The Gospel is a disrupter, and this is the case even in our attitudes and behaviors around money and generosity. Fr. Evan Armatas shares ideas and practices surrounding stewardship from his forthcoming book, Reclaiming the Great Commission: A Roadmap to Parish Health. These include:
In this interview, Fr. Evan cites a study which suggests that while many people face the same disruptive force, only 5% of us will make a positive change because of the disruption. Fr. Evan urges us to "press on," as the Apostle Paul instructs in his letter to the Philippians, allowing the Gospel to do its disruptive work in us for the sake of meaningful change and salvation.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And Father Timothy Lowe joins us as co host. He's the former Rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. Hello, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:28
Greetings, Hollie. Nice to be with you again.
Hollie Benton 0:30
You as well. And we are delighted to welcome Fr. Evan Armatas today. Fr. Evan serves at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in Loveland, Colorado, and he hosts Orthodoxy Live on Ancient Faith Radio every Sunday night. Most recently, Fr. Evan released his book, Toolkit for Spiritual Growth: A Practical Guide to Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. And he's now working on another forthcoming book, Reclaiming the Great Commission: A Roadmap to Parish Health. So welcome, Father Evan. So glad to be speaking with you today.
Fr. Evan Armatas 1:03
Hollie, and Father, it's great to be with you as well.
Hollie Benton 1:07
Fr. Evan, you know that our upcoming Sixth Annual Leadership Conference this September 2022, is at St Vladimir's Seminary. We were hoping you could come speak at it, but with your busy calendar, it just didn't happen for this year. But as you know, the theme is "Money - The Gospel Changes Everything." Would you mind just saying a few words about how the Gospel does change everything when it comes to money?
Fr. Evan Armatas 1:31
Well, one of the ways I think about it is that the Gospel itself is incredibly disruptive, right. And it's disruptive in many ways. And it takes a lot of the things that we have, let's say maybe disfigured and misguided ideas about, and reframes them. That's certainly true when it comes to material possession. There's probably not a topic that the Lord speaks about more often, and how we utilize this incredible resource, and how we deploy it is an important part of our spiritual life. It is, if you will, an outward fruit of an inner conversion. So I think the Gospel definitely disrupts how we want to think about money. It's certainly, on the simplest platform, says, well, your money is not your own. But rather, it's something you've been given a stewardship over. And how you deploy that stewardship and how you manage that stewardship will impact, let's be frank, the internal eternal condition of our soul after death. But it'll certainly also give witness to whether or not we've incorporated the Gospel and the message of Jesus Christ into our lives in a meaningful way.
Hollie Benton 2:44
Would you also say a few words about how you set the expectation for stewardship at your parish? I know discussions around money can make people feel really uncomfortable sometimes. But we've had this discussion before, and I just really appreciate the thoughtful approach you have with stewardship at St. Spyridon's.
Fr. Evan Armatas 3:06
Sure, sure. Well, you you mentioned the book, Reclaiming the Great Commission, and it's hopefully going to be out in print in the next few months here. The book is, to a degree, a narrative of the parish that I serve, and that looks back on the steps that we took and how we got to where we are today, and how we're moving forward. Where I am today about how I talk about money, and how it fits within the parish, is very different than where I started. You know, and I think that's true for anybody who's having, you know, an opportunity within an environment to be reflective, right? But also to be self critical and detached and see, you know, how did I deploy my teaching on money when I was first ordained, versus how I do it today? So you know, I guess I'm really going to talk about how I do it today. You know, I don't really want to cover the mistakes of the past so much. I think that the WHY is the most essential component. And I think most of the time, we're talking about the HOW, and if we can get to the WHY, we can talk about why someone should be generous, more likely to end up with a abundance of generosity, right? So for example, in our parish, we don't very often talk about, let's say, the nuts and bolts of giving. We don't very often talk about even our budget, but we talk a lot about what we're doing and why we're doing it. And I think that captures people's hearts. And certainly when I capture their heart, you're gonna get their wallet too, if you will, but we're not going after the wallet. We're going after the heart and I think that's really where Christ was going. Now with that, our WHY is the most important thing. We also at the same time didn't sort of just stumble around in the dark, we did try to look carefully at how does giving operate in people's lives. And I think probably the most fundamental change that we made besides talking about the WHY, and talking about reasons for generosity, and trying to capture hearts, is that we refashioned the way in which we receive and manage money in our parish.
