Gathering looks at present and future of UM ministries in Russia

3/2/2006

(GBGM) Falls Church, Va.—Ministries with children and youth are high on the priority list of The United Methodist Church in Russia and surrounding areas.

An emphasis on the young was clearly evident in the verbal and visual presentations made here on February 23-25 at the 12th consultation of the Russia Initiative of the denomination.

These ministries include evangelism, formal and informal education, and social services, especially among the many orphans spread throughout the vast territory. Most are congregation-based; some of the 12 districts are beginning to organize youth ministries. Camp Veronezh, near the city of Voronezh in the Central Black Soil District of Southern Russia, also has an expanding youth program.

An emphasis on the young is not surprising in a church that is itself only 14 years old, which today has 104 congregations in five annual conferences—so many because of the distances. Youth are the lifeblood of the future and images of growth are common in discussions of United Methodist life and witness in Eurasia, as the episcopal area based in Moscow is known. One pressing need is for indigenous language educational materials for children.

"Until we’re all…fully mature adults…fully alive like Christ,” was the theme of the Russia Initiative Consultation and also the title of the keynote address by Bishop Hans Vaxby of Moscow. He took his text from Ephesians 4:13.

The Russia Initiative, which also includes the Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus, emerged following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, allowing Methodism, which had existed in Russia before the Communist Revolution, to reemerge. Several countries in Central Asia are also a part of the Eurasia Episcopal Area but are part of a separate mission program.

The initiative is a partnership among annual conferences, congregations, and institutions committed to church growth and development in that region. It is sponsored and organized by the General Board of Global Ministries, the international mission agency of The United Methodist Church.

More than 280 people attended the consultation, and veteran participants said that the style and tone was different from previous times. For one thing, 30 clergy and lay leaders of the Eurasia church were present, with translation provided as necessary.

Dr. Jim Athearn of Clear Brook, Va., who coordinates the Russia Initiative for the global ministries board, said that the goal was real interaction among Russian and American church members. Also prominent in the consultation program were leaders of annual conferences and congregations committed to the initiative.

The church in Eurasia is heavily dependent for financial support upon American and Western European mission partners, especially “supportive congregations” that pay or supplement pastors’ salaries or other essentials. Help in the building of church structures, in camp repair, and other capital projects come from United Methodist Volunteers in Mission.

The base salary for Eurasia pastors is $180 per month, with certain other allowances for children, level of conference membership, and other factors. The low compensation is a disincentive in the recruitment of clergy, according to Bishop Vaxby and other speakers at the consultation. A Russian congregation that lacks a “supportive” outside partner has a difficult time staying open.

The Falls Church consultation included numerous first-hand “faith stories” by United Methodists in Russia, including the Rev. Elena Chudinova, a pastor and district superintendent in Siberia. She told how she came to Christianity and to United Methodism after being asked to tutor children meeting in a church building.
 
The importance of Eurasia United Methodist congregations having their own church buildings was underscored at the consultation.  For minority religious communities, according to the Rev. Sergei Nikolaev, a professor at the Russia United Methodist Seminary, a building brings credibility and lessens suspicion in the community.  A building is also more inviting to strangers than are house churches.

A large block of time at the consultation was spent in considering ways to strengthen ministry through the 12 Eurasia districts. U.S. representatives of supportive congregations for the churches in each district sat down with Russian district superintendents and others to discuss future ministry opportunities.

Other workshops covered such topics as the maturing relation between supportive and Russian congregations, the Russia theological seminary and its future, ways to strengthen connections between Volunteers in Mission and the church in Russia, and procedures for taking a mission team to Russia.

Vladimir Shaporenko, staff liaison to the initiative, said that the General Board of Global Ministries is deeply thankful to the conferences and congregations—both in Russia and the U.S.—that make the mission partnership possible. “Faithful church members make mission possible,” he said.

Participating in the consultation were more than a dozen members of the Rural Chaplains Association, a group of clergy and laity committed to rural ministry, primarily in the U.S. It promotes links between rural churches in the U.S. and Russia and has several Russian members.

The Rev. Dr. S.T. Kimbrough, associate general secretary for mission evangelism of the General Board of Global Ministries, spoke on the history of Methodism in Russia.  He noted that before the revolution, the Methodist Episcopal Church was active in the St. Petersburg area and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in Siberia.  One church in St. Petersburg remained open until 1931; Methodists in the far east fled to Manchuria where they continued for a number of years.

Worship and hymn singing at the consultation was in English and Russian. Bishop Vaxby officiated at a closing service of Holy Communion.

The next consultation of the Russia Initiative will be held on November 15-17, 2007. at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.

Support for the Russia Initiative can be provided through Advance #11510-A and sent to General Board of Global Ministries, Advance GCFA, P.O. Box 9068 GPO, New York, NY 10087-9068.