach against fornication or stealing, you should not be afraid to let your people know that the Church not only wants us to tithe, but wants us to try to do much more than that as we are able; but tithing is Biblical, it is consistent with the teachings of the Fathers on the subject, and it is a good goal for everyone to shoot for, until they are able to go beyond it. I would also encourage a parish to not set a price on candles, or prosphora, but just have a donation box and let people donate what they will. This encourages tithing, and sacrificial offerings, rather than keeping the focus on a minimal amount that someone should feel obligated to pay. I know that parishes that have a long history of these things have a hard time imagining how this works, and maybe in such situations change should move very slowly, but if you institute these things at the beginning of a mission’s life, you will be way ahead in the long run.
10. Letting People Know You are There
You should have a good sign out in front of your Church that tells people how to get in touch with you, and when you normally have services. That should go without saying, but I have seen many parishes that did not have even this minimal level of advertising. If someone wanted to visit their parish, it would be difficult for them to know how. But since they may not even know that your parish is a Christian Church, much less Orthodox, how would a person from the outside even know if they might want to visit? Having a good parish web site is crucial. The main thing your web site needs to communicate is how to get to your parish, and when the services are held. That information should be very easy to find. It is also good to have information about life in the parish, pictures of events, information about who can commune, links to information about the Orthodox Faith, etc. Having a parish blog can also be useful. For one thing, it is free. It is easier to update, if you don’t know how to edit web pages, and your blog can help drive traffic to your web site. Having a parish e-mail list is also very useful. It allows for you to keep people updated on what is going on, even if they are not attending regularly at the time. Yahoo groups is free, and makes setting up such a group very easy. It is also a good idea to have occasional events that you invite the larger (non-Orthodox) community to, to let them know that you exist, and give them a non-threatening opportunity to walk in the doors and ask questions. Such events can range from yard sales, icon exhibits, choral concerts, guest speakers, cookouts, etc. You should also get to know the other Orthodox clergy and parishes in your area. It helps strengthen your community to have fellowship with them; and if they know you, when people ask about your parish, they will have some basis for answering such questions.
*I am aware of some parishes that do much longer Vigils, that are very well attended, and so can’t say that it is impossible to make that work, but I think for the average parish, striving to just be a normal parish (by historical, and pious standards) is probably what most missions should shoot for.