Address of His Beatitude, Metropolitan HERMAN to the 2008 Spring Session of the Metropolitan Council
Chancery of the Orthodox Church in America Syosset, New York
March 31 - April 2, 2008
Venerable Fathers, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Members of the Metropolitan Council:
Yesterday we celebrated the Sunday of the Holy Cross. We lift the Cross up as our symbol of victory, a mark of the great triumph of life over death. However, we would be negligent if we did not also recognize that the Cross was an instrument of the Passion. “Through the Cross, joy has come into the world,” we sing at Pascha. It is not instead of a Cross that we find joy, but through the Cross. As we gather for this meeting of the Metropolitan Council, we will discuss issues that are challenging and difficult. We must look at these as part of the Cross of service that we chose to take up in our positions of Church leadership. As difficult as our work might be, we must work diligently, in good faith, always mindful that on the other side of the Cross is a joy that cannot be taken away from us.
We also note that today was the Feast of the Repose of Our Father among the Saints, Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow, Enlightener of the Aleuts and Apostle to the Americas. St. Innocent, one of the heavenly patrons of our Orthodox Church in America, was an exceptional missionary, teacher, pastor and bishop. His life and work in Alaska planted evangelical seeds that have produced an abundant harvest. Even today, we profit from his accomplishments and legacy. Together with our other heavenly intercessors, Saints Herman, Jacob, Alexis, Peter the Aleut, Juvenaly, Tikhon and Raphael, St. Innocent continues to guide us through the stormy seas of life unto the blessed way into the Kingdom of God.
Before we continue, I would like to take time to remember the newly-departed servant of God, Archpriest Eugene Vansuch, who was taken from us so unexpectedly last week. Fr. Eugene was a tireless worker in the Lord’s Vineyard as a pastor, an educator, and an administrator. He was no stranger to the Metropolitan Council, many of us worked with him during his many years of service to the Orthodox Church in America. His efforts demonstrated that he was indeed a wise and faithful steward of His God-given talents. May we follow this example, and may Fr. Eugene’s memory be eternal.
On our agenda are a number of issues requiring thoughtful discernment. During the course of our meeting we will have time to discuss them in detail; however, I want to begin by highlighting a few of the items that we will address.
DIOCESE OF ALASKA
Our Agenda, which was prepared before the meeting of the Holy Synod last Thursday, had already listed a “Report on the Diocese of Alaska.” At that time, following a meeting of the Lesser Synod of Bishops at which His Grace, Bishop Nikolai was placed on a leave of absence, I had assigned the Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America, Archpriest Alexander Garklavs, to be the Administrator of the Diocese of Alaska and I instructed him to travel to Alaska on my behalf. At the meeting on March 27, the Holy Synod took additional action on the situation in the Diocese of Alaska. His Eminence, Archbishop Nathaniel and His Grace, Bishop Tikhon of Eastern Pennsylvania, will be going to Alaska during this week as members of a Synodal Committee to look into the complaints and allegations that we have received from that Diocese. Their report and recommendations will be presented to the full Holy Synod at the meeting scheduled for May 13 - 15 of this year. I realize that the situation in the Diocese of Alaska has become a concern for many of our clergy and faithful. Be assured that, whatever the appearances may be, the Holy Synod is proceeding in a manner that is spiritual, canonical and appropriate.
The 2007 Financial report prepared by our Treasurer, Priest Michael Tassos, is the most extensive and detailed that we have had in our Church in many years, and perhaps ever. This demonstrates the tremendous benefit of having a Certified Public Accountant in charge of our books. Many hours of work went into sorting out the 2007 financial records and we now have a much clearer vision of where we stand. Not all of the news in Fr. Michael’s report will be easy to hear. Let us take the more difficult points as motivators to reflect on our priorities and reevaluate how we conduct our affairs as a Church. This sober vision of our financial situation is long overdue. I welcome and encourage the discussion that our Financial Report will elicit.
The major legal issue faced by our Church since the last session of the Metropolitan Council is the lawsuit brought against the Church by Elizabeth Kondratick, wife of the former OCA Chancellor, Robert S. Kondratick. The ad hoc legal committee that was formed last January, together with the Chancery’s administrative team, have been working with our retained legal counsel on forming a response to the suit. I am grateful to Archpriest Mark Sherman, Mr. William Peters and Mr. Gregory Nescott for agreeing to sit as members of the ad hoc legal committee, working on behalf of the Metropolitan Council. Their insights have been invaluable and have demonstrated the importance of such input as we address legal matters that will face the Church.
At this meeting we will also hear a report on the search for General Legal Counsel for the Orthodox Church in America. The Search Committee has reviewed the numerous candidates for this position and I am confident that they have applied the highest level of discernment in the selection of a short list of applicants for this important position. We now look forward to their recommendation of an attorney to serve as legal counsel for the OCA. For their work on the Search Committee, I want to thank in particular Metropolitan Council members, Fr. Matthew Searefoorce and Gregory Nescott, who worked hand in hand together with the other Committee members.
