Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Some Further Reflections on Why Converts Leave

The response to the post that looked at why converts leave the Church they have joined as adults were thoughtful and thought provoking. Let me respond here in turn to each of these comments.

Tony-Allen recommends an essay by Fr Seraphim Rose (Converts - Chapter 88 from Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works). There is here a great deal of very good advice for all concerned whether we were born into an Orthodox family or joined the Church later in life.

Stuart Koehl offers a number of very helpful observations. His distinction between those who convert TO and those who convert FROM is right on target. I have told a number of inquirers that I will not make them catechumens, much less receive them into the Church, until they resolve their problems in their tradition of origin. Basically my thinking is this: Angry, unhappy Evangelical Christians (or Protestants or Roman Catholic) are eventually going to be angry, unhappy Orthodox Christians. Again as Stuart's words suggest, left unhealed, this foster in the person a growing "sense of betrayal which either causes the convert to move on to something else (the perpetual seeker syndrome), or worse, to abandon faith altogether."

Stuart's observation is also correct. He writes that:

I don't think, therefore, that catechesis is a the heart of the problem, unless you use the term to include discernment of a person's motives for joining the Church. I know a lot of pastors and catechists are reluctant to do that, given that converts aren't exactly falling off trees. We want to put the best possible face on the Church, we create the idealized image in an attempt to "sell" the faith to the seeker. Since most of us do truly love the Church, we tend to gloss over the grubby reality of parish life, focusing instead on the glories of the Liturgy, the spiritual riches of the Tradition, and that sense of koinonia that we sometimes manage to achieve despite our various foibles.

Where I might disagree in that (and S-P mentions this as well) catechesis includes (or should include) an examination of the person's motives for joining the Church. As I've mentioned before, the catechumenate is a graduate seminar--it is a formation process. After some initial failures, I learned not to enroll people as catechumens until (1) I was morally certain that God had called them to enter the Church and (2) that they demonstrated the necessary resolve and fortitude to remain faithful. The catechumenate itself, as I tell people, is meant to begin what should be a life-long process of repentance. In other words, the catechumenate is a school of repentance. Yes, there are facts about the Church to be learned, but (as with the whole Tradition) serve repentance. For what it might be worth, as I have become more and more consistent in my approach to inquirers and catechumens, I have never lacked for people to receive. I suspect that if converts aren't falling off the trees, or are staying once they arrive, it is because we have fundamentally misunderstood the catechumenate. (St Augustine has some helpful advice on all this in "On the Catechising of the Uninstructed." It is well worth a read.)

Theo's own story of entering and then leaving the Orthodox Church I think illustrates the importance of really scurtinizing the motives of inquires BEFORE they are made catechumens. The failure to do this is harmful not only to the inquiry but the parish that he joins and will later leave.

I think Stuart is right in his call for a more realistic, warts and all, presentation of the Church and how we live our Christian lives is something I have tried to follow since I first got into the evangelism and apologetics "business." While I have been criticized for it, since it seems to cause "some people to turn away," I have found that "those who persist will be entering the Church with their eyes wide open, less prone to disillusionment,[and] more willing to stick it out through the rough patches."

Finally, I would (maybe?) disagree with Stuart about the need for a Spiritual Father. At least in the Orthodox world that term carries a great deal of freight, not all of which is helpful. What we need, above all else (as S-P and Chrys both suggest), are well rounded, emotional and developmentally mature men in the priesthood. On this score I think the Orthodox Church could learn a great deal from the Catholic Church's emphasis on the human formation of candidates for the priesthood. You can read more about this here: Institute for Priestly Formation.

As part of this move away from catechesis as dogmatics (S-P) and the overselling of the faith (Chrys), and toward communities of mature mena and women under the leadership of clergy drawn from mature men, married to mature women, in good and sound marriages, we would do well I think to take our cue from Ben. The Orthodox Church (and I have Catholics friends who a similiar need there) needs to do more to encourage priest to share the load. That might mean more priests and deacons relative to parishioners. But it certainly means the encouraging a more active approach to lay ministry guided by the clergy. I am trying to do this at Holy Assumption Orthodox Church (the parish I currently serve) and, while it is early days yet, it seems to be working.

Michelle's observation about the Orthodox Church being a lonely place is often true. For several years I did supply work for vacationing and ill priests in the Pittsburgh area. While often people in the parishes were warm and welcoming, it was not uncommon for them to be cold and distant. That said, I have found in the main that the things Michelle wants parishes to do, are often done by many parishes, but still it is not uncommon to run into resistance from the "old guard." This, as AMM suggests, is not unique to ethnic parishes, nor (as my friends who are Evangelical and Mainline Protestant pastors have assured me) for that matter to Orthodox communities. While we might use different means of excluding others (as Chrys said), it happens in all communities. Yes, to return to Michelle's later comments, many, even most, Orthodox Christians are warm and hospitable. Where the problem develops, in my experience, is not so much that people are not hospitable as it is that parishes tolerate the lack of a welcoming attitude, or even a hostile attitude, in members of the community. The fact is, even if 9 out of 10 people in a parish are welcoming, if they do not correct that 1 person who is closed to new people, they end up colluding--and even encouraging--that negative attitude.

That said though, we do need to do better--we must move beyond a mechanical approach to our spiritual life. This, as Chrys points out, is the common human problem of nominalism. We all of us want to reap rewards without making an investment. He is right when he says that

The issue, it seems to me, is how to structure local parish communities so that they are able to prudently and faithfully tap into the tremendous resources of "the whole Body of Christ." This issue is urgent not only for the building up of the convert (whether cradle or otherwise), the development and exercise of each member's gifts, and the formation of tomorrow's leadership, but also to relieve the horrendous burden placed on our clergy. They should be "spiritual coaches" (as I have noted elsewhere), building up "the team" for the challenges entailed in a life faithfully lived. Clergy are not, can not be -- must not be -- the only active members of the team. So much more could be done for Christ if we could figure out a way to unleash the gifts of everyone in the parish. Yet so much care must be taken to do so in a way that is faithful to that which has been "handed on" to us. This, it seems to me, is one of the most critical challenges facing the Church today and would go a long, LONG way toward addressing the reasons (whatever they are) that cause so many to leave.

Trying to answer this question is why I was asked to start the Palamas Institute. We need to invest more resource not simply in training future priests, but studying and supporting the work of the parish, the parish priest and the ministry of the laity.

Again, thank you to all for your generosity in offering such thought provoking observations.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory