This past Sunday, as in many years past, I had the privilege of chairing the annual general meeting of the parish of the St. John’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church here in my hometown of Oshawa. It is not a large parish, some 130 souls in all. It has seen better days and has had its fair share of challenges as has the Orthodox Church in general in Canada. Keeping a parish healthy and relevant in our day and age in an increasingly secular, consumer-oriented and hedonistic society has not been an easy task.
And yet St. John’s persists and, in recent years, has been able to stem the decline that most other parishes have experienced, and has stabilized both its membership base as well as its finances. In fact, for the past year, the parish was able to report a healthy surplus of revenues over expenses, something that is becoming increasingly rare with most parishes. Too many parishes across this country are running perennial deficits and surviving on the reserves that were build up by previous generations of the faithful in better times when church attendance was much higher.
Church finances have been increasingly problematic for some time, due in large part to the fact that most churches rely almost entirely on the traditional Sunday collection plate system to fund their operations. This creates significant variances from week to week and month to month as attendance at church services has become quite variable and unreliable. Aside from the fact that going to church every Sunday is no longer a common practice, there are significant seasonal variations, particularly during the summer when attendance really plummets as people go on vacation or to the cottage. There are also many people that only come to church on important holy days such as Christmas and Easter. It is a sad reality that most people feel no obligation to contribute when they don’t attend, despite the fact that most church expenses continue to be incurred whether a parishioner comes on any given Sunday or not.
Several years ago, St. John’s began a drive to get parishioners to contribute by pre-authorized monthly remittances or deductions from their bank accounts (PAR system). In this way, the church could count on financial support regardless whether a parishioner came to church or not. The number of parishioners using this PAR system has grown to the point where the church’s cash flow is now much more predictable, and of course, overall donations are up significantly.
Another major factor in the strength of our parish, is that it has a fairly professional and capable parish council running things. In the past, parish councils basically consisted of elders of the church, who though well meaning, did not usually have a lot of skills or experience in running the administrative, financial and developmental side of church operations. St. John’s is particularly blessed in having a strong and relatively young parish council. The President, Dr. Paul Slavchenko is a respected physician and anesthesiologist with exceptional leadership skills who is able to motivate, think strategically and garner the co-operation of the many different generations and viewpoints that are found in our parish. The rest of the council consists of some very skilled and capable individuals from many business and technical professions, with solid management expertise, who over the past several years have been able to modernize the bookkeeping, budgeting, governance and management processes of the church so that it is able to cope with the increasingly more complicated social and regulatory environment within which it exists.
This has been particularly useful when the parish found itself in the position several years ago, of having to demolish the parish hall which had become structurally unsound. This was done, a fund-raising drive initiated to finance the construction of a new hall, and a committee struck to deal with the design, zoning and municipal approvals required of such an effort. The parish was fortunate in having people on board who were able to tackle this challenge in a capable and professional manner. To date the parish has raised over half a million dollars to fund this project and is looking forward to having the shovels in the ground this spring.
Lastly, one cannot forget that a church is only as strong as the priest that is always at the center of church life. In this, St. John’s has also been particularly blessed in having a dedicated, passionate, creative and when necessary, demanding priest in the person of Fr. Hladio. He is constantly challenging the parish to rise beyond the “comfortable pew” and be good Christians by example. Through his efforts, the parish has made an effort to reach out beyond just the Ukrainian community, and has helped to provide significant support to local charities and organizations such as youth and women’s shelters and places of refuge. He has also been instrumental in attracting new members to the parish, not only from the Ukrainian community, but also from others that have found spiritual comfort within the Orthodox communion.
St. John’s still faces a difficult challenge in its drive for renewal and growth, but its future is in good hands. Having faith is a necessary prerequisite, but having a solid and dedicated organization buttressing that faith is even better.