Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Priests don't answer emails.

I have written (and subsequently deleted unpublished) posts on this topic numerous times. Usually I write while aggrieved by some clergyman in particular, but, as I find myself with only a few unrequited missives in clergy email boxes, I have the necessary apathy to put pen to paper.

It is a surprise to few that priests don't answer emails. They also don't answer the phone. If you go to a church during the week they might well not answer the door. This is not true of all clergy, but it's true enough about many of them for me to be able to bring this up in Orthodox company and receive knowing nods of agreement.

This morning I read a comment from a priest that said:

Evangelistic methodology submitted for your consideration: Orthodoxy in America could be a lot bigger if all parishes would answer their phone, return phone and email messages within a day, and install doorbells prominently on the church.

I answered in the affirmative. When I travel, I often use the phone number and email provided by a parish's website to confirm service times. Having experienced the East Coast predisposition to change the Divine Liturgy time to "Summer Hours" without reflecting such on their website or diocesan directory listing, I always check first. Parishes move to new buildings (happened to me in Georgia), unmarked side doors are opened instead of the main doors for weekday services (in Philadelphia), being in-between priests allows for only monthly services (in Seattle), no one will open a locked door for you unless they know you're coming in advance to Matins (in Brooklyn). In short: check first.

The problem is that confirmations are hard to get. A few months back I emailed 2 weeks before a trip to confirm service times. I received an answer two months after I had returned from the conference. This is not an isolated incident, it might well be common enough to be considered the norm.

Leaving voicemails is not much more efficacious. For as often as I have had someone pick up the phone or call me back, I have had twice as many calls fade into the ether. It should also not be forgotten that not talking with some Slavic parish priests beforehand will ensure you will not be communed. I have visited parishes where such a requirement is in place and it doesn't take much imagination to grasp how disheartening it would be to be turned away from the chalice for want of a returned phone call.

As one woman replied to the above priest's comment (I paraphrase), "We aren't mega-churches. Orthodoxy is about stillness and listening to God. We were here before telephones, emails, and doorbells." My response was that communications from laypeople are as apt to be about deaths, births, and family traumata as they are to be about pirohi sales, pysanky painting, and Pascha basket blessings. Is it reasonable to make a corollary between hesychia and the distractions of modern communications? Certainly we want our shepherds to be prayerful, but I am reminded that we are instructed to seek after the lost sheep as well as tend the sheepfold (Matthew 18:12-14). Looking at the life St. Raphael of Brooklyn, is he remembered more for his liturgical attendance or his response to the cries of those in need?

Troparion for St. Raphael of Brooklyn
(Tone 3)

Rejoice, O Father Raphael, Adornment of the Holy Church! Thou art Champion of the true Faith,

Seeker of the lost, Consolation of the oppressed, Father to orphans, and Friend of the poor,

Peacemaker and Good Shepherd, Joy of all the Orthodox, Son of Antioch, Boast of America:

Intercede with Christ God for us and for all who honor thee.

If you agree with me that there is a problem, what is the solution? The ready answer is money. If I picked up the phone right now the three nearest Greek parishes would pick up. They are staffed with secretaries (and not presbyteras in disguise either) and have real offices with phone systems. Though, when I last called one of those parishes for something only the priest could answer the message was taken by the secretary, but the return call never came.

I submit that things will change only when the directive is given from the top down (bishops to clergy) and, if possible, from the start (in seminary). There has to be some middle ground between a priest being constantly barraged with calls at all hours and the priest who is doing a poor imitation of someone in witness protection. By all means let there be a standing rule that all but emergencies will be tended to in 24 or 48 hours on weekdays. Let phones ring to voicemail, but have a system for returning those calls. Have the church email box auto-respond with a blurb on what the sender should expect for a response. Put large signs on doors leading people to the alternate entrances for daily services held in the chapel / downstairs to save on cooling costs / which doors are left unlocked to prevent theft.

If I might proffer a short checklist:
  1. Have a communications plan. 
  2. Make it available online and in the narthex. 
  3. Be willing to bring it up for discussion at regular intervals in parish council meetings.
  4. Think about who might call or email. Design the plan with the visitor from out of town, the non-Orthodox seeker, and the average parishioner in mind.
  5. People take unanswered communications personally. Be sensitive to that fact.
  6. If a parishioner wants something official (e.g. a baptismal record) then asking for letters is perfectly reasonable. 
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the other side of being available to your flock.

A woman called a parish I used to attend to get some scheduling information:

Woman: "Father, what time will you be blessing the baskets?"

Priest: "Directly after the liturgy or maybe 15 minutes after."

Woman: "What time will that be? What time will you be done?"

The priest, knowing the woman was of the ilk to pop in to have some tradition fulfilled, but never actually came to the Liturgy, responded, "My dear, the Liturgy is eternal!"

My recollection is that she did not show up for the Paschal service or the basket blessing. The story, though, is a good cautionary tale regardless.


  1. This reminds me of a few years ago, when Catholic and Orthodox Lent were staggered by 5 weeks; I phoned the local Greek Orthodox parish at about mid-Lent (for me, which was I think sometime in Cheesefare Week for them) to inquire about Lenten services. I received a return call on Orthodox Great Tuesday.
    True, I am only a Byzantine Catholic homeschooling parent who wanted to take her children on a "Liturgical Field Trip", but I could have been a fallen-away Orthodox trying to come Home.
    Yet another thing for which to pray.

  2. Excellent post! I had run into this in the Old World and written it off as normal/inevitable ('cause it is, like it or not), but I was always thankful it wasn't like this in North America...until I moved and a question about services at a parish I wanted to visit took a month and a half (?) to answer :-). "Better late than never" doesn't always cut it...

  3. Don't forget laity answering the phone and responding like you're stupid for not already knowing what you called to find out - if there is Vigil or Vespers on Saturday night.

    Episcopal leadership on this score is important. there is very little reason for most parish websites. The only thing people looking a church up online want to know is when the services are, what language the services are in, or what the email or phone number is, and maybe what the priest's name is. That's the kind of thing every bishop and chancellor should already know. A diocesan website would just as easily provide this information freeing up parishes from doing such things poorly. (The parish could still buy a customized domain name that points to the info on the diocesan website.)

    Going one step further re email and voice mail auto-respond: provide a standard script for the parish voice mail, the priest's work cell phone voice mail, and the priest's work email and the parish email. "Hi, you've reached XYZ church, Sunday services are at 9am, unless there's an emergency, someone will get back to you within 48 hours, etc...." A vacation script can also be provided for when the priest is away (chancellors know when this is, too, and can easily check whether Fr. A changed the voice mail message. Of course, a step by step guide to do this on email and voice mail should also be provided.

  4. Oh I have a really good one. A couple of weeks ago I was going to go to a prominent cathedral in a major east coast city. I emailed the priest just to make sure I could go to confession if I needed to (you never know which priests will require a confession from you before communing you after all). So, of course, I did not receive a response.

    Well, when we got to this prominent east coast city, a friend told me that he wanted to take me to another Orthodox Church which was closer and apparently more family friendly. We never did go to the cathedral that I had originally planned on visiting, and, sure enough, when I got back, two weeks later, I received an email from the rector thanking me for coming and that it was nice meeting me! Haha. . . I'm glad he remembered meeting me, because I sure don't remember meeting him, unless, of course it was on the metro.

  5. Maybe it's because we're so small, but even though there is a church phone (there's no warm body on the other end) everyone calls my husband's cell phone number which is prominently displayed on the website and bulletin. He carries it on his person at all times and always answers it. To my chagrin, he even answers during meals. In the very unlikely case that it went to voicemail (usually because someone called during a service), he returns the call in well under 24 hours, usually just a couple. The same goes for e-mail which he checks multiple times a day. I know not everyone is like this, but quite a few are.

    Certainly, the practice of being available needs to be more widespread.

  6. Matushka, some comments on this post made on Facebook bear that out as well. A cell phone seems to be the way to go, especially in those parishes without a traditional office setup.

  7. Thank you, Josephus, for your kind comments on my blog.

  8. Byz - I live in Seattle, and I know of only one 'parish' that is like that. The other eight are just fine. I'm sorry that directory pointed you that way!

  9. Ahhh yes this article hits home.

    I think sometimes the sign on the Church should say; if you have to ask, you don't belong.

    We have been in the past a member of a tiny parish that had the unfriendliest answering machine recording. And returned calls well has it frozen in the infernal regions?

    Turned away in a major city at a famous Ortho Cathedral we were dressed traditionally for Church, because work was being done and we couldn't even peek in and say a prayer.

    At another city after attending Church noted the normally closed other Church a stones throw away was open with people cleaning and gardening. We asked if could enter and say a prayer and see the Church. (The Church doors were open but the gate was locked). One of the ladies said we have services tonite you come back then.

    I was supposed to meet someone at a parish while traveling. I had difficulty finding it went to the phone book and they were not listed! Found out later the rector does not like phone books!

