United Methodists Hold Second Consultation
On Mission in Eastern Europe and Balkans
by Joan Gray LaBarr
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.
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:
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:
Looking at these opportunities, Bishop Bolleter noted three recurring challenges:
Grass Roots Churches
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: firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
Date posted: Nov 29, 2005