The administrative team at the Chancery has worked with diligence and great effort to meet the management needs of the Church’s central administration. This is not an easy task at any time, but is now more difficult than ever. They work with an extremely scaled down staff. They willingly take on numerous and varied responsibilities, from making management decisions to driving guests to and from airports. Furthermore, they conduct their duties in the face of much scrutiny and, from some quarters, skepticism.
Adding more weight to their load is the fact that the four-person administrative team is not yet complete. This situation, however, will now be short-lived. At this meeting we will review a candidate for the position of Secretary of the Church. I believe that the candidate selected from among the applicants is well suited for the Secretary’s position, with the proper skills and experience necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of this important Church office. I hope that with the endorsement of the Metropolitan Council, followed by that of the Holy Synod, we will see our new Secretary begin working at the Chancery in the near future.
Fr. Michael Tassos, has informed me of his need to travel back to California to tend to personal matters with his family. His responsibilities as a husband and a father should not take second priority to his work for the Church, and I offer him my prayerful support of his decision. Fr. Michael has assured me that he will still be able to look after his duties as Treasurer while in California. I know that he has taken care to ensure that the day-to-day financial affairs of the Chancery are tended to responsibly and he has trained qualified personnel to work with him to this end. We are very grateful for the work that Fr. Michael is doing for our Church and it is my hope that we will soon be seeing him, together with his family, return to the New York area.
With Fr. Michael in California, we are left with only two administrative team members at the Chancery until the new Secretary begins work. To assist with the daily administrative duties until the new Secretary joins the staff, I have given my blessing to Deacon John Zarras to function in a volunteer, part-time position at the Chancery, supporting Fr. Alexander, Fr. Andrew Jarmus and Fr. Michael. Deacon John’s familiarity with Chancery operations makes him an excellent resource for this work. I anticipate that we will require his assistance only for a matter of weeks, as we transition in our new Secretary.
15TH ALL-AMERICAN COUNCIL
The Preconciliar Commission, Chaired by His Grace, Bishop Nikon, has taken on the critical task of planning the upcoming All-American Council this November. Every effort is being made to ensure that the Council is carried out in a spirit that is conducive to healing and to building a solid foundation for the future growth of our Church. Time will be taken to discuss the scandal that has taken up so much of our attention and energy since the last All-American Council. However, as critical as it is to address this matter, we must not allow ourselves to become paralyzed by it. We must learn from the past, and there are valuable lessons to learn from the events of recent years about accountability, transparency and servant leadership. However, learning from the past, we must not live in it. A good pastor would thus encourage a parishioner who had experienced a traumatic moment in his or her life. This must also be the advice that we follow as a Church. We do not know what the future will bring. But it is my hope that when people look back at the 15th All-American Council they will be able to say that it was a milestone on the road to healing and revitalizing our Church life.
SPECIAL INVESTIGATIVE COMMITTEE
At this meeting we will also hear updates on the work of the Special Investigative Committee. I am very grateful to His Grace, Bishop Benjamin and all the members of the Special Investigative Committee for their continued work. They are laboring diligently and are leaving no stone unturned. As I mentioned in my letter to His Grace, no individual is to be considered off limits in their work and they are to follow the information they uncover to wherever it will lead. I myself was to meet with the Committee for an interview last week, but those plans were preempted by the funeral of Fr. Eugene Vansuch. My interview with the Special Investigative Committee will be rescheduled in the near future.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
The events of recent years have been very hard, indeed. However, all things are under God’s providential care and even crises can be for our salvation. The scandal that has rocked the OCA has compelled us to take a serious look at ourselves and our Church life. We have raised some very serious and important questions about our structure and the allocation of our resources. One item of our agenda will be discussion of strategic planning for the Church. I believe that this work is very necessary. Let us take the hard lessons that we have learned in our recent past and apply them to building a stronger Church body that shows greater fidelity to the Mission that our Lord has set before us: to build up His Church in North America.
Dear Venerable Fathers, and brothers and sisters: the eyes of many look to the leadership of the Orthodox Church in America at this time. Some look expecting to see failure, fault and “business as usual.” Others look hopefully, giving us the opportunity to demonstrate the sincerity of our desire to turn a corner in our Church’s life. Much has been accomplished in a short time, even since our last meeting in the fall of 2007. However, our work is far from over. In some ways it has only just begun.
It is most important that we stay focused on creating an atmosphere where people feel that they can trust their leaders to carry out their responsibilities with good will in the most responsible manner possible. We seek to create an environment where those in authority see their positions as acts of service and not as places of privilege. This work will not be demonstrated by words. A tree is known by the fruit that it bears and it is our actions that will show the sincerity and authenticity of our efforts.
May we fulfill our duties over the coming days “with one heart and one mind,” always open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit who grants us wisdom and reveals to us the Will of God for our Holy Orthodox Church in America.