A Parish Restructured
By Fr. Paul Kucynda
Group Minsitry in an Orthodox Parish
The New Testament Origins Of Church Structure
Jesus said to St. Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)
Jesus chose the twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:1-4) as His first co-workers. As the number of His followers increased, He appointed seventy more people to go ahead of Him, two by two, into every town and place where He was about to come. (Luke 10:1) After His Resurrection and Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus Christ, who were called “People of the Way” (Acts 9:2) as well as Christians (Acts 11:26), grew in number. Again the multi-faceted work of the Church was distributed among its members. The Apostles committed themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word while the seven Deacons ministered to the practical needs of the developing Christian community (Acts 6:1-7).
In every century the Church has been challenged to seek appropriate ways to identify the needs of a given community. It has also been challenged to identify those whose spiritual gifts could be employed to meet these needs. The Church has been most effective when leaders and structures were selected that would best support the common life of the People of the Way as a dynamic spiritual movement in each locale at their time in history.
Our Parish’s Restructuring
A few years ago, we decided to review our life as a Christian community. Our review revealed that we were living in a way that could potentially foster competition or even division within our community. Our parish council, auditors, church school (both teachers and students), adult study group, choir, altar servers, readers and other groups were not perceived as integral parts of one whole. A unified self-perception was lacking.
We sought to involve more parishioners in our liturgical, educational, service and social activities. After much discussion and prayer, we established and developed our Parish Group Ministry Program.*
Our goal was to improve the liturgical, educational, service and social opportunities for all parishioners in an orderly and complimentary way. It was also an attempt to encourage more parishioners to dedicate more of their gifts and talents toward the building up of our parish community.
We commenced our restructuring by dividing our parish membership** into small groups based on age and possible commonalties. After collecting the necessary data for each parishioner, particularly their date of birth, the individual groups were established. Currently, our Group Ministry Program consists of eight age groups: 8-13; 14-18; 19-25; 26-31; 32-41; 42-55; 56-70 and 71+. Each group has an American Saint as their patron to remind us of our call to succeed our predecessors in the Faith in firmly planting Orthodoxy in our region of America.
Accountability To The Parish Council
The Group Ministry Coordinator is a member of the Parish Council and reports regularly to the Council concerning the Program. The Coordinator also chairs the Group Ministry team which consists of the six group Leaders as well as the adults who minister to our children and teens.
The need to quickly and efficiently communicate with all parishioners is important to the functioning of any parish. Occasions arise when it is necessary to inform parishioners of an unexpected hospitalization and request for prayer, the death and funeral arrangements for one of our parishioners, or the birth of a newborn, as well as to remind everyone of a specific event or mid-week Feast Day.
The Group Ministry is one of eleven Ministries currently coordinated and supported by our Pastor and Parish Council. The other Ministries are: Liturgical, Church Services, Education, Youth and Young Adult, Human Services, Outreach, Stewardship, Administration, Buildings and Grounds, and Finance.
The children who are younger than seven years of age are not formally included in this program. Currently music programs for toddlers to 4-year-olds and 5 to 7 year olds are offered by our Choir Director, and our church school program that begins with 4-year-olds serve as their peer groups.
The Group Ministry structure affords our parish the ability to contact our entire membership with important information by use of a telephone chain within an hour.
The telephone chain is initiated by a call from the Pastor to the Group Ministry Coordinator, conveying the necessary information. The Group Ministry Coordinator relays the information to the Group Leaders, who in turn contact the “Telephone Communicators.” Telephone Communicators are volunteers who assist the Group Leader by making calls to 5 to 7 parishioners each. An appropriate number of Telephone Communicators are pre-selected to efficiently reach all the parishioners within the Group Leader’s group.
The use of a telephone chain has provided our parish community with an added advantage by developing a bond between the Telephone Communicators and the people they call. Relationships developed in this way have become an unexpected gift for which we are thankful.
The Social Function Of The Group Ministry Program
Six of the groups have assumed responsibility for coordinating the Sunday Fellowship Hour that follows the Divine Liturgy. We have guest speakers during the year; the particular group serving as host for the month assumes responsibility for offering the hospitality.
Each group is also responsible for coordinating annually at least one parish-inclusive or outreach event aimed at strengthening our common life. Additionally, the groups are encouraged to schedule activities at the church, in homes or in restaurants that serve to strengthen the bond among the members of their group.
Outreach To Newcomers
When a newcomer decides to become a member of our parish, an announcement is made at the conclusion of a Sunday Divine Liturgy. As an expression of our thanks to God and our desire to share our community life with them, they are recognized and “Many Years” is sung congregationally.
At the Fellowship hour that follows, the new member is introduced to the Group Ministry Coordinator, who in turn introduces them to the Leader and members of the group most appropriate for them.
Our Group Ministry Program, especially in regard to the integration of new parishioners, has proven over the years to be very fruitful.
A wonderful outcome of our Group Ministry Program has been the establishment of our Enrichment Program. These are study groups consisting of four to ten people who gather either in homes or at our church on a weekly basis for periods of seven to ten weeks. While most of the groups meet on weekday evenings, groups have also been held during daytime hours. This especially has been helpful for parishioners who are available while their children are in school or who do not like to travel at night.
The facilitators for the Enrichment Program groups are competent and committed parishioners who work closely with the Group Ministry Coordinator and the Pastor. The Pastor, who ultimately is responsible for all parish education programs, selects materials appropriate for the groups. Groups often are given a choice of themes.
These study groups have proven effectual for integrating newcomers to our parish. In a wholesome and stimulating atmosphere, they can become a part of our community, get to know some parishioners rather well in a short period of time, and feel an essential bond that often determines how involved they will become in the future. Lasting friendships have developed that compare with the deep friendships that usually exist only while a parish is in its earliest stages of life.
As our parish has grown in age, with a constantly changing membership primarily due to job-related moves in and out of the area, it has been a challenge to maintain the closeness that is essential for a healthy parish. The study groups have given the participants an opportunity to know one another well enough to experience inclusivity and mutual support. We have found this to be especially important since most of our parishioners are scattered over a fifteen-mile radius of the church. This approach helps compensate for the absence of the fundamental support and interaction that would come naturally if we all lived within a few blocks of the church and each other.
Our Group Ministry Program has served our parish well. In spite of the constant number of people who move from the area and our parish each year, we have been able to integrate newcomers, experience a reasonable rate of growth, generate a high level of involvement and commitment, educate coming generations, and witness to the community about us. For this we are very honored and grateful.