Podcast: Serving on Parish Council


EAGAN, MN [OCLI] – If you have been asked to serve on a parish council or if you feel unprepared to make a meaningful contribution to any non-profit board, this episode is for you. An interview with Fr. Ian Pac-Urar, director of Continuing Education for the OCA, explores some of the topics addressed in Boot Camp for Parish Councils and Non-Profit Boards.

PictureService is the emphasis of servant leadership within the Lord’s household as we serve His instruction in the context of parish councils. Service shapes recruitment, training, and succession planning. Service frames strategy,  governance, fiduciary responsibilities, and support of the parish priest or non-profit director. And service to Christ, however He is presented to you as “the least of these” matters on the last day.

​Hollie Benton  0:04
You’re listening to Doulos, a podcast at the Ephesus School Network. Doulos explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I’m Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I’m delighted to be speaking today with Fr. Ian Pac-Urar who serves at the Presentation of our Lord in Fairlawn, Ohio. He also directs the continuing education program for the OCA. Fr. Ian and I will be facilitating a boot camp for parish councils and nonprofit boards beginning in September, which is a new opportunity for any new or emerging leader as you prepare a meaningful contribution to your parish council, or any nonprofit organization you serve. So welcome, Father, Ian! I always love our conversations, and I’m so excited to be speaking with you today.Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  0:51
Well, thanks for having me, Hollie. It’s good to be with you on this podcast and to share some thoughts about continuing education generally in the church and on the work of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative in particular.  And this is near and dear to my heart and an effort that you have made over these past two years in working with and for the Leadership Initiative. And we look forward to some great results in the future. It’s an initiative that’s new to the church and greatly needed,

Hollie Benton  1:19
Thank God. So as someone who has supported years of continuing education for the OCA, I really am grateful to be working with you on this boot camp for parish councils and nonprofit boards. I’d like to ask you what are some of the practices our churches have when it comes to recruitment, training, onboarding and succession planning for parish councils?

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  1:42
That is the $64,000 dilemma before us, isn’t it? I can only speak really from my own experience. But I think this is a generalization that has validity through the church across jurisdictions. I happen to be in the Romanian Episcopate of the OCA but in my conversations with faithful and clergy in the Orthodox world of North America, as it were, bear this generalization out, and that is that we don’t really have a history of methodically, purposefully, intentionally creating our parish council memberships. So often, it’s a question of, well, I’ve been here for 20 or 30 years, and my parents built this church and I’m on the parish council. And that’s just what it is. I’m on the parish council, just like I go to church every Sunday. Many times councils are created out of convenience. Certainly, the experience is not uncommon for new members of a parish, to suddenly find themselves recruited to the council. And that horrifying phrase, “We need new blood,” which should make any new member or prospective member immediately stop and ask more questions. So for recruiting, my experience is that we’re pretty haphazard about it. We look around at who can we trust, and who has influence in the parish, and who has time, and who has been working in the kitchen so much, that in our more enlightened parishes, you know, who’s this woman who has been working in the kitchen so long, that oh, let’s have her on parish council too for a change. In terms of onboarding or training, succession planning, there’s really no succession planning that I’m aware of anywhere in the church for councils, which is why we have the “new blood” issue so often. Training and onboarding, you know, in our diocese, parish council members are supposed to at least read, and in our parish, we try to make sure that they receive a copy of the constitution and bylaws of the organization which is on a diocesan level for us. We don’t have individual parish bylaws, but I know that that’s rarely done in most of our parishes. So there’s a great void, in terms of constituting parish councils, in terms of figuring out why someone would be on council or not on council, and what would be expected of them and how prepared they are, once they’ve said yes.

Hollie Benton  4:22
You’ve touched on it a little bit already, Father, but why do you think people do serve on parish councils? And do you think some motivations are better than others when it comes to serving on a parish council or even on a nonprofit board that represents one of our Orthodox organizations?

