Fr. Luke Veronis shares the story of how his parish trusted in the Lord's provision. Rather than clinging to the last few resources dwindling from their bank account, they accepted the challenge to "Be the Church" by sharing the resources God had provided to global, national, and local missions and ministries. A few years later, as the Church approached its centennial celebration, they invested the Lord's provision by distributing $30,000 cash among their parishioners and sent them to the highways and byways to give to those in need.
Fr. Luke bases his ministry on the Lord's word to Abram found in Genesis 12:2, "I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing."
See the full episode transcript.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You are listening to Doulos--a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian, I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I'm thrilled today to be talking with Father Luke Veronis, pastor of Saints Constantine and Helen church in Webster Massachusetts. Fr. Luke serves as the director for the Missions Institute of Orthodox Christianity, and teaches as an adjunct instructor at Holy Cross and Hellenic college. He and his wife Presbytera Faith served for 10 years as missionaries in Albania, and before that Fr. Luke served as a missionary for a year and a half in Africa. Today Fr. Luke serves on the board of directors for the Orthodox Christian Missions Center. Fr. Luke welcome! So excited to talk with you today.
Fr. Luke Veronis 0:50
Thank you very much for asking me to come, it's my joy.
Hollie Benton 0:54
Fr. Luke I heard you speak at the Missions and Evangelism Conference over a year ago in Columbus, Ohio, just weeks before the world shut down with the pandemic crisis. Some of the stories you shared about trusting in God's provision were courageous and inspired obedience when it comes to inspiring generosity and serving as parish stewards. I think word has gotten out about your radical approach and celebrating your church's 100th year anniversary, so I'm eager for our listeners to hear that story in today's conversation.
Fr. Luke Veronis 1:26
Thank you very much for asking about that. I'd like to just back up in history a little bit before our 100 anniversary, which we're in the midst of celebrating COVID sort of prolonged it an extra year. My wife and I arrived at St's Constantine and Helen church in Webster Massachusetts 17 years ago, back in 2005. I arrived as following our missionary work in Albania, we arrived in Webster, and I was the 43rd Priest in it's 85 year history, so I knew nothing about the church, actually. And what I discovered when I arrived there was an old church, 85 years old, but it was struggling, it was declining, one could say it was dying. I think many of its own people and even our bishop was uncertain about how long it would keep its doors open. Prior to my arriving there, the church community wanted to save money. And so they were just bringing in a priest twice a month to serve Sunday liturgy, and that was it. So here was a church that before 2005 twice had rejected the idea of going to a stewardship program, they hold on to a simple dues program. They had a budget, an annual budget of $64,000 which they were struggling to get and to survive. And so they were in dire straits.
We arrived to it by the grace of God, truly by the grace of God. We tried to instill a new vision, a new direction, tried to make the people understand what it means to be the church, the life of the church is all about worshiping God and growing closer to Him. Our goal is union with God. It's about loving one another, and loving not only those within the church but those outside the church. It's about challenging our people and inspiring them to reach out to others. Basically, it was giving a vision right from the beginning that we have to change our inward turned vision, where we simply were in a survival mode--and they weren't surviving too well at that--to an outward looking vision of helping others. The first budget I ever worked on with my parish council: "I said, I want to three specific line items for local missions, national missions and global missions, and I want you to put a couple $1,000 in each line item." My parish council president of blessed memory, he said to me, "Father, you mean, we're going to send $1,000 to Africa, we can't even pay our own bills?" And I said, "Yes, that's exactly what I mean, because that's what it means to be the church. We are going to up--and the thing you're going to realize is when we act as the church, you're never going to worry about where the money is coming from to pay your electric bills or whatever else because we'll have plenty of money because people will buy into the vision, and they'll gladly give."
Again by the grace of God, we saw a radical turnaround happen in this church that many thought was dying and was going to close it's doors in 10 years, remember that in 10 years, they're going to close their doors. We saw a radical turnaround. So much so that the attendance in church, within around five years, the attendance in church doubled our budget went from $64,000 to $150,000 to today's $250,000. We began raising money and sending Mission teams right from year two of being here. I said we have to send out mission trips, we set out our first team of six to Project Mexico for the five previous years prior to COVID we had sent a team every summer of 25 people. So raising at least 25 to $30,000, outside of our budget to build homes in Mexico. The global vision that we had instilled a desire for a local vision of giving. So giving it's all about reaching out to others. There's a beautiful scriptural verse that I've really based my ministry on that I think central to the entire Bible, and it's called the Abrahamic blessing.
