Jenny Haddad Mosher, Director, The Telos Project

The Telos Project is more than a study of the lives of young adults; it is a study of how young adults and Orthodox parishes engage one another. An essential element of our work is understanding how parishes can develop and grow to support and integrate young adults in more life-giving ways.

How Your Congregation Learns: The Learning Journey from Challenge to Achievement by Tim Shapiro is one resource Telos Project staff are turning to for ideas. This book isn’t directed at the specific questions of young adult ministry, but at the process of how any parish moves from a point of challenge (“We need to nurture the spiritual lives of young adults,”) to a new reality (“Young adults understand themselves to be truly members of Christ’s body.”)

For fourteen years, Shapiro has led the Center for Congregations, a nonprofit that has provided support to 4,000 parishes in Indiana—including a number of Orthodox parishes—as they grow and adapt to our ever-changing society. How Your Congregation Learns captures the process Shapiro has observed in all communities that offer truly life-giving and vibrant ministry in a responsive and sustainable way.

Shapiro describes that process as a “learning journey.” Why? Because in order to embark on a new ministry, a community must learn how to do something it has never done before. Learning journeys can be connected to any area of parish life, but they always progress through the following elements: challenge, exploration, discovery, disappointment, letting go, taking on, validation, and, finally, new challenge. What might a learning journey look like in an Orthodox parish? Let’s consider an example scenario using St. John Orthodox Church.

St. John Orthodox Church is a small parish in a faded, northern industrial city. Many members commute in from the suburbs to attend the church they grew up in, but there is also a slow yet steady stream of new members, young professionals moving into the area. For at least a couple of decades, the parish has prepared “Thanksgiving baskets” for needy neighbors; these are always appreciated and it has become a point of pride for long-term members that they now deliver ten of these baskets a year. New members, however, express surprise that the parish doesn’t do more. The disparity between the socio-economic level of most parishioners and people living in the neighborhood directly around the church is stark; while St. John’s began as a parish for poor immigrants over 100 years ago, the vast majority of parishioners now live comfortable, middle class lives. New members challenge the parish to be more generous and look for a means of more sustained engagement with their neighbors than a once-a-year gift.

A handful of parishioners invested in the issue commit to explore the parish’s options for expanding their charitable work. They discover there are several models for sustained food assistance run by congregations in their area. Some congregations host a large-scale food pantry where people can receive food in an emergency. Others operate a soup kitchen, sharing hot meals regularly. The state food bank has just built a new warehouse in the next town; they are looking for groups of volunteers to commit to help sort and deliver food to pantries and soup kitchens weekly. All of these options are presented to the priest and parish council for consideration; which of these models might be possible for St. John?

It is a disappointment to realize that the parish is not in a position—volunteer- or resource-wise—to sustain any of these models. Most members live too far from church to show up mid-week to staff a large pantry. The parish’s kitchen is not up to code for a soup kitchen. The most able-bodied members, who could help move supplies at the food bank, are also those busy with young children in the evenings and on the weekends. It seems necessary to let go of the dream of becoming a force for good in their neighborhood on the scale of other area congregations.

And yet, the parish realizes they do have the capacity to take on something smaller. It is no hardship for parishioners to bring canned goods to church regularly; these are used to fill a few shelves in the parish office—a ‘food closet,’ if not a pantry. Their priest is thereby empowered to offer immediate help to neighbors who contact the church for assistance, instead of having to refer them somewhere else. Validation comes as parishioners enjoy being able to add purchases for the pantry to their regular shopping; parents of children adopt a new ritual of having their children help them choose what to buy each week. Additionally, starting to build even the most basic relationships with those who need food regularly makes parishioners feel less disconnected from the neighborhood; they now recognize neighbors as they walk by the church or play with their children in the park. Some neighbors even drop in for weekday vespers, experiencing a new comfort level with the church building.

Finally, in discussion with one of these new friends, it is discovered that the Baptist church down the street hosts a mobile food pantry from the food bank once a month; having even a handful of St. John parishioners show up once a month would help it to run more smoothly and integrate St. John into the wider community yet more deeply. This new challenge comes before the community and the learning journey starts again.

Alongside the tracking of these external markers of the learning journey, How Your Congregation Learns explains the internal realities of parish experience that accompany each stage. Parishes that pass through learning journeys successfully are those open to integrating outside resources in combination with their own creativity and healthy behaviors. They take an appropriate amount of time to clarify their values; they cultivate open and honest discussion; they seek to integrate whatever ministry they are planning with the wider worship life of the parish. Further, they structure the process intentionally so clergy and laity can learn and work alongside one another and measure what they want to do against the teachings of their tradition.

How Your Congregation Learns explores both the external and internal dimensions of parish learning and growth concretely and practically. When parishes try new things, too often disappointment is interpreted as the end of the road; St. John’s could have given up and stuck with their ten baskets a year. Instead, How Your Congregation Learns helps us understand disappointment as a universal, necessary, and transient stage to figuring out what really works best for a particular community. It assures us that if we keep the lines of communication open and our commitment to Christ’s teachings clear, we will find a way forward, a way to grow into greater and greater Christ-likeness, even if only by some small degree. For “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24)