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Church growth continues in former Soviet Union

Youth members carry altar items at the dedication services for First United Methodist Church of Ekaterinburg, Russia, in 2001. United Methodist Bishop Hans Vaxby began his summer tour of Eurasian annual conference churches in Ekaterinburg and reports that the denomination is growing across the region. A UMNS file photo courtesy of James Gillespie.  

Sept. 4, 2007 | MOSCOW (UMNS)

United Methodist congregations continue to spread across the vast expanses of what was once the Soviet Union.

In the Sept. 3 issue of his Method-EAST newsletter, United Methodist Bishop Hans Vaxby offered details of the most recent church growth. Vaxby, based in Moscow, leads the United Methodist Church in Eurasia. 

Bishop Hans Vaxby

His tour of the Eurasian annual conferences began in May in Ekaterinburg, the third largest city in Russia, and home to First United Methodist Church, which he called "one of mother churches in modern United Methodism in Eurasia." Olga Kotsuba, part of the leadership team in 1991, is now the church's senior pastor as well as superintendent of the Ural District.

Five new church groups were registered during the East Russian and Central Asia Annual Conference meeting at First Church. They included new church plants in the Urals, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, a local church that reopened in Vladivostok and an independent congregation that applied to become part of the denomination.

Vaxby likened the atmosphere to that of pioneer America. "Due to the vast distances (five time zones), many of the pastors and lay delegates have not seen each other since last year," he explained. "Organizational finesses like written reports are not always available. But testimonies about Jesus and the urgency of the mission is there. The church is on the move."

The South Russia Provisional Annual Conference meets annually at Camp Voronezh, also known as Camp Crystal, a church-owned retreat center 20 miles outside Voronezh. The center already has been put to good use, according to the bishop, but needs some improvements in order to attract outside groups and become financially self-sufficient. Financial support and Volunteers In Mission visits are needed for the foreseeable future, he said.

Celebrating new status

In June, the Central Russia Annual Conference met at the denomination's theological seminary in Moscow. The chapel there serves as the sanctuary for three United Methodist congregations on weekends - Kimgansan Church on Saturdays; Moscow, or Central Church, another of the mother churches in Russia, on Sunday mornings; and Raduga Ministry on Sunday afternoons.

During the week, the Russia United Methodist Theological Seminary also provides an office for the bishop, area communicator, administrative director of education and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries' area finance executive.

The new legal status of the Central Russia Annual Conference was celebrated during the meeting. Previously, it had been part of the Russia Annual Conference, which has been divided into four other separate conferences. Vaxby noted that the annual conference in the Ukraine is already registered and the legal process continues for the three other annual conferences in Russia.

Excited about growth

Participants in the Ukraine and Moldova Provisional Annual Conference discussed the results of leadership training led by the Rev. Adam Hamilton and members of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Mo., last March.

The Central Russia Annual Conference met in June at the United Methodist theological seminary in Moscow. A UMNS file photo courtesy of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Members of various churches shared the purpose statements and strategic goals they had created. "Everyone was excited to learn of the progress and growth of the fellow churches in the conference as the concepts learned at the seminar were implemented at the local level," Vaxby noted.

One of the conference's newest congregations is the Great Commission United Methodist Church in Kishinev, Moldova. Pastor Leonard Chorny said the congregation intends to plant other United Methodist churches throughout Moldova, a country that borders Ukraine to the south.

In early July, the Northwest Russia Provisional Annual Conference met at a resort center on the Finnish Gulf, in the St. Petersburg District. Highlights included the wedding of one of the pastors, Zemfira Abramova, the ordination of an elder and the commissioning of six new pastors.

'Great hopes' for year

Delegates from all five conferences attended the denomination's Eurasia Conference in July, which opened with an evangelism festival. Six finalists of a competition aimed at creating the most relevant evangelism project in the Eurasian context presented their original plans.

The most important business item, according to Vaxby, was the development of an extensive policy on church property. The policy includes "a teaching part, a legal part, and, attached, a number of forms and informational documents," he said.

Discussions continue over a revised pension plan, and whether to have one common or five separate boards of ordained ministry.

"The new church year starts with great hopes towards the comprehensive plans for lay leaders and for pastors' continuing education," Vaxby concluded. "Everything is fixed in plans on paper, now the challenge is to put it into practice on the district level with the help of teaching teams and supporters from our supporting congregations and educational institutions and organizations."

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

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