Father John, you are stepping down as diocesan chancellor at the end of this year, 2020. Thank you for taking time to offer some of your thoughts on the diocese.
Thank you, Fr. Alexander and your coworkers in the diocese’s updated Communication Department for your devotion to our diocese. I am also grateful for your expertise in today’s technology. We have come a long way from the time of the diocese’s printed publications.
You have served as chancellor of the Diocese of the Midwest for 17 years. That makes you the longest serving chancellor of the diocese. Reflecting on your tenure as chancellor, what are some of your greatest impressions?
Prior to my appointment as diocesan chancellor in 2004, I served as dean of the Cleveland Deanery for 5 years, from 1999 to 2004. My greatest impression during that time has been our priests’ remarkable devotion to the care of their flocks, their genuine love for their people, their parish church, their attention to the needs and concerns of all those placed under their pastoral care. They accomplished much of this often under financial stress and with great sacrifice by them and their families; yet, they are always striving to project the image of Christ in their personal ministry.
From the time I was appointed as dean of the Cleveland Deanery, I did my best to improve the living standards of our clergy and their families. Many if not all of our clergy finish their theological education with debt and student loans. For many years, the wages of the priest did not cover this great personal cost. I believe that, with God’s grace and the blessings of the bishops that served our diocese, we have made great strides toward correcting this. We are not yet where we should be; but we always strive to improve.
What was the state of the diocese when you were appointed as the diocesan chancellor? What did you expect your work to be like?
The chancellor serves the needs of the diocesan bishop. He is the eyes and ears of the bishop. He’s the bishop’s sounding board, his advisor. The chancellor does whatever it takes to assist the bishop in fulfilling his vocation as the archpastor of the diocese. Often, the chancellor is the voice of opposition; but he is always the voice of encouragement. This diocese is the largest of the OCA’s territorial dioceses, so I expected any and everything conceivable.
In addition to the issue of clergy compensation that I mentioned, we realized, even before my appointment as chancellor, that a number of our parishes are in decline. Their membership and financial resources are declining, and their aging physical facilities are deteriorating. It seemed that many of these parishes were locked in a time warp of fifty years and more. Many people would observe how some of our missions were growing and even exceeding the life and vibrancy of our older existing parishes. With the blessings of our bishops, we made concerted efforts to assist these parishes in doing the difficult work of self-examination. Our goal was to instill in every parish a desire to be a mission in the fullest meaning of mission. We are no longer parishes whose purpose is to preserve a Russian or Carpatho-Russian cultural presence. We are called to be a light to the world that bears witness to the light of Christ shining in the Orthodox way. We do not expect our parishes to insulate themselves from those of a non-Orthodox ethnic culture, but to welcome them and share the true faith with them regardless of their ethnic or cultural background.
These are just some of the challenges I anticipated we would need to address when I was appointed diocesan chancellor. Today, we are faced with new challenges. For example, we are facing a shortage of priests. Hopefully, the strides we made to update and improve the compensation of clergy in our diocese will encourage more men to make the transition from secular and professional careers in order to pursue theological formation in our seminaries. We can’t expect a man to leave a successful occupation, uproot his family, and take on debt so that he can be assigned to a parish that offers a compensation package at poverty level or worse. This is a concern that affects all of us. I feel for our bishops. At some point, given the shortage of priests, they will have to decide which of many openings they should fill from the small number of qualified priests available.
Even so, good things are happening in the diocese. Most of our parishes are growing. They are growing spiritually; they are growing in numbers and in stewardship. Looking at the number of funerals registered in our parish metrical books over the past few decades, one might conclude that many of parishes would, or should, be closed or near closure. But this is not the case. Parishes have been growing and welcoming new members into the Church. The places of those who have fallen asleep are being filled with Americans of all backgrounds who have found Christ in the Orthodox Church. We are no longer, as we once were, like the several ethnic jurisdictions whose numbers are replenished by a near-constant flow of immigrants. We are evangelizing. We are raising new believers from the font. We are the Orthodox Church in America.
During your time as chancellor, you served under three different hierarchs and played a main role in each transition. What were those times like for you?
