Our newest interview series is meant to highlight the work of those people who have been called by God to assist his Holy Church as pastoral assistants/Youth Ministry directors .
The next interview is with Maria Shelley, the director of ministries of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, South Carolina.
Tell us about your position and what is the most interesting part of it?
Maria: If our parish is a garden, God lets me help till soil, water, fertilize, weed, and watch things grow. More literally, I get to work alongside Father Michael and the Parish Council to organize all of our existing ministries, to develop new ones, and particular to our parish, to cultivate a youth program that will stem the flow of our younger members to other churches and deepen their own religious education and fellowship with one another. This translates into everyday tasks like coordinating parish events, creating master calendars, surveying the parish to build upon their interests or talents, exploring and promoting existing Diocese and Archdiocese programs, generating youth activities, teaching Sunday School, and organizing and disseminating information. All of this is done to move us toward our common vision of improving the relationships and spiritual health of our church family. For me, the most difficult part of this job involves remembering that, as a servant of God, I am not really “in charge” of the outcomes. But this is exactly the most interesting part, too, as I get to constantly witness how the Holy Spirit really moves and works within the members of our church body to make things happen!
What led you to work as a pastoral assistant/youth ministry director?
Maria: This position as “director of ministries,” which is what we have chosen to call it so far, developed rather organically. For a couple of years now, I have been blessed to meet with a core group of volunteer parishioners to discuss ways in which we could better care for our church community (our “ministries committee”). Eventually, our parish council articulated the need to create a more “formal” position for someone to assist our priest in identifying and addressing these needs of our parish. We realized that this would require someone to look at the whole picture, to wake up each morning, prayerfully asking, “What can be done to improve the ministries of Holy Trinity today?” At the time, I was teaching courses in child and family studies at the University of South Carolina and realized that this new church position would allow me to marry my love of “family” with my love for “Christ.” God takes care of us.
Using a specific example or two, in what ways have you seen your work as a pastoral assistant/youth ministry director impact others: the participants, and the church as a whole?
Maria: First of all, I really don’t think of my work as “impacting” others because so much of what I do involves listening to the ideas of others and then helping to bring those into fruition. It’s the ideas of the parishioners, the sweat of the volunteers, the dedication of the priest, and the prayers of so many that allows God to work in our church. I feel more like the child that holds the watering can or pokes holes in the ground with a finger so that the real gardener can step in and make things happen. But we are starting to see things grow. For example, we have implemented a monthly event called “Youth Wednesday” where the youth come together with Father Michael to get to know him, to learn about our faith, to share a meal, and to build relationships with one another. Though still in its infancy, our church is starting to reclaim a weeknight to bring our parish family together on more than just Sundays. Ideally, we want folks to attend Paraclesis first and then move into these activities, and eventually, to expand our Wednesday night offerings to include programs for their parents and other parish adults as well. But gardens grow slowly, and we get to learn patience in the process.
What are your short-term goals in this position?
Maria: The most basic goal involves creating and sharing a common vision for our church family so that we can focus on living as an Orthodox Christian community—not just a bunch of individuals who happen to believe some of the same things. One immediate goal is to improve parish communication (via websites, social media, bulletin boards, liturgical guides, etc.) so that people can be heard and can be made aware of what the church already offers. Another goal involves assessing our community to identify what people feel is still lacking as well as what skills or talents they may have to offer. As far as the youth, we not only want to increase the “number” of children participating in our church, but also to improve the depth and quality of these relationships through meaningful encounters. Ultimately, we strive to help our church members grow in their love of God and of their neighbors.
What advice can you give to readers whose parishes might be lacking in a pastoral assistant/youth ministry director?
Maria: Look around and see what God is already providing for you. Sometimes as Orthodox Christians we take for granted the value of what we have already been given, like a wealthy person who no longer appreciates the value of a dime. With the participation of your priest, consider setting up a volunteer committee—not necessarily parish council members or just the most active folks in your church—to brainstorm what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of the parish. Talk to parishioners and listen to their concerns, and ask them for solutions. Don’t forget to talk with the children and teens as well (easier said than done)! Finally, be sure to genuinely thank and uphold those who are already doing their best to serve the church, and assure them that you are trying to build upon what they have started, not replace or undo all of their hard work. We would not likely pull up a thriving seedling in our garden so, too, we should start from whatever is already fruitful in our church family.