    At another famous Cathedral went to visit and though they get visitors regularly they could not find the key to open the Church. Also when you arrive outside of service times, lets just say their not Evangelicals; they are not glad, or necessarily happy to see you there.

    I could sadly go on... But you have to laugh at our all too human failings. Do not assume jursidiction on these you may be surprised!

    Matushka Anna is correct many Priests carry cells and return calls or texts efficiently. And I will always be thankful for a Priest of the other jurisdiction who came out to Commune a dear, dying, loved one late one night and he did not know her.

    Peace to all, keep knocking on the Orthodox doors often their are quite lovable hearts inside, even if a little crusty on the outside. Anthony

  10. I had the side door experience in London a few weeks ago. Because it was vespers rather than liturgy I did check for side doors but I missed the most hidden one which, of course, was the one they were using. A passing subdeacon noticed a nun loitering on the corner and invited me in but if I had been in ordinary clothes I suspect I might still be standing there!

  11. Our priest is amazing at returning calls, but I know that there's an ethnic parish near my parents' house that it probably took me five years, and an "in" (my sister's then husband's childhood friend had been raised in the church) to find out the times.

  12. Hi, I'm a relatively recently ordained Orthodox priest, a bit over a year. One additional wrinkle: you can have too many systems. I do NOT give out my home number. I don't want messages there. I want them on my cell phone. I don't want messages on my clunky church email account either, I want them on the account I use all the time. I even have an office only v.m. system. I use it so seldom, I sometimes forget to check it which I can only do at my desk. I probably need to change the message on it to, "You have reached a seldom used v.m. box for Fr. Mark. Please do NOT leave a message here. It will probably be over looked. Please call Fr. Mark's cell phone (insert cell number). In the unlikely event that he does not answer, leave a message there. He WILL answer messages left on his cell. Again, do not leave a message at this box it may take days to be noticed and answered. Thank you, please call my cell phone at xyz-pdq-response.

  13. Lots of comments and emails on this post from clergy and laity. I'll post a follow-up shortly.

  14. I have experienced this too- unanswered calls, locked doors, wrong service times posted, unwelcoming parishioners. I've even been scolded for keeping my children out too late to attend their Pascha service! I think your checklist is a good one. Some parishes seem to forget that visitors might want to come and that this is a GOOD thing! On the other hand, there are priests whose parishioners are much too demanding and expect him to answer his cell every time and be at their beck and call 24/7, even if he isn't salaried and has to work a secular job. This is an unrealistic expectation and would leave even the best multi-tasker frazzled. Some questions and discussions can wait until coffee hour. There has to be some balance.

    I think if I were a matushka, I would have to ask my husband to turn off his phone before meals and check messages after. That seems reasonable enough. I hope to be a matushka one day and have been taught that the matushka needs to help her husband have family time. After all, his family are members of the parish too, and he is also the priest of his home.

    I think Fr. Mark is very wise to streamline and only want messages on one phone and email account. That seems much more manageable. Perhaps he could have church emails forwarded to his personal account. I know Gmail allows forwarding. As for the church phone, why not have a message that includes service times and directs people to the parish website for directions and then say for questions or to speak with the priest to call the cell number? That will also help answer when service times are since the parish doesn't have a secretary.

    I'm glad this topic has been addressed. Communication is definitely a problem in many Orthodox parishes, whether it is to one extreme or the other. Parishes and priests need to be accessible to both parishioners and visitors, but there have to be reasonable limits sometimes too.

  15. Hey, it could be worse...

    (some strong language)

  16. My husband had the church's phone number routed to a cell phone which he carries with him at all times. In addition, he has unlimited text messaging... many of our parishioners like to "talk" to him that way. In fact, he sent out mass text to the parishioners the other day regarding a service cancellation! I think that the younger priests are really in tune with communications via the web, e-mail, and cell phone. My husband runs Orthodox Web Solutions and feels very strongly about this topic.

  17. In defense of clergy, let me say: I have been called into Father Wayne's office more than once to decipher a message, especially the phone number left. Either the caller feels that you know the number as well as they do and speed through it requiring several playbacks, or (this one is my favorite since it has happened so many times in my sales career) the caller trails off from the 4 digit recited so the penultimate one is barely audible, and the last is just lost in silence. When calling, I always say my number multiple times in different ways. First digit after digit (3-9-4...etc.), then single digit/two-together and then two pairs of double digits (3-92-44-67). It's called communication. Speak clearly, with pauses, don't trail off, and leave the number at the beginning and the end of the message both ways. Keep the message short and on topic, don't ramble for 5 minutes bringing up mulitple topics or unnecessary information.