On the Purpose of the Orthodox Parish
Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
What is the purpose of the Church and also of the parish within her? The word of God gives the answer. The Apostle writes: And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers: for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Here, then, is the purpose: the perfecting of the saints, the work of ministry, the building up of the Body of Christ - a triple task of the whole Church and, consequently, also the task of each parish. Internal parish tasks. The first point, the perfecting of the saints is the moral perfecting of the members of the Church. The salvation of souls in Christ is first and foremost; one must not relegate it to second place. They are wrong who set as the basis of the Church's activity the social task, i.e., the transformation of social relationships through the Church and through this the Christian elevation of the individual. Salvation in Christ is attained through prayer, the divine service, the regulations of the Church, deeds of love and beneficence, spiritual struggle. A pastor's main concern is the salvation of the souls entrusted to him. This is also the personal concern of each member of the Church. It is accomplished within the common body of the Church - not in isolation, but by way of mutual spiritual support, and thereby the self-loving thought only for oneself is overcome. A personal, worthy life in Christ is a responsibility before the Church as a whole.
The second task is the work of ministry - to God and to men. It opens up before each member of the Church and of the parish a broad field of church social activity. Ministry to God: participation in the divine services, in church reading and singing, in constructing churches, in caring for the beauty and cleanliness of the church - these are particular examples of works, as they say, "for God." Ministry to men: every kind of benefaction for the needy, help for the sick, disinterested efforts on behalf of others, as have been expressed recently in the sending of spiritual books, foodstuffs, clothing and medicines to Russia. In some parishes, this duty of ministering to one's neighbor has brought to life auxiliary parish organizations. A special, very important task is the churchly upbringing of children and youth. This is a matter of exceptional importance. We are threatened with the loss of the younger generation for the Church. /?/
The duty of the parish leadership, on the one hand, is to influence families in this regard, that they not forget their duty towards their children, and, on the other hand, to form centers, Saturday and Sunday schools, children's church choirs, and to take other measures for keeping the younger generation attached to the Church and under the Church's influence.
One should not complain about our parishes, that they are inert in this regard. Under our meager conditions, they have displayed appropriate work, diligence and sacrifice. But here precisely is that point over which the interests of the pastorate clash with social interests. The difficulty of the priest's position lies in not snuffing out spontaneous social activity in the parish and initiative that not infrequently comes from the laity. A priest cannot do everything himself, by himself, for everyone; he needs cooperation. But here the cooperation of individual persons with the pastor often turns into an urge to lead, to criticize, to create opposition, etc. A priest can calmly make use of the broad cooperation of the members of the parish when he has confidence in the preservation of church policy. Then there is no fear that the rights of the pastor will be usurped, there is no fear that the work will turn aside from the Church, and even do her harm. Then, too, every kind of assistance rendered to the priest - in case of his weakness, ignorance, inability, etc. - cannot disturb the correct relationships in the parish.
The common Church task. The third task, the building up of the body of Christ, is the ministry for the Church as a whole - a task that expresses to the greatest extent the unity of the part with the whole, of the parish with the Church. In our church consciousness, we should never extinguish thought for the whole Orthodox Church, love for her, zeal for the Church, and more concretely and first of all - for the Russian Church Abroad to which we belong. And so, in fulfilling this third task, we are hardly equal to it.
Ministry to the Church as a whole is, practically speaking, concern for church centers. It requires, first of all, an awareness of how many ways we at the local level are indebted to these church centers. The Church administration takes care for the correct observance of the order of the services, for the printing of divine service books and the supplying of churches with them; it safeguards the succession of episcopal and priestly ordination; it takes care for the education and preparation of sacred ministers, and provides pastors for church communities. It guards the Church against arbitrariness and against those people who introduce scandal into the Church; it safeguards the external dignity of Orthodoxy as well. It cuts off overt moral temptations, wards off attacks on the faith and the Church, wherever they might come from. It is responsible for both the ideological defense of the Church and her juridical defense, in necessary instances.
The fullness of general church life and the many-sided, fruitful activity of ecclesial, episcopal centers is direct evidence of the well-being of life within numerous individual Orthodox parishes. And conversely, an episcopal center laboring under difficulties and having a weak range of activity invariably speaks of difficult conditions in the life of a parish. One must not keep silent either about the necessity to support the center in a material respect. Let us speak bluntly: in no other Christian confession is there such negligence regarding the material base of the central church institutions as with us. We do not give much thought about where the means will come from for theological schools, for the publishing of books, for the Church's missionary work, for regular church philanthropy, and, in particular, for the support of the monasteries in the Holy Land and on Athos and of our communities in Russia, for covering expenses bound up with the convocation of hierarchal councils, pastoral conferences and youth conventions. We have a right and we ought to speak about the material side of the life of the Church. Let us recall the widow's mite, set forth by the Lord as an example for us all.
The task of building up the body of Christ's Church is great and many-sided. Insofar as it touches the parish, it consists in the parish community not shutting itself up in its own narrow sphere, but in being a beneficial and necessary, conscious part of the whole church body.
Based on an article by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky in Pravoslavnaya Rus, No. 11, 1955; translated from Blagovestnik, a parish bulletin of the Holy Virgin Cathedral, San Francisco, CA, November 1991