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  4:38
I think that nonprofit boards, and I’m speaking probably outside of the Orthodox Church, although I have a limited familiarity with some of our national boards of some of the church wide organizations, do a better job of looking around the community and asking themselves you know, Who would be really committed as a board member to the work of our organization? Because that is an existential question for any nonprofit board. For parish boards, or parish councils, that’s less the case. Although in terms of recruitment, there is a trend to start looking at people who have a stake, let’s put it that way. Some kind of a leadership stake already in the work of the church. But in a “Why are we on parish councils?” If you ask people, sometimes they’ll say, well, they just asked me to be on and so you know, I’ve got Monday night free. So I said, Yes. Others do it because they’ve done it for years. Probably every parish Council has at least a few people who have just been there for years, and nobody could conceive of them not being there. And other people really ask themselves, first of the question, what’s the best way that I can serve this parish, and by doing so serve the Lord? And really, that is a better motivation in my book. So if we could fill our parish councils with people who came from that place, gosh, it just, it’s mind boggling to think what might be possible.

Hollie Benton  6:19
That’s right, you know, parish councils and board members are expected to attend to the mission and vision of the church or the organization. And to lead strategically – that’s been a big buzzword, right? With strategic planning, leading strategically, what exactly does that mean?

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  6:36
Oh, gosh, you know, our Lord said, at some point, what King sets out to build a tower or to fight against an enemy without making a plan first, and assessing his resources, and assessing the demands of the task, and all of that I’m paraphrasing, of course. But planning, first of all, is just part of evangelical work. It’s also these days part of surviving, even if you’re not thriving, you pretty much have to plan just to survive as a parish in a community. So when we ask councils and board members to attend to the mission and vision, what that really means is to be quite familiar and quite comfortable, and quite able, at a moment’s notice, to be able to answer the question, why am I here? And why is my parish here? And who is it serving? And who would care if it disappeared tomorrow? And why is this whole work important? Why is it worth a piece of my life to be doing it? Hopefully, the answer to that question is a different answer from, Why is it worth sitting at my desk in the evening and organizing my stamp collection. It’s not just, you know, a recreational activity or just a social activity. Although we come together, as we are admonished, we come together to do the work of the Lord, we come together to give praise, we come together to pray, we come together to be in communion. But those are transcendent features of our coming together that we need to just have in our guts, in our souls. And so to lead strategically means to lead, first of all, with the best interest of the organization in mind of the parish of the church, to lead strategically is to always be asking ourselves, what is the best way to serve the Lord, as a group, as a corporate body, to think in concrete terms about how that can be done, and to speak with the leadership team. And you have a leadership team in your parish. You might think it’s you all alone with no secretary and no Deacon and no assistant priest, but you do have a team of leaders who work together more or less effectively. And part of leading strategically is to bring those people together and to nurture in them a vision of the future, a sense and an understanding and an internalization of, at least what the mission of the parish is, whether they’re thinking about the great commission of the work of the church out there in the world transforming society. Why are we here? What’s this parish here for? And as I said, Who are we serving? Why is this worthwhile and who would care if we disappeared?

Hollie Benton  9:45
Some of the healthiest parish councils I’ve been a part of are those that start with a reading of remembrance of why we are here and that it’s not just about the survival of this building and the bricks but about attending to the instruction of our Lord. And like a verse from Hebrews chapter 10, “Consider how to stir up one another to love and good works. Not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another. And all the more as you see the day drawing near.” There’s a temptation not to start a parish council meeting with a word from Scripture. Usually at least we’re reminded through the prayer to begin together, which is a reminder of our mission and our vision, and why we’re here. And whether or not we survive this organization, this building survives, we are here to serve the Lord’s instruction, which will never die and continues to live on.

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  10:42
You’re exactly right about that. And my question is a classic strategic planning question. Who cares? Who would care if we disappeared tomorrow? And hopefully, the answer is in the hearts and minds of our leaders, it would be a terrible tragedy, because our service to the Lord would diminish or might vanish altogether. And we don’t have a choice. I mean, we can’t let that happen. And it is right not about the bricks and mortar, but it is about the work and the service,

Hollie Benton  11:13
Even the leading strategically, it’s interesting because we hold on to the words that St. John the Baptist said, “I must decrease so that you might increase.” And even that becomes an interesting challenge for parish councils to consider. What does that mean, in light of serving the Lord’s instruction, and for this particular church body and parish community that we have, and the broader community that we serve that is all under the grace of our Lord.

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  11:42
I think that’s one of the wonderful things that the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative has brought to this conversation about leadership in general. And that is the difference between how the world looks at leadership, and how Christian servant leaders should be looking at leadership. We are not in it, really, to be the leaders. Servant leadership, with the emphasis, really on serving. That’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to serve the Lord. And that is lived out by serving even the least of his brethren by loving the creatures around us, right, our fellow creatures and serving them. That’s how we live out servant leadership. And we don’t do it because it’s some sort of technique to consolidate our own power. We do it because it’s what we’re called to do.

Hollie Benton  12:46
Exactly right. And in fact, every time we receive communion, what is stated to us, what we’re reminded of, “the doulos tou theou” the servant of God partakes of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that really is the calling of every person, when it comes to serving on a parish council or serving in the altar, whatever the duty may be, it’s still serving the instruction of our Lord.

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  13:13
The great challenge and the great gift of being a Christian is that we are called to serve, and we are honored to serve.

Hollie Benton  13:25
One of the responsibilities of a parish council or of a nonprofit board is to provide for the governance of that parish or for that organization. What are the aspects of healthy governance? What does healthy governance look like?

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  13:41
Well, healthy governance comes first from this principle that we’ve just been talking about, which is service. Service comes from faith and love for Christ. So that’s where we start. When we act it out as governors, as it were, we are the vessels of that love, and the vessels of that work of the Holy Spirit. So that means that we are working, first of all, for the glory of God. And practically, in our interactions with those in our own organization, whether it’s a nonprofit or a parish, we’re working for the unity of those people. We’re working to nurture love and sacrifice among and for each other. We’re working to discern, as St. Paul reminds us, the gifts and to nurture and to encourage and to promote, to be creative. Create an atmosphere, create an ethos among our people that we are responsible for, that allows and encourages, values, the act of service that come from those people each according to their gifts. Remembering that we need to look ahead, and so we’re always inspiring and encouraging new leaders. A healthy organization is one that continues to grow. When you see a plant that’s not growing in your garden anymore, you know that’s in trouble. And I don’t just mean growing numerically, I mean, replenishing itself. Continuing.

Hollie Benton  15:32
We have peer learning groups for clergy, parish council members and ministry leaders, church treasures and stewards, and then this new boot camp for parish councils and nonprofit boards. This begins in September. We do have some scholarships available and this is something that we would encourage parishes to budget for for their own training and continuing education. Each participant will be guided in a boot camp project to help you compile and familiarize yourself with your church or your nonprofits mission. its founding documents, like a charter or constitution articles of incorporation, bylaws, etc. And even taking a look at some of the minutes to get more familiar with your organization or your parish Council. Financial statements, board terms roles and responsibilities, like you mentioned, Father, and this project will not only help you to become more familiar with your organization, but it will provide an excellent onboarding resource for future members who later join your parish council or nonprofit board. We’ll be talking quite a lot about serving as a doulos tou theou, what does it mean to serve in the household of the Lord, within your local parish context or even within the nonprofit organization that you serve. We’ll look at what it means to serve with fiduciary duty and responsibility and look at roles and responsibilities of board members or parish council members. We’ve already touched on the strategic leading, ensuring financial stability and considering a stewardship plan, and also being an ambassador for your parish council or the organization. You mentioned already, Father, just being committed, supporting the priest or the executive director of that organization. And we’ve also talked a little bit about healthy governance as well. So Fr. Ian, who should consider signing up for this particular boot camp and why?

