On Saturday, September 12, the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America broke new ground by holding a “virtual” Diocesan Assembly. It was the first time in the organization’s history that the annual gathering went forward as an online event, with attendees participating remotely.
Since the first Diocesan Assembly in 1902, the event has been anticipated as an occasion for Armenian Church leaders from across most of the United States to come together to deliberate, vote, conduct important business, and enjoy social events.
Naturally, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was the reason for proceeding with the assembly in an online format for 2020. Earlier in the year, worldwide concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 virus had caused the cancellation of the scheduled 118th Diocesan Assembly, which was to have taken place in Dallas, TX.
The change in format led to some departures from past practice. This year’s assembly was conducted as an “informational assembly,” with a limited scope and timeframe. As a practical matter, the assembly did not attempt to conduct any voting for elections, on proposals, or on matters such as approval of budgets.
Some 180 clergy, Diocesan delegates, and parish council chairs registered to take part in the roughly four-hour meeting over the Zoom conference platform.
Diocesan Primate Bishop Daniel Findikyan presided over the occasion, and delivered his annual message on the state of the Diocese from within the Diocesan Center in New York.
Members of the Diocesan Council, staff, and others provided updates on key topics, with opportunity given for questions from the attending delegates. The meeting agenda included a financial presentation; a presentation on the Diocese’s Annual Appeal; and a special segment on the Diocese’s educational initiative Vemkar, the inaugural pillar of the Diocesan vision for “Building Up the Body of Christ.”
Lisa Esayian (St. James Church, Evanston, IL) chaired the meeting, continuing the role she had been elected to during 2019’s 117th Diocesan Assembly. In introductory remarks she affirmed that the virtual gathering would constitute the official annual Diocesan Assembly for the year 2020, as required by the Diocesan Bylaws.
A Transformation at Every Level
Bishop Daniel’s remarks, delivered in Armenian and English, began with an expression of his regret that the assembly planned for May, to have been hosted by the St. Sarkis Church of Dallas, TX, had not been able to go forward due to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic. He thanked the pastor and parishioners of that community for the long effort they put into that event, and their grace in accepting its cancellation.
The Primate devoted his address to the vision for the Eastern Diocese that has emerged over the initial years of his term, called “Building Up the Body of Christ.” He said of this name: “It’s not a motto. It’s a true transformation, at every level—from the bishop down to every one of the faithful; day by day, week by week—focusing our energies, our resources human and material, on the one sacred imperative of the Armenian Church.”
In pursuing that transformation, he drew a distinction between the church’s tradition rightly understood, and the mere repetition of long-held routines. The Primate called on clergy and lay leaders to “reorient our efforts,” and praised the spirit of “kachoutiun” (“courage”) to adapt in response to new circumstances.
Bishop Daniel went on to sketch the “five pillars” of the Building Up the Body of Christ vision, which are drawn from a passage in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (4:11-16). These include education, made universal, lifelong, and directed to every demographic segment of the community; equipping every faithful member to be a minister of the church; deepening meaningful participation in the Holy Badarak; promoting loving service and social justice in the church and surrounding society; and reforms to the Diocese’ structure and organization, including a reappraisal of the Diocesan Bylaws.
As the first established “pillar” of this vision, Bishop Daniel referenced the Vemkar online educational initiative, which was released to the public over the summer. A more detailed overview of Vemkar would be given in the afternoon session, he said.
A Demanding But Creative Year
In reviewing the past year’s achievements, Bishop Daniel focused first on the great interruption of the past half-year under the restrictions of the Coronavirus pandemic. While regretting the loss of the close-knit communal activity that is a hallmark of Armenian Church life, the Primate commended the Diocese’s pastors and parish leaders for their swift, creative responses to the pandemic, which allowed the faithful to participate in meaningful ways in the life of the church, and brought the church’s outreach to people in distress during a critical time. He thanked parishes for broadcasting their services over the Internet, and for carefully observing the safety guidelines for meetings and public gatherings.
Along these lines he mentioned the Diocesan youth ministry programs, which reacted quickly when in-person gatherings became impossible, transitioning to a series of frequent virtual events that included a weeklong virtual summer camp experience for several hundred young faithful from across the Diocese.
Bishop Daniel recalled with pleasure his visits to parishes in the earlier part of the year, and the ability these visits afforded him to meet and spend time with the people. While such visits had to be curtailed under the restrictions, he said he was thrilled that his schedule of visits would be picking up again, and he would be seeing parishioners in the coming months to the fullest extent possible.
He looked back gratefully on the two priestly ordinations he performed in 2019—ordaining Fr. Andreas Garabedian (Chicago, IL) and Fr. Voski Galstyan (Hartford, CT)—and said he anticipates two or three more priestly ordinations in the coming year.
On the subject of ordinations to the minor orders of the church, the Primate updated the delegates on the question of ordaining girls to serve as tbirs (acolytes) at the altar. The Diocesan Assembly had previously charged the Primate with investigating the question, and Bishop Daniel reported that he has brought up the issue directly in personal meetings with the Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness Karekin II, and that the question would be on the agenda of the next National Ecclesiastical Assembly of the worldwide Armenian Church—originally scheduled for this year but postponed for the duration of Armenia’s pandemic crisis.
The Primate spoke on his effort to advance the Atlanta mission parish to full-parish status, by securing a grant to assign a fulltime pastor to the community for a period of three years. He said that this effort has established a model that can be used in the future to advance several other Diocesan mission parishes towards full-parish status.
Bishop Daniel also addressed the Diocese’s work on the ecumenical stage alongside the Oriental Orthodox, Byzantine Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as in interfaith settings. He praised Diocesan Legate and Ecumenical Director Archbishop Vicken Aykazian for his longtime leadership on the national and global ecumenical stage.
Finally, recalling the “humbling experience” of being ordained a bishop of the Armenian Church in 2019, the Primate acknowledged the clergy who had served as mentors to him throughout his life and ministry. He expressed thanks to Diocesan clergy and parish leaders for their loving devotion to the church, and thanked the members of the Diocesan Council and Diocesan staff for their support and friendship.
A report on Diocesan finances began with a presentation from Development director Laurie Onanian on fundraising in 2019 and in the current climate. She said that in recent months, she had been deeply touched to see the outpouring of generosity and goodwill from people across the Diocese, who responded enthusiastically to the church’s campaigns to bring financial relief to people in Armenia suffering under the COVID-19 lockdown, and to victims of the Beirut explosion. She spoke about the launch of the Diocese’s 2020 Annual Appeal, and noted some positive early developments and favorable circumstances that could encourage donors in the coming months.
Oscar Tatosian of the Diocesan Council gave a presentation on the Diocesan budget, which he began by praising longtime council treasurer Roseann Manoogian Attar for the careful attention she has devoted to the organization’s finances.
He detailed that the Diocese currently projects a four hundred thousand dollar loss for 2020, due largely to the severe reduction in revenue from facilities rentals at the Diocesan Center in New York, incurred during the pandemic lockdown. The Diocese was eligible for and received more than half a million dollars from the Payroll Protection Fund, but also furloughed nine employees and gave salary reductions to the staff as a result of the pandemic. More promisingly, the Diocese’s Legacy Endowment Campaign passed the nine million dollar mark in 2019.
A highlight of the virtual Diocesan Assembly was a special presentation from the Diocesan Ministries departments on the recently-launched Vemkar educational initiative. Dn. Eric Vozzy and Arpi Nakashian gave an overview of the history of the Vemkar “brand name”—which originated as a smartphone app and has been developed as the foundational pillar of the Building Up the Body of Christ vision.
They then led the delegates on a virtual “tour” of Vemkar’s educational offerings available on its website platform, Vemkar.us. They discussed the inaugural module topic, “Christ as Healer,” and described how its associated educational materials are organized to address different segments of the church community. They noted Vemkar’s various social media platforms, and the “Live Sessions” using video conferencing, all of which work together to build an interactive experience for the learner. Finally, the delegates learned that additional tutorials and virtual seminars on Vemkar will be offered to parishes in the coming year.
Assembly chair Lisa Esayian led the final session in which delegates asked questions and voiced concerns. While delegates were largely pleased with the format of a “virtual” Diocesan Assembly, many had questions about the scope of assemblies going forward: about the practicality in the near term of holding in-person meetings, and also the urgency of restoring the deliberative and voting functions of the assembly.
Throughout the meeting, Diocesan staffers Jennifer Morris and Christopher Sheklian shared the technical roll of moderating the online discussions.
The meeting adjourned with a spirit of optimism from participants and organizers. For many of the delegates the occasion was a welcome reunion with friends they had not seen since the start of the lockdown, and some lingered on the video conference to exchange brief greetings and warm good wishes.
A series of video “break-out sessions” has been scheduled for the coming weeks as a follow-up to the main assembly meeting of September 12.
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