My first bishop as chancellor was Archbishop Job of blessed memory. Most of us know him and remember him with great fondness. His willingness to listen to his priests, his district deans, his chancellor, his diocesan council, his diocesan assembly, his beloved people in the many parishes of the diocese, allowed us to accomplish the work I spoke of earlier. What was that transition like when he fell asleep in the LORD (2009)? Terrible sadness. He was my friend and sometimes a confidant. God, however, allows us to have great hope! Hope for Archbishop Job’s eternal rest and salvation. I remember him and my ordaining bishop, Metropolitan Christopher, in the Proskomedia of every Liturgy I serve.
I was assigned as the Administrator of the Diocese after his repose under our then diocesan Locum Tenens, Metropolitan Jonah. The Bishop’s Council and the Diocesan Council of our diocese worked diligently to find suitable candidates to present to the diocese and ultimately to the Holy Synod for election to be our next bishop. This was an extremely busy time; but our diocesan structure made it possible for me to accomplish my duties. Our work resulted in the Special Diocesan Assembly when we elected and presented Hieromonk Matthias to the Holy Synod as our chosen candidate. This resulted in his consecration and elevation as the new bishop of our diocese.
All times of separation are difficult. The departure of Bishop Matthias was as well. I was once again assigned as Administrator of the Diocese under Bishop Alexander, who was our Locum Tenens. Again, the structure of the diocese – Bishop’s Council, Diocesan Council, Diocesan Assembly – made this process as smooth as it could possibly be. This led to the consecration and elevation of Archpriest Paul Gassios as our new diocesan bishop.
Archbishop Paul is truly a joy to work for and with! His goal-driven personality serves his archpastoral administration of the diocese well. He has expectations of all of us and we all know those expectations. He is, however, first and foremost a pastor. He is truly the archpastor to us, his priests and all clergy, to his flock throughout the diocese. I am personally grateful to him for his continued trust and friendship.
So, what were those times of episcopal transition like for me? In all honesty, they were a joy for me! Through both the good and bad, the difficult and blessed, I have truly enjoyed serving this diocese as chancellor.
Retirement looks a little different for everyone. Do you have any plans or ambitions once you have stepped down completely from administrative duties?
I have begun working with Fr. Paul Jannakos in this transition period. I’ve told the archbishop and Fr. Paul that I am at their disposal if ever wanted or desired. My wife, Cindy, asked me a similar question. I think, having been retired for nearly a year from parish administration, that I am ready to have no more meetings on my calendar! I will winter for a few months in Arizona as long as my health is good. This is a joy because I no longer enjoy the cold winter months. I attend Ss. Peter and Paul parish in Phoenix with Bishop Daniel, the rector. I will miss my regular sessions with the archbishop, the deans and the diocesan council. I will truly miss working with my friend Rob Koncel and the finance committee. I will miss them, but I won’t miss the many hours we spent over the years on so many issues and items!
I am extremely grateful that our diocese, after many years of work and delays, is now on a percentage basis of diocesan stewardship. Coming to this place was a long process; but it is good!
My ambitions are simple: work out my salvation as St. Paul instructs us; praying with my wife, Cindy, who has been my support for the many years of preparation, study and active priestly ministry. I do hope to golf a bit more, or at least go on the golf course. What I do out there can’t always be called golf.
I hope always to be a priest in the Church, to be with the Body of Christ always.
Many clergy look up to you and have seen you as a great help during their time of need. What advice would you offer to younger clergy who will be serving the Church in this diocese?
Love your people! Sometimes it’s difficult to like someone, or when someone doesn’t like us. But always, always love your people. We are called by Christ to serve, not to be served!
Father, is there anything else you would leave with us?
My greatest joy over these many years has been the camaraderie of my brother priests and the many different faithful throughout our diocese at convocations or assemblies or at parish events. I have loved and enjoyed this more than words can express!
I will always pray for you all and ask that you remember me and my family in your prayers. May God grant His Eminence Archbishop Paul and all of you many blessed years! May He grant eternal rest in blessed repose to Archbishop Job and all those clergy and laity that have served this diocese and make their memory to be eternal!
God bless you All!
Fr John, for your faithfulness, your devotion and outstanding service to this diocese, thank you!