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  17:28
Well, everybody, of course! Interestingly, I just had a conversation with a priest in another jurisdiction, who is facing this very situation, he’s a new in his parish, and the interactions between parish council members and faithful and between parish council members, and the expected behavior of a priest, for instance, is quite well established. But it’s not always a posture of service. That’s an excellent example of really an entire council who could benefit from the boot camp experience. But really, at this stage of the game for this boot camp, anyone who is in a leadership position, whether clergy, or a brand new parish council member, or an established parish council member, anyone who really just wants to become more effective, and more, I’ll use the word “literate” about the work of councils who is wondering about the direction that your own parish council should be moving in, or your own parish, and is looking for some ways to discern that direction. One thing that the bootcamp will not do is answer those questions for you. Because there’s not an answer that fits every parish. Parishes are large and small. They’re urban and suburban, and some are even rural. They’re brand new missions, and  now we have 110 or 120 year old parishes. So everybody’s context is different. But the problems are the same, the questions are the same. And the goal of the bootcamp is really to help you begin to arrive at some of the answers for your own setting. And that’s really the beauty of it. It’s not a cookie cutter, one size fits all. But it does ask you to do some work. It does ask you to look deeply at the documents and interactions, the situation as it were, of your own parish and your own parish council, and to think about what lies ahead and how do we meet what lies ahead and thrive and build up the church and spread the gospel for the glory of God?

Hollie Benton  19:49
Absolutely untp the glory of God. So we’ve talked today about boot camp for parish councils and nonprofit boards and I want to consider standing before the dread and terrible judgment seat of Christ. On that day when the Son of Man separates them one from another as he divides his sheep from the goats as we hear in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 25. So what does bootcamp for parish councils and nonprofit boards have to do with feeding the hungry, serving the thirsty, the stranger the naked and imprisoned by which we will be judged on the last day?

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  20:20
You’ve brought it full circle with that citation from Matthew, our life is about service. Why do we feed the hungry and serve the thirsty and visit the the imprisoned and the sick and clothe the net? Why do we do all of those things? The last sentence of each section of that reading, right, is in as much as you have done this for the least of my brethren, or at least done it for others, whoever is presented to you in your life. In as much as you’ve done this, you’ve done it for me. And if you haven’t, then you have neglected to do it for me. What that means is, we have either served or not served our Lord, to whom we owe our life. To whom we owe not just this life, but eternal life, for whom and by whom we were made. That lives out in our way of running our organization, whether it’s a nonprofit or parish, as clergy, and as lay leaders, that principle of service is lived out. If there is a core value of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative, and of the Doulos program, if you’re going to say, what is the one core value? I think it’s right there in the domain name of the organization, which is Orthodox servant leaders. As we’ve said, called to serve not so that we can be in charge,and have everybody say, Oh, look, what a great guy he is. He’s so nice to everybody. But to serve so that when we stand before the dread judgment seat, first of all, I think will be much too overcome to say anything in our own defense, we will be speechless before the throne of God. But the facts will speak for themselves.

Hollie Benton  22:18
That’s right, one key thing with all parish councils as they go to make decisions, asking the question, what would the Lord have us do? What would be his instruction for us? How does this decision stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ? And if our parish councils were to be more mindful of this, imagine how our parishes might thrive and extend mercy as the Lord our God has shown mercy to us.

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  22:43
What did you do with what I gave you? And is our answer going to be, “Well, actually, I chickened out?” A boot camp, and any sort of continuing education should always be, and boot camp certainly is, and the whole thrust of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative is, to give us courage so that we don’t chicken out. So that we take those talents and put them into service.

Hollie Benton  23:10
Amen! Thank you, Fr. Ian, for the great conversation today. So appreciate your partnership with the initiatives that we have through the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. Exciting to be serving with you and facilitating this boot camp for parish councils and nonprofit boards.

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  23:27
Well, thanks for having me. It’s been great fun talking, and I’m really looking forward to this boot camp and to meeting the folks who sign up who participate and to learning from them as we look at our call to serve.

Hollie Benton  23:40
Thank you, Father.

Fr. Ian Pac-Urar  23:41
Thanks for having me.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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