A Vision for the Malankara Church in North America by Rev.Fr. Anthony Creech, Director of Department of Pastoral Care & Counseling
Many of our senior priests, despite their secular jobs, have sacrificed their time and energy to try and meet the numerous needs of their parishioners. However, when it comes to certain issues, our lay people tend to stay away from confronting their spiritual fathers out of fear of judgment or even that it will be leaked into the community. While our priests are trustworthy and have a genuine desire to help people, not all of us are trained to deal with some of the challenges that are people are going through. These challenges vary and include concerns of domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, depression, marital conflict, grief and loss, etc. In such a fast-paced, competitive society, it has become a challenge to meet the needs of our people, especially when many of our priests have to manage their own families and work secular jobs.
I have had the opportunity to participate in several conference and retreats throughout the diocese and also realized the urgent need to improve pastoral care and teaching of our people. I recently spent several days with our Diocesan Metropolitan at the Diocesan Center in Houston to discuss and brainstorm ideas about improving this vital work of teaching and counseling. The following is brief overview of our discussion and some of the future goals we have for the department of pastoral care & counseling.
1) Grade School & High School Kids - We recognize that while in grade school, children are enveloped, guided and nurtured by their families. Working with the Sunday School Department, a program will be developed for orientation and transitioning for children about to enter high school. In high school our young people begin to move out from the sphere of home and family and to encounter thoughts and values that may be different or challenging.
2) College-bound youth - After graduating high school our young people who leave home and go away for college face even more difficult challenges. They no longer live in the midst of the family environment and parental counsel. They begin to make their own decisions about friends, activities, how they spend their time and about careers. Working with MGOCSM, a program will be developed to aid transition from home and parents to living in a college or university environment
3) Pre-marital & Family Counseling (Understanding the Sanctity of Marriage)
- Many of our youth have misunderstood the sanctity and purpose of marriage and how to seek a suitable partner in that regard. We have even encountered young people who have decided they do not want to marry due to not wanting to take on that “limiting” responsibility or due to their experiences in their own families. There is a greater need now to teach and discuss guidelines for dating relationships. As the Church, we must be the first to instruct our youth in the right direction, so that, God-willing, they would be more mature in the choices they make regarding relationships and a future spouse. By working with the MGOCSM, we can begin teaching about the richness and sanctity of family life and marriage as a Divine institution at the various conferences and retreats.
- There is also a concern about our young people not receiving adequate information and instruction about the Orthodox Christian teachings on human sexuality. Again, working through MGOCSM, an instructional course, approved by our Diocesan Metropolitan, will be developed to impart that needed information.
- In addition to this, in every region of the Diocese, annual retreats are to be held for pre-marital instruction for all couples planning marriage in the Church. An outline and guide is being developed for use by parish priests for further premarital instruction with the couples in their parish.
- We are aware that many marriages of our people are troubled and stressed. American culture and values have added to these problems. Our children and young people are pulled in two different directions, traditional cultural expectations from parents versus the norms of a mostly pagan American culture.
- Throughout the Church in North America, young married couples are expressing a need and desire to come together in retreats/conferences for further teaching and counsel about enhancing their marriages. There is a desire by many couples to live out their marriages in a deeper Christian commitment. Not all have realized that the primary purpose of marriage is to make them holy! Not all have yet come to an ever deepening realization that the bond and commitment of marriage is a reflection of God’s bond and commitment to His Bride, the Church. It is our hope that FOCUS retreats to meet those needs will be planned in every region of the Diocese.
4) Addressing the Needs of Seniors - We have increasing numbers of older and retired people in our Church communities. Some of these seniors feel lonely and isolated. They begin to encounter physical health problems that limit their ability to do the things they once did. They face losses of loved one and friends. We need to better minister to their needs. Ultimately, lay persons trained in pastoral care must develop programs in their own parishes to meet the needs of their senior members to improve quality of life and alleviate such things as loneliness and isolation.
Following are a few steps that need to be taken to enhance the health and vigor of our Church due to these pressing needs:
- First, the whole Church must unite and we, as the clergy, need further training in pastoral care and family counseling.
- We need to identify laypersons in our parishes who would be interested in joining in this ministry of pastoral care, that is, lay men and women who are willing to be trained to assist the clergy in doing counseling and pastoral work in the homes of our people. People who could be trusted and could be home visitors and true family counselors. As stated above, priests alone cannot do all the pastoral work needed by our people. The pastoral needs are there, they are real and they are growing.
- Having identified clergy and laypersons who are willing to be trained in counseling skills and pastoral care techniques, an online course will be established to begin the training process. The persons would then be brought together for a pastoral care conference for additional training.
This all may sound ambitious and look like a daunting task, but we need committed clergy and leaders to step forward, identify yourselves to us, and join in this work that is so vital to the healthy future of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in North America.