Today we welcome our dear guest, Archpriest Yaroslav Belikov, a priest of the Dormition Monastery in Novo-Diveevo. Fr. Yaroslav, a graduate of our own Holy Trinity Seminary, has been a priest for twenty-five years and has naturally been obliged to work within the framework of the Normal Parish By-Laws all this time. I have to say that personally I have a great deal of sympathy with the Normal Parish By-Laws, but then again I am not a priest, or serve within a parish setting, so my attitude is purely academic. I value the fact that the By-Laws were adopted by the All-Russian Local Council and that they give much scope for creative work within a given community. However, to get a more realistic picture, I wanted to interview Fr. Yaroslav who lives and works by these Parish By-Laws and for whom they are a daily reality.
Thank you. Of course, the Normal Parish By-Laws are essential to our parish life. When everything is fine, it’s all fine and there is no need for any by-laws. But when problems arise, such as complaints or demands from a particular group ‑ be it the priest, the church warden or the parishioners ‑ the Parish By-Laws are very helpful because they put everything in context. That is why it is extremely important that we follow these by-laws from the very start. This is first thing I have to say. On the other hand, our Parish By-Laws contain serious errors and internal contradictions, which prevent…
inaccuracies, which make adherence to the by-laws problematic. A situation arises when people begin to question this or another point, and because we have these contradictions and omissions, it ends up being a serious problem.
Father, you have also mentioned certain situations when there is some ambiguity in interpretation and that in the face of existing conflict, these ambiguities can become time bombs, so to say.
Yes, this is very unpleasant.
… or landmines – I am sorry to use such terms. I can imagine the sort of critical situations that can arise in parishes.
Yes, when some people start arguing, they latch on to a single word out of context and ignore the other, contradictory, sections. Then we have a serious problem.
Could you illustrate what you mean?
Yes, yes. For example, there is some lack of clarity. I will give you a couple of examples. Paragraph no. 12 describes the procedure for accepting new parish members and states that the Parish Council examines each such petition and confirms it. But if it has the right to confirm applications, surely it also has the right not to confirm them? On what basis would that happen? There are no explanations as to the grounds which could give rise to a rejection of somebody’s application for membership.
Para no. 15 mentions Trustees. Who are these Trustees? What are their duties or entitlements? These things aren’t mentioned at all.
It says in para 19, for instance, that the Annual General Assembly appoints the Auditing Committee or the Editorial Committee. At the same time, para. 23 states that the minutes of the Annual General Meeting are kept by the Secretary to the Parish Council. So it is unclear who in fact keeps track of the deliberations.
Para. 22 describes the process by which resolutions are adopted by the General Assembly but what about questions which are not even open to debate? For example when somebody says ‘This rector isn’t suitable’ or ‘This priest won’t do for us’, this is a totally different problem and should be solved in a different way. Yet there is nothing about this in the Normal Parish By-Laws.
The election of parish officers is discussed in paras. 28 and 29 and again the situation is unclear. It says that the Annual General Meeting elects the Secretary , the Treasurer and from two to five members of the Parish Council – this of course depends on the size of the parish. Again, there is lack of consistency. Suppose there are three candidates to the post of Treasurer; one is elected and the other two are not. But the two unelected candidates could have been very useful on the Parish Council. Would it not make more sense to appoint from four to seven ordinary council members and then allow the Council to choose the Secretary and Treasurer from their own ranks? But this is not mentioned anywhere. These kinds of omissions often create problems. Reserve members are also mentioned but no word as to how and under what conditions they become full members.
Para 30 says that the keeping of the parish register is within the competency of the Parish Council. What about the Secretary’s duties? The same is said about the keeping of parish books and of the lists of those making confession. But this is hardly a matter for the parish council, not to mention that…
Not to mention the fact that all these rules most probably originate from Tsarist Russia and it’s worth asking ourselves whether we still need these today… I mean a list of actual names.
Para 31 which is concerned with the Rector’s duties, says a number of times that the Rector monitors. Then again, it says that the Rector is responsible. So in effect, he monitors the work of, say the Secretary or the Treasurer, but remains responsible for both? What if the Rector disagrees with some action? Especially since it says in para 38 that all matters shall be decided by simple majority vote, while in case of a tie, the vote of the Rector shall prevail. What if the majority vote for something to which the Rector is completely opposed? After all, he has to answer to the Diocesan authorities. Of course, the Rector can be wrong in certain cases, we are all human after all, but there are other ways to influence the Rector’s decision; for example by way of an appeal. The possibility of an appeal to the Diocesan authorities against a decision by the parish council is mentioned. But this makes it unclear: is the Rector responsible or is he not? These are my main points…
So, going down, we see that in para 34, the duties of the Treasurer are outlined. Then in paras. 51 and 52, the monetary parish funds are detailed. Why not amalgamate them all? Again, unless we take great care, there are inconsistencies and ambiguities which could have serious consequences. This is how problems arise: two factions become locked in conflict with each other advancing their arguments i according to different paragraphs of the Parish By-Laws.
