"A Conversation with the Minister to the Union"
By Paul Kassabian
[from the September 2001 issue of Forum]
Recently I spoke with Rev. Karl Avakian, the Minister to the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America (AEUNA) about a range of issues facing the AEUNA now and in the future. The following is a summary of those discussions.
The AEUNA office is located in Fresno, California, at Rev. Avakians home. The office includes a dedicated phone line (559-433-0746), a dedicated fax line (559-433-1249), two computers and an email address (email@example.com). The administrative staff is made up of a full time secretary and Mrs. Nancy Avakian as a volunteer administrative assistant. While Rev. Karls hope is to have, "in the not too distant future, a decent office in Los Angeles," nevertheless he acknowledged that housing the offices in his home saves the AEUNA approximately $15,000 annually, the estimated cost of appropriate office space in Fresno.
As Minister to the AEUNA, Rev. Avakians responsibilities are set forth in the Constitution and Bylaws of the AEUNA, adopted in 1984 (Bylaws). The Minister to the Union is defined as " the pastor, the spiritual leader and the chief executive officer of the AEUNA " or as Rev. Karl noted, he serves as "pastor to the pastors." However, the Union and the Minister to the Union have limited authority over the member churches and their pastors. "The genius of the congregational system is that the congregation has the final word. This can also be a curse when some things are not done properly," he stated. To illustrate the point, he focused on the Union's advisory role during a member churchs pastoral search. "When a church loses a pastor, we send out guidelines and names. Some churches keep us informed and others dont. Part of it is a lack of pastors available so they go outside the Union, and part of it is they want to be independent. Churches ask for a pastor to come in and then they inform us of what they have done. By then it is too late for us to talk to the pastor. And there have been times when it was the wrong choice for pastor."
Rev. Avakian is also responsible for daily Union operations and works closely with the current Moderator, Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian. Pursuant to the Bylaws, "The Moderator shall preside over the meetings of the General Assembly, the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee and shall represent the Union at official functions." As the job description suggests, the Moderators level of involvement depends upon the individual Moderator, ranging from minimal to very active.
The Unions organizational structure is set forth in its Bylaws. The AEUNAs primary governing body is its Board of Directors. Each Union officer (Moderator, Vice Moderator, Clerk, Treasurer and Minister to the Union) is a voting member of the Board. Twelve additional voting members are elected at the Unions biennial General Assembly, each of whom is either a Chairperson of one of the Unions six standing committees, or a member at large. The Board also includes representatives from affiliated and recognized organizations.
The Board meets two or three times a year. Pursuant to the Bylaws, the Executive Committee, made up of the officers plus an AMAA representative, is responsible for making decisions on behalf of the Board between its meetings.
Unions Growth Potential and Member Benefits
Currently, the AEUNA includes twenty-five member churches and four fellowships in the United States and Canada. One additional church is being considered for associate membership. Rev. Karl estimates that, of the individuals raised in the Armenian Evangelical tradition, only one-sixth attend Union churches and fellowships. Further, he noted that there have been continuing discussions between the Union and non-AEUNA Armenian churches in the reformed tradition, i.e. Brotherhood and Nazarene churches, about joining or having close cooperation with the AEUNA.
In addition to encouraging existing churches to join the AEUNA, Rev. Avakian raised the possibility of establishing new churches in areas with Armenian communities large enough to support them. "We can do it in the Fresno, Los Angeles, and New York/New Jersey areas, and we shouldnt be afraid to reach out to Armenians outside the boundaries of the Evangelical church."
Further, Rev. Avakian challenged pastors to reach out to the unchurched, stating that one of the goals of Union churches should be "to preach the gospel more." He continued, "We want a pure church sometimes, constantly saying that you need to be born again. I believe that everyone should be born again. But in a church, there are those who drink, there are those who dance, there are those who may even curse. The churchs purpose is to bring them all to Jesus Christ, not to pass them up. Church is a place for sinners to come. The pastors position is not to badger people who do not think as he does or as some of the elders think, but to present Jesus Christ in as many ways as possible. We dont need a sledgehammer to do that. We dont need to frighten them out of hell. We should ease them with the power of the Holy Spirit into heaven."