Hollie Benton 5:33
That's right. You asked me to have it prepared. It's Genesis 12 The first few verses. "Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred, and your father's house to the land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and Him who curses you I will curse, and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves."
Fr. Luke Veronis 6:02
So that beautiful passage of Abraham's calling, within it, there's a very specific Abrahamic blessing where God says, "I will bless you so that you will be a blessing." Of course the greatest blessing through Abraham comes Jesus Christ, the blessing for the entire world. Throughout Scripture we can see why does God bless us? God blesses us so that we share the blessings with others so that we become a blessing for others. And this was a central part of what I tried to instill in the vision of the church, tried to really change the culture of the church, a church that was very inward turned, survival mode, only thinking of itself. And of course, when your inward turn just thinking of yourself, that's a recipe for disaster. You're going to die. But when you realize, "oh God blesses us and let's share those blessings outside, outside of ourselves outside of our community". Locally-to the larger Webster of Central Massachusetts community outside-even to the national community, and the global community. So even a tiny church like Webster.
And this is something that shocked my some of my people at the beginning, I mean we were a tiny church in Webster that never had anything to do with the global church, and all of a sudden I was bringing in missionaries from all over the world to come to speak in our little church. They were telling us stories of where the church, what's happening in the global church. Then we took people from our church going to Mexico, building homes, and it wasn't just teenagers, it was the parents and sometimes. I remember a 40 year old, very successful businessman who took his son to Mexico, and when he came back, the son was touched and later on his daughter and other son would be touched and all that, but this successful businessman-he admitted to me after the first visit, and he's been down there now, six or seven times. After the first visit he said "You know, that's the first time in my life, I've ever done volunteering." Imagine that. And since then, I can tell you, this person is the first one in my community to volunteer to be ready to do anything. He's gotten involved in many different ways, but it shows you when we catch a different vision and get a different experience-changes our life. It can change our individual lives, it absolutely can change the life of a community.
Hollie Benton 8:32
So in a way, being invited to give financially and of one's time is in and of itself, a gift. It's as though they're saying thank you for allowing me to participate in giving.
Fr. Luke Veronis 8:48
And that's one of the keys of understanding stewardship. In my class, actually this past week, I teach a class at Holy Cross School of Theology entitled "Creating a missions minded parish" actually the title of the class is a misnomer, it's not simply creating a missions minded parish, it's creating a healthy parish, and a healthy parish will obviously be outward turned and mission-minded. This past week we actually did a class on stewardship, and giving. And I had them read a beautiful little booklet that I would recommend to all of you by Henri Nouwen. I don't know if any of you know Henri Nouwen but he's one of my favorite spiritual writers throughout my life. But it's called the spirituality of fundraising, the spirituality of fundraising in that book, he says, "We must not let ourselves be tricked into thinking that fundraising, stewardship, asking for money, don't be tricked into thinking this is only a secular activity as a form of ministry fundraising can be as spiritual as giving a sermon, and during a time of prayer, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry." And then he goes on to say, "We have a vision that is amazing and exciting. We're inviting others to invest in that vision, to bring their resources, that God has blessed them with, so that they can bless others. So we're asking for their energy, their prayers, their money in this work, to which God has called us to do" and what you just said is what they discover they discover the joy of giving.
Hollie Benton 10:34
That's right. It's not about penny pinching or frantically gathering and storing up for your own needs, or for your own local church to survive, but it's about being the church, trusting in God, the One who generously provides for you so that you can without hesitation give to others, attempting to imitate the mercy and generosity you've been shown by God.
