“A spirit of sobornost:” An interview with Fr. John Jillions, new OCA Chancellor

Author: Staff
Date Published: 01/04/2012

In October of 2011, Fr. John Jillions, a lifelong member of the Orthodox Church in America, was recommended by the Metropolitan Council and confirmed by the Holy Synod of Bishops, to fill the position of Chancellor of the OCA. Having served in administrative, academic, military and Church posts, Fr. John brings a wealth of experience to his new role. At the crossroads of the old year and the new, we asked Fr. John to reflect on his first months as OCA Chancellor.

1. Tell us about your first few months as Chancellor of the OCA. What has surprised or challenged or delighted you so far?

I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy the job, being part of a team, working with good people at every level.  There is a collaborative, good-humored spirit of “sobornost.”

I’ve worked closely with His Beatitude and the Holy Synod of Bishops, with the officers and staff of the Chancery and been introduced to the seminary boards. I have yet to meet with the full Metropolitan Council, but in these first few months I have worked intensively with the General Counsel and the Legal Committee, the Crisis Management Committee, SMPAC (the Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee).  I want to build a good working relationship with diocesan leaders, and was very happy, while at the AAC, to be at the Diocesan Assemblies of the South and West. A few weeks ago I was invited to meet with the West’s Diocesan Council in San Francisco. In January there will be meeting with all the diocesan chancellors and treasurers (a first) that overlaps with a meeting of all the OCA’s department heads. We have so many excellent people committed to working voluntarily for the Church, giving of themselves. And that is inspiring and motivating.

To be completely honest, however, I’ve also been surprised by how much attention has to be given to a very small handful of cases of alleged clergy misconduct.  Much of this remains confidential, as it should, and does not at all reflect the full life of the OCA.  But this is obviously a disturbing crucial area and we will need to be doing much more in terms of training of seminarians, clergy, parishes and diocesan leaders.

But back to “delight.” I love going into St Sergius chapel at the chancery, surrounded by the relics of the saints of North America, St Seraphim and St Elizabeth the New Martyr.  For now the chancery remains in Syosset (whether it stays here or moves in the future will be an administrative decision that needs to be taken carefully and rationally), but the chapel is a jewel and has been important in the life of my own family.  It’s where I began my priesthood, inasmuch as Met Theodosius served a molieben when I was being sent off to serve a parish in Australia with my wife Denise and infant son Andrew. It’s where my late sister Alla Wheeler and her family went to church, where she was anointed, celebrated her last Pascha in this life. It’s where I baptized two nephews. It’s a privilege and a surprise to now be there everyday.

2. Your resume is diverse—degrees from McGill, SVS, and Aristotle University; priest, chaplain and dean; founder of Cambridge’s Orthodox Institute and professor; adult home administrator. How do you hope to draw from this background as you join the OCA’s administrative team?

I have to say that the role of Chancellor is calling upon every single bit of that education and experience, and a lot more! It is by far the most challenging job I’ve ever had. But by God’s grace the diversity of the job fits well with the diversity of my life, and so I feel quite at home swimming in a variety of waters. And as Bishop Benjamin told me recently, the chancellor is meant to be a kind of grease, helping the various parts of the church function well together. That’s a fairly humble form of labor that should go largely unseen if the machine is working properly. But it helps to be comfortable in many different sorts of pastoral, administrative, educational, inter-church and ecumenical environments. I will be especially grateful if my experience of both Russian and Greek church life can help with the OCA’s contribution to forming a united Orthodox church in North America.

3.  It’s generally acknowledged that the OCA has had its share of challenges in the past few years, and yet every cloud has its silver lining. Describe for us both the chief obstacles, but also the opportunities you see unfolding in this next chapter of the OCA’s history.

The “silver lining,” in my opinion, is that the OCA has learned to live its life collaboratively, as I said earlier. It has been forced to discover what it means in practice to be both hierarchical and sobornal. And so there is a healthy working relationship that is being hammered out at every level: between the Metropolitan and the bishops, the bishops and Metropolitan Council, the Central Church and the dioceses, the dioceses and parishes. Part of this process has been the painful and public facing of internal issues. But this is a badge of honor. One of my friends, an Eastern Catholic, followed the recent AAC on Ancient Faith Radio and told me he was in awe of our process, “discussing these issues about the functioning and future of the Church with such candor not just to your fellow delegates, but in front of the entire world listening…I know of no other apostolic Church, Catholic or Orthodox, that comes within a thousand miles of having this kind of frank and open discussion.” We need to hold on to this and embrace it, not be embarrassed by it.

