Survive and Thrive:   How a mission grows into a full-fledged parish

All over North America, Orthodox missions start up every year.

And many also close after a disappointingly short period of time. Many others dwindle gradually or hobble along without ever getting much larger or doing more than Sunday liturgy, content to just have the main services from a part-time or retired priest, or even only occasional services from visiting clergy.

Every situation is different, the reasons for what we might call ‘failure to thrive’ many and varied. But there is essentially a single, overarching factor which is indispensable to the process of a mission parish not only surviving but growing into a thriving established parish. I will get to this further down.

I have spent several decades as a clergy wife in the same Orthodox parish. We grew from a tiny mission plant in the early days to a full-fledged parish that has a full time rector, full cycle of services, and a building of our own. We have known many other mission-planters in the Orthodox church, and indeed several have come from our own parish over the years. I can’t tell you exactly all of what may have gone right or wrong in all of those missions, but I can tell you something of the stages of growth using my own parish as a sort of case study.

When we first entered Orthodoxy, we were leaving behind our Protestant experience of clergy family life, giving up salary and pension plan, heading for the foreign shores of culture shock with our small children in tow. In those days there was no possibility of our joining an Orthodox parish as lay people before heading straight to seminary after several years in a Protestant pastorate. As we were about to head to Orthodox seminary, a kind mission priest took us under his wing and showed us the miracle that an English language Orthodox mission community could be. He told us: to start a mission, you need ten fanatically committed members.

It’s an interesting number. Presumably this means ten adults capable of supporting the mission with their time, tithes and talents. Traditionally, the number of adult males– and therefore families, and incomes– to form a Jewish synagogue was also ten. In theory, tithing on ten incomes should provide an income at the median level of the group for the clergyman. That’s where the ‘fanatical’ commitment comes in.

In reality, it doesn’t often happen that you can get those ten tithes. Ten adults don’t necessarily mean ten full time incomes, especially if the families have young children. If some of the members are retired and on limited income, that’s a smaller tithe, and they may not even be able to afford a full ten per cent. Sometimes people lose their jobs, too, or have unexpected large expenses, and can’t keep their original commitment to tithe. And truth be told, some members — often the wealthier ones– are too attached to their own money to tithe. Just ten incomes is a bit close to the line to safely ensure a liveable income for the clergy family without some other kind of help, until the parish membership grows larger. So the priest and/or his wife in a mission situation more often than not will be starting out by working outside the parish either full or at least part time. A mission grant from head office or donations from friendly people who care about the mission may help as well.

I found one set of Orthodox mission guidelines online that suggested a mere three families were the minimum to start a mission. The truth is, a mission is easy to start. What’s hard is for it to grow and thrive and come to maturity both numerically and spiritually.

I have sympathy for those who grumble about the stinginess of those parishioners who feel the priest can get by on working indefinitely at a secular job for the privilege of serving the mission. Or those who lament about the people who beckoned them to “come start a mission for us, we’ll be there!” only to find, once they had uprooted their families on faith, that the beckoners fail to ever actually show up; or worse still, former friends in the mission turn on the priest and his family in parish politics. I have seen these things happen to fellow mission clergy families. If you are considering starting a mission parish, think very hard about what cost you are willing to pay. What you are willing to risk if the mission fails to thrive. Starry eyes have no place in mission planting.

When I searched for Orthodox mission guidelines online, I couldn’t find much, from any jurisdiction. What I did find– or rather what I didn’t find– made my eyebrows rise. While there were suggestions about making sure you held lots of services, and getting the right equipment for the ‘temple’ (humble as the rented quarters may be), and even practical and useful things like encouraging tithing and making sure you get into a good location for people to find your services, there was no mention whatsoever about compensating the priest. No vision of the mission becoming a full-fledged parish by steps, and no plan for working toward the day when the priest and/or his wife would be spared working a 40 hour week in order to support themselves before they can even begin to see to the services, preaching, teaching, evangelism and pastoral needs of the mission.

These guidelines were obviously not written by a clergy wife.

The apostle Paul was a tentmaker, and that is how he supported himself on his missionary journeys. But St. Paul– who had no wife and children, making it easier to travel– did not stay to grow his ‘missions’ into ‘established parishes’. That was a job for the local elders/bishop. And what St. Paul says to St. Timothy, a local bishop, is “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” When he says ‘double honor’, the apostle means not only should the priest not be hindered from making a living, not only should he receive a fair wage, he should receive ‘double’– not necessarily mathematically double, but in a spirit of generosity and yes, honor, for the work he does for the Lord’s flock.