Fr. Luke Veronis 10:56
Exactly, what one of my great mentors that I've been blessed to have in my life is Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos, the Archbishop of Albania. He was my Archbishop when I served in East Africa for a year. He was my Archbishop in Albania for 10 and a half years and, and truly a dear, dear friend, and spiritual mentor and spiritual father to me. He's a he's a great theologian, the greatest missionary orthodox missionary in the world today, he says, "What's the opposite of love?" And when you think about that typically people will say the opposite of love is hate. He says the opposite of love is the ego. Because love is all about the outward turn--reaching out to the other--loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving your neighbor and your neighbor and loving God, there's, there's not a distinction between the two. They're not two separate commandments literally it's one commandment. How we love God, it's how we love our neighbor how we love our neighbors how we love God. So love is all outward turned. The ego is all about being inward, and this is the fundamental mistake people make in their lives, whether their too self-centered, egocentric, and they think that's going to make them happy by accumulating more and more for themselves and so they end up being miserable. The happiest people I know, the most joyful people I know are the people who are the most generous, who give and find great delight in giving. So it's a danger to the individual, but then also of the community. Any community that is going to be inward turned is a dying community. That is not the church because the church can never be inward turned, the church is always saying, "Remember Christ's words, we are the light into society, we are the yeast to change the dough. We are the salt that changes the flavor of society." So we have to be constantly reaching outward.
Hollie Benton 12:55
So when it came time to celebrate your 100th year parish anniversary. You turned outward, rather than thinking about the balloons and the party favors and plaques and commemorations for your anniversary. You truly turned outward and not inward. So tell us how you celebrated that year.
Fr. Luke Veronis 13:15
Let me first say, 10 years after we were here in 2015, a church that was worried about closing its doors with an overall budget of $64,000. 10 years later, we renovated our entire church, raised $900,000 to renovate our church to build some new classrooms and our church looks brand new now. So that happened. Following that, four years later we have our 100th anniversary, you know, the spirit, the culture had changed our church where we knew we were a church that would reach out and give, and bless others. And so we said What's a way--we're celebrating our 100th anniversary celebrating 100 years of being in Central Massachusetts this immigrant Greek Albanian church. 100 years later, has a very different identity, a very different makeup of its people, and how can we celebrate not just to remember the past. We want to honor the past, we want to celebrate the present, and then we want to prepare for the future.
So we thought, let's do this as our kickoff: On our Stewardship Sunday in 2019 which was the kickoff for our 100th anniversary, our Stewardship Sunday which the past 14-15 years, we would always hand out a stewardship card and ask people to fill out the stewardship pledges of how they're going to give time talent and treasure back to the church, whatever. This year we said we surprised the people, and they said okay, we're not giving out stewardship forms for you to fill out this year instead, we're giving all of you, we're giving all of you an envelope. And inside that envelope, you're gonna find cash for a family, you're gonna find in cash--$300 cash for a couple, you're gonna have $200 cash for a single individual, you find $100 cash. This is our church's gift to you. But there's only one thing that we asked, What two things we're actually asking you. Two things, is we want you to take this gift from us. We want you to take the blessing and go bless somebody else. So we're giving this out to you so that you can look around in any way you want. No one there's no limits, there's no one gonna tell you what to do, use that money and go bless somebody else, if you need it yourself, desperately, you can keep it. But if you if you don't find somebody who needs it, or find a way that you can help somebody else. Our church gave away $30,000 in cash to our people, and we said you'd use this and go bless Central Massachusetts, our area our region, or whatever you want to do, go bless.
And in our community over the next six months we actually gave a third of the people that money on that day, a third two months later, a third two months later after each two months we ask the people, the two things we ask them is, go bless somebody with this money, and then, tell us what you did with it. Tell us how you felt and what you did. And of course, what happened, and this is the whole goal, people started looking for where there are needs all around them. People started helping, and what was very typical aside that they would say to me, "Father, the church gave us $200 And I added another $200. So $400 we did X, Y or Z with it. We helped this person we did this." Some people, you know, I could tell, literally, I think it was the first time in their life, they ever gave something like this to somebody. The beauty of this is we took the stories we collected the stories we shared the stories in our community, which made everybody feel better. And then it gave them a more incentive, a greater incentive, to want to continue doing acts of kindness. What one woman said, you know, "I thought about this I thought about a lot and then I was sitting one day in my car and I saw a homeless person scavenging through the trashcan. And I walked over there and I started talking to the person, I've never talked to homeless person in my life. And I actually talked to the person, and I listened to their story and then I gave them something. And then, when I drove away from there, I was driving somewhere, and I saw another homeless person, and I did the same thing." And then she went on to tell me how this impacted her life. I mean there's many stories, and we did the simply to teach our people, the joy of giving. And I think they really discovered that, but I'll tell you even something else that was totally unexpected.
