Moving From A "Closed Source" An "Open Source" Model of Pastoral Ministry

After Liturgy this morning I had a conversation with one of the men in the parish about different approaches or models of pastoral ministry. For many ministry in the parish, whether by the clergy or the laity, is very much a “” reality.

“Closed source,” you ask, “what is that?” I’ll tell you.

Without getting lost in the technical details “closed source” refers to a computer software in which the end user or consumer is does not have access to the source code or the actual program that makes the software work. In many cases this isn’t really a problem. Most of us, myself included, are not particularly interested in the source code of say, Microsoft Word. We don’t care how it works, only that it works. The technical details of the program, much like the technical details of automobiles, or electricity, or cell phones, don’t matter to us.

Except of course when the program, or automobile, or electricity, or cell phone, doesn’t work. Then we ask, pointlessly in my own case, “What’s wrong, why isn’t this stupid thing working?” The reality of course is I don’t really care why my cell phone isn’t working, at least not in any technical detail. I only care that I’m not able to make a phone call when I want to.

The typically parish I think largely runs on a closed source model. As with our computers, or our automobiles, or electricity or our cell phones, we don’t care how the parish works, only that it is there and working when we want something. While it is not all together true, the work of parish is kind of like making sausage or law, most people think it is better if they don’t really goes in to them.

But again, this is only the case while things are working. When things go wrong, or probably somewhat more cynically, if not inaccurately, we get upset and we want answers. Unfortunately, as with our computers or our automobiles, most of us really don’t have the knowledge basis to understand what went wrong. So again what most of us look for is not for an accurate appraisal of is wrong (and right) in our community, but an answer (and it is almost always a singular explanation we are searching for) we can understand and that makes sense (justifies really) our discomfort, disappointment, or anger.

While this is certainly understandable, and I am as prone to this as anyone, it is not reasonable to expect to have a satisfying answer to a complex question without putting in the necessary time beforehand. Without a sufficient knowledge base, any explanation I can understand is likely to distort the situation. Worse it is likely to play to and re-enforce my ignorance or bias or active prejudice.

My brother priests will often tell me that because I’m a psychologist I’m less biased in evaluating parishes. I’m not, I am simply differently biased then they are. The fact that my different bias, my different perspective on a parish, the people in the parish and their relationship with one another, is useful doesn’t mean that it is “objective” with any mathematical purity. Like everyone else I see what I see from my own vantage point in terms of my own life experiences and with my own very real blind spots.

So since none of us have time to master all the information necessary to run a parish, much less to diagnosis its illness, what are we to do? This is where the “” model of computer programing might come in handy. If Microsoft is closed source, open source software give the user access to the code that makes the program work. Why? Because in the open source model the conviction is that the best programs are developed incrementally, step-by-step, in an active and intentional collaborative process. In this process, those who design the software and those who use it are seen as partners in the development of the final product.

In the social realm blogs are very much an application of the open source model to the writing process. As the author of the blog, I invite you not only to read what I write, but to comment on it. These comments are especially valuable to me since they help focus my own thoughts, tell me where my thought is not being communicated effective, and are a source for me of new themes of inquiry and reflection.

So what might an open source approach to parish ministry look like?

I don’t know–that’s why I’ve written this post. Let me ask those of you who read this: What would an open source model parish look like? Have I even given you enough information to answer, or even understand, the question? As a suggestion, think of the times when your own parish has not been functioning properly, what (and not “who”) need to be different do you think to avoid, or at least minimize, the dysfunction? Looking back, what might have been done differently to strengthen the parish? And what does strengthen mean anyway?

Just some grist for the mill:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says:

” When He ascended on high,
He led captivity captive,
And gave gifts to men.”

(Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first[c] descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, or the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (Eph 4:4-16).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


7 Responses to “Moving From A "Closed Source" An "Open Source" Model of Pastoral Ministry”

  1. Subdeacon Eusebios Says:

    Fr. Gregory,
    Father Bless!
    It seems to me that moving towards an “open-source” model, as you phrase it, is a decent idea, but an idea that would require what so many are unwilling to give, that is an effort towards understanding along with a desire to contribute to writing the “code” if you will. It seems, in my rather limited experience. that you may get 10% or so of a typical parish to be interested in this process, and then there is the process of getting the priest and other clergy on board.
    Please bear in mind that these are just thoughts off the top of my head (a head which hasn’t been fed much caffeine yet today). I’m not at all opposed to the”open-source” paradigm, rather offering what I see as potential barriers.
    In Him,
    Subdeacon Eusebios

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Father, bless.

    What you’re talking about is very suspiciously like change, a dirty word in Orthodoxy. Alas, I often think that in our desire to keep the Faith pure and untainted by “modernism” whether it be 16th C. or 21st C. that we close our minds to innovations in how our churches might improve.

    An open source is horribly risky. First, open source crashes and burns in its first incarnations. In technology, that’s expected –and suspect if it doesn’t happen. Churches are not going to be tolerant of recurring failure. They’re barely tolerant of new attempts, much less expected failure. In this, we have indeed accepted the secularist mode of thinking.

