Thursday, April 17, 2008

Joy, Love and Our Common Good

An illustration of the traditional interior of an Orthodox ChurchImage via WikipediaContinuing yesterday's post Institutional Problems, Personal Solutions:

In moments of transition, there is a need to acknowledge, to affirm, what is going on in the community. Especially when that transition is associated with powerful feelings, be they positive or (as is more likely) negative, these need to be acknowledge and given a place within the life of the community. Practically this means helping people listen to and identify their feelings. More important still, people often need help in situated their feelings within the larger process of the community's transition, even as the community's transition needs itself to be situated within the larger story of the Gospel (i.e., oriented).

As I think about things, it seems to me that helping and compassion are fundamentally about orientation and acknowledgment. This doesn't mean I ought not to offer practical solutions where that is possible. But these solutions to actually be practical, to really be helpful and compassionate, must grow out of orientation and acknowledgement. At a minimum, if I don't know where the community is going (orientation), or if I don't know what people are struggle with (acknowledgment), then my help and compassion is likely to be ineffective. Worse, I may be serving my own needs rather than the community's.

Finally, playfulness.

Playfulness is not a value we usually associate with the Orthodox Church. And yet, in every traditional Orthodox culture there is a tradition of feasting, of music and dance. Pastorally I have found that one the best ways to unite an ethnically mixed community is to encourage people to eat each other's foods, sample each other's alcohols, and to encourage and welcome everyone's music, language and customs.

None of this can be done if the leadership—clerical or lay—or overly serious. There is a place, a valuable and important place, in our spiritual lives for frivolity, for fun.

If I were to make any critical comment about the way in which the Orthodox Church response pastorally to transitions, it is that we are often not very playful. Sometimes we are so deadly serious. But playfulness admits a bit of space, it allows us some room to move without being self-conscious or anxious. This all to say, that we must cultivate in our communities, a real sense of joy.

This is hard to cultivate of we are unwilling to look at ourselves honestly. It is hard to cultivate joy if we either take our eyes off the Kingdom of God, or the practical steps along the way. And apart from our willing to bear each other's burdens there can be no joy.

But while all this is true, without joy these other things are likewise impossible.

In a 1983 homily for Forgiveness Sunday, Fr Alexander Schmemann says:

As once more we are
about to enter the Great Lent, I would like to remind us – myself first of all, and all of you my fathers, brothers, and sisters – of the verse that we just sang, one of the stichera, and that verse says: "Let us begin Lent, the Fast, with joy."

Only yesterday we were commemorating Adam crying, lamenting at the gates of Paradise, and now every second line of the Triodion and the liturgical books of Great Lent will speak of repentance, acknowledging what dark and helpless lives we live, in which we sometimes are immersed. And yet, no one will prove to me that the general tonality of Great Lent is not that of a tremendous joy! Not what we call "joy" in this world – not just something entertaining, interesting, or amusing – but the deepest definition of joy, that joy of which Christ says: "no one will take away from you" (Jn. 16:22). Why joy? What is that joy?

Fr Alexander answers his own question by saying that Lent is a gift. And while this gift has many facets, is the gift that makes possible our

return to each other: this is where we begin tonight. This is what we are doing right now. For if we would think of the real sins we have committed, we would say that one of the most important is exactly the style and tonality which we maintain with each other: our complaining and criticizing. I don't think that there are cases of great and destructive hatred or assassination, or something similar. It is just that we exist as if we are completely out of each other's life, out of each other's interests, out of each other's love. Without having repaired this relationship, there is no possibility of entering into Lent. Sin – whether we call it "original" sin or "primordial" sin – has broken the unity of life in this world, it has broken time, and time has become that fragmented current which takes us into old age and death. It has broken our social relations, it has broken families. Everything is diabolos – divided and destroyed. But Christ has come into the world and said: "... and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself" (Jn. 12:32).

In the final analysis, all communities are, in one form or another, in transition because all human beings are in transition. What we learn from those communities that are suffering because of a trauma is that our love for one another is maybe not as deeply rooted and firmly held as we might like to think. I am not as loving as I imagine I am—the sign of that is my lack of joy.

