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United Methodist Russians, U.S. supporters meet

A United Methodist youth choir from Kurgan, Russia, performs hymns and Russian spirituals during the 13th Consultation of the United Methodist Russia Initiative.
UMNS photos by Jerry Campbell.

By Elliott Wright*
Nov. 26, 2007 | LEAWOOD, Kan. (UMNS)

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 Vxby of Moscow, struck a positive cord at the 13th Consultation of the United Methodist Russia Initiative, a 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 Annual (regional) Conference. Many other participants from the United States had similar responses.

The image of the initiative's youth and development was evident in the energy and confidence of the Eurasian clergy and laity who helped to lead the consultation. There were 275 attendees, of whom 67 were from Russia and nearby areas.

"For someone living in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova or Belarus, it is not difficult to identify with the congregations of the New Testament," says Bishop Hans Vxby in his keynote address.

The initiative, launched in 1991 under the leadership of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, is a partnership among Eurasian and U.S. annual conferences and congregations committed to church growth and development in Russia. It covers most but not all of the United Methodist Eurasia Episcopal Area led by Vxby.

Youthful challenges

"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 translate into Russian the Disciple Bible Study II series, which is published by United Methodist Publishing House. The first Walk to Emmaus, a Christian discipleship retreat, will be held in Russia next year, and plans are under way to publish in Russian The Upper Room, the daily devotional guide from the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

As one step toward maturity, consultation participants suggested that U.S. congregations in the Russia Initiative — now called "supporting congregations"— be renamed "partner churches," indicating that something more than financial support is involved.

Faithful living

In a brief interview, Vxby said the greatest immediate opportunity for United Methodists in his area 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, with 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 U.S. congregations.

The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, which served as host for the consultation, and its pastor, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, are deeply involved in partnership to build leadership for reaching unchurched people 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.

Roots and growth

Methodism existed in both eastern and western Russia prior to the Communist Revolution of 1917, virtually vanishing until the fall of the U.S.S.R. 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.

The Rev. Irina Mitina of the Church of the Resurrection in Voronezh, Russia, leads singing during the three-day gathering
in Leawood, Kan.

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. There are Korean Russian United Methodists along with European Russians, others of Asian background and members of other cultures.

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. Much of the worship was in both Russian and English, with simultaneous translation provided by the United Methodist 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 teams from the United States.

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. Tobias Dietze is director of theological education.

U.S. partners

Becoming a U.S. "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.

The Rev. Dr. W. James Athearn of Clear Brook, Va., is coordinator of the Russia Initiative for the Board of Global Ministries and can be reached at jimathearn@gmail.com.

Currently, the mission agency 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. A list can be found online at GiveToMission.org by entering "Russia" or "Ukraine" in the country line.

*Elliott Wright is the information officer for the Board of Global Ministries.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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