Who is a Parish Member?
by Fr. Alexander Garklavs
A yearly non-liturgical ritual in most OCA parishes is the mysterious evaluation of parish membership. It is a mysterious process simply because many people do not understand it. Often, there are disagreements. The person/people making the membership count have to explain why somebody does not qualify because of misunderstandings about the requirements. Sometimes people are surprised that their work and/or purchases at a parish bazaar don’t count for membership, or young people in their late twenties assume they qualify as “children” of existing members. Often there is a discrepancy between the number of parish members submitted to the OCA and diocese, for the purposes of calculating the annual assessment, and the number of parish members who qualify for voting at a parish’s annual meeting. Perhaps a few words about this would be helpful.
Parish membership for OCA and diocesan purposes
This is also called a “Parish Census” and is the amount of Orthodox people in a given parish who financially contribute to that parish, during the course of a year, in any significant amount, equal to or in excess of a minimum set by the parish. These “members” may or may not be regular partakers of the Sacraments, they may or may not even sign a pledge or membership card. For this reason the Parish Census has become a matter of controversy. Is a parish obliged to share with the OCA and a diocese a percentage of its income, received from parishioners who are not really parishioners (voting members)? The answer is “yes.” In fact, the OCA Statute clearly defines this (Article X, Section 6). But some further clarification is necessary.
The truthful determination of the Parish Census is an exercise in moral principles. A parish would not and could exist without the Church at-large, that is, the national Church and diocesan administration. An Orthodox Christian giving donations to a particular parish, may be doing just that, giving to a particular parish, with no thought about any “at large” level. However, the pastor and Parish Council have to understand that a percentage of such donations must go to the national Church and diocese. Can a city or country exist without a state or country? Do not their individual modes of existence depend inherently on each other’s welfare and on mutual trust? How much more is this the case within the Church. The parish is a community who existence is conditional. It is composed of parishioners, who are the constituents of the community, but its organization is completely dependent on a diocesan bishop, together with his diocesan administration, which in turn is dependent on a national Church, with its administration.
Parishioners who financially support the parish may or may not sign a “Pledge Card”, enroll as members, or even participate in Sacramental and liturgical life. This does not disqualify their status in the Parish Census. Whether they know it or not, and whether they want to accept it or not, the parish that they are donating to could not exist without the larger national and diocesan structures. If a particular parish feels moral hesitation in accepting money from such parishioners in the first place, then the OCA and diocese cannot be deprived of their respective portions. Therefore, the Parish Census, or Parish membership count as submitted to the OCA and diocese, is to be based on all Orthodox Christian persons in a parish that do contribute any significant amount (a guide here being the minimum amount set by the parish as pledge, dues, or whatever, which would include the minimum amounts for the OCA and diocese, as well as for the parish). The total of such membership is often larger than the parish membership who may vote at the Annual Meeting, but is almost never smaller. Generally, non-parishioners who come for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and contribute some kind of designated donation to a parish, are not included in the Parish Census. However, if they do contribute a substantial donation to the parish, in excess of the designated amount, they too should be included in the Census. Then too, some parishes require membership before sacramental and liturgical benefits can be offered; understandably these members would be included in the Parish Census.
Parish membership for purposes of voting at a Parish Annual Meeting
This is the number of Orthodox Christian adults who have made a serious spiritual and financial commitment to a parish and are willing and able to be involved in the decision-making of a parish. Such members, or members in good standing, or voting members, are defined by the OCA Statute (Article X, Section 5). In addition to the financial obligation, which in the case of parish voting members can occasionally be waived in cases of economic hardship there is, in all OCA parishes, another absolutely requirement. All parish voting members must fulfill a sacramental obligation. Usually, this means partaking in the Sacraments of Confession and Communion, in the home parish, at least once a year.
Should Parish Membership Seem So Legalistic?
Any serious and sincere Orthodox Christian will immediately feel some apprehension in reflecting on this. The requirement for being a voting member necessitates a committed spirituality, and spirituality, by definition, is not legalistic! We gain Jesus Christ, St. Paul says, not by righteousness based on law, but through the “righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9). Sacramental life in the Church, especially Confession and the Eucharist, is impossible without real repentance, real humility and real love. Only in this way can we presume to become members of His body, that is, parishioners of a Orthodox Christian community. We could say with categorical certitude (parish), that person’s only spiritual aim is to work together as the body (parish) grows and “upbuilds itself if love” (Eph. 4:16). The problem is: How to articulate this in official and juridical terms?
Our present OCA definition of parish-voting membership is a worthy attempt in doing what may be impossible. There is no question that this legal definition of parish, voting membership is absolutely necessary. Some kind of ideal, that includes a spiritual component, has to be expressed to prevent total administrative chaos. However, as every pastor and concerned parishioner is aware, the legal definition of parish membership is only a starting point.
A parish voting member implies that the parishioner is a responsible, repentant, honest and loving person. Such a person will always see it as his/her duty to grow in the sacramental and spiritual life in the Church. The spiritual life cannot be pursued by observance of some minimal regulations, and there can certainly never be any perfect achievement in this realm. Our ideal is, in a sense, ever-greater perfection since we are to be perfect as our “heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
Parish membership cannot be reduced to a formal fulfillment of stipulations. When one approaches membership as a legal culmination of requirements, there is bound to be spiritual and emotional instability at hand. It is a fact that, whenever people feel compelled to become voting parishioners simply to attend a meeting, it is not because of a spiritual yearning to commune with God, but to participate in or observe some kind of parish controversy. It actually happens that parish membership will increase will increase during times of instability and decrease when things are calm!
Increasing parish membership, in the legal sense, should never be regarded as the chief objective in Church life. Parish membership is but a start. The building up of a local Church community, to be a witness to the wonderful deeds of God with us, is the on-going task of parish members. Parish meetings and Parish Councils are but the means to that end, never ends in themselves. Spiritually healthy communities will naturally attract more spiritually healthy members. As parish members become “living temples of the Holy Spirit,” witnessing to eternal beauty and truth, the parish will see stability and growth. Membership in such a parish becomes an honorable and blessed experience, completely distinct from human sanctions, ambitions, and constraints.
(From Jacob’s Well – Winter, 1997)
[Fr. Alexander Garklavs is the pastor of Holy Trinity Church, East Meadow, NY.]