In helping communities and individuals negotiate transitions, I must first and foremost love them. This love is not by any means sentimental. It is rather the willingness on my part to bring to place all that God has given me personally, professionally and as a priest of the Orthodox, at the service of the person in front of me. Reflecting both as a social scientist, and more importantly as a Christian, I have come to realize that it is only in my willingness to serve the good of this unique person that I am able as well to serve the common good of the institution, of the parish or diocese that is also my concern.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Institutional Problems, Personal Solutions

Dysfunction in the context of a religious community is one of my areas of research interest. As an Orthodox Christian who is also a social scientist, I am more than a little distressed at the lack of good research that examines how as a community the Orthodox Church responds to the different kinds of trauma that can happen in a parish or diocese. Absent this research, we might find ourselves, for example, at a loss as to how to respond pastorally to the unexpected death of a child in the parish, or some kind of misconduct on the part of a trusted lay or clerical leaders, or any of a myriad other more or less predictable events.

Recently Emory University's business school published an interesting article entitled "When Supporting Employees Enhances a Company's Competitive Advantage" on their blog Knowledge@Emory. The article summarizes the contribution on this issue made by panelists during the fourth annual Atlanta Competitive Advantage Conference (ACAC) held at Emory University's Goizueta Business School.

One comment that stood out for me was that made by Margaret Cording, assistant professor of management, Jones Graduate School of Management, Rice University. She said that during times of change, employees actually "go out there looking for signs of fair treatment" by those in management. In other words, as Cording and her co-author D. Brent Smith, associate professor at the London Business School, argued during times of key change, a firm's performance is increased when the firm demonstrates fairness and care for the employees' emotional well being. According to the article, Goizueta's Russell Coff argues that "the link between employee satisfaction and performance indicates . . . that a problem at the macro level might best be solved at the micro level."

What does this mean for the life of the local parish in times of transition?

In simple terms it means that the resources of the parish, and by extension the diocese, need to be intentionally at the service of the good of individual parishioners and clergy. Monica Worline, assistant professor of organization and management at Goizueta Business School, in her paper, "Organizing Resilience by Cultivating Resources: A Practice Perspective," argued that five practices:

  • Orienting
  • Acknowledging
  • Playing
  • Helping
  • Acting with Compassion

were important in the cultivation of personal and share resources—knowledge, positive emotion and high quality connection—that were important in foster resilience in response to the stress associated with change. As the article notes that in the hospital billing unit that the study examined there was a

tendency to "celebrate everything," she says. "From most manager's perspectives, 'playing' is a waste of time. But doing fun things, [the billing department] cultivated this positive emotion, this ability to tackle challenges. And that helped them adapt at a collective level." Additionally, when one employee faced a personal financial crisis, fellow employees left an envelope with cash on her desk. "These things go on all the time [in the unit]," says Worline. The practice of "noticing suffering," adds Worline, cultivates relational knowledge and attention—resources that also help employees be more adept in their work.

Looking at the list, I wonder how these might be applied to a parish in transition?

In my ministry I have found that the last two practices, "helping," and "acting with compassion" are not effective and rarely raise above the level of the sentimental apart from the first two practices, "orienting" and "acknowledging." Pastorally this means making clear not simply the ultimate goal of the parish (the Kingdom of God) but also the more proximate and immediate goals of the community. These goals, even if they are rather prosaic, are important as steps along the way to the Kingdom of God.

Often we fail to realize that while these proximate and immediately goals are secondary and contingent, they are still important. There importance comes not only from the fact that they are steps along the way, but because the make concrete in our everyday experience our own journey to the Kingdom of God. Our experience of the Kingdom cannot be divorced from our daily experience. Why? Because while we are not "of this world," we are certainly "in this world" and this cannot be forgotten. This, or so it seems to me, is one major themes of the Epistle of St James, faith and works are not divorced (2.13-26).

But being right practical and eschatological orientation is not sufficient.

To be continued…

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory