Archpriest Ilya Limberger On Social Ministry, Overall and in a Given Parish

Fr Ilya performs the sacrament of matrimony of Irina and Michael Diaz de Leon in St. Nicholas cathedral in Stuttgart

Our Russian Church Abroad is respected for keeping pious and liturgical traditions. We strive to fulfill those things that connect to our faith — we participate in the sacraments, we keep the fasts, we pray at home and in church, and we try to raise our children to do the same. But should not our Christian faith be shown by our actions? How do we labor for the good of our clergy and the needy members of our Church? We talk about social ministry with archpriest Ilya Limberger, from the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Stuttgart.

Fr. Ilya, in the 90s, when we witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain, our churches had to react to the needs of Her people. Some of the Church leaders and pastors were not ready for this. There was even a notice on the bulletin board in one of the parishes: “Church is not a place where you can find shelter or employment”. In other words, a model has offered, where practical needs of the people could not be met with the help of Church. This model of the Church can help with spiritual life, prayer, but doesn’t not concern itself with job searches or helping person to adapt to new situations in life. Can you, please, comment on this type of approach?

In my opinion, social service of the Church is tightly connected to her liturgical life, to the understanding of Holy Gospel. Indeed, the word “righteousness”, if taken from the Old Testament, has the same root as “charity”. This also can be attributed to the language of the New Testament at that time. “Tsaddik, or holy man” in the Old Testament has the same root as in the word “Tsdaka” (charity). And it’s not a coincidence that both ancient, and modern Hebrew language connect these two meanings: righteousness and charity. If we keep this in mind while reading all main books of Old Testament, for instance, the Psalter, which is the foundation of prayer life of our Church, we will clearly see that it’s impossible not to notice the connection between these two concepts and life of prayer. Therefore, as I see it, the approach you have just described is clearly full of misconceptions. These meanings have clear historical and Biblical roots and traditions in the life of the Church, and Her Liturgical and Eucharistic nature have always laid a strong foundation for a great deal of charity work. It is a different question, of course, how organized that charity work is, how institutionalized, we can say that, right? There can definitely be different approaches to this, it can be simply on the parish level, where the parish seeks out opportunities to help. For example, I remember back in the beginning of the 90s, when Russia was truly in need, the Russian people were in need of concrete material help, as in many parishes –1 remember that our parish in Frankfurt here in Germany organized help for Russia, sending whole semi trucks, full tons of help. Now this might be Ukraine, eastern Ukraine mostly, but all of Ukraine as well, where people truly need help, especially the poorer members of society. People are gathering this kind of help. But it could be more organized. For example, in Germany, for many years there has been a many-branched organization called “Dobroye Delo” [Good Deeds]. Its goal is to help extremely sick children and their parents that come from Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia to go to the doctor in Germany, and end up in a place with an unfamiliar language and culture, and of course, need all sorts of help – social, linguistic, just playing with their children, keeping them occupied, going to the zoo, setting up some rest for the parents, and some activities. This includes, of course, spiritual support, contact with the parish, and so on. It seems to me that this comes right from the very nature of the Church.

Is this a church organization, Fr. Ilya? Is it connected with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia?

Yes, of course, it’s a church organization.

I’m very glad to hear that. I didn’t know about it.

Yes, it’s a great thing. I was able to be part of it from the very beginning. Many people are involved — there is a coordinator for all of Germany and beyond, abroad in fact, it goes beyond the borders of Germany — there are helpers in France, in Switzerland, and Belgium, and in Holland. In all the major cities there are volunteers that help parents and children that come to the doctor in Germany in real time — they take care of them. In every big city, even in some smaller cities, there are volunteers right in the parishes, volunteer groups, that try to help these people — different kinds of help, right? We don’t try to raise funds for the medical treatment itself — that seems like work for foundations back home — in Russia, Belorussia, Ukraine, so we mostly offer help on the spot. Well, sometimes this involves money, but mostly it is support, translation, social support, explanation, contacts, conversations with doctors and other personnel… It is all done by volunteers.

Thus, Fr. Ilya, as far as I can tell, this is a lot of support for a well-formulated task? People get it, and they offer a wide range of help, right? But we also have a church reality: maybe it’s because no one offers anyone anything to do, so people are just satisfied that they can go to church. Thank God. They keep the whole cycle of services – and that’s all. What wrong with that? I am not hearing about such foundations, but I see this picture: to be Orthodox means to go to church, take part in the sacraments, and the rest – that’s the work of individuals. Help or not help, donate or not donate, it’s not mandatory.