The preparation of reports, as mentioned in para. 35, is very strange. Both the Secretary and the Rector read out reports at the annual meeting. So, again there are contradictions.
Para 43 mentions the Parish ssisterhood, but then again we also have a Church Warden. Who is responsible for parish property? Here we have the usual lack of clarity; which aspects of property is the Warden in charge of? Is the Church Warden merely a kind of foreman? On the other hand, we have the Sisterhood… This ambiguity is just asking for trouble, when conflict erupts between the Sisterhood and the Warden who turns out to be surplus to requirements. It would make matters much simpler if we could define respective functions clearly.
Paras 48 and 49 discuss various activities and how the money is spent. It is important to define this; certain matters are within the competence of the Annual General Meeting, such as the acquisition of property for example. We are talking about large sums of money ‑ a big loan or an advance ‑ and the Parish Council can’t decide such things by themselves. This is a matter for the the Annual General Meeting or the Extraordinary Parish Meeting, rather than the Parish Council, which is only a small group of people, albeit elected by the Annual Meeting. It’s important to be clear as to what falls within the competence of the Annual General Meeting. The parish council can make recommendations, such as ‘Let’s buy this plot of land’. But this is a lot of money and the whole parish should make this decision.
This is a strong point.
That’s why these paragraphs should be grouped together within the Meetings of the Parish Council section. I have a few other observations. They may not be so important but I think are worth noting. We are told that all records and books must be kept in accordance with the forms provided by the Diocesan Authorities. But these forms do not exist. When we ask the diocese, we are told that they don’t have any such forms. The Diocese should either remove the references to these forms from the Normal Parish By-Laws or start providing them. These are the sort of problems we have.
Thank you, Fr. Yaroslav. What is your general attitude to the Normal Parish By-Laws?
My attitude is wholly positive. Nevertheless, I think there are some errors which should be corrected, because they can make parish life difficult when problems arise. And coupled, in the first place, with our pride, our love of self and lust for power…
Unfortunately, what we need is documentation. There should be a rule of law… As far as the clergy are concerned, I have the impression that many of our priests have negative feelings towards the Normal Parish By-Laws. They tend to regard them as a direct challenge if not to the priest’s authority, at least to his rights as a priest.
I have not observed this attitude.
You haven’t come across this?
No, I haven’t. On the contrary, I feel the By-Laws are helpful. I have only this to add. Sometimes, certain parishioners or a group of parishioners assume some kind of spiritual authority and begin to interfere with matters which have nothing to do with them. On the other hand, some priests rule their parish like a dictatorship and they need to be curbed somehow. Yet again, you can have a situation where a bishop likes to get involved in the minutiae of parish life – when there is no need for him to do this. It is better for parishioners to collect money in response to a real need, rather than to a directive from above with no reference to the realities of parish life. That’s the function of the Normal Parish By-Laws ‑ to limit any individual power, but they must also make it clear how to act in difficult situations, when, for example, the Parish Council or the Annual General Meeting disagrees with the Rector, or the Rector disagrees with the parish. These sort of conflicts must be resolved and it is important to have written guidelines for doing so: How do we proceed? Who can arbitrate in this situation? Of course, the final arbiter should be the diocesan hierarch, but there are still many errors which must be fixed.
Thank you, Fr Yaroslav. This was most interesting and important, and I am grateful to you for this conversation, which I think will be useful for many people.
To the glory of God!
APPENDIX: Commentary and notes on the Normal Parish By-Laws (NPB)
The following details should be appended to the information about all newly-established parishes: when and by whose blessing the parish was inaugurated, who supplied the antimension and chrism
It should be added in the notes that the ruling bishop may close the parish.
As it would be awkward for the rector to discuss his own salary, accommodation, insurance and other forms of financial support with the parish, these negotiations should be conducted by the dean or the diocesan secretary and then confirmed by the ruling bishop. Any financial agreement with the parish should factor in periodic salary increases, allowing for inflation and in consideration of the length of the priest’s service (as mentioned briefly in No.10)
Enrolment of new parishioners.