    Perhaps a new church could be established with an open source mindset, but I think that it would be too strange for cradle Orthodox. I’m not so sure this convert would do so well, either. I’m old and getting crotchety, but I’m willing to try.

    Schmemmen (forgive me if I misspelled his name) warned against church boards/trustees with good reason: trusteeism is a problem. Relegating a priest to manage only the liturgical aspects and visitation emasculates the priest. (Oddly, I hear this sentiment in our church right now coming from a few converts. Those who do not study history are doomed, etc.) However, we see clearly in our national management that leadership without a reasonably powerful balance can go massively wrong.

    (Am I wrong in my understanding that in the primitive and early church, a priest often had elders who managed the parish with him, or is this a remnant of my Quaker instruction?)

    So, how would the framework of an open source church look? I’d want a priest balanced with a council of working members who head up teams (education, building management, stewardship, evangelism, etc.) with definitive goals and a reasonable budget. Getting people with vision and a willingness to try radically new -therefore potentially failing – programs as heads will be critical to success.

    This will threaten the traditional president/vp/treasurer/secretary model. There will be therefore a possibility of a power vacuum that a strong personality may fill. If the mission of the church is not central and the members committed to the open source model, then there is a huge potential for disaster. I’ll be bold and suggest that it will happen several times before it works successfully because this is such a sea change from how it’s always been done. (Innovation in our parish was responded to with outrage. I suspect that Open Source Church might cause a revolution.)

    Then again, I use Mozilla Firefox and Open Office. 😉


  3. Fr. Gregory Jensen Says:

    Thank you Subdeacon Eusebios and Magdalena for your comments.

    Eusebios your observations cause me to rethink my original position. I think that the Church, as a living organism, is by nature “open source.” As you write, we are always writing code by our behavior. Right now we’ve written some very inefficient code since we are only about 10% productive (or if you prefer, 90% ineffective). In the alternate energy world (to give a sense of comparison) the Church is less efficient than solar panels or wind power!

    That said, I think you are correct about the human problems we would have to overcome to shift not the nature of the Church (as I originally framed the question) but our approach to the work of the Church. We either form our communities according to God’s will or we don’t. I can’t see a 10% participation rate (which is surprisingly close to what some demographic studies of formal vs. active membership in the OC suggests is the case) as God’s will for His Church.

    Magdalena,I appreciate what I think is your intent here. “Innovation,” in the sense of new doctrine is certainly something the Orthodox Church does not, and cannot, embrace and remain true either to herself of Jesus Christ.

    But innovation, change, on the practical or pastoral level is not, necessarily, a bad thing. At the same time change is not necessarily a good thing either. We need to be guided by Holy Tradition, the best of what we know from human reason and a good understanding of the situation.

    We often turn, intentionally or not, Holy Tradition into a goal. It isn’t. It is a hermeneutic, a way of understanding God and ourselves. To many Orthodox, without reference to either you or Eusebios, try to “do” the Tradition rather than be guided “by” the Tradition. In the second sense, Tradition is revealed as inherently collaborative–we are not only guided by, but are called to cooperate with, the Holy Spirit and one another.

    You are right, that is certainly a risky proposition. We will make mistakes. But, to return to the open/closed source metaphor, Windows closed source Internet Explorer crashes, but so does the open source Firefox. The question is not which approach will keep us safe from failure. Rather it is which approach allows us to recover from, correct and learn from my failures?

    Your understanding of the early Church seems more Quaker than Orthodox. The bishop was assisted in the governance of the Church by the presbyters (Gk for “elders” or today, priests), the deacons and members of the laity.

    In this light there is nothing inherently wrong about a parish council–though there is much wrong with how we use the parish council model.

    The early Church knew an active lay element in the governance of the Church;s internal life. And it was the laity (primarily monastics who are lay people and rarely clergy) who lead the Church’s evangelical witness.

    What you outline (“a priest balanced with a council of working members who head up teams . . . definitive goals and a reasonable budget”) is what is supposed to be the case in a well-functioning parish. The desire for leaders “with vision and a willingness to try radically new -therefore potentially failing – programs as heads will be critical to success.” Is somewhat more problematic.

    Yes, vision is essential. It isn’t however clear to me what you by “radically new” programs. While a certain boldness is necessary, and granted often lacking, it is important that, unlike in business for example, failing programs in the Church potentially means that people lose their salvation.

    (As an aside, as S-P pointed out in an earlier comment, the ministry of the Church is not about ‘programs’ as such, but helping people come to know and love the Holy Trinity and one another.)

    Again, nothing that I’m suggesting undercuts a community having a parish council with officers. The question is what is the goal of the council. In my experience, by way of conclusion, I have found both those who were grew up in the Church and those who embraced the Church later in life, to be both in favor of, and opposed to, an “open source” model of ministry. It was after all “cradle” Orthodox who not only brought the Faith to America, but built the parishes and brought most of us into the Church.

    Are their “cradle” Orthodox who are indifferent? Yes, certainly. Are their “converts” who are also indifferent? Without a doubt. The content of their indifference might not be the same, but I can assure you I know TONS of “converts” who have never left behind the habits and attitudes of their tradition of origin.