Hollie Benton 5:27
I just remember a conversation with you, where you expressed that if you're a member of the church, we expect you to strive to be merciful as the Lord, our God has shown you great mercy. So we expect generosity, just as the Lord has shown you great mercy. But if you can't be generous, we want to know that so that we can help you make ends meet if you're in need of anything, material or otherwise.
Fr. Evan Armatas 5:54
Right, well, what you're getting at is some of the nuts and bolts of how we go about, talking about what giving is and how we run our giving program. That's an opt in versus an opt out system. And most of our parishes are operating under the opt in system. We want you to declare your membership. We want you to then tell us how much you're going to give or fill out a form. Really, that's all about creating barriers, and if you will, closing down the opening to people's generosity. And we want to make it as easy as possible. So as you were saying, in our parish, if you show up, we don't even say if you're baptized, or chrismated, we just say if you show up here, then you're interested in being a part, a member of this community. And we treat you as such from the start. Now I'm not getting confused over the sacramental distinction we make between a baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christian. But on the other hand, I'm looking at it if you will, like a funnel in its right position, versus a funnel that's been flipped over. And I think we often run our programs like funnels that are flipped over with this very narrow opening that we're trying to fit people through. And there's a lot of work that goes on to sort of make that happen. But if we can flip the funnel over, then we operate a little bit more like the parable of the dragnet, you know, that's found in the Gospels, or the parable of the wheat and the tares. And we can stop trying to select. We can allow the Holy Spirit do the selection. And what we can do is we can free up that resource of time and energy, just talking about the WHY. So I operated stewardship giving programs for, you know, 17 years, and parishes where you had committees and teams that really went out and tried to foster, you know, sort of the connection between the giving and the budget, and talking about how people were going to give their money and sign them up. And we just took all that out and said, Let's not do that. Let's just make the assumption that once you're here, you're going to be part of the generosity of this community. And let's focus our energy elsewhere. And that's what we did. There were a lot of nervous people, when we got rid of our forms, and our signups, stewardship campaigns, and all of that.
Hollie Benton 8:13
Fr. Evan Armatas 8:13
Yeah, and, you know, generosity went up 34% in the first year, and we really kind of untethered ourselves from something that was incredibly restrictive. You know, the other thing that happens, Hollie, is when I ask you to tell me how much you're going to give me, you generally are going to hedge. Now, this is just not my opinion, this is research. So you'll say, Oh, I'll give you 10,000. And then what do we do, we send you a giving statement, six months, and you see, well, I made 5000, maybe at nine months, you prepay your balance, you get to 10, and you're done. You hit your goal. So we put an artificial cap on how generous you will be. But if instead we say, look, let's talk about the WHY, let's talk about generosity, let's talk about all reasons to be excited about giving in this community. Then when you start giving, you're going to respond to how the Lord has blessed you. And if 10,000 is too little, you're going to keep going. But on the same hand, if you know within this community, that we're not tied into sort of saying, Well, what did you give us? And are you a member? If you're a member in need, there's a little bit of freedom to come and say, You know what, I'm struggling. Can I receive some help? And certainly in our community, we have a whole pot of money that is set aside to pay people's bills and take them to the doctor and get them a ride or hire a cleaning service or whatever it is they might need.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 9:38
Now that's quite refreshing to hear, and certainly cuts off all the other host of issues of accounting and sending out statements and all that other nonsense that affects most of our parishes. You mentioned the word management, which is the key witness, okay. You get people to be generous and what are you doing with the generosity? That to me is the big selling point. How do we manage because that's what inspires people. They give more when they see an authentic need, and not just maintenance of the AC system or whatever, whatever maintenance buildings require.
Fr. Evan Armatas 10:08
And you know, Father, I think when we talk about generosity, there has to be an integrity on the back end, you know, in our community. So, in the book, I discuss barriers to parish health, and I talk about bridges to parish health, and one of the bridges is certainly operational excellence. But one of the barriers is stagnation, where, you know, the needs and concerns of our community are primary. People pick up on that really quickly. My father is a very generous man who's participating in a parish, not mine. He lives in a different place. And he told me, the last time I got the newsletter from the parish, it disappointed me because we keep just talking about our own needs. Right? And in the book, I talk about how in the Gospel, whenever someone comes to Christ to be helped, let's take the Samaritan woman that he encounters or Zacchaeus, you know, or even the Gadarine Demoniac. Yeah, their life has changed. But what then happened? The Samaritan woman goes into the village and tells everybody, and then the villagers lives are changed, right? What happens with Zacchaeus? He goes to Zacchaeus's house, and then those that are in Zacchaeus's house are changed. So in our communities, I think if we're so stagnant, and so parochial that the local community doesn't even know we exist, or if we were to cease to exist wouldn't care. Well, that's true then even at the deeper level in our own parishioners. Why are they going to open up their hearts and wallets to us? If they intuitively know, really, all we're doing is gilding the lily. We're not really engaged in serving our neighbors. So I think you're right, Fr. Timothy, if it's just about the air conditioning, or replacing the tiles with marble, I would say most people just aren't that interested and generosity dries up. And you know, the Holy Spirit itself doesn't move in those circles.
