United Methodism in Russia Today:
Young and Striving Toward Maturity
by Elliott Wright
Leawood, KS, November 20, 2007--United Methodist congregations in Russia today are somewhat like the churches to which the Apostle Paul wrote his letters: young and striving toward maturity.
This comparison, made by Bishop Hans Växby of Moscow, struck a positive cord at the 13th Consultation of the United Methodist Russia Initiative, a mission program that also embraces Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.
"That really speaks to me and I can use it in talking about our mission," said Rochelle Lacy, the Russia Initiative coordinator in the Northwest Texas Conference. Many other participants from the United States had similar responses.
The image of the initiative's youth and ongoing maturation was also evident in the energy and confidence of the Eurasian clergy and laity who took leadership roles in the consultation. There were 275 attendees, of whom 67 were from Russia and nearby areas.
The Russia Initiative covers most but not all of the United Methodist Eurasia Episcopal Area led by Bishop Växby. It is sponsored by the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, and its major component is a partnership network including both Eurasian and US congregations and annual (regional) conferences.
"For someone living in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, or Belarus, it is not difficult to identify with the congregations of the New Testament," the bishop said in his keynote address. "Paul is writing to new local churches with multiple challenges."
The challenges in Eurasia, he said, include the fact that new church starts are not always recognized by the surrounding society. The leadership is young, congregations struggle with their identities, and questions come up concerning teachings as well as behavior. The bishop gave a wide range of examples, also pointing to indications of maturity within the 15-year-old revival of Methodism in the former Soviet Union.
Spiritual life is deepening, he said, offerings are growing, and there are increasing requests for educational materials. Plans are under way to have Disciple Bible Study II, a popular study series, translated into Russian. The first Walk to Emmaus will be held in Russia next year, and plans are being made to publish The Upper Room, the daily devotional guide from the General Board of Discipleship, in Russian.
The Ukraine and Moldova Provisional Annual Conference is reducing the amount of program funding that it will accept each year from outside supporters. The goal is eventual self-support by local congregations so that US or other gifts can be used to expand and forge new ministries.
As one step toward maturity, the consultation participants suggested that US congregations in the Russia Initiative--now called "supporting congregations"--be renamed "partner churches," indicating that something more than financial support is involved.
Bishop Växby said in a brief interview that the greatest opportunity for United Methodists in his area in the immediate future is for the congregations and their members to "live the Christian faith openly within their times and places; to live so that the inner and outward holiness of our Wesleyan understanding can be seen by the society at large."
At present, one regular and four provisional annual conferences make up the Eurasia Episcopal Area. Bishop Växby gave a conference-by-conference rundown on congregations, clergy, and activities. There are a total of 106 congregations and officially recognized Bible groups and 105 ordained clergy. The smallest conference is Ukraine and Moldova with 15 congregations or Bible groups and 14 clergy members. The others range from 20 to 26 congregations/groups and from 18 to 30 clergy members.
Eight new congregations have been started in the last year and six are being planned for 2008. Leadership for new congregations is a primary educational emphasis at the Moscow seminary and in some of the partnerships with US congregations. The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, the host for the consultation, and its pastor, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, are deeply involved in partnership to build leadership for reaching unchurched people (see Reaching Out in Mission to the Unchurched), who form the primary audience of the mission in Eurasia.
A consultation workshop on leadership for the future introduced a model developed at Bethany United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas.
Methodism existed in both eastern and western Russia prior to the Communist Revolution of 1917, virtually vanishing until the fall of the USSR in the late 1980s. The United Methodist Church was formally reintroduced into Russia in 1992 and is a legally recognized denomination in a predominantly Russian Orthodox country. It began with five congregations.
Several independent congregations have recently sought admission into The United Methodist Church. Among these is the Church of the Great Commission in Chisinau, the only United Methodist Church now in Moldova, a republic between Ukraine and Romania.
United Methodism in Eurasia is ethnically and culturally diverse, a fact explored in a consultation paper on "Cross-Cultural Ministry in the Eurasian Context" prepared by the Rev. Natalya A. Shulgina, a doctoral student at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. There are Korean Russian United Methodists along with European Russians, others of Asian background, and members of other cultures.
The 67 attendees from Eurasia at the 13th Russia Initiative Consultation represented a considerable increase from the some two-dozen taking part in the 12th Consultation 18 months ago.
The Rev. Irina Mitina of the Church of the Resurrection in Voronezh, a city in southern Russia, was in charge of music for the Kansas event. A choir from Kurgan, a city in Siberia, provided special music (see Choir from Siberia Enriches United Methodist Russia Consultation). Much of the worship was in both Russian and English, with simultaneous translation provided by the General Board of Global Ministries.
There are three United Methodist congregations in Voronezh. Near this city, the church owns a camp and conference center that needs extensive work. This facility is slowly being physically renovated through the joint efforts of Russian United Methodists and United Methodist Volunteer-in-Mission (UMVIM) teams from the United States (see Russian Church Camp to Benefit from More United Methodist Mission Volunteer Teams). The UMVIM network is significantly involved in the Russian Initiative.
The seminary in Moscow operates a small residential study course, now with three students, and a much larger extension program, currently with 16 students. Those in the extension program come to the school for designated periods of time each year.
The Rev. Dr. Tobias Dietze is director of theological education.
Becoming a US "supportive" congregation, or partner, with a Eurasia congregation is a considerable commitment. The average level of assistance is between $6,000 and $9,000. Support includes pastoral salary, housing, and benefits, along with cost of rental space for worship.
Bishop Växby stressed the importance of having church buildings in order to project a sense of permanence to the congregation and its ministries.
The Rev. Eduard Khegay, an assistant to Bishop Växby, gave an extensive report on the communication and publication programs of the Eurasia church. A series of publications in Russian cover the theology, policy, and history of The United Methodist Church. The whole of the Book of Discipline is available in Russian. The Northwest Conference (the St. Petersburg area) issues a periodical entitled SALT (in Russian), which carries news of the whole church. A special issue in English was published for the consultation in Leawood.
The Rev. Dr. W. James Athearn of Clear Brook, Virginia, is coordinator of the Russia Initiative for the General Board of Global Ministries. He can be reached for additional information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The General Board of Global Ministries currently has two missionaries working with the church in Russia, four in Ukraine, and two in Kazakhstan. While Kazakhstan is part of the Eurasia Area, it is a separate mission program focused on Central Asia.
The Russia Initiative and its many components can be supported through a range of projects and ministries linked to the Advance for Christ and His Church, the designated-mission-giving program of The United Methodist Church. Some of the options include:
A more extensive list can be found online at GiveToMission.org by entering "Russia" or "Ukraine" in the country line.
Advance gifts can be made by credit card, either online at GiveToMission.org or by telephone at 888-252-6174. Or a check may be mailed to Advance GCFA, P.O. Box 9068, GPO, New York, NY 10087-9068, or placed in the offering plate of any United Methodist congregation. Put the Advance number in the check memo line. One hundred percent of every Advance gift goes to the ministry indicated.
*Elliott Wright is information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries
Date posted: Nov 20, 2007