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Mozambique bishop is model for women leaders

Bishop Joaquina Filipe Nhanala of Mozambique is the first female United Methodist bishop in Africa. A UMNS photo by Chris Heckert, GBGM.

By Linda Bloom*
June 25, 2009 | NEW YORK (UMNS)

Bishop Joaquina Filipe Nhanala says it is too soon to tell whether more women in Mozambique have decided to enter the ministry because of her leadership.

Students study at The United Methodist Church’s Cambine Mission Center school in Cambine, Mozambique. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

But she is happy to be a role model.

Nine months ago, Nhanala, 52, took office as the first female United Methodist bishop in Africa. She already has set her priorities – leadership development and self-sustainability for the church in Mozambique and better access to health care and education for the country itself.

On June 23, during a visit to the headquarters of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, the bishop shared her dreams about strengthening a church where some congregations still “worship under trees.”

Since the end of civil war in 1992, United Methodism has grown in Mozambique, with some 150,000 members in more than 170 congregations of the church’s 23 districts. The Mozambique area is divided into two annual conferences and has 29 schools, a seminary, agricultural programs and a hospital at Chicuque.

To continue that growth, better leadership training is required. “When we talk about leadership development we are not only talking about clergy,” Nhanala pointed out. “The lay people are key in the growth of the church. Many are pastoring local churches.”

She wants all church members involved, so another priority is “encouraging the churches to intentionally include women and youth in our programs and in our leadership.”

Encouraging the call

Of the 132 ordained pastors in Mozambique, only a small percentage are women, according to the bishop. This year is the 30th anniversary of the first ordination of women as United Methodist clergy there and she hopes to use the occasion “to encourage women who feel called into the ministry.”

A woman waits beneath a tree marked
with the AIDS ribbon at United Methodist-related Chicuque Rural Hospital near Chicuque, Mozambique. A UMNS file
photo by Mike DuBose.

Nhanala’s own theological education began in 1985, when she and her husband, the Rev. Eugenio Tomas, were accepted for theological studies at the Mozambique Annual Conference. They attended Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia and Nhanala was ordained a deacon in 1989.

She completed her diploma in theology at Trinity College in Ghana after Liberia’s civil war disrupted their studies. She holds a bachelor of divinity degree from Limuru University and a master’s degree in Bible studies and theology from Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, both in Kenya.

Education remains a family focus. Her husband is principal of the United Seminary of Ricatla, an ecumenical theological institution in the Maputo area, and their four children all have pursued higher education.

High illiteracy rate

Such educational opportunities are not available to all in a country where illiteracy remains “a huge issue” both inside and outside the church.

“Education opens the eyes and minds of people.”
--Bishop Joaquina Filipe Nhanala

To be able to read and write is to be empowered, in the bishop’s view. “Education opens the eyes and minds of people,” she said.

According to UNICEF, less than half of the adults in Mozambique – only 44 percent -- can read. Illiterate women and their children often are trapped in poverty as well, the bishop pointed out. Literacy classes held at local churches are open to all in the community.

United Methodists work in partnership with the country’s now-stable government to promote literacy and education in general. The state helps provide trained teachers and salary support for United Methodist schools. “The church has a very good relationship with the government,” she said.

The government also pays the salaries of some nurses employed by the church, but Nhanala would like to see United Methodists become more involved in public solutions to major health concerns, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and maternal health issues.

She has experience in such matters, having led a World Relief HIV/AIDS program designed to mobilize churches for education and advocacy in Mozambique’s three southern provinces.

Countrywide issue

“HIV/AIDS is a countrywide issue,” Nhanala said, explaining that the church response also must be national, “not only in Chicuque where the hospital is located.”

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Three missionaries currently are assigned to Chicuque Hospital by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and a fourth works in Mozambique as an agriculturalist and community developer. Thirty-five projects and programs in Mozambique also receive support through The Advance, the church’s voluntary giving program.

Nhanala appreciates the denominational support.  “As missionaries come, they play a kind of capacity-building role and that helps the church be sustainable,” she said.

The church in Mozambique also receives other support from U.S. United Methodists and Nhanala spent much of June participating in annual conference sessions in Missouri, New York and Virginia.

Missouri’s “Mozambique Initiative,” which began a decade ago, connects churches, groups and individuals in Missouri with partner United Methodist congregations and districts in Mozambique to strengthen the church there. The initiative has helped build churches and parsonages and supports pastors in the most impoverished areas of Mozambique, the bishop said.  

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

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


"The challenges are there healthwise..."

"...include women… need people who can read..."

"not only about clergy, but that includes the lay people..."

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