Hollie Benton 12:05
Right. He left the temple in Ezekiel, right? He didn't recognize it as his own place and got out of there.
Fr. Evan Armatas 12:11
Yeah, yeah, the same will happen in our own communities. You know, I do a case study in the book of the community on the West Coast that was noticing that they had plateaued and started to decline. And the neighborhood they were in used to be middle or upper middle class, and it no longer was, and then an incident where they were some thievery occurring inside the temple. And so what did they do? Well, they spent a whole bunch of money on security. They did fencing, they put in cameras, I mean, a quarter of a million. Meanwhile, you know, there are people just outside their door that can't make their rent, that are struggling because they're unemployed, have addiction, you name it. And the parish's response was to enclose and ensconce itself. So then when they go and ask people for money, look, again, is there integrity in that ask? With the gospel, there isn't. By no surprise or shock to me, their giving and their stewardship continued to decline.
Hollie Benton 13:15
Yeah, no surprise when you're trying to protect it from those in need. It makes a mockery of the Gospel that we say that we proclaim. Fr. Evan, you suggested a few verses from St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians as a daily bread for our discussion today. If I may just remind our listeners that the letter is written while Paul is imprisoned, and by this time likely facing his execution. The Apostle Paul has laid everything on the line for the sake of the Gospel. And this letter, intended to be received as scripture, even by the bishops and deacons he addresses, reiterates the same Gospel he preached to the church in Philippi, and articulated in letters to other New Testament communities. So Paul gives himself as an example to the believers, although he's imprisoned and at the mercy of the emperor, he openly confess his Jesus Christ as his Master, and not the Emperor. So specifically, reading now Philippians3:7-14, "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ, my Lord. For his sake, I suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him not having a righteousness of my own based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith, that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. That if possible, I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this, or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Jesus Christ has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." Our priest likes to point out the strong language, even offensive language in the Greek term, "skybalon," translated here as refuse. When Paul says, "For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse," as garbage, as sewer waste, "in order that I may gain Christ." This is evident by the apostle Paul himself who is not rotting in prison as some may think. But is rather, while in prison, straining forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal in Christ Jesus. His language and his imagery is so powerful, allowing no wiggle room for us to make any excuses which, when he is clearly putting his money where his mouth is. Do you think so, Fr. Evan?
Fr. Evan Armatas 16:11
Well, I've always loved this passage and the people that are part of the community that I am part of know how often I will refer to this passage. It's a passage my grandfather referred to. He was from the old country. You know, what's beautiful about Christians from places in which the gospel has existed for millennia, is often the gospel is paraphrased in their own language, in a way that it sort of embeds itself. So there's this very famous phrase that Greeks will say to one another, when they've attained something, but perhaps, in attaining it, they have begun to rest on their laurels, and so someone will comment on it. Or when you accomplish, let's say something like graduating from college or graduate school, you may say to someone this phrase, in order to inspire them to do something even more noble and beautiful. And it comes from this passage: to the higher, to the better. "Kai seh anotera," you know, my grandfather was very fond of saying. And so I think this language, it's very apropos to the idea of giving or giving programs, putting our money where our mouth is, because we can look at what we've accomplished and say, Well, I've really done a great job here. You know, there's nothing more to do. And to that, Paul would say, I don't think so. I think we need to continue to press on. Or perhaps we haven't done anything. And we've really not been very generous or very committed. And once again, Paul would answer, Let us press on. I love how in a sense, in either way you take it, you take yourself from the present and you begin to move forward, which in my understanding of Orthodox theology is often the route we most like. You know, instead of being remedial, let's be therapeutic. Let's start where we are and do what is good, what is beautiful, what is holy, and that will heal us, and it will heal our communities. And I did receive some instruction when I was a young person about giving, about generosity, that stuck with me. And again, that led me to this passage, and I was struggling as a student to really commit my resources, my financial resources to the church. You know, I was toasting bread and eating it with mustard for lunch. That was, you know, most students, right, eating ramen. And my spiritual father said to me at the time, he said, Why don't you start where you are, give whatever it is that you can, your widow's mite, you know, sacrificially. And then allow for God to take you where he wants you to go, which is a little bit like what's in this passage, is that there's a journey that we can take beyond where we are.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 19:09
Well, there you go, Father, you're disturbing my retirement, or St. Paul is. There is no rest. Not in the Gospel.