What are the criteria for refusing admission?
A sample parishioner admission form would be welcome.
No.13. Note 1
Question: what if some parishes have a different tradition of raising funds other than the membership dues ?
Delete “newly” at the beginning of the sentence ‑ it makes the statement unclear.
Define “trustees”. What are their rights and responsibilities?
The Annual Parish Assembly shall be convened with the blessing of the ruling bishop.
Add a note to the effect that all meetings shall be conducted pursuant to the provisions of Robert’s Rules of Order
The explanation of the function of the vice-president should form a separate paragraph or a note. The protocol for conducting the Annual General Meeting should be more fully explained, and the functions of the auditing and editing committees confirmed (No.23 states that the minutes are kept by the parish secretary, whereas No.24 places this within the competence of the editing committee)
Note 2 “must of his own accord remove himself from participation in the Meeting” should be replaced with “shall lose his right to participate in the Meeting”
It should be explained what subjects are not open to debate as a matter of course.
No.23 and No.24 are self-contradictory, appointing the secretary and the editing committee respectively for the same job.
It is not made sufficiently clear that the decisions of the Annual General Meeting come into force only upon their confirmation by the ruling bishop, and that he has the right to alter or overrule any of resolution made by the AGM.
Addendum to b) c) d) & e): the Extraordinary Parish Meetings is convened with the blessing of the ruling bishop and with due cause.
No.28 & No.29:
The procedure for electing the treasurer and secretary is not made sufficiently clear. Are they elected at the AGM specifically to fulfil these roles, or does the AGM elect “from two to five lay members of the parish” cf g) PLUS two extra members, i.e from four to eight people, and then the Parish Council itself appoints a treasurer and a secretary from their own ranks?
The AGM will also elect one or two reserve members (from among those who have not received enough votes to be elected to the PC proper) who will assume full parish councillor duties in the event of any member of the parish council being unable to carry out his or her responsibilities.
d) Should not the secretary be responsible for the keeping of parish books?
d) Should not the rector be responsible for the keeping of the lists of those making confession?
According to f), g), i) & l), the rector “supervises” but in j)he is “responsible”
If the rector is truly “responsible”, it would be best for him also “to instruct” cf. e), f) & l) which could also imply the ability to delegate this responsibility to the church warden or another parish officer. Supervision, however, can be understood in the narrow sense of being merely an outside observer without the right to intervene. If that is the case, how can the rector be said to be “responsible”?
a) “the form prescribed by the Diocesan Authorities”?
c) should not the rector sign every parish check? What are the rector’s role and responsibilities?
This section should be reconciled with Nos 51-53 which deal with financial matters.
b) the minutes of the Annual and Extraordinary Parish Meetings are kept by the editing committee of which the secretary to the parish council must presumably also be a member.
c) These days, it is simpler for the agenda to be sent out electronically by the rector, so here, one can say that the secretary assists in distributing the agenda to all parish meetings.
e) preparation of reports: Does the secretary present the report at the AGM?
Notes: what are these “forms provided by the Diocesan Authorities”?
Addendum: d) in the event of incapacity of a parish councillor, his or her duties will be assumed by a reserve member who will be deemed to be a full member of the PC until the next AGM.
Addendum: the question of the quorum. Who must be done if the meeting is not quorate? It is often impossible to convene a parish council meeting in the summer, when parish activity is low and many councillors are away on vacation.
What should be the course of action, if the parish council’s majority decision is fundamentally unacceptable to the rector who nevertheless has to be responsible for it before his diocesan authorities?
Nowadays, the minutes are kept electronically. Is the minutes’ book still necessary?
Is it essential to conduct biannual audits? [reference to the audit being twice a year is missing from No. 41 of the English version of the NPB]
Would an annual audit be sufficient?
Delineate areas of domestic responsibilities pertaining to the sisterhood and the church warden.
Nos. 48, 49, 50
Here it would be expedient to clarify which activities fall within the competence of the PC (day-to-day housekeeping concerns, redecorating, cleaning, paying bills etc) and which must have a prior authorisation by the AGM (church building, the acquisition and selling of property, substantial building extension or renovations, considerable loans or borrowing, procurement of new parish clergy etc)
This paragraph is better placed within the section dealing with the meetings of the parish Council.
The closing of the parish can likewise take place by the direction of the ruling bishop, which fact should also be noted in No. 1.