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As church grows, Lithuanians, Latvians take the pulpit

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A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose

The Rev. William K. Quick of the World Methodist Council
July 18, 2005

A UMNS Feature
By Vicki Brown*

Viktorija Jablonskiene was so shocked by the sight of a woman pastor that she ran out of the first United Methodist church she visited. Nearly a decade later, she is making history as one of five Lithuanians leading churches in their own land.

After that first visit to a church in the mid-1990s, Jablonskiene could not get the "lady minister" out of her mind, so she sought her out.

"I told her this is Lithuania, a Catholic country, how can a woman be a priest? So she explained that in Europe and America it is normal to have woman priests," Jablonskiene says, recalling how the minister reassured her the United Methodist Church was not some kind of sect.

As the United Methodist Church in Lithuania celebrates the 10th anniversary of the re-opening of United Methodism with ceremonies on Aug. 27 in the Sanciai Church in Kaunas, churches there are moving from missionary-led houses of worships to churches led by indigenous pastors like Jablonskiene and her husband, Giedrius Jablonskis.

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Bishop Řystein Olsen
"We love and appreciate the dedication of missionaries because there wouldn't be a United Methodist Church in Lithuania today if it were not for them," Jablonskiene says. Now, missionaries are training Lithuanians to take over the leadership of the church.

"Today, there are five Lithuanian pastors. Three are probationary pastors and two are local pastors. ... We Lithuanians know and understand each other. We can talk and share the gospel so that all people can understand. People respond best to their own language," says Jablonskiene, one of the three Lithuanian probationary pastors.

Bishop Oystein Olsen, whose northern European area includes the Baltics, agrees indigenous pastors will relate best, since they share a common language, roots and culture.

"Now indigenous Lithuanians will have a chance to model what they have seen in the life of missionaries to other Lithuanians. We hope, and expect to see, a continued growth in the church, continued depth," Olsen says.

Methodist churches in Latvia and Lithuania were closed and properties confiscated during the years of Soviet occupation, says the Rev. William K. Quick, coordinator of Partner Church Ministry for Latvia and Lithuania and a member of the World Methodist Council Executive Committee.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United Methodist Church was restored in Latvia in 1991 and in Lithuania in 1995. At the end of 2004, almost 4,000 people were connected to 24 churches in the two countries. Neighboring Estonia, the only country where the United Methodist Church continued during occupation, has 28 local churches.

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Photo courtesy of The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry

Sanciai Church in Kaunas opened ten years ago in Lithuania.
Quick says the appointment of indigenous pastors is historic, as is the acceptance of Grazina B. Ielousova at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. She is the first Lithuanian United Methodist called to ministry to attend a U.S. seminary.

The new churches still face many challenges, including the need for books and resources, setting up a mentoring process, and salary support. The last has become more crucial since the cost of living has risen with the nations' entry into the European Union, Olsen says. Pastors in Lithuania earn the equivalent of $400 a month and even less in Latvia.

The Northern Europe Central Conference adopted a petition urging annual conferences in the Nordic and Baltic areas to find ways to support the Baltic salary fund. And United Methodists around the world can support salaries through Advance Special donations.

The Rev. Anita Wood, director of Professional Ministry Development at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, will provide training for clergy who are mentoring the new probationary elders and deacons.

"We'll be working with them to develop the mentoring process. One of the difficulties is that the missionaries and clergy who are going to have to mentor are also supervising in some cases," Wood said. While not ideal, she said that countries where the faith is new simply don't have many ordained elders and deacons who can mentor.

"This is the first modern generation of United Methodist clergy for Lithuania. We need to give them the very best foundation we can for being in ministry," Wood said. The board is also seeking funds for books that new pastors can use to prepare sermons and simply learn about their faith, particularly Methodism, since most attended a Lutheran seminary.

Evelyn Erbele, a missionary in Lithuania, is responsible for the Course of Study for probationary pastors. "I'm having to teach Methodist polity, Methodist history and doctrine, and I don't have a Book of Discipline translated into Lithuanian," says Erbele.

Spending $5,000 to translate and print books in Lithuanian is not feasible for so few Lithuanian United Methodists, Erbele said. So she improvises by holding seminars and translating as funds are available. However, the new pastors are coming up with a list of 20 books that the Board of Higher Education and Ministry hopes to purchase for them in their native language.

"For instance, a general church history book is available in Lithuanian," Erbele said.

Jablonskiene bought a washing machine for the church (with funds donated by her partner church) because most of the homes in her village of Kazlu Ruda get water from wells. She says the United Methodist Church is important to the country because all people are welcome.

"In Kazlu Ruda we reach out into the community, and there is no barrier between us. We eat, we pray, we sing and we wash our clothes together."

To make a donation for books, call (615) 340-7375. To donate for salary support, log on to http://gbgm-umc.org/advance or call (888) 252-6174. The Advance Special number for Lithuania salaries is 14715A; for Latvia salaries, it is 14706A.

*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

 
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