When did America's Orthodox Christians become such conflict junkies? Sure, controversy has been part of the Church since her earliest days. Acts 15 describes a dispute that dwarfs any disagreement that the contemporary Church faces. By all accounts, the discussions at the Ecumenical Councils were often animated and even confrontational. But the drama that developed at these events emanated from the profundity of the issues, not the peevishness of the participants.
Today, many persons with diverging opinions in the Church behave more like divorcing celebrities than like the Apostles in Jerusalem or the Saints in Nicea. It's not enough to disagree with a hierarch-an entire website must be dedicated to his destruction. Candidates for parish council run on the platform of "putting the priest in his place." Teens like to hang out in the back of the church hall during parish assemblies because "the fights are really cool."
In the absence of a hullabaloo we invent problems. Pastors of growing churches are "bringing in too many outsiders." If the priest and parish council president are friends, it can only mean one thing: "They are concocting a conspiracy." When the clergy and parish council have a good working relationship there is an obvious reason: "Father is a control freak and a puppet master."
Why are so many churchgoing folk spoiling for a fight? Perhaps they come to church for the wrong reasons. Possibly unresolved psychological issues are to blame. Maybe they suffer from the same tribalism that has enthralled humanity since the first time a caveman discovered the satisfaction that comes from splitting open the skull of a member of a rival clan.
Whatever the reason, the polemics that pollute the atmosphere of our parishes is slowly killing us. Church conflict creates lots of collateral damage: Priests leave the ministry. Pious laypeople shy away from leadership positions. Communities atrophy, putrefy and then petrify. For those of us who are tired of the pettiness and verbal combat, here's a simple roadmap to peace in our parishes.
Abandon the Notion of Constituencies
St. Paul condemned the formation of parties in the Church and even urged Titus to reject factious men. This is good advice for today. Splitting the Church into groups serves only the evil one.
Sometimes the divisiveness is well-intentioned but misguided. The chairman of one parish's nominating committee reported proudly to his priest that So-and-So had agreed to run for the parish council. In the chairman's eyes this was a good thing because this candidate could represent all of the "religious" people of the community. The chairman's goal was to recruit nominees that "represent all agendas in the parish."
There's only one agenda that matters in the Church: grow the Body of Christ numerically and spiritually and help people in need.
No Secret Meetings
There should be no meeting to which the priest is not invited and of which the parish council is unaware-period. Gatherings outside of the normal chain-of-command undermine the authority of the church's leadership and polarize the parish. There is nothing innocuous about a "special" budget committee meeting that is really a secret budget committee meeting. Rallies of "parishioners for truth" in the back room of a bar are anything but benign. Bypassing the chain-of-command without consulting the parish council and priest hits the community with an ecclesiastical sucker punch.
Deal Directly with People
The Bible models communication that is simple, honest, and direct. If an adult has a beef with another adult, the two should speak face-to-face, not through a third party. In order to hate someone we must first objectify him. Talking man-to-man (or woman-to-woman) derails this process.
One of the dads in my parish told me about something that happened at his home the other night. His wife and older son were exchanging cross words. He jumped in (rather ungracefully), and before Dad knew it he was yelling. The whole thing lasted less than three minutes, and afterward all three apologized. Their younger son was up in bed and became very upset with the fussing. Dad called him downstairs.
"Look, son," he said, "In families we sometimes disagree with each other and even hurt one another's feelings. We might raise our voices. But here's what you need to know. People can disagree and still love one another. The three of us have already forgiven one another and we're getting on with the evening. You see, we all want the best for one another and for the family. I pray that one day you and your own wife and children will deal with conflict in the same way. This is what happens in healthy families."
Come to think of it, this is what happens in healthy churches too.
Rev. Aris P. Metrakos is the pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is frequent retreat leader and speaker for both teens and adults. Prior to attending seminary, Fr. Aris was an aviator for the US Navy. He travels annually to Romania to help the Romanian Orthodox Church establish ministries for Romanian youth. You can contact Fr. Aris at FrMetrakos@orthodoxytoday.org.