by Fr. Ted Bobosh
At least in America, the parish is part of a larger matrix of the consumer attitude. When someone is really unhappy with the parish, he often simply moves on to “greener pastures.” What is revealed in this is the way in which a parish as community is very tenuous.
Parishioners often have the same relationship to the church building that birds have to a bird feeder. Birds of all kinds flock to the feeder, but they stay only long enough to be fed. They don’t live at the feeder. They nest elsewhere. They come to the feeder to be nourished but then get on with their lives and their day. It is also true of many parishes that the coffee hour is a more attractive than the liturgy itself. People flock to the coffee hour and enjoy the fellowship of close friends, then disperse to their homes and families. Of course there are some who want more community, or more in-depth
relationships, but this is hard to establish in commuter parishes, especially in a culture which values independence and individualism.
In some ways parish communities never get past the state of what Dr. Scott Peck referred to as “pseudo-community.” In pseudo-community, there is not a real commitment of people to each other. Divisive issues are avoided, swept under the rug, ignored, because the members fear a real discussion of the issues will only lead to a division within the community, or worse, a dissolution of community. So some uneasy state of passivity (rather than “pacifity,” if I might coin a word) is attained. People are reluctant to rock the boat. In such a state it is hard to make real decisions as real discussion is discouraged.
A stalemate is attained which somehow holds all powers in check and helps prevent threatening issues or people from coming to the foreground. In this state, “peacemaking” largely means accepting the status quo. Sometimes the departure of someone from the parish is the most obvious
route to peace. One contentious person in the community can be remarkably destructive. He or she can be an unfruitful branch on the vine. Sometimes the way to peace is to allow (even encourage) that person to leave. Jesus says in John’s Gospel that his Father prunes away unfruitful branches.
It may even be that the contentious person has raised an essential issue and the community may have to deal with that issue once the difficult person is gone. But it is possible that keeping that person will actually block resolution.
I think this is the most common way parishes in the West come to peace – they allow the difficult persons to leave.
Sometimes communities resolve tensions and disagreements by acknowledging that there is a bigger vision which is guiding each of them. This might happen during a church building project. Each parishioner may have an idea as to what the new building should be, but if everyone agrees on the goal, it is possible that each person can come to the conclusion that the project is
more important than their own individual ideas. Sometimes having a vision, or proper goals, can lessen problems or help the community resolve differences between members. In some ways this does bring about some self-sacrificial love, as people lay aside their personal wants in favor of what is good for the community as a whole.
Parish communities are not quite the same as monastic communities. In a monastic community, at least ideally, the members of the community share a space and their lives 100 percent of the time. Monastics cannot get away with putting on a “church face” when they show up for services. Others in the community know the individual, warts and all. They are therefore forced to deal with each others foibles, faults, debts and sins. (I didn’t say deal successfully; sometimes dealing may be denial, pretend, closing one’s eyes, looking askance, etc). They not only go to church together, but they work, eat and live together. But what can happen in such a community is that the members have to deal honestly with who the others are. They are forced to deal with others and, within themselves, with their attitudes towards these others, as the others are not going to go away at the end of liturgy.
In many parishes, people put on a “church face,” acting in a particular way with the other people at church, then resume being their usual selves when leaving the church. Sins, problems, worries, addictions, illnesses, concerns, attitudes, etc, are left outside, and thus are left untouched by the Body of Christ. They come in unwhole and leave unhealed. Parish life often encourages this duality. We come to the church to be “holy” rather than whole, leaving our unholy selves outside.
Many parishioners are not sure that they are ready or willing to deal with all that others might be bringing to church, because they each have so many burdens of their own which they are already carrying. They want someone to deal with their problems rather than have to take on the problems of others.
Often, the parish as community is not mature enough to learn about the sins and problems of everyone else. Thus parishioners, rather than coming to the parish, go to various help groups to reveal their problems and seek healing. Parishioners like to imagine that those they meet in the parish are “healthy” and “normal” folk with whom they can share interests and trust that their kids
will be okay, not people with serious sins and faults and addictions – not sinners among who “I” am the first! The parish is not viewed as a hospital for sinners and the sick, but rather a health spa. We carefully avoid the things that could lead to conflict and require reconciliation. What passes for peace
in the parish, in that case, is simply avoidance.
Fr. Ted Bobosh has been a priest for 26 years in the Orthodox Church in America.
He has been a priest at St. Paul Church, Dayton, Ohio, for 20 years. He is also an
adjunct professor at the University of Dayton.
IN COMMUNION / FALL 2006