A year later, after this all happened. A year later, someone who wasn't even a part of our church who heard about what we did--and a lot of connection, I had an uncle who was a part of the church, and all that out of the blue and he calls me up and wants to meet with me when he meets with me. He gives me a check for $40,000, and he says for $40,000 He goes, "I want you to do something like you did a year ago, that was so inspiring." The way we're going to end our 100th anniversary, is we're going to use 20,000 the dollars that he gave us to work with another nonprofit I don't know if you've ever heard of the nonprofit RIP Debt Relief, but we're going to work with a nonprofit that wipes out the medical debt for families that can't pay their medical debt, and they've worked out a thing with the debt collection agencies where they pay a penny on the dollar. So our $20,000 is going to wipe out $2 million worth of debt for maybe a couple 100 families, those couple 100 families. You're going to get a note that says your debt of $20,000, $30,000, $50,000, whatever. Your debt has been wiped out by St's Constantine and Helen church in Webster Massachusetts. That's our gift to you.
Hollie Benton 18:56
Beautiful. The Lord provides, it's His blessing, and we are His vessels and He gives us the opportunity to share in what He already provides--to share as He shares with us. How lovely and just amazing. So you kicked off this fabulous anniversary celebration, right before the pandemic hit. Looking back, how do you think that set the stage for stewardship, and generosity in in through your church this past year in dealing with COVID?
Fr. Luke Veronis 19:26
I mean there's many challenges of COVID and we're going to we're still going to deal with the challenges of COVID for the next year or two or whatever but I can say several things. Number one, even though the churches were closed for a couple months, initially, since May our church has been open our stewardship hasn't suffered. We ended the year 2020 with greater stewardship giving than we had any other previous years. During this time, in our 100th anniversary, we're also doing another campaign to raise $250,000. Again, to raise $250,000 to take care of some things we need to take care of a new H-vac system and a roof that we need. But then, I'm hoping that 20% of that $50,000, we're going to be giving out to our local Metropolis camp, to our Project Mexico to a special outreach that we're trying to do to certain addiction programs to help people with addictions, and then that this RIP Debt Relief, we're going to be doing as well.
During COVID, you know, one of the things that we had to stop, which has been another of our beautiful ministries in the last five seven years, what we've been running what we call the Living Bread Luncheon, which is a luncheon at 12 noon on the first Sunday of every month. We live in a blue collar middle lower class town. And there's a lot of people who struggle there and two of the other local churches, twice a month have a free meal so we wanted to join with them and offer something for free meal, and we thought initially this meal would be for the people really struggling, mothers with single, single mothers with children struggling, whatever. What would our Living Bread lunches turned into, and it's not simply a soup kitchen, our luncheon is at 12 Noon. People literally arrive at our church at 10 o'clock, two hours early, because we have a beautiful hall, we welcome them warmly, we have coffee and doughnuts for them while they wait. Now literally what we get 20-30 people, 40 people coming by 10-10:30, we just sit at the tables with their friends, some of them bring their cards to playing cards, I go around other people in our community go around talking to them, we've gotten to know them, that it's really become a beautiful community. And the vast majority these people actually are elderly people who are bored who don't know where to go, some of them are hungry, and they love coming, they tell me how much, some of them literally said to me the highlight of their month is coming to our Living Bread Luncheon, where they get treated like special guests. It's like going to a first class restaurant because we serve them, we serve them a delicious meal. We treat them well. It's a beautiful setting. While music playing in the background, sometimes we'll have some entertainment or something for them, but that's another thing that has happened from starting to go to Project Mexico but then people say well why aren't we doing something locally? I'm like, Absolutely, why are we doing something locally? We need to do something locally, and we were involved in soup kitchen a homeless shelter in an area, but we wanted to do something that we were doing on our grounds and truly this is one of the most beautiful ministries we have during COVID. We've tried to do take out, we tried to do some things--really this Living Bread Luncheon, we haven't continued, but people still donate to it. We have plenty of money we never, never have any problem getting donors to cover his meals. But what we did do during COVID, like many churches did is we had a, I said "Please continue giving your donations, we'll put that all in a COVID agape fund." Anyone who's come to us in the community, anyone we know that who has struggled during COVID, we've been more than ready to help pay for their rent, give them, gift cards, give them a couple $100, $4-300 $400 $200 $100 or whatever they need to help them out during this time.