As Fr Thomas Hopko says, we have to pick up the “cross of collaboration” at every point to build the living temple of God.  We Orthodox are at a turning point in our history in North America. We could each turn back to our own various brands of insularity, or we could create a truly united church that recognizes and builds on the particular gifts of each. For all our posturing as Orthodox, the fact is that we are a tiny and still largely unknown minority on this continent.  We have not yet begun to bring the full message of the Orthodox Church to North America.  Nor can we if we remain what we are now. We need to once again to become a missionary church, to recognize that there are diverse human needs in our communities and I don’t just mean our parishes—that we are called to notice and to serve in the name of Christ. This will call forth new types of missionary life, not unlike the early church that learned how to bring the message of Christ to Jews and to Gentiles, in different ways, becoming all things to all people.

4.  Name your top priorities for your first year as Chancellor.

The first year will especially be about establishing good working relationships on every level.  With His Beatitude and the Holy Synod, the Chancery officers and staff, and the leadership in our seminaries, dioceses, military and hospital chaplaincies and departments.  I also would like to get to know my counterparts in the other Orthodox churches in North America.  The other priorities are:

  • Seeing to the orderly and calm functioning of central church administration
  • Building on the AAC and working closely with the dioceses and Metropolitan Council to move step-by-step toward proportional giving throughout the church and a careful assessment of what tasks belong to the various levels of church administration: central church, diocesan, deanery, parish.
  • Working with Bishop Michael and others to re-ignite and fund OCA-wide ministries and mission.
  • Ensuring that the OCA is doing everything it can to prevent and address sexual misconduct.

5.  If you could offer one message to the clergy and faithful laboring throughout the communities of the OCA, what would you want to tell them?

“It’s worth it. Don’t lose heart. Keep looking up. Rejoice!” Church life can bring disappointments, especially if we put too much faith in “princes and sons of men.” But if we hold on to our first love, and remember Who brought us here, then “our youth will be renewed like the eagle’s.” The Lord wants us to cast a fire upon the earth, but that fire has to be in us first. So, before we get carried away with projects, parish, mission and problems, we need to pray daily, read the scriptures, and re-kindle that inner fire that God alone can give.

6.  On a personal note, who have been the mentors, writers, and/or saints who have most shaped your philosophy of ministry?

There is a cloud of witnesses who have taught me about ministry, from various times in my life, relatives, friends, fellow clergy: too many to name.  But the ones that had special influence are Fr Oleg Boldireff,  Archbishop Sylvester (Haruns), Fr George Hasenecz, Fr John Tkachuk all of whom I encountered before going to seminary and Fr Paul Lazor, Fr Thomas Hopko, Fr John Breck, Fr Paul Tarazi, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), Fr John Meyendorff and above all Fr Alexander Schmemann.

The lives and work of Fr Lev Gillet, Nicolas Zernov, “Fr Arseny,” Elder Porphyrios, Fr Alexander Elchaninov, Mother Maria (Skobtsova). Other saints who have left a deep impression on my thinking about ministry include Saint Herman, St Innocent, St Tikhon of Moscow, St Raphael Hawaweeny, St Seraphim of Sarov, St John of Kronstadt and St John Vianney.

I have also been influenced by aspects of the life and teaching of Frank Buchman (his sense of attentiveness to divine guidance), Billy Graham and Jerry Fallwell (not his “moral majority” but his determination to be a pastor to the people in his community), and, believe it or not, Theodore Roosevelt.

In the early 1990’s when I was working on a Doctor of Minstry degree at St Vladimir’s Seminary, I spent six months on a field-work project in Newark, New Jersey with Mother Teresa’s “Missionaries of Charity.” The nuns and their work impressed me greatly (and I had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa). I’m more and more convinced that if we as Orthodox aren’t “missionaries of charity,” if we aren’t looking around to see the needs in our communities and seeking to serve them “out of reverence for Christ,” God will not give us much of a future.

I’m inspired by day-to-day saints I’ve encountered, what Fr Michael Plekon calls the “hidden holiness” of unsung people who naturally, unselfconsciously, joyfully love Christ and look to the needs of others. People like the three women who took care of my late mother-in-law for four years as she had Alzheimer’s and her health failed. It is very humbling to be a priest, a life-long Orthodox with lots of education and experience and to realize how little one really knows about true Christian ministry. I see such examples everywhere.

Still, however, the deepest influence on my approach to ministry is the New Testament, or rather Jesus Christ, and how I have known him in the pages of the New Testament and in the life of the Church.