In Orthodox circles we talk a lot about healthy parishes. We occasionally hear people making great sport of criticizing definitions and conceptions offered on this topic by others -- Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. But what do we really mean by this term "healthy parish" and "vibrant parish"? What do these parishes look and feel like? What goes on there? And, how do we help less vibrant parishes move onto a path to living a life in Christ in a more complete way?
Differing Opinions On Where to Begin
Once a parish starts on a path of revitalization and renewal there will be no shortage of opinions of "what's wrong". In situations when a parish is in decline everything gets questioned and opinions are polarized. Everyone sees the problem differently. This makes it hard to achieve consensus on the most significant problem or opportunity facing the parish. Dialogue stops and often the loudest voice wins.
The Parish Health Inventory Model can provide valuable structure to that conversation. By offering a specific set of focus areas it enables groups to move past debating and emotion into fact based conversations on Gospel centered issues and to get busy with building or rebuilding vitality into the parish. The model helps get people on the same page.
Harvesting What We Know About Healthy Orthodox Parishes
Based on the collective insight and experiences of over a dozen Orthodox parishes in America assembled at a Parish Health Summit in the OCA's Diocese of the Midwest, the model collects the practices and principles that seem to be working to capsulize what we know --and what we don't know --about building healthy hopeful 21st century Orthodox parishes in America.
Invited parishes had more than doubled in aggregate size over the past twenty years. Priests in attendance offered a combined total of over 250 years in the priesthood. As a result it was felt that that these parishes could collectively be well equipped to express a lived model of health and vibrancy which was then summarized into the model document.
The model examines Orthodox parish life in terms of eight essential areas. Each area is described in terms of:
- good practices, behaviors and attitudes
- potential metrics of progress,
- discussion questions
- an evaluation section to rate the parish's maturity in each area.
The full model is available for download here and is available for use by any parish. A brief summary of the model is presented below.
1. Gospel Centered Vision
- Mission, Vision & Identity
- Parish Self Awareness & Understanding
- Atmosphere of Excellence
- Growth & Replication
A healthy parish clearly understands that its reason for existence is to serve the Living God and to share its love of God with others. This vision provides a foundation for how it behaves, how it presents itself to its neighbors and what it truly values. The vision is based on a realistic context that integrates its past, its assets, strengths,limitations and environment.
2. Vibrant Worship
- Liturgical Preparedness
- Congregational Participation
- Effective Preaching
Building on the vision of the Gospel, healthy parish communities remember that the fundamental purpose of liturgical services is to worship God. The community strives to please God, not themselves -- and to consistently offer their best through worship that is holy, joyous, peaceful, thankful and enlivening.
3. Shared Leadership
- Sharing /Delegating Responsibility
- Leading Change
- Functional Structures & Administration
- Open Financial Practice & Reporting
Healthy parishes craft administrative structures that are appropriate to the size and vision of the community. Ministries are defined, funded and equipped. Parish lay leaders see themselves as stewards of a Christian community collaborating with the rector to build health and vibrancy of the parish. They are NOT the parish business managers, trustees, owners, disinterested commentators and/or critics.
4. Open Communication
- Consensus and Dialogue
- Dealing with Conflict
- Internal Communication Methods
Putting a collaborative leadership structure into action requires an ability to effectively communicate as a body. To do so healthy communities work to establish a clear competency for consensus and dialogue, listening, and an ability to humbly speak the truth to one another. They seek and integrate multiple perspectives and marginal views. Then they consistently reinforce communication by appropriately harnessing multiple forms of spoken, written, visual and electronic communications forms.
5. Authentic Community
- Atmosphere of love & honest fellowship
- Entry & incorporation mechanisms
- Connectedness to larger church
- Appropriate facilities
Enabled by an ability to dialogue openly, healthy parishes work hard to establish a culture where their identity as Orthodox Christians is lived out in such a manner that anyone who enters can see the hallmarks of Christian community: love, selfless giving, mutual encouragement, forgiveness, kindness, patience, hospitality and compassion. Christ can be recognized in their midst. People linger, smile and laugh. Healthy parishes think through assimilation paths for new members -- they make room. They see themselves not as independent congregations but as interdependent with other Orthodox communities.
6. Christian Formation
- Orthodox spirituality
- Financial generosity
Supported by an appropriately comprehensive parish wide education effort, vibrant parish communities develop a commitment to lifelong learning and personal spiritual growth and change. Educational efforts are informational, formational and transformational - incorporating self study, experience events and mentoring in addition to books and classes. There is a clear focus on understanding and applying Orthodox spirituality. Stewardship is taught in the particular context of gratitude and generosity and love of neighbor.
7. Active Service
- Discernment of gifts
- Effective ministries
Clergy offer consistent endorsement to members as they discern how they can best contribute to the community. Members are regularly, actively encouraged to discover their gifts and to use them for God's glory. An appropriate set of internally and externally focused ministries provide ample opportunity for people to put these gifts and talents to work.
8. Spreading the Gospel
- Parish evangelization atmosphere
- Personal evangelization practice
- Sensitivity to spiritual needs of others
- External communication.
Healthy parishes do not see themselves as a closed community --keeping the Good News as "our little secret". They consistently work to shine their light to the community in which they reside with an evangelistic intent not primarily centered on numerical growth but a desire that others will be brought to Christ. The parish does not wait to get everything right on the inside before reaching out -- but consistently works to make things right on the inside while they reach out.
We believe this inventory can have utility for any parish that desires to strengthen itself. Here are some situations:
…may use the model to assess or inventory strengths and weaknesses – and to identify and focus improvements efforts.
Bodies at rest are in that state because there is nothing propelling them forward. The model can hopefully describe a better state for the parish and stimulate ideas about how to move forward.
Parishes in Early Decline
Some in the parish can probably see the need for change but the decline is often slow enough that the symptoms are not always noticed. This model attempts to describe one version of a stronger future.
Parishes "In Peril"
Parishes stuck in yesterday without a vision of a brighter future or in a state of denial may receive a useful nudge by simply discussing one or two portions of the model. It can hopefully allow the parish to face facts and to develop a sense of urgency about its future.
Prior to placing/receiving new pastors, parishes may want to assess their status, where they desire to head and to openly share these ideas with new clergy.
Many Orthodox parishes have used the Parish Health Inventory Model as a framework for discussions on renewal and future direction. Key practical points we can pass on about experiences with using the model are:
It is not a catechism.
Though the model has formative value for parish leaders, parishioners and even clergy, it is NOT designed to teach the Orthodox faith. It is a collection of good practices and principles that seem to have worked well in many parishes.
It is one model not the model.
Disagreeing or rethinking the contents can be useful and healthy. One the other hand we caution users not to simply go to work to disprove the contents. There is abundant evidence that most ideas are effective.
Access to a broader view of good practice
The model was constructed with the input of twelve rectors from growing parishes in the Diocese. As a result the items in the inventory provide a partial view into the life of a number of good parishes --a view not readily available to most clergy or laity.
Intentional -- even "driven".
Some have commented that the model seems to portray a parish with a hyperactive personality. Some parishes with a more contemplative (but hopefully not somnolent!) atmosphere will want to use the ideas in moderation. Catch your breath occasionally. Sip slowly.
Not the next big thing.
Some reject using any tool simply because it appears to be "oversold" or"hyped". Heed well. The PHIM is NOT a silver bullet. It is a tool that when used well can help accelerate action, build consensus and raise the quality of the discussion. YOU still do the work.