Hollie Benton 23:17
You know the Orthodox Christian leadership initiative developed a module called Inspiring Generosity and Stewards for parish leadership councils or teams, even Stewardship Committees. We kick it off with a workshop and then offer six months of coaching and support to help that local parish leadership team implement the stewardship plan that emerges from the workshop. From your perspective father Luke, what are a couple of the most important elements of a solid stewardship parish plan?
Fr. Luke Veronis 23:45
The first of the fundamental issue is you have to connect your stewardship division to what is the vision of your church? What is the mission statement of your church? And let your people understand that know that because people won't give when they know what they're giving to. Some churches might say, well, it's the church, when I would say the mentality was before. Okay, well, they have to give because we have to keep the church open we have to keep paying our bills. Well truth be told, people don't get inspired by paying bills. You do have to pay your bills, but that's not gonna inspire people. Give them a vision. What, what is the church doing? We're doing our Living Bread Luncheon. We're building homes, you know, our church was known in our little town. Maybe it was known, 20 years ago for its Greek Festival. You want have good Greek food once a year? Go to the Greek church and yeah you have some delicious Greek food. Now there's nothing wrong with having a festival, and offering delicious food. But I don't want my church, our church to be known for its food, at least not in that sense. So, if we're known now: Oh, that's the church that builds homes in Mexico, that's taken many of our young people, even people who aren't Orthodox, because I've invited my, the children of our church to invite your friends to come to Mexico with us so they get exposed to this. Oh, that's the church that has the living bread luncheon, that's such a delight, and serving 100 elderly people, oh, That's the church, where the large open AA meeting is Sunday nights where you get 80 to 100 people come attending, an AA open meeting, or the NA meeting, oh that's the church that the Girl Scouts are allowed to use anytime they want. So, you have to give a vision, that's the most important thing, and part of that vision is the whole idea of understanding: We are blessed, so that we bless others.
Hollie Benton 25:40
Thank you Father Luke. Are there any other stories you'd like to share as we wrap this up today? Ones that could help those leading stewardship plans at their own parishes to think more creatively and boldly, with a vision, and in obedience to the gospel to live as faithful servants who care for and share what the Lord so generously provides?
Fr. Luke Veronis 26:01
I can tell many other stories, but I just want to conclude with the idea that stewardship is not just about money and fundraising. Stewardship is a way of life that entails, who we are, everything we have in life. And sometimes we say our time, our talents, our treasure, but it's even more than that it's our entire life, everything we have is a gift from God. One day, God's gonna say, "I wanted you to be a good steward with everything I gave you. What have you done with what I've given you?" Nothing is our own. That's where we have to break away that it's hard to do that because we've grown up with a mentality, all around us a worldly mentality that says "Mine. My house, my time, my job, it's my hard earned money. My my my." That ego-centric spirit constantly threatens us and will always threaten us to the end of our day, as an individual and as a community church family. The vision that we instill has to help people understand. We are stewards of everything. Are we being good and faithful stewards and sharing and blessing and giving? Does our church community in the little town where we are or in the big city where we are, is it a blessing for the larger community there? You know, sometimes you hear the saying: "If your church would close it stores today. Would anybody even notice?"
Hollie Benton 27:31
I love that question.
Fr. Luke Veronis 27:32
And I'm afraid that in many of our churches, many cities and towns wouldn't even notice. I think there's around 3,000 Christian churches that close every year. 3,000. If we're one of those churches would people even notice. Would they only notice because they'd say, Oh, we're no longer gonna have the Greek festival. Is that all they are going to miss? Or are they going to notice the other central things that we do? That's what we want to do. So I'll just leave with that idea of thinking, this vision.
Hollie Benton 28:05
Amen. Thank you Father Luke for this wonderful conversation today I really appreciate it.
Fr. Luke Veronis 28:11
Thank you very much for inviting us. It's my joy and I invite you and any of your listeners, anytime you're in Central Massachusetts I invite you to come and visit our beautiful Saints Constantine and Helen church, and family.
Hollie Benton 28:25
We'll be sure to come for the first Saturday of the month for Living Bread.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai