Starting a Mission and Building a Parish
by Priest John Whiteford
following suggestions are going to fit best in a missionary situation
that is in urban or suburban America. The more rural the situation, the more other
factors would have to be weighed into the mix, and I can’t speak from
experience about that.
1. Starting from Scratch
generally takes at least three families (including the priest’s family)
to start a viable mission. This insight came from Matushka Ann Lardas,
but my experience and observation have found it to be true.
Orthodox parish needs a lot of basic liturgical items. When starting
off, you should talk to other clergy in the area and see if they have
any older items that they no longer use that they would be willing to
donate to you. You can make do with homemade versions of some items.
For example, a nice censer stand can cost several hundred dollars, but
you can make one by buying less than twenty dollars worth of matterials
from Home Depot. If you talk to priests who have started missions from
scratch, you can get many good ideas from them. You should also put a
wish list of items that you need on your parish web site. People who
want to make a one time donation, perhaps in memory of someone, often
like to buy something specific for a parish and donate it.
thing you should be cautious about at this stage: do not put yourself
in the position of having services in a location that is under the
control of a parishioner, but which has no lease. You may think that
beggars can't be choosers, but you may find yourself having the rug
pulled unexpectedly out from underneath you, if that parishioner becomes
disatisfied with your parish, and that might happen during Holy Week,
or at some other very inopportune time.
2. Be Patient
priest starting a mission has to be prepared to be patient, and to gut
it out over the long hall. There may be more than a few services that
are not attended by anyone other than your own family (and sometimes,
it may just be you), but you have to be persistent and not give up. It
can be frustrating, and disappointing. There may be many times in which
you ask yourself why you are wasting your time preparing for and doing
such services, but unless there is some other barrier in the way of
your parish growing, this will pass, if you don’t give up. Also, you
should keep in mind that services are primarily our service to God; not
a service for the people (though one hopes that the people come, and
benefit from it). God will always be there, if you will be. If you
remind yourself of that, you will never feel that a service to God is a
waste of time.
3. Having a Predictable, Dependable, and Full Liturgical Life
schedule of services has to be predictable and dependable. Matushka Ann
Lardas also said that people expect a parish to be like the light bulb
inside your refrigerator. When they open the door, they expect the light
to be on. And, for another example, someone may not want to ride a bus
system today or tomorrow, but when they do, they expect it to be
running, and on schedule. If you cancel a Sunday service, and some
family shows up and finds the doors locked, chances are good that they
will not make a second attempt. There may be occasions when cancelling
a service has to be done, but it should be very rare, and you should
communicate with as many people as possible
who might be coming, to avoid such things unnecessarily. And if you do
cancel a service, you should post a map to the nearest parish in the
area that will be having services, with a note telling whoever may be
showing up why the service at your parish was cancelled, and when
services will be held at the other parish.
should try as
much as possible to do a full cycle of services for Sundays, Feasts,
and other major commemorations of the Church year that are most
commonly observed on a parish level. Not all of these services will be
as well attended as you might wish, but over time, attendance will
improve, and this makes for a stronger community. When your Saturday
evening services are not well attended you might be tempted to just do
Vespers until you get bigger, but once you get people used to doing
Vespers only, it will become difficult to get them used to doing a full
Vigil in a parish should normally
not be more than about 2 ½ hours, though sometimes it will be because of the
particular commemoration. I first heard this rule of thumb from Archbishop Gabriel (Chemodakov), but have
also heard other bishops such as Archbishop Alypy (Gamanovich)
comment along similar lines. Also, if you follow standard Russian
parish practice, that is about how long the Vigil will be. Trying
to do the services like an Athonite
monastery will keep people from attending, because of the difficulty.*
However, cutting down the services to the minimum robs people of the
chance to experience the beauty of the services, or find their
*I am aware of some parishes that do much
longer Vigils, that are very well attended, and so can't say that it is
impossible to make that work, but I think for the average parish,
striving to just be a normal parish (by historical, and pious
standards) is probably what most missions should shoot for.
4. The Stages of Development
further your parish is from having a nice building and a full
liturgical life, the harder it will be for you to attract new members.
And so, if you are having reader services in someone’s home, it will be
very slow going. If you start having a regular liturgy in a home, that
will help, but it will still be relatively difficult to get the average
person interested in coming. When you get into a store front location,
or get the use of some portion of some other Church for services, that
will make a big difference, because then it looks like there is at
least the beginnings of a serious mission. And at each step in the
process of getting into a nice free standing Church, with a full
liturgical life, and a good choir, you will see the rate of growth
accelerate. At each stage, you need to build up the critical mass of
people and money to make the leap to the next stage, but generally it
will get easier with each leap.
If, however, you experience a
set back in your mission, it is only fatal, if you give up as a result,
unless the set back is of an extremely serious nature. Again, patience
and determination will normally win out in the long run.
5. Limiting Factors
growth will be limited by the smallest capacity of your worship space,
fellowship space, and your parking. You may have a very large
fellowship space, and a large worship space, but if your parking lot
can only accommodate 30 people, that is about as big as you will get
until you expand it. And the same goes if your worship space can only
handle 30 people, though you have a huge hall and parking lot. And this
is also true if you have a huge Church and parking lot, but can only
handle 30 people in your fellowship space.
