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Letter from Syosset

Rumour has it the East Norwich Inn, the site of so many OCA Metropolitan Council meetings, being a hour from New York City, was built with the dual purpose of suburban North Shore motel and emergency command bunker. The meeting rooms are all undergound and windowless while the massive amounts of steel in the building make cell phones useless. The greatest immediate danger facing members of the Metropolitan Council of the OCA, therefore, is not being phased out of existence in a new Strategic Plan, but being struck by cars by having to go out into the middle of the street to find a signal, or freezing to death in the parking lot after you get one.

On the other hand “Can you hear me now?” is a pretty good tagline to describe the recent three-day meeting in Syosset. The Synod was asking that of the Council, the Council asking the same question of the Synod, and the Staff was asking both. Phones may not work well in the bunkers the OCA presently finds itself in, both physically and figuratively, but I am pleased to report that face to face meetings are paying off. The Lesser Synod, which now meets with the Council, has not so much reigned the Council in, as joined the discussion in a reciprocal manner. They offer counsel as to what won’t fly with the bishops; the Council lets the Synod know what is DOA in terms of finances and legal matters. It is messy; but it is conciliar, and ever so much more open, transparent, accountable, efficient, better and just plain more human and Christian than the old system under either Kondratick or +Herman.

Which brings me to one of the central events of the MC meeting last week: hearing the report on the year-long investigation into St. Tikhon’s monastery and bookstore. The Synod called for the investigation; the new Metropolitan choose the Committee members (which included current and former MC members, among others). The Report that resulted, therefore, belonged to the Synod - not the MC. We were given first look at it “as a courtesy”, since the Synod is not scheduled to meet until next week. It was a courteous gesture, and much appreciated, since the Report really was fresh off the press: it had been finalized and printed only two days earlier. I am not able to write much about the Report, as it was discussed in Executive Session, until it is released. I will say this, however, without revealing any confidences. Anyone who was familiar with St. Tikhon’s monastery and bookstore in the past 28 years already knows the who, when ,where and why. The Report deals mainly with what and how.

Personally, I have every confidence the Synod will release the Report in full, as everyone understands that not to do so would seriously undermine the credibility of the Metropolitan and the Synod even as they seek to move beyond the scandals of his two predecessors, and their former members. What everyone wants to avoid is the impression, let alone the reality, of   “New Faces - Same Old Hats”.

Other central events during the three day meeting included a day-long review of the Strategic Plan. Not that there is a plan yet - the Committee is laying the theological and ecclesiological basis of the OCA’s mission and vision. They will then go out to the Church, through the dioceses, to elicit more input and specific recommendations for action items later this year. Once again the Committee asked that the papers not be distributed as they are “a work in progress” and publication now would unnecessarily complicate issues as things are being thrashed out in expanding concentric circles of responsibility. The bottom line is that lots of work has been done - and after Tuesday last, lots of work remains. (One of the most poignant and pregnant contributions was by Fr. Michael Oleksa, whose comments at the meeting are published today on as a reflection. Pay special attention to the parts I bolded - these were the gist of his actual comments at the meeting, and they produced intriguing reactions among many. )

Some may ask: Why this process is even important? The answer is simple: as the OCA seeks in a conciliar way to plan its future, the Strategic Plan’s vision and mission statement will be the reference point to which all our intended programs, projects, ministries and structures will emanate from - and should point back to for funding. In short, if it ain't in our mission or vision, it ain't going to be funded...

Of course legal issues took a great deal of time; although it appears, as the Metropolitan’s apology to Kristi Koumentakos, published last Friday evidences, one issue may be drawing to a close. Bishop Benjamin was also able to report that the “Heartbreak of Soraich” was ending during his explanation of the Alaskan Lands issues. (The troublesome former Bishop of Alaska currently resides in Las Vegas, although he is not allowed to attend OCA parishes in either the Diocese of the West or Alaska. He is attending services at the Serbian Church.) Robert Kondratick continues his assault on the Church through two lawsuits totalling over $26 million, although he remains the administrator of the OCA parish in Venice, FL.

Go figure.

Finally, the Alaskan lands question, which Bishop Nikolai made into a cause celebre in 2004 and has bedeviled auditors of the OCA ever since, took major steps towards resolution about who owns what. I sincerely hope someone publishes that spreadsheet one day  (Are you listening, Alaska?) because it graphically illustrates life in Orthodox Alaska in a way no prose could. Church lands are being used for everything from canneries to village airstrips - and worship, of course. Alas, there is no oil. Our Russian  Forefathers in the Faith wanted seals and souls, not minerals, drat it all....

A balanced budget for 2010 was approved. No small feat that -and credit must go to the finance committee led by Fr. Matthew Tate and the new OCA Treasurer, Ms. Melanie Ringa. If being a parish Treasurer is a thankless task, and a diocesan treasurer an even less thankless task, being chairman of the OCA budget committee and OCA Treasurer as it struggles out of scandal, in the face of the greatest recession in American history, is really a cross to bear.

There are now six employees in Syosset, and three part-time employees. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the Metropolitan does not spend a great deal of time in Syosset with them. It was his goal to move the Chancery to Washington DC, as he has already chosen to relocate there personally. (The Metropolitan now resides in a rented home next door to the Washington Cathedral while a house, which is owned by the Cathedral, is renovated for his future use as the diocesan bishop.) In its previous meeting the Metropolitan Council had voted against giving the $50,000 requested to support the Metropolitan’s personal move to DC. The Metropolitan then instructed the Strategic Planning Committee to constitute a sub-committee to investigate the costs of moving the administration from New York to DC at a future date. At this meeting the Metropolitan Council decided that, given our current financial situation, this issue was not a prudent use of our member’s limited time. The Chancery is going to stay in Syosset for the foreseeable future, even if the Metropolitan personally chooses not to live there.

Much of the time of the Council was given over to reports from various policy and procedural committees that look, on paper, mind-numbingly boring at first glance, such Council Development, Internal Audit (Governance), Charity, Ethics, Crisis Management, Human Resources, and the like. But such actions are vital to the growth of the Council as a governing - and accountable - body. We are learning how to do this right, friends, because we must to regain trust if we are to move forward on solid ground. And if we ever tire of it, or question it, or dismiss it, we just have to look over our shoulder at the past 5 years and ask if we want to repeat them again, and again, and again....

Not that the MC is full of angry, bitter, backward-looking people. Quite the contrary. Half of the members are new, and probably two thirds have been in place for only a year or so. This is a group anxious to do better so as to help move Orthodoxy forward. Given the challenges to the OCA as evidenced by the new Episcopal Assemblies required by the Chambesy process, it is a process we dare not avoid. What those Chambesy challenges will mean to the OCA, if anything, was a topic for a most interesting discussion.

Speaking of the future of the OCA, I found the preliminary plans for holding the 16th All-American Council in Seattle, WA October 31-November 4, 2012 very exciting. (Full disclosure: I was born, raised, studied in Seattle - and return there to visit family several times a year.)  This will be the first AAC to be held west of the Mississippi, not counting the 1988 AAC which was held in St. Louis, which is on the Mississippi, not really West of it. It rains in Seattle, but this facility is entirely under roof (it is attached to a great Mall with loads of restuarants and museums) and there are skybridges everywhere. A pre-conciliar commission was established to begin the process of planning the event, complete with Pan-Orthodox liturgies, Native Alaskan Orthodox dance troupes....not to mention the very real possibility for those who wish to visit Sitka after the Council.

The draft minutes of the Metropolitan Council, and all its decisions, will be published on the OCA website as soon as they are reviewed by the Synod, and corrected by the Council.

-Mark Stokoe




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