According to Avakian, another tool for growth is pastoral visitation. He acknowledged the logistical difficulties of visiting members in a large metropolitan area, such as Los Angeles. "However" he said, " Mohammed has to go to the mountain. We have to go and visit. Show me a pastor that visits and Ill show you a growing church."
Any discussion of Union growth begs the questions, "Why should a non-member church join the Union?" or "What services does it provide its members?" Avakians response is to focus on the importance of the "fellowship of churches" the Union provides, stating, "Where there is good fellowship, there is strength." Additionally, he pointed to the Armenian Evangelical Ministers Fund, an endowment fund through which the Union provides financial assistance to its ministers and churches. Examples include the establishment of retirement funds for five ministers, augmentation of ministers salaries, provision for health insurance premiums, and emergency loans for ministers in need.
Continuing, Avakian asked, "What if a pastor leaves a church without a place to go? What does a church do without a pastor? Both should be able to look to a body to assist them." The Union assists in placing pastoral candidates in churches with open pulpits. Additionally, the AEUNA examines prospective pastoral candidates prior to ordination to ensure that the candidates theological beliefs and standards meet the Unions criteria. Finally, the Union develops future pastoral candidates by employing seminary students as pastoral interns at Union churches with the understanding that these interns will serve in the Union upon completing their education.
Another critical issue facing the Union is that of pastors leaving to serve elsewhere. According to Avakian, in the last ten years, twenty-two church workers (including senior, associate and youth pastors as well as seminary students) affiliated with the AEUNA left for positions outside the Union. He attributes the trend to several factors. Theological differences between Union leadership and pastors or seminary students led to the departure of some in recent years. In his view, "we need to learn to understand the younger generation. We need to communicate with them without compromising our theological beliefs." Some pastors become disillusioned with their inability to make an Armenian church into a neighborhood church, drawing its attendees from the immediate surrounding community. Avakian sees this as ill advised, stating, "Even though most of our churches welcome non-Armenians, history has shown that if you try to make an Armenian church a community church, it fizzles out and dies."
Often, a further cause of this crisis is the congregations treatment of its pastors, financially and otherwise. Avakian pointed out that during much of his pastoral career he has made less money than he did when he sold World Book Encyclopedias prior to accepting a pastoral position. Additionally, he challenged congregations to treat their pastors with dignity: "I believe that a church has a right to sit down and talk to the pastor and have good communication on a very Christian level. There is no need to beat them up. We need to be more statesmanlike and less political."
According to Avakian, the Union can approach this issue from several angles. As noted above, the Union supports pastoral interns and provides financial assistance to pastors. Additionally, he notes, "We need to train our candidates better. Secondly, if we are going to take in new pastors from outside the boundaries of the Union whose backgrounds are different, we need to have orientation classes with them so that they understand us and we understand them." He pointed to the development of potential pastoral candidates, including five current seminarians with a sixth committed to begin in the Fall. Further, four college students and one high school senior have expressed an interest in attending seminary at the appropriate time. Avakian said, "We have to catch these young people early and let them know who we are."
The value of the Unions assets is approximately $6.5 million with the expectation of six to seven percent annual growth, and an annual operating budget of $420,000. However, Avakian noted, "We end up including non-budgeted items when necessary; we work by faith." The Unions primary sources of income are its seven endowment funds. These funds assist the establishment of new churches, develop existing youth and Christian education programs in Union churches, provide scholarships for theology students, and as noted above, assist pastors in financial need.
Fundraising is among Rev. Karls chief responsibilities. He stated that with more activity from the Unions board members and Stewardship Committee in this regard, even greater growth would be possible. Further, he observed, "Our pastors become very nervous that if the Union comes and asks for money from their people, they will give to the Union and not to the church. But we have discovered that those who give to the Union in large amountsor in any amountwill give as much to the church."
On a personal note in closing, as one who has been active in AEUNA functions since the 1982 General Assembly in Toronto, I found my conversation with Rev. Avakian to be very instructive. It was refreshing and comforting to hear that Union leadership regularly addresses the issues set forth above. My lasting impression is that, given more authority and financial support from its member churches, the Union could serve a more significant role as a mediator and resource for the Armenian Evangelical community in the future.
Like Mohammad, Paul Kassabian did not wait for Rev. Avakian to come to Los Angeles, but traveled to Fresno to conduct this interview.
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