In order to deepen their pastoral leadership capabilities, clergy of the Eastern Diocese have the opportunity to further their education at various institutions of learning in the United States.
Currently, nine priests are completing masters and doctoral degrees and certificates in a variety of pastoral-related concentrations, ranging from counseling to theology.
Supporting clergymen in their pursuit of advanced degrees has been an ongoing priority for the Diocesan Primate, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian.
“The future of our church depends on an educated clergy,” said the Primate. “Our efforts to advance education among established priests, along with the important recent developments at St. Nersess Seminary, are part of a concerted approach to build up the Armenian Church in America.”
“The Primate’s commitment to this project is going to be very important for the Eastern Diocese,” said Diocesan Vicar Very Rev. Fr. Simeon Odabashian. “Encouraging our clergy from Armenia and America to deepen and enrich their parish ministry through further education allows for a greater quality of pastoral care, and also makes for healthier, vibrant parishes.”
Funding to support clergy education comes from the Eastern Diocese’s Spiritual Leadership Fund in addition to scholarships from AGBU and discounts from institutions attended by the priests.
Rev. Fr. Mesrob Hovsepyan, pastor of St. Gregory the Enlightener Church of White Plains, NY, is currently studying for a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY.
He previously earned a master’s degree in Pastoral Studies from Fordham University and also studied at North Park University to complement his studies from the Vaskenian and Gevorkian Theological Seminaries in Armenia and St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, General Theological Seminary, and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in the United States.
“As a pastor of the Armenian Church here in the United States, I feel that the education that we receive at the theological seminaries isn’t adequate when we come across a family or a couple that needs counseling,” said Fr. Mesrob. “My Marriage and Family Therapy studies will help me enhance my experience and equip me with the right skills to fulfill my pastoral ministry to my parish community.”
Rev. Fr. Abraham Malkhasyan, pastor of Church of the Holy Martyrs of Bayside, NY, had an interest in continuing his pastoral education not only to supplement his theological base but also to help strengthen his ministry and parish.
He’s currently enrolled at Fordham University’s Doctor of Ministry program with a concentration in spirituality and plans to graduate in 2019.
“It’s practical, pastoral theology on different issues and problems of this century and trying to find answers to those questions in order to make the parish a better place for everyone,” explained Fr. Abraham when asked why he pursued this course of study.
Part of the Doctor of Ministry program at Fordham involves writing a dissertation. Fr. Abraham’s focus will be on young adults and young married couples and how to draw them to the church. One project he’s working on this year is on the topic of “bullying priests.”
The project has him focused on how pastors can find a middle ground between theology and practicality and dealing with hardline notions, pride, and egocentrism so that a parish stays vibrant and doesn’t erode due to an unwelcoming, authoritarian pastorate.
Fr. Abraham expressed his gratitude to the Primate and his parish and parish council for giving him the opportunity to pursue the course of study. “By focusing on spirituality, it helps a parish become more Christ-centered. And by learning different processes of other denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, it becomes helpful for our church to become more Christian than in just the name,” he said.
Rev. Fr. Arakel Vardazaryan, pastor of St. Mary Church of Livingston, NJ, is also focusing on practical theology with his studies in psychoanalytic counseling at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.
He was drawn to the concentration two years ago after an experience trying to help counsel a parishioner. The experience took him back to his time as a seminarian in Etchmiadzin when he felt helpless when ministering to kids with special needs and mental illness during their weekly visits to a local orphanage.
“We didn’t know how to deal with the children because the best we could do is pray, but we didn’t know how to interact with them or address their problems,” explained Fr. Arakel. “I realized my knowledge was zero. It was something I wanted to investigate.”
Knowing he felt unequipped to support certain members of his flock who have special needs and also those who with marital and relationship issues, he tasked himself to strengthen his understanding of group, marriage, and family therapies.
“We clergy know as pastors that we are in charge as shepherds and have to love and guide our parishioners, but sometimes our knowledge is not enough,” said Fr. Arakel, who plans on graduating with his master of arts in psychoanalytic counseling degree in 2019. “Honestly, what can you learn from theology that can help you support people with mental illnesses, depression, and family issues?”
Part of Fr. Arakel’s studies includes field work at a hospital and visiting patients. Like other clergy balancing pastoral work with a degree, the days are long and sleep is little. But Fr. Arakel says the degree is worth it in order to be a proper shepherd to his parish flock and at the same time allows his parishioners to trust him with their personal problems as not only a priest but as a counselor and confidant.
“When I notice that I have parishioners going through family issues, I’m the last one to know about it and when it happens, it’s too late to save the situation,” he said. “Now that I’ve told people that I’m pursuing this field, they’re interested and they’ve started opening up to me about their issues. This is why I chose to study something that can be beneficial to helping people in our church.”