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United Methodists Hold Second Consultation

On Mission in Eastern Europe and Balkans

by Joan Gray LaBarr

 
The bishop speaks from a podium near a quilt with texas icons.
Bishop Patrick Streiff during “In Mission Together” Eastern Europe and Balkans Consultation II.
Image by: Joan Gray LaBarr
Source: UMC Annual Conferences/Jurisdictions

Keller, Texas, November 27, 2005-The Central and North Texas Annual Conferences joined the General Board of Global Ministries in welcoming brothers and sisters in Christ to First United Methodist Church, Keller, Texas for a second "In Mission Together" consultation focused on Eastern European and Balkan countries. Ninety-five participants, including three bishops and people from 16 states and nine countries, took part in the November 17-20 event.

The theme was "Sharing in the Gospel, Sharing in Prayer, Sharing in Love," based on a passage of Scripture from Philippians 1:2-11. Participants carried out the theme by celebrating mission opportunities in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, learning from new churches about their countries and programs, sharing personal stories of faith by persons in mission, and learning how to assist churches spiritually and financially for basic service and witness

The countries outside the U.S. represented are all part of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Many of the United Methodist church in the area are older than the Central Conference, having been planted by missionaries from the former ME Church, South in the mid-19th Century.

"In Mission Together" is a partnership program to assist local congregations in the U.S. to be in mission in a global setting. The partnerships are designed to be bilateral and co-equal. Each partner has gifts to give the other. This reciprocal relationship was a key theme of the consultation as representatives from U.S. churches shared how their congregations had benefited and grown, as partnerships became significant and deep relationships.

The partnerships are "means of grace," said Bishop Heinrich Bolleter, the episcopal leader of the Central and Southern Europe Conference, citing the Philippians text and drawing on United Methodists' Wesleyan heritage.

Theological Education
Bishop Bolleter, who retires next May, and incoming Bishop Patrick Streiff both share a deep concern for the status of theological education in Europe. Bishop Streiff said, "If we want pastors who can address the rapid pace of the changing nature of society, they must be well educated and must be able to address issues." He noted that the 2004 General Conference supported the importance of seminary education, but did not approve requested funds. "It's a big issue for the whole church to address…there are open questions that will demand the attention of the whole church," he said.

The bishops also concurred that lay education is essential to the health of the European church. One of the big challenges is to provide United Methodist literature in the languages of the people. Another is to provide quality lay training. Scholarships for clergy and laity are another important priority in Europe, as well as in other central conferences.

Incoming Bishop Strieff, a church historian and pastor, lifted up the importance of partnerships, saying that, "Mission is always lived out locally in a certain place with certain persons. It is important to keep connections where we share suffering and joys, where we share in gifts and limitations."

Representative from the church in each participating countries briefed the consultation on the circumstances, joys, and challenges of their churches. These included:

  • Jana Krizova, programmer and mission coordinator, Czech Republic. (The Czech/Slovak District is in partnership with the North Texas Conference.)
  • Lenka Prochazkova, teacher and mission coordinator, Slovak Republic.
  • Carol Partridge, director of Christian Education, Macedonia.
  • Lijana Sjanta, housewife, mother, and president of the UM Women in Serbia-Montenegro (the former Yugoslavia).
  • Edward Puslecki, General Superintendent of the UMC in Poland.
  • Daniel Topalski, jurist and local pastor of the UMC in Bulgaria.

Bishop's Address
In an address on the "Status of the UMC in Central and Southern Europe," Bishop Bolleter explained the incredible complexity of the situation in his Episcopal area. There are 89 distinct ethnic groups, 45 states, and 12 nations in Europe. Some of the groups, like those sometimes called "gypsies," cross national boundaries and are often looked down upon by the rest of society. There is significant UM work among the groups, though naming them can be tricky. In certain places, the people prefer to be called Roma or Sinti, while in others, they embrace the common term. "The gypsy minority is part of our church growth…the huge population is an important mission field," the bishop said.

Bishop Bolleter also described the challenge brought about by refugees from the various Balkan conflicts. For example, the refugees from Armenia that streamed into Bulgaria in the 1990s, are now a significant minority there and constitute three Armenian-speaking UM congregations. "We can't speak of a 'European' way of life," said the bishop. "Every nation, every region is a special case." United Methodist history in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, he said, is a sign that God is with the people. The bishop lifted up the words to a song that described God as the source of life, love, hope, and peace.

In citing the mission opportunities, Bishop Bolleter said that every new project is unique. Accepting this reality, he points out significant common threads:

  • A plain approach to the Gospel;
  • Belief that we are living in a "Kairos moment;" even 15 years after the fall of Communism, people are still seeking a new philosophical base for their lives,
  • A need to be open and able to respond to unique situations,
  • The importance of a three-fold witness: word, community, and social welfare,
  • Giving priority to the poor and minorities,
  • Preaching Christ, not in competition with other churches, but as a church grounded in Christ who has entrusted us with the proclamation of the kingdom, and
  • Strength derived through the UM Connectional system of the Methodist family spread around the globe.

Looking at these opportunities, Bishop Bolleter noted three recurring challenges:

  • The human tendency to start a church outwardly focused on others, but seeing a reversal into protective, defensive behaviors as soon as the congregation has a building,
  • Church planting that fails to deal with diversity, leading to churches in danger of getting into crisis and drifting from the denomination;
  • Wrong paradigms, or models, of congregational development that fracture fellowship in small and large churches alike.

Grass Roots Churches
The bishop said that a majority of new United Methodist churches do not share in the prosperity of the larger community. United Methodists congregations are small, grass roots movements with inexpensive buildings and leaders who have limited ability to travel.

Bishop Bolleter advocated small churches with well-equipped workers and good supervision. He sees such churches, if vital and healthy, as having the potential to serve as models for civil society in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

At a time when leadership is desperately needed, Bishop Bolleter pointed out that salary support for pastors is declining. Most pastors - already struggling economically - have endured ongoing salary cuts. Most of the membership also struggles economically, so resources from outside are essential.

It is a myth, said the bishop, that United Methodists in the USA provide the primary means for pastoral support in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. He said that the tiny United Methodist Church in Switzerland contributes almost twice as much annually.

Bishop Bolleter sees the future in terms of the "In Mission Together" model of partnerships involving conferences, and districts, and congregations. These partnerships are so much more than sending money, as was evident from the lively exchange and warm relationships at the consultation.

In an increasingly small world, it is possible for mission partners to travel to one another's countries. A Volunteer in Mission (VIM) trip is often the first experience U.S. church members have with their partners. There are numerous VIM trip planned for 2006 in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Richard M. Arnold is Eastern European and Balkans In Mission Together coordinator. He can supply detailed on VIM opportunities and also connect interested USA congregations with others in the area that can share their In Mission Together experiences. Contact Dick Arnold at 540-961-1265, e-mail: rmarnold@adelphia.net, postal address: 465 Mill Pointe Road, Blacksburg, VA 24060.

 

*Joan Gray LaBarr is director of communications for the North Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.


 
 
 

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Date posted: Nov 29, 2005