The Open Door

By Fr. Daniel Kovalak

As we draw near to Orthodoxy’s Bicentennial in America (1993-1994), the reality is that most Americans still think of the local Orthodox parish as a ‘closed ethnic community.’ Frequently, we ourselves are guilty of fostering this perception by inviting our community ONLY to parish dinners and ethnic festivals. Such events are, however, increasingly taking on aspects of evangelization as church tours are offered in conjunction with them. “Neighbors” are invited to come into the church and see it, perhaps for the first time. Though this is encouraging and should continue, there are other options available to us in witnessing to our local communities besides a possible, infrequent “Everyone Welcome” in our advertisements for worship services.


Those truly interested in ‘seeing your church’ are more than likely already affiliated with a local non-Orthodox congregation. This means they’re already, at least to some degree, committed on Sunday mornings. Others who hold the ‘closed ethnic community’ perception will continue in their perception unless YOU take the initiative to inform them otherwise. The logic here, then, would dictate that if you provide a non-Sunday opportunity not only to visit the church, but to see it in action, and publicize it as such, that those interested would be more likely to respond.


Before proceeding further, it is necessary to denounce ‘the numbers games’, the idea that just because you open your doors, people will come in droves. Additionally, the local parish may fear that they will give an unfavorable impression to visitors if a ‘full house’ of parishioners is not present to welcome them at such an event. Our Blessed Lord, Who taught us to leave the 99 in search of the one, has promised His Divine Presence “where two or three are gathered.” Too often, we allow ‘the numbers game’ to inhibit the planning of any such programs. If ONE person responds, the event is a success! Another ‘pair of eyes’ has seen the church. Another (hopefully, favorable) impression of the local parish has been planted. Another voice in the community can say to their family and friends, “I was there and. ...”!


It is simply a special, community-oriented opportunity for people to visit the church, and anything and everything that this “visit” might imply. Though numerous options exist, the following relates our parish experience.


1) DAY AND TIME: Select a day and time when there are no parish’ conflicts in scheduling. Do NOT attempt to ‘piggy-back’ the event with e.g. Ladies Auxiliary Meeting, holy day Vespers, etc. Let the event stand on its own! The priest must be available and willing to participate together with at least a few parishioners (Council members?) who need simply to be present, answer questions, and distribute handouts. Limit the duration to about one hour and publicize it as such. (This will already begin to change community perception which popularly holds ‘those people stand for three hours!’)

2) PUBLICITY: Advertise the event through weekly bulletins, the monthly newsletter and bulletin boards. Submit a news release to the local newspaper about ten days prior to the event. Place a modest display advertisement in the newspaper. (This will cost, but it’s worth it.) An ad can run as late as the day prior to the event.

3) HANDOUTS: Pamphlets can be obtained from numerous sources to have AVAILABLE for visitors. The local parish, however, should generate and distribute its very own pamphlet relating to the event, (sample enclosed) This should include a brief pastoral message of welcome, schedule of services, listing of parish activities and what visitors can DO at this particular event besides look around’.

4) PROGRAM: In the programs sponsored by our parish, we have invited visitors (1) simple to pray and light a candle, (2) participate in an Akathist service, and (3) pray for peace. During the Persian Gulf war, we distributed the petitions and prayers we used in our regular services. The priest is present and available for questions, yet offers no formal talk. In some programs, people walked in and out after looking around (and there was no ‘pressure’ to do otherwise). In other programs, people sat down to talk seriously about their faith. People are invited to complete a visitor’s care and be included on our parish mailing list. Monthly newsletters continue to stir their interest. A Coffee Hour was held with one program allowing informal socializing with parishioners and others who attend.

The variations on the “OPEN DOOR” Program are endless! The cost and effort are minimal - the potential benefits great. It will help create a better community awareness of who we are and, at the same time, enlighten Us as to how we are perceived in the community. Further, it provides our Parishioners with another opportunity to Do what we invite visitors to do; come together in the church-into the Divine Presence. Since we began holding these events, people have been asking, “When’s the next one?” Parishioners have personally invited their friends (and have been present to great them!). Our most successful event added five people to our mailing list and brought two back for a Sunday liturgy. “Seed-planting” - that’s what the OPEN DOOR is all about. Try it and see!

Fr. Daniel Kovalak is the pastor of Holy Cross Church, Williamsport, PA. He presently serves also as Co-Coordinator of the OCA’s Commission on Strategic Planning. “The Open Door”