When you get to about
80 percent of your maximum capacity, you will see growth level off, and
then fluctuate up and down, but on average, it will stay about 80
percent. When you reach that point, you either need to expand, or begin
thinking about starting another parish. Remember, everything that is
living, is either growing or dying.
6. Be Welcoming
someone visits your parish, and they walk out of the service without
anyone saying hello to them, there is a good chance they will not be
back. It is best if someone takes them under their wings, and
guides them, especially if they are not Orthodox. It is also best if
you have some system for following up with those visitors after they
You should make a point of welcoming children, and
encouraging your people to be welcoming of children too. In our
anti-child culture, many people do not like to be around children, but
a parish without children is a parish that will soon die off. It is
good to express your happiness that small children are present from
time to time, and remind them of this undeniable truth about our need
for the "inconvenience" of children.
a meal (trapeza) after the liturgy is a key way to build fellowship in
your community. After a Liturgy, when people have fasted, if you want
them to stay and visit, you need to have something to satisfy their
hunger. You do not have to have a seven course meal. It could be soup
and bread, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and coffee, but it
needs to at least tie them over until they can eat a fuller meal
later. In an urban American context, there really is not going to
normally be another time when your people can get to know each other.
It does require work, but people will look forward to it, and will feel
like they belong to a real parish family.
8. Have a Plan
out a plan for growth. Think about where you want your parish to be
when it is full grown. Then lay out the steps between where you are,
and where you want to be and set realistic goals for growth. People
will surprise you with what they will do to make things happen when
they see a plan, and get excited about where things are going. On the
otherhand, if you shoot for nothing, you will hit the target everytime.
you get to the point where your parish can seriously begin looking for
property to buy, talk to clergy who have bought property in recent
years, and get their advice. There are a lot of expensive lessons that
can either be learned the hard way, or learned from other people's
experience. Generally, you will find that you will have a lot fewer
regulatory hurdles outside of a municipality. Sometimes crossing a
county line will make a huge difference in how hard it will be to
develop a piece of property. Inside of a city, you may be better off
trying to buy an existing Church building. In either case, buying
property that has an existing structure that can be used for services,
at least initially, is a good idea, because buying the property alone
is hard enough. Building a new building right off the bat is probably
more than a small parish can afford, and you don't want to have a new
property that you can't make any use of for several years.
not even begin to talk about parish dues. Encourage your people to
tithe. Dues systems focus on a minimal amount of financial support, and
that is generally what they manage to get. Define a parish member in
your by-laws as someone who is in good standing with the Church,
financially supports the Church (without defining a dollar amount, or a
percentage), and trust that your people will step up to the plate. You
shouldn’t have to beat the drum on this, but just like you should not
be afraid to preach against fornication or stealing, you should not be
afraid to let your people know that the Church not only wants us to
tithe, but wants us to try to do much more than that as we are able;
but tithing is Biblical, it is consistent with the teachings of the Fathers on the subject,
and it is a good goal for everyone to shoot for, until they are able to
go beyond it. I would also encourage a parish to not set a price
on candles, or prosphora, but just have a donation box and let people
donate what they will. This encourages tithing, and sacrificial
offerings, rather than keeping the focus on a minimal amount that
someone should feel obligated to pay. I know that parishes that have a
long history of these things have a hard time imagining how this works,
and maybe in such situations change should move very slowly, but if you
institute these things at the beginning of a mission’s life, you will
be way ahead in the long run.
10. Letting People Know You are There
should have a good sign out in front of your Church that tells people
how to get in touch with you, and when you normally have services. That
should go without saying, but I have seen many parishes that did not
have even this minimal level of advertising. If someone wanted to visit
their parish, it would be difficult for them to know how. But since
they may not even know that your parish is a Christian Church, much
less Orthodox, how would a person from the outside even know if they might want to visit?
a good parish web site is crucial. The main thing your web site needs
to communicate is how to get to your parish, and when the services are
held. That information should be very easy to find. It is also good to
have information about life in the parish, pictures of events,
information about who can commune, links to information about the
Orthodox Faith, etc.
Having a parish blog can also be useful.
For one thing, it is free. It is easier to update, if you don’t know
how to edit web pages, and your blog can help drive traffic to your web
Having a parish e-mail list is also very useful. It allows
for you to keep people updated on what is going on, even if they are
not attending regularly at the time. Yahoo groups is free, and makes
setting up such a group very easy.
It is also a good idea to
have occasional events that you invite the larger (non-Orthodox)
community to, to let them know that you exist, and give them a
non-threatening opportunity to walk in the doors and ask questions.
Such events can range from yard sales, icon exhibits, choral concerts,
guest speakers, cookouts, etc.
You should also get to know the
other Orthodox clergy and parishes in your area. It helps strengthen
your community to have fellowship with them; and if they know you, when
people ask about your parish, they will have some basis for answering
"Thoughts on New Orthodox Missions," by Richard Barrett
"Building a Liturgical Library: Some Practical Tips," by Priest John Whiteford
If you have some suggested additions to this article, please e-mail me and let me know.
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