    Again, thanks you both for your comments! I welcome them and am grateful for the food for thought you provide me.

    In Christ,


  4. Subdeacon Eusebios Says:

    Fr. Gregory and Magdalena,
    I think that what each of you has to say on this matter bears thorough examination, and it seems to me that there is at least a modicum of potential here for talking past each other as we try to apply a technical parlance to a very organic structure.
    For the sake of clarity, if I may be so bold, let us say that an “open source” model, as I understand you to be putting it forward here Father, is to say a model in which there is a spirit of cooperation and a recognition that the effective functioning of a parish requires the participation and cooperation of the clergy and laity together, though in different roles as is necessarily the case, as opposed to the popular current paradigm which involves a Priest/Clergy and Parish Council approach set up on a “checks and balances” basis, a situation which,imho , creates a necessarily adversarial relationship.
    I like what you had to say Magdalena with regards to what you see as an ideal set up, I agree whole-heartedly.
    I struggle with how you can get the typical parish to open up to the concept of an “open source” model. It seems we are far too used to the current adversarial form, and I again agree that something different would be a drastic change, though in this case, not at all a change in the Holy Tradition, solely in our small “t” ways of doing things. And in this I fully agree with a good man who recently reminded me that tradition was made for man, not man for tradition 😉
    You say one thing that puzzles me a bit however, that is ;
    “Relegating a priest to manage only the liturgical aspects and visitation emasculates the priest.”
    I cna’t imagine a priest who would feel emasculated by having these be his chief duties while having a capable and cooperative team of lay-people capably assisting, and in fact leading in other areas. It is, imho, one of the great deficiencies in the life of the modern parish when a priest must not only provide these most valuable and exhaustive services, but then also be responsible for the total administration of all other parish functions. This is where a competent parish council of the kind you have outlined ,and Fr. Gregory has rightly proffered often doesn’t exist in our modern paradigm, would come into play.It would enable a priest to more fully concentrate on these activities, along with giving very general oversight to the other issues.
    I feel like I may be rambling aimlessly here, and if I indeed am, please forgive me.
    For what it’s worth,
    Subdeacon Eusebios

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Father Bless!
    The discussion of “open-source” vs. “closed-source” is very interesting. Having been Orthodox my entire life (but truly becoming Orthodox in my 20s), I have always viewed a healthy parish (although never officially called it this), as an “open-source place.” While a priest’s role is most definitely Liturgical, it is also parishioner based. Wouldn’t a shepherd know each of his flock? Wouldn’t a shepherd do whatever it takes to keep his flock together?
    When a parish is successful, it isn’t because of the priest alone, or the parishioners only. The same is true for a failing parish…it isn’t some “one’s” fault.
    A successful parish is one that is built upon the cooperation of everyone ~ consisting of the clergy, the council, and essentially all laity. While you will never achieve 100% participation in this effort, I would certainly hope more than 10%!!! Again, it is all about the “team.” Parishes that are successful depend on this! A priest can not be a mystery…just as his flock can not be a mystery to him. Cooperation, Communication, & Communion!
    A parish priest that works with his lay members(I don’t just mean cooperates, but physically works with them) is leading by example, and is ultimately opening up his relationship with his parishioners to be an “open source.” He becomes approachable by all, and is seen not only as Father, but as a true Spiritual Leader ~ someone to trust and to establish relationships with.

    Forgive the anonymous tag…I do not know how to choose an identity!

  6. Anonymous Says:

    It isn’t however clear to me what you by “radically new” programs.

    Radically new programs 15 years ago was an Orthodox church building a Habitat For Humanity house.

    Ten years ago, it was having a church web page.

    Five years ago, it was internet radio.


  7. Fr. Gregory Jensen Says:

    As much as I am able to do so, the essay I put on line this morning is an attempt to fill in some of the details of what I called here an “open source” model of the parish. Yes, as all of you have pointed out, the heart of such a model is cooperation among all the members of the community.

    The great irony is that because we are social beings we will always cooperate with one another, even if our cooperation, our working together, is motivated by jealousy or fear of each other. In a sense it like what happens when I try and hide from other people who I am by lying. When I lie about myself, what am I do but revealing myself as a lair to the other person? Human being can’t NOT be self-revelatory and we can’t NOT cooperate, even if we cooperate in our own destruction.

    I appreciate the comments that you Eusebios and Magdalena have made. These are weighty issues for which there are ready made, much less easy, responses.

    But it is especially by our cooperation, in a healthy sense of loving one another, that Christ has called us to bear witness to the world. As I mentioned in the essay I posted this morning (10/25), this begins with the realization that whatever I have is dependent upon the gifts that others have for its completion. Or as Fr Michael Oleska once put it: “Heaven just ain’t heaven of you ain’t there.”

    Quick aside, Anonymous #2, when you post you need a Google account to sign in with an identity. There is no need to do this however–you can simply sign your name and, if you want me to respond privately, just click the contact button on the opening page of the blod.

    In Christ,


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