Yes. Well, definitely there is such a picture, that we see most places. Naturally, active charity work is always going to be the lot of the minority. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but in our experience, especially in the emigration, it is. You can understand people — they’re busy. And of course, being an immigrant places certain… burdens on a person, on a family. You need to deal with entering into a world that is new to you. This uses up a lot of one’s inner strength, to say nothing of material things. Only starting from the second or third generation do you see that people have the strength to do something different. However, along side of this there are always people who are not satisfied with just participation in church services — this participation is almost anonymous — and who feel themselves called to something higher. It seems to me that parishes and dioceses should take on such tasks.

For us in Germany it just happened that we had to help, say, with the children who come, especially to centralized places, say the clinics in Munich, or in Stuttgart, or in Tubingen, in Heidelberg — these are all University clinics, big medical centers. People want to go to them, and life just places the job in front of us. I think that the Church should respond in a more organized way to the jobs that life places in front of it. Besides this, I think that care for children and youth falls into this same social-charity aspect of church life. I think that it is a very important part of church activity. It’s not just organizing parish schools, but in a wider spectrum of work with children and youth. This includes kid and youth summer camps, seminars about youth leadership, retreats, meetings, youth events organized by the church, special days, hikes. I think that this is all a part of parish work that, of course, goes beyond pure liturgical activity: if you take thirty kids to a summer or winter camp for three weeks, not only services will play a role, but also pedagogical approaches, pedagogical efforts, pedagogical leanings. If you are organizing, say, a youth retreat, that is already a job for the diocese: it takes place in a single parish, but it goes beyond the parish and involves the whole diocese. Dioceses and parishes should set such tasks before themselves. This is already happening: it is happening in America, it’s starting to happen for us in Germany, and in general, I think this is part of social ministry.

Here is something else that we should not underestimate. The thing is, at least based on my experience in Germany, the local Christian groups — that is, the evangelicals and Catholics, despite the great decrease in spiritual life, all the same, thanks to the social ministry that they have developed over, say, 100 years, both of these churches are integral parts of society and the government. We have to consider that the church is judged by people — including outsiders — not by its divine services or level of spiritual life, but precisely by its charitable actions. The Church cannot ignore this fact. Indeed, the Lord did not give us any reason to react indifferently to how people or society react to the church. He said that other should see your good works and glorify the Heavenly Father, right? I think that if the Lord wanted us only to pray, He would have said — spit on other people’s opinions of you, and just pray. But no, He pointed out exactly how others would judge us, and even considered these judgments very important. He showed us these criteria. I don’t think we can ignore this. No matter how spiritual we are, we have to, let me put it this way, preserve the Church’s image in society.

Thanks, Fr. Ilya. I also think that our priests, of course, are trying to encourage social ministry in the community. For example, if a priest knows some well-off parishioners, and knows someone in need, then he can say, “You know what, we commune from the same chalice, and this-or-that brother or sister can’t make his next house payment, or something. Can you help?” So we’ve talked about the external aspects, but there is also a serious internal aspect – how do we relate to people with whom we commune from one chalice? We come together, and often it feels like we just got together to deal with our individual needs, and then we go home, and how much do we really know about what is going on with others? You talked about the youth – that’s one layer. There are also middle-aged lonely people. There are elderly people – that’s another category. These are all different pastoral needs. How much attention does this get inside the parish, social and other assistance to others? Compared to helping those who come to Germany from outside. What happens in one’s own parish? With those who come to your church?

Well, here it’s hard for me to say. I don’t know what goes on in a lot of parishes, but basically, you’re right. Naturally, charity should begin with taking care of internal needs. I think that there are a lot of excellent examples of this. Just a few days ago, it was great for me to hear how a parish built… well, a small supermarket for the needs of its own parishioners. Here some people donate either money or products, and others buy it or receive it for free.

Was this in the Church Abroad?

No, this was in a Greek church.

That’s the Greeks? So they’re helping each other in their time of crisis? I get it.

Isn’t it great that they’re doing that? But I don’t have any systematic knowledge of what is going on in parishes, but from various sources, I hear that this is really happening.

Do people answer the call?

