Developing a Mentoring Program for Intermarried Couples
Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT
When I converted to the Orthodox Church, I was helped by two people who took me in hand and helped me integrate into the Church and the community. In a few years, I was completely integrated into both. I don’t know what I would have done without them. They are my best friends. I urge you to emphasize my experience in one of your columns to help converts become integrated. - An E-mail respondent
Like the E-mail respondent whom I have quoted above, most non-Orthodox partners report experiencing some level of culture shock when they first encounter their Greek Orthodox partner’s faith tradition. They further indicate that the uneasy feelings associated with culture shock, together with the confusion that triggers these feelings, can often make the non-Orthodox partner feel like an “outsider,” and “a second class citizen who really doesn’t matter much.”
In keeping with our Lord’s respectful and welcoming pastoral approach, and without compromising what we believe, we must do all we can to make the non-Orthodox partner feel respected, welcomed and as comfortable as possible in our churches. My work has taught me that when we embrace such an approach, we are more likely to keep the non-Orthodox partner actively engaged in our communities’ religious and social life. This approach is also more likely to facilitate a process whereby these couples will consider baptizing, raising and nurturing their children in the Orthodox, and becoming a single-church couple and family.
One strategy that our churches can employ to facilitate these and other similar outcomes is to develop a mentoring program that is designed to help the non-Orthodox partner become more comfortable with the religious traditions, cultural idiosyncrasies and social life of our communities. This article will briefly explain what I mean by (1) defining the term mentor, (2) describe a mentoring program, and (3) provide some direction to communities who are interested in developing such a program.
What is a Mentor?
In my efforts to define what I mean when using the term mentor, I would like to point to another well established role with which all Orthodox Christians are intimately familiar – the godparent’s role. As many of us know, among the many tasks that the godparent assumes, he/she is a resource person who helps a newly baptized person grow into a personal understanding of the Orthodox Church’s faith and its numerous religious and cultural traditions. Godparents also provide role models and support their godchild’s efforts to integrate into the faith tradition. And finally, this role creates additional social interconnects between the baptized person, their family and the community at large.
Mentors, like godparents, fulfill these important functions. Like a godparent, mentors are resource persons who assume change of providing information to the non-Orthodox partner. This information might be related to any number of different questions and concerns. For example, many non-Orthodox partners are typically confused to the reasons why they can’t receive Holy Communion. Similarly, questions related to the holy icons, infant baptism and married priests are not uncommon. A well-informed mentor can provide information related to these and other concerns and questions.
Mentors might also answer questions related to non-religious concerns. Here are a few typical examples of what I mean. Am I welcome to help at the festival? Do you have to be Greek Orthodox to help in the bookstore? Who do I see if I’m interested in donating some of my time and talents toward the maintenance and upkeep of the facility?
Mentors ensure that the non-Orthodox partner has at their disposal an insider who can provide information and facilitate interconnections with the community. These instrumental functions will tend to reduce initial culture shock, and minimize the risk that the non-Orthodox partner will continue to feel “unwelcome” and like “a second class citizen.”
Developing a Mentoring Program
Developing a mentoring program is actually quite simple. The following are some guidelines that have worked for other communities.
The concept should be broached and explained at a parish council meeting. The idea behind this is that cooperation between the parish’s leadership and congregation must be enlisted for such a program to be successful.
Once the parish council sees the value of a mentoring program, with the pastor’s assistance and guidance, and before the recruitment process begins, a committee should be formed in order to plan the preliminary steps. To be more specific, this process will define what qualities a good mentor should have. For example, a suitable mentor might be intermarried, be knowledgeable of our faith tradition and be a familiar, well respected member of the community.
When the committee has developed a “mentor profile,” this can be publicized in the Church’s newsletter/bulletin. This strategy has two benefits. It makes the community aware of this new ministry. It also helps the committee identify and recruit interested individuals who will consider becoming a mentor.
Once these steps are completed, with the knowledge and support of the pastor, the committee can then begin the recruitment process, with the understanding that the pastor and committee will work together to select the most qualified and best suited individuals for this role.
The challenges that non-Orthodox partners encounter in their effort to integrate into our churches are numerous and well documented. Information from the Interfaith Research Project, together with the thousands of intermarried couples with whom I have interfaced suggest that it is not easy for most non-Orthodox partners to integrate into one of our communities. If this is correct, and I believe it is, then we are missing a vital opportunity for outreach and evangelism.
Since most our converts still come from the ranks of those who are intermarried, and since intermarried couples far in away the greater portion of those who marry in our churches, doesn’t it make sense that we begin establishing useful programs and strategies to assist us in ministering more effectively to this growing population of couples and families. The strategy that I’ve defined in this article is one effective way, among many others, that our communities can use to help intermarried couples develop stronger, personal connections to our church communities.If you would like more information about the challenges the non-Orthodox partner faces, please consult the Interfaith Marriage Web site and read my book entitled, Ministering to Intermarried Couples: A Resource for Clergy and Lay Workers.