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New Jersey Town Hall Held

An OCA Town Hall meeting was held August 2, 2008 at Sts. Peter & Paul Orthodox Church in South River, NJ, attended by some sixty persons. The Synod of Bishops was represented by His Beatitude, Metropolitan +Herman, with Fr. Andrew Jarmus (OCA Communications Director) facilitating, assisted by Fr. Eric Tosi (OCA Secretary).

The meeting was opened by Fr. Jarmus who posed three general questions:

• "How has the scandal affected you?"

• "What is the best-case scenario for the OCA at this time?"

• "How can we translate our concerns into specific action items to be considered at the All-American Council?"

The first speaker was Matushka Mariam Vernak of Christ the Saviour parish in Paramus, NJ, who read a prepared statement. (Read that statement here).

There followed several other speakers:

• lay woman suggested that the Church is regressing and not progressing. There has been much turmoil in the history of Orthodoxy in America, and she cited numerous items going back decades. "We need to use English in the Church and we need more and better leadership."

• Another laywoman spoke: My family converted to Orthodoxy in 1984. "The scandal doesn't touch my faith. But we are called to the royal priesthood and to be a missionary church." It's imperative that all is resolved ASAP. Legal action must be taken. We are not to be drawn into hypocrisy and decadence of the secular world - yet, all that has transpired is hypocrisy and decadence. Do what is right - unlike the world at large.

• Fr. Paul Shafran, the retired rector of St. Vladimir's, Trenton, NJ stated: Comments online about this situation are very disturbing to me. "Are we Christians or Bolsheviks?" All the anger being vented leads to a feeding frenzy. The time has come to move ahead and be constructive, not destructive.We must forgive the mistakes of the past and move forward. We will always have problems in the Church, but we must proceed with faith, hope and love. I hope for an honest report in September, and that we can all forgive each other for our misdeeds.

• A layman continued that thought: I hope for a fair and honest Special Investigative Committee (SIC) report. There should be a criminal investigation to resolve all the issues. The only way to resolve things like this scandal is through forensic investigations. Fraud allegations jeopardize the OCA's tax-exempt status. We can avoid public investigation and prosecution and a disaster with a fair and honest self-policing. "I call upon those guilty of fraud to confess and repent." They should then turn themselves in to become state's witnesses in the eventual criminal prosecution(s).

(Until this point, Metropolitan +Herman, who was seated in the front pew of the Church, had stared straight ahead, without expression. At the mention of the word 'fraud', though, the Metropolitan turned halfway around in his seat, looked at the speaker, as if listening intently.)

Fr. Jarmus responded: "The SIC will present its report by early September. The Holy Synod and Metropolitan Council will meet in joint session from September 3 to 5 to review the report (among other matters). The report will also be made public at that time."

• Fr. Sergius Kuharsky, retired pastor of Sts. Peter & Paul, South River NJ, stated that involving the criminal court system is to be avoided, as canons stipulate that the Church should stay separate from the state as much as possible. The OCA needs to solve its own problems and has its own ways of dealing with these kinds of issues.

• A layman stated: "The problems in the Church have had no real impact on my life." Most disappointing is that there was no watchdog organization to oversee Church affairs.

Fr. John Shimchick (Holy Cross parish, Medford NJ) then offered a statement that began:

"'The reality of Christianity is this: the taste of truth, the eating and drinking of truth.' (St. Macarius)

All around the country, Orthodox people attending Town Halls are asking for the same thing: the taste of truth, the experience of truthfulness within the life of the Orthodox Church in America."

(Read the full statement here)

• Fr. David Garretson (rector of Ss. Peter and Paul, South River, NJ) offered a comment. "How has this affected me? When I first heard about the scandal, I went to see Vladyka with my resignation in my back pocket. I cannot be part of a corrupt organization." What is more disturbing is that the embezzlement is only a symptom of an untreated disease. We as a Church do not provide a safe place for bishops, clergy, or laity to be open and honest. There is a lack of brotherhood amongst the priests. We gossip amongst ourselves. The money situation will end up being resolved by the civil authorities. But we need to focus on recovering the vision I saw when I became Orthodox in 1971. Is it safe, in today's environment, to publicly confess sins? Vladyka: Feel safe with us. Tell us, with integrity and truth, what happened. All of us have abdicated responsibility.

• Fr. Jonathan Ivanoff (St. John the Theologian parish, Shirley, NY) then read a statement that began:

" Three years ago, the Orthodox Church in America gathered in Toronto for the 14th All-American Council.  I had been looking forward to this Council for many reasons, not the least of which had to do with themes I feel very strongly about, church growth and parish health among them.  The Council was disappointing on many levels, but that is not why I am writing this Reflection today.

(Read that statement in full here)

• A layman stated: "I have four boys, three of whom are college age. We have been blessed to have been at many AACs together, where there has always been a strong youth program. However, the scheduling of this AAC in November has left the youth behind. What message does this send to them?" We as a Church must be examples to all.

Fr. Jarmus replied that there is no intent to move away from AAC's in the summer in the long term. He cited the extraordinary circumstances in this present case.

The meeting adjourned for a short break.

Fr. Jarmus resumed the meeting with the second question: "What is the best case scenario for the OCA and the AAC?"

Fr. Gary Breton (Annunciation parish, Brick, NJ) began by saying there was a "laundry list of things I'd like to see."

-I would like to see an OCA that has spreading the Gospel as its primary vision.

-That places things in proper perspective and eschews anything that compromises the Gospel. That teaches and edifies the faithful.

-That renews its primary vision.

-That renews the spirit of Sobornost.

-That takes financial stewardship seriously and openly shares financial data with its members. That discusses finances early at the AAC to promote transparency.