Well, I don’t think that it’s systematic, but where there is a particular need in a parish, I think it happens. I think people answer. I don’t know what the experience is in America, but here in Germany, as far as I can tell, people help each other in the parishes. If we could try to systemize something, say families with many children… But I’m a father with many children myself, so I know what it’s like — a family with many children

is a machine for eating up any amount of money. It’s like a furnace — no matter how much fuel you shovel into it, it consumes it all and still goes out. I think it is a good task for a parish to help support its large families. Of course, this support could come in many different forms.

I see something different happening – parishes are looking for monks or single priests – that’s the new way (laughs).

So they can pay them less?

Yes, that’s what I hear. The wardens and the people want it.

I think that’s pretty shortsighted. Shortsighted. When a parish priest has no children, that aspect of parish life does not develop. I think about how I got started: I ended up in a parish, I had two kids already, then a third, fourth, fifth, and my motivation to be active with children and youth came from my own children. Right? You want to set up things for your own kids: Russian classes, summer camp, meetings with other Orthodox kids. If you don’t have any kids? I don’t know — does such a priest find motivation to do these things, or does he just say, “I’m going to serve a little, and that’s it.”

They really are connected. Without kids the school is like a side project.

Yes. I think, at least, maybe this is egoism from my side, but a good half of my motivation this past twenty years to work with children and youth has been from my own children and their involvement. I want them to have an Orthodox community among their peers. To do that, we need to organize that Orthodox community. We need a school, we need “fun”, so to speak (laughs).

Fr. Ilya, how uniform is your parish with respect to language? Do you work according to the traditional model, where people get, roughly speaking, the same product that they get in Russia? Or do you also focus on the German segment of the parish. Is there such a thing? What is the makeup of the parish in Stuttgart these days?

Most of our adults are Russian speaking, thus in general, our parish life is conducted mostly in Russian. As far as children and youth work, bit-by-bit everything is going over to German. About fifteen years ago, our camps were mostly in Russian, but today they are mostly in German. I just got back from summer camp less than a week ago, and everything was basically in German: lessons were in German, stories in German, reading in German, prayers, well, we use Russian and German both for prayers, but most of the kids have very weak Russian. This is a definite direction, which we cannot stop in the parish, and realism teaches me that we should speak German more and more. In principle, we have the resources. We have the services and other translations, we’re not missing anything, there aren’t any real problems. We just need to make the decision and go forward. As far as youth leaders, the ones that have been coming from a young age, and are 20 or 22 now, the ones who are involved, grew up and were socialized in Germany, and have no problems with German. Thus everything is moving towards German. At the very least, I don’t have the strength or any special motivation to oppose this, so it’s going forward.

One more similar question: why don’t people donate; why isn’t there financial support? I think that we understand donating this way: there’s a collection, the plate is passed, you put something in, and that’s it. But how much is that really worth? In the monastery where we serve: we need electricity, the clergy don’t get anything, and no one talks about it. Then there is lunch for 100-150 people. This is every week. In western society you have to fund that from somewhere, no one is giving handouts. And I feel like people aren’t really thinking about this, aren’t thing that this belongs to us, since we go to church, we should put something into it. This seems like a general tendency: we don’t have a culture of giving and helping out. Or people are just burned out and can’t help. I don’t know. That’s my question.

I’m definitely in agreement with you on this. If we can talk about culture in this connection, and it’s not really the right word, but that’s right — we don’t have a sufficient culture of financially supporting general needs. I know Serbs very well, you see, my wife is from Serbia, and I speak Serbian well. I know the Serbian Church very well, both in Serbia and in Germany. Compared to Russian, Serbs, in this case, are almost opposites. For example, the Serbs will start by building what they call a “kafan” or small restaurant. Then they’ll build a church next to it, which they don’t attend very often, but completely support. The clergy, the property, everything is taken care of by donations from parishioners, but for any Russian bean-counter, their pious church-going life is hell – no scarves, no skirts; it’s all a hodge-podge.

One of my Serbian student’s mother-in-law went to a Russian service in San Francisco, and gazed at all the so-called “liturgical ballet” with her mouth wide open. For her it was just too much. If I remember right, it was because they came out with whatever they had – some wearing red, some wearing green.

That’s it! (laughs).

For the Church Abroad mentality, this is like metal on glass. But at the same time, Serbs pray to God and don’t murder anyone for missing his turn or anything, thank God.