Fr. Evan Armatas 19:20
Yeah, I think so. I think that's a good thing though, isn't it? To be disrupted; not to be left as we are?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 19:28
Yeah, I say ouch several times a day.
Fr. Evan Armatas 19:33
You know, I don't know if you guys are familiar with that study about disruptors and how we may all encounter the same disruptive force, but only about 5% of us will make a positive change because of the disruption, which is lower than one out of ten lepers returning. Secular studies tell us we can't expect 10% to respond but only 5% to respond. But 5% can do quite a bit. If five people out of 100 really respond sacrificially, you can move a mountain, you know? So, but you're right Father, it is a constant disruption, even in retirement.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 20:11
Even in retirement, thank God.
Hollie Benton 20:13
Yeah, disruption, without any kind of self reflection, self critique, openness to the challenge of being disrupted by the Gospel, what kind of leadership is there without one that is framed by repentance and self reflection?
Fr. Evan Armatas 20:30
Well, when I was going through a period of growth as a leader, I had signed myself up with a professional mentor and coach, which I know is something that Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative does. I just couldn't recommend it more. And certainly, I would say it's within our tradition, right? Spiritual fathers and mothers are part of our tradition, people who can stand outside of us and look at us. And we can appropriately place a measure of trust and intimacy and respect in them, to hear how we need to change and not be resistant. But one of the things I was going to say is that, you know, I remember my mentor, who was a faithful Christian, but also a very successful businessman. And he said, you know, in the business world, disruption and competition which causes disruption is all around us. And so we're forced to look carefully, otherwise, we go out of business, right? And I think sometimes in the church, we can get sort of calcified. The Gospel is the disruptive force, right? But I don't know that anytime that I grew up within a very sort of sedate Orthodox community, did the Gospel operate in that way. We'd sort of ensconced ourselves from it. We'd become deaf to it. We were asleep, while it was being preached.
Hollie Benton 20:51
Right, we almost treat the Gospel as an ego padding, trying to find in it things that will justify our own position and justify ourselves in terms of protecting what we have from the outside rather than letting it do its work in us to challenge us and disrupt our lives.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 22:18
Let's be honest, because at some point, the disturbing, disrupting Gospel had stopped being preached. Let's just throw that out there. Without intending compromise, really this disturbing element of the Gospel, which is everywhere, and the disciples get irritated because there's a blind man screaming out, Son of David have mercy.
Fr. Evan Armatas 22:36
Well, to close out an example of that, I think, with this giving and money in the Gospel, one of the homilies I gave on giving, as it was moving towards disruption that we've been discussing, was I asked people to take their checkbooks and wallets out. And so they did. And then I said, I want you to hand it to someone outside of your family, which they ended up doing. And then I said, Okay, now everybody write the check you've always wished you wanted to.
Hollie Benton 23:06
I love it.
Fr. Evan Armatas 23:07
Right? It was a disruptive example to say, look, it's not your own. Right? And the Gospel wants you to know it's not your own. And we get comfortable, because every day we slide it into our own pocket in thinking it's our own, right? The gospel and how it talks about money, and talks about stewardship, and the responsibility we have, "to those who've been given more, more will be expected." You know, it's a completely different reality than what we typically live with.
Hollie Benton 23:35
Thanks so much, Fr. Evan, really enjoyed the time today.
Fr. Evan Armatas 23:39
Hollie, I'm really sorry I can't be with you this Fall, but God willing, a raincheck and I can come out another time.
Hollie Benton 23:45
Yes, let's hope so.
Fr. Evan Armatas 23:46
Hopefully, your listeners, you know, will look out for that book, Reclaiming the Great Commission, when it comes out. And if they haven't picked up Toolkit for Spiritual Growth, I recommend them looking at and you can find it on all the usual platforms.
Hollie Benton 23:59
That's right. You're asking our listeners to be disrupted even further, huh? Alright. Thank you so much, Fr. Evan.
Fr. Evan Armatas 24:07
Thank you, Hollie. Thank you, Father.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 24:08
Thank you, Father.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai