|The European church: small but committed|
United Methodist Bishop Patrick Streiff
has been re-elected to lead the denomination’s Central and Southern Europe Central Conference.
A UMNS photo by Üllas Tankler.
A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
March 27, 2009
When United Methodist Bishop Patrick Streiff spoke recently to
church members from Central and Southern Europe, he used the well-known
story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes to illustrate their
“I took that Bible story…as a very good picture for our situation as
Methodists in these countries,” he explained. “We are very small in
numbers, even in Switzerland, where the church is the biggest.”
The small numbers refer to both membership – about 36,000 in 14
countries – and the amount of funds available to local churches in
those countries. But Streiff, who oversees the episcopal area, also is
encouraged by this biblical metaphor and wonders “what Christ can make
out of it (the European church) if we really let it be blessed by him.”
When delegates met March 11-15 for the denomination’s Central and
Southern Europe Central Conference in Bülach, Switzerland, they
re-elected Streiff, who was just completing his first four-year term,
as bishop for life. East Ohio Bishop John Hopkins, who heads the
denomination’s Connectional Table, represented the Council of Bishops
at the meeting.
The event brought together church members representing a variety of
cultures and 20 languages. The United Methodist Church in Central and
Southern Europe includes Albania, Algeria, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia,
the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Macedonia, Poland,
Serbia-Montenegro, Slovak Republic, Switzerland and Tunisia.
“For most delegates, it’s a time where they get to know a lot of other delegates for the first time,” Streiff said.
Mission and leadership
Streiff's goal is to strengthen the mission of local churches and
develop good leadership, particularly among women. “In many ways, the
women are somehow leading us further among the laity,” he told United
Methodist News Service during a March 25 telephone interview from his
office in Zurich.
United Methodists gather outside following a 2007 worship service in Albania, one of 14 countries
that make up the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference. A UMNS file
photo by Urs Schweizer.
Methodist identity remains a key issue for what is “a very small
church in all of these countries, in very different settings -- some
very secularized, others much more still in a culture which is mainly
Catholic or mainly Orthodox,” the bishop pointed out.
He uses denominational resources to provide churches with some basic
elements for Methodist identity. A theological working group also
prepared papers for the conference, which has two official languages –
German and English, the most common second languages for conference
members. “Each annual conference has to do the translation into their
own language,” Streiff added.
The conference is working with the denomination’s Germany Central
Conference to create new congregations in Switzerland, but supporting
existing churches is a larger goal. “The growth in number of churches
is not as fast as it was in the ‘80s or ‘90s,” he said. “But we also
realize we have in many places still quite small local churches. One
focus is to strengthen these smaller churches so that they can be
closer to some self-support.”
Streiff and other church leaders also want to continue to address
those “really on the margins of society,” such as the Roma, an ethnic
group living in central and eastern Europe. The conference has both
Roma congregations and pastors. “We are looking at ways we can
strengthen work among the Roma people,” he said.
Effects of economic downturn
The global economic downturn has had varying effects upon the
Central and Southern Europe Conference. “In the east central part of
Europe, the former communist countries… were hit more and faster than,
for example, Switzerland,” Streiff explained.
The Portuguese Methodist folk band Trevo Alegre serenades participants
at the 2007 European Methodist Festival in Bratislava, Slovak Republic.
A UMNS file photo by Kathleen LaCamera.
Those countries already had suffered from high inflation and high
unemployment over the past few years. “In many countries, people who
went to Western Europe to find work, some of them now have lost it and
have to go back,” he said.
Polish workers who had flocked to jobs in Ireland and England, for
example, have either lost the jobs or seen a reduced paycheck because
of the devaluation of currency. “A lot of these Polish people worked in
construction,” he noted. “Of course, construction is suffering
Many European countries suffered a significant economic slowdown
during the last quarter of 2008. The decline in Ireland, the BBC
reported on March 26, is the largest in recent decades and the 24
percent drop for the construction industry at the end of the year was
the biggest on record.
“In Switzerland, the economic crisis begins to be felt by some,” the
bishop said. “What we do not yet know is how strongly and how fast it
will affect the giving of the people in the pews. Most of the financial
help to the eastern countries comes from Switzerland.”
A native of Switzerland, Streiff was ordained in 1984. Besides
pastoring congregations in Lausanne, Neuchatel, and Biel, he led the
Methodist Center for Theological Education in French, located in
Lausanne, before becoming bishop.
He currently serves as chairperson on Central Conference Matters for the Connectional Table.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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