-That focuses on a bottom-up structure vs. top-down.

That has caring and loving Bishops who work with the priests; 'loving and caring' should be a top priority for future Episcopal candidates.

- That has a stronger Deanery life.

-That inspires motivation for young men to become Priests. That offers opportunities for priests to learn and grow in their vocations.

-That encourages members to live their lives according to the Gospel. That corrects those who fail. That supports weak missions.

- That accomplishes all these things with obedience to Christ's "new commandment".

Fr. Ivanoff spoke again: "I agree with all Fr. Gary has said, but we can go deeper. To do that, there are two things. First, we should come out of the AAC with a resolution to speak the truth at all times. We can start with the OCA's inflated membership claims. Second, we need to see deeds follow words. We must put money behind mission parishes. We must plant parishes and fund them adequately."

Fr. Joseph Lickwar (SS Peter and Paul, Jersey City NJ, and Chancellor of DC/NY Diocese): "We need to build up our Diocese." Please keep saying the constructive things you are saying. Come to me with issues and concerns. "Thank you for your honesty and integrity."

Several laymen and women then spoke:

- I do not believe in assessments for funding the Diocese and Syosset. Funding should come from proportional giving/tithing.

- We need a sober assessment of our problems and to deal with them directly. I would like us to be open and deal with specifics. Our young people can easily detect the hypocrisy we are displaying. We need to talk more about education.

- We need to think more about education. I'd like us to be a church that invests in professionals and takes advantage of their talents. We should take ideas that work from wherever we can get them, even the Heterodox.

- We need more educational materials directly from the OCA. Put more focus on our youth.

- We need a mechanism for assembling groups to think outside the box. For example, why can't we have Bishops from among the ranks of married priests? We need fresh thinking out of this AAC. I'd like to see our hierarchs commit to regular presence in the parishes for real conversation with the laity.

Fr. Garretson spoke again: "What is the definition of insanity? Doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result each time. We do the same things over and over." The best case is that we rearrange the relationship between the Bishops and parishes. When the Bishops come, we usually have the big banquet with the Bishop isolated at a head table. Instead, the Bishop should come to live with the priest for a day or two. Get to know our kids and play with them. Meet with the Parish Councils without the Priest present. This will make the Priests more accountable to the Church at large. Our culture is out of sync with our theology.

A layman stated that priests need training in missionary work and in administration. When they come out of seminaries they have no idea how to do these things.

A member of the OCA Reorganization Team spoke: "The establishment of Best Practices for Financial Accountability started the ball rolling in making the OCA more modern and businesslike." We need to follow up and ensure that those practices are maintained. Also we need more congregational singing and more active worship.

A member of the Metropolitan Council stated that the central administration has been reorganized and there is now a quartet of professional administrators running things in Syosset. We have audits of the financials now and have had a balanced budget for two years. "There is a vision and there has been positive movement."

Moving on to the third question, Fr. Jarmus asked: "What are some concrete ideas for the AAC in terms of agenda items?"

Fr. Ivanoff stated that given the goals of the last AAC were never followed through on, "we don't really need any new agenda items other than those."

Fr. Garretson replied: "We need to eliminate the assessment method of funding the Church administration, which turns the OCA into a 'country club with icons.'" All of the priests in the OCA trust their parishes to support them financially. Enforcing assessments shows a lack of trust in the laity. We should turn to proportional giving/tithing. Parishes would in turn tithe to the Diocese, which would in turn tithe to the Central Administration.

A laymen reponsed that "Leaders must communicate to those whom they lead. They must take action. They must lead."

Fr. David Vernak (Christ the Saviour, Paramus, NJ) asked Frs. Jarmus and Tosi: "What are the Preconciliar Commission's goals for the AAC?"

Fr. Tosi replied that AAC planning is, in many ways, a "no-win" situation. We know we need to inspire as well as find reconciliation at this Council. However, the OCA Statute demands that certain things be done. We know there are also other items that need to be done. We will not be able to accomplish everything we need to do at the AAC, but should look at it as the beginning of a process.

Fr. Jarmus continued: "When all is said and done, we will realistically have only about 2-1/2 days for working sessions." I would like for us to concretely address the issues at hand. I also hope that between the release of the SIC report in September and the AAC in November, we will have already addressed many of the problems. Vision building is a critical element for this AAC. We need to show that we are rebuilding the Church as a community. We must deemphasize the hierarchy and become one Body of Christ. We Church administrators (speaking of himself and Frs. Tosi, Garklavs, and Tassos) believe that the Church at large does not serve Syosset, but rather Syosset serves the Church at large.

Fr. Vernak replied: "The parishes and dioceses need to be focused on again. We have a self-perpetuating Holy Synod, which is very unhealthy. The OCA has to return to conciliarity and to an emphasis on parishes." Our Diocese (DC/NY) needs to elect her own Bishop. Only then will health return.

Fr. Shafran asked Fs. Tosi and Jarmus: "How has this Town Hall meeting compared to others?"

Fr. Jarmus replied: "What you've seen today is the typical tone of such meetings. Open, candid, and civil."

A layman asked: "Will there be such Town Hall meetings even after the AAC?"

Fr. Tosi: "Yes, we find them beneficial and we are considering further sessions on other topics of concern."

Metropolitan +Herman wasthen asked to close the meeting with a few words. His Beatitude spoke quickly. He thanked everyone for attending and noted that everyone's concern for the Church's welfare is apparent. He then went on to say that as he had instructed the other Hierarchs who have attended Town Hall meetings to only listen and not comment on what was said, he would do the same. And with that, he concluded the meeting and led the assembly into singing "It Is Truly Meet.".

- Mark Stokoe compiled this report from accounts from several participants. Our thanks to all who assisted.


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