Yes, yes. I think that God will accept all the Russian bean-counters into paradise, of course, bless them all, and settle them in the Serbian district of paradise (laughs). I don’t know if it will be paradise for them (laughs), maybe they’ll think they ended up in hell. I think what’s right is somewhere in the middle, and I definitely think that Russians don’t have enough of the upbringing, “This is for the common good, we need to maintain our church, we need to maintain our common room, we need to maintain the place where our children get lessons in Russian, Law of God, music, drawing, and so on – and we have to pay for all of this: for the space, for utilities, for support, for the personnel that make all this happen”. And also this mentality: “since we’re in church, everything should be free.” I think this is some sort of sin, a vice, a vice of our lives. And I think that it is a leftover from Soviet times. I don’t really know where it comes from, but it is a sin, and must be avoided.

Two models in America, two churches in the same category, by number of people: the Serbian Church and the Russian Church Outside Russia. Both of them showed up en masse after the second World War, they both got going about the same time, we could say. The Serbian clergy have pensions, they are not in serious poverty, like in ROCOR, which has become a sort of parable: how the clergy of ROCOR live. But what’s going on here? We can’t just say that the Serbian parishioners were fabulously wealthy. All the immigrants started at about the same place, but they have ended up with different results…

Yes. I think this is a sort of generosity, probably. Those priests that work selflessly, or like true unmercenaries – God help them. It’s hard to argue with what they’re doing. But as an institution? It seems to me that we need to get away from this. That’s what I think. To make a church institution out of that sort of self-sacrifice, it seems to me that’s not right, it’s not sound at all pedagogically, to bring up children in that sort of irresponsibility. It’s like in a family, where you give your kids everything and don’t expect anything in return — not asking them to clean up after themselves in the kitchen, or wash the dishes, or clean their rooms, and put their shoes on the shelf– just letting their father and mother do everything for them. And then be proud of themselves for so much self-sacrifice. This seems to me, well, pedagogically, a sinful path. These special circumstances – God help them and give them eternal glory, of course — but the way of the Church? I don’t think this is right from the pedagogical or even just human point of view. I don’t think this is very honest. Where there is this dishonesty, there is something wrong hiding – like an apple that looks beautiful from the outside, but there’s a worm sitting inside it eating it up.

Well, then, Fr. Ilya, let’s move on to the next problem – working priests. We constantly hear about another model: the parish signs a contract with a priest. So whatever they agree to is agreed. And in many circumstances, a priest ends up having to work. There are cases, where some mission just doesn’t understand that they can support their priest. So overall, what are the pros and cons of working clergy? That’s the question.

In my modest experience, I would say that, of course, there can be a place for working priests – definitely in a mission parish, in a parish that’s only just been opened and is growing, where there is a young priest, who can get his bearings in the society through this. That is, if he works for about ten years, he will definitely have good experience of the social life in his place. But again, to make this a rule is sinful. Maybe there are certain circumstances where this is needed, but in no way should it become the rule. A priest in a lukewarm parish with ambition – in the best sense of this word – to build an active parish with lots of spheres of activity, parish and external activity, of course such a priest needs a free hand to get this all done. It’s impossible to build an active parish with a few hundred parishioners, say, calling it home, with children, with activities for adults, with different languages, with the elderly, with education goals, if the priest isn’t free of secular duties. This is just an error and an illusion that we have to utterly wipe out. It’s just self-deception. It’s not as if a priest’s day has 48 hours – 24 for the parish and 24 for work. That’s just deceiving and lying to yourself.

Here, it seems to me, it happens that the people who support parish life, maybe people of an older generation are well-suited to this, because that kind of intensity is normal for them. If we go further, this sort of thing maybe troubles other people, the parish council. We could overexert ourselves, as they say, and not finish the race. New things always seem dangerous. But to uphold the status quo: just doing services, burials, and maybe a wedding now and then – that’s fine.

That’s true. A kind of swamp can pop up in any place, including in a church. But to put that out there as a parish or diocesan ideal is silly. That’s reckless. The active clergy, who can be found in any diocese, should speak up against this.

That is, these are real problems that just have to be dealt with.

Of course.