When we first came to our tiny mission, the people offered a small stipend– the equivalent of less than a quarter salary at what was probably minimum wage in those days. My husband had to work full time to get the necessities of life for our family, commuting a long way to another low-wage job in the large metropolitan area. Because of this employment, he could not do anything but Sunday liturgy and Saturday vespers at first. Since the people were starting from scratch in those days without computer-generated music and online availability, the choir was not yet up to doing much else either. But he asked the flock for a commitment to raise his small stipend by about a third as soon as possible. They did so almost at once.

Even this still necessitated the full time job. But soon, with the help of God and our patron saints, we launched the next stage: moving into a larger rental place where we could leave our iconostasis and altar set up. More visible and more spacious, this attracted more members– both cradle Orthodox and inquirers who became Orthodox in our parish. And as the parish grew to fill the new rental space, my husband asked for the second time for a raise, this time big enough to let him drop his secular job hours to part time. Again the parish agreed. Now we were able to begin filling out the festal services.

Finally, my husband asked once more and for the final time for a raise, to enable him to be a full-time priest. There was a couple in the parish who balked at this. But the raise passed, the balkers left (having first tried and failed to get their way on some other issues) and within a few years we moved on to the next stage: purchase of our own building. The cycle of services was now quite full, and parishioners living in a cluster at some distance asked for regular study times at their homes. More people came, the choir grew, church school expanded, charitable ministries took shape. The whole time, Sunday has been a strong community time, with a pot luck meal after liturgy and time for children to play together while their parents chat, forming personal friendships. Our council works together with the priest, each using the gifts given them by God for the greater service of the parish community. To ensure continuity and balance, they draw men and women from various age groups, ethnic backgrounds, and professions, and rotate a variety of new and old members off and on council on a two year cycle, consulting who best to recruit for the upcoming needs.

And my husband has never again asked for a raise. In fact he has more than once objected to the council giving him one unasked. They don’t seem to pay attention.

So what is the indispensable factor in the process of moving from ‘mission’ to ‘full-fledged parish’? Tithing? A full-time paid priest? a building? Pacing yourself through the various stages? Sunday potlucks? Good council members?

None of these in isolation, and not in themselves, though they are indeed part of the process. The indispensable factor for ‘success’– for surviving and then thriving– is just this: both the priest and the people must be ALL IN.

Please don’t misunderstand– I do not claim every mission that ‘fails’ is the fault of the priest and his family. Nor is it always the fault of the flock either. I have seen several failures that were due to serious mistakes by priest or people, but sometimes there are outside factors that lead to the closing of a mission that once seemed so promising: an economic downturn, a shift in demographics, a health disaster in the priest’s family. In some small communities a mission can never expect to draw enough members to grow into what is normally considered full-fledged parish status, but will have a faithful priest who continues to serve, making his home there and not seeking greener pastures elsewhere. That is surviving, and may even lead ultimately to thriving, if the people, few though they be, seek to keep their church alive into the next generation.

For a mission like ours that started in a large metropolitan area and draws from surrounding suburbs as well, thriving has come from the patience to stick with it, the willingness to rise to the challenge at each stage in order to grow into the kind of parish we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in– a parish that is still at heart a mission, in that its reason for being is to reach out and bring others in to worship the Lord in an Orthodox manner. One must take the long view. In many denominations, the days of frequently transferring clergy are past, and they are returning to longer-term pastorates. This is of course due largely to the expense of moving clergy and their families, but it is a sort of blessing in disguise. A priest is the papa of a parish family. We have seen the havoc wreaked by divorce on families– why would we want to change our ‘church daddies’ every few years either? Especially in a mission parish, where not just the individuals but the community as a whole is growing from one stage of life to the next. The priest of a mission parish more than any other needs to have a father’s heart, unwilling to abandon his children if there is any other course of action.

As I said, it is easy to start a mission. When a priest is assigned to an already-established parish, he will face a different set of challenges, but he needn’t tackle more than one stage of parish life at a time. The people will need to adjust to him in regard to how he differs from their previous priest, for good or ill. The mission priest and his family, and the mission parish members need to look together beyond just getting started, lest they be like those in the parable who, having put hand to the plough, look backward. Or to be like those seeds in the Parable of the Sower– great excitement at the beginning of a new mission may cause sudden growth like fast-sprouting seeds, but then comes the heat of day, and priest and people both burn out from lack of patience and pacing.

First survive… and then, slowly, patiently, thrive. Priest and people all in it together. This is the story of my mission parish. We now prepare to move into yet another stage of our parish life, continuing what we are already doing, expanding our building, looking ahead to eventual retirement and the handing of the shepherd’s crook over to a new man, the people prepared to continue to be all in with their next priest and hoping he and his family will do the same. We pray that what we have built so far will last, and last, survive and thrive.




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