Here’s my last question, Fr. Ilya – about parish membership. I don’t know how things are in Stuttgart, or in Germany in general, but here in America I constantly hear complaints that people from Russia, say, don’t sign up as members. They just see things differently. They’re ready to attend just one church, they’re ready to volunteer their time, they’re ready to give up everything, but they don’t want to sign up as members. What’s going on with that? How do you see this?

It seems to me that before the last wave of immigration in the 90s, at least in Germany, people signed up as members of the parish, but this new immigration… I think it’s a mentality issue, you see? Membership — that some kind of bureaucracy, right? People don’t want that. For sure, in Russia there is no such practice. Many people, one way or another, to a greater or lesser degree, started going to church in Russia. There is no such practice as membership there, and there never was. There is no “signing up”. On the other hand, of course, we have standard parish by-laws, which prescribe membership. Thus, in some sense, the parish by-laws contradict reality. I think that when the by-laws conflict with reality, reality should win out, and we need to find different ways to do membership. I can give an example – we don’t do parish membership, we just ask people to donate regularly, and in particularly, to pay into the priest fund. We use this fund to pay two priests for their work in the parish, and also to cover some other expenses. And all of this is possible from regular donations from dozens, I think more than 80 families. So from time-to-time, we just call on people to donate to the priest fund, and they understand that this is necessary. Truly, one of our priests… how should I say it…, we have about 200 baptisms a year, almost a baptism every day, on average. When can these be done? Plus, plus, plus… All of this is laid out in an appeal that we put together, and the parishioners understand what’s going on – it’s going on right before their eyes – there is no abstract idea of membership, just real support. And this way they become members of the parish. That is, the parish by-laws require that formal parish members, that is, the ones who can be chosen to be on the parish council, pay regular dues. We just don’t call it dues, we call it the priest fund, or some other fund, and they automatically meet the requirements of the by-laws in this way. It seems to me that this matches people’s mentality better.

Than some formal procedure?

Than the procedure of membership, precisely.

You mean, when at the parish meeting someone submits an application to be a member of the parish?

Right. We don’t do that. I personally understand this very well, that is, I understand people’s mentality – this is some kind of bureaucracy. Like membership in the party. Back then, they didn’t need this, and they sure don’t need it now. Real donations, and a pledge like “I’ll give 50 euros a month, take them out of my bank account for the priest fund” – that people understand, and it’s what we need.

Got it. And they don’t have any questions like, “Maybe father is just fine. Why do we need to pay him?”, and so on. They react positively to this?

Yes, yes, yes. At first it took some work to convince people, but now they see it right before their eyes! Any priest who doesn’t have to work completely immerses himself in the life of the parish. Any priest that is on salary, he’s working day and night. There’s plenty of work for everyone. The parishioners see this. He hears confessions 15-20 hours a week, does baptisms and weddings another 20 hours, another 20 is spent visiting prisons and hospitals, and so on. Everyone can see it.

Well, that’s a really dynamic parish, because I hear the opposite point of view, when a parishioner says, “Well, what? Pay the priest? He works about two hours on Saturday, two on Sunday. And how much do we pay him? And I work in a factory for so many hours and get less than him!” There’s that approach, too.

Well, I think that if they would think it over… If they would think it over, a priest’s work isn’t limited to just those four hours, just standing there…

Right. How are you getting 200 baptisms? Do those people become parishioners then? Is it because the Stuttgart parish serves such a big area?

It’s definitely a large area. The area is about 50-70 kilometers in radius, lots of people. But I think any parish can testify, that of out of those 200, maybe 5-10 become active. That is, the efficiency rate is low. You’ve got to flap your wings a lot to take off (laughs).

Got it. We just baptized a girl in Jordanville yesterday, and today her mother brought her to communion. The girl was probably already three, and we communed her, and I asked her mother, “Are you going to communion as well?” She said, “No, I’m already baptized!” That is, she just took communion as part of the list of things you have to do. They told her that after baptism, she has to commune her child, and she thought she didn’t have to commune, because she had already gone through baptism.

Yes, that’s standard, a pretty standard answer. And there’s not much you can do about it. We have talks, and catechism – we have a long catechism for adults. All the same, well… It’s definitely what the Lord said in the Gospel: “No one can come unto Me, unless my Heavenly Father calls him.” It’s truly a calling, and there’s nothing you can do about that.

Interesting! Fr. Ilya -we’ll stop on this point, and continue on, God willing, with the next subject, which has to do with other important issues.

Translated by Fr. Michael van Opstall

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