In February, 2005 I was serving as the adult missions director at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church. It was an unpaid-servant position. (Ginghamsburg doesn’t like to use the word “volunteer” because it gives a sense of modest commitment.) Anyhow, I get an e-mail from someone at the Columbus (Ohio) office of the United Methodist Church asking to discuss an “opportunity” with me. I have discovered that most unsolicited “opportunities” from people I don’t know end up wanting more time and/or money than I want to give. But I figured I could listen to this “opportunity” and then politely say that it wasn’t for me. Well, wouldn’t you know it, but as we e-mailed back and forth trying to set a date and place to meet, we discovered that we knew each other. We went to the same church as kids (Potsdam Missionary Church). I knew her as Deanna Stickley, and I didn’t recognize her married name of Dee Stickley-Miner. (It seems obvious now, but hindsight is 20-20.) So I was glad I followed through on the meeting. It would at least be good to catch up. And catch up we did, but we also talked about the “opportunity”.
She was leading a team of adults on a trip to Russia. She wanted this team to be from various churches, positions and backgrounds within the West Ohio District of the United Methodist Church. The goal was to discover the needs of the twelve United Methodist churches in Russia. There had already been communication to Dee that four core areas of need are: 1) emotional support for pastors, 2) reaching youth, 3) leadership and 4) education. The pastors and leaders from each church would meet with us at Samara, Russia to share more specifics. At this city we would also visit an orphanage (supported in part by United Methodist churches) and attend a United Methodist church. The trip would be from July 19 to July 29 and cost about $3000. (A portion of that fee would be used to pay the costs of the Russian pastors and church leaders.) Dee also asked if I might consider who else from Ginghamsburg could go and represent one of the four core areas. “So what do you think?” she asked.
I didn’t have an immediate answer, but the “opportunity” really caught my attention. I asked Dee to give me a few days to consider it. I consulted with Father and a couple friends and listened for their input. I decided to go. I sent my forms and money to Dee. Several days later I heard that the youth leader from the church where I attend was also planning to go. It was starting to sound really great. Then I started getting e-mails from Dee.
The church leadership in Russia wanted us to conduct a week-long workshop while we were there and all the pastors were together. They wanted us to cover topics relating to the four areas of need that were previously expressed. I was put on a team of three people: a pastor, the Bishop of the West Ohio Conference and myself. We were to come up with the “lesson plan” for leadership and present it to the entire group in a few weeks. The pastor lived an hour away, and the Bishop lived 2 hours away. This development was unexpected and made me a little nervous. But we worked out a presentation. We were ready for the trip.
A couple things continue to haunt my mind and heart from the trip.
First, United Methodist churches in Russia are somewhat like the early churches planted by Paul.
They exist in a country with split loyalties. Some in early-church times valued what Roman rule provided (stability) just as some in present-day Russia long for communism’s certainties.
There is only one “true” church. Judaism was ingrained within the government. Christianity was a sect. The Russian Orthodox Church was the only allowed church under communism. It still considers other church denominations as sects.
They need more than talk. I asked one of the few male United Methodist church members what it would take to bring more men to worship Jesus. He answered in one word, “miracles”. He explained that men need to see the power of God because belief, life-changing belief, is such a new concept.
Congregations need help. The pastors ache for fellowship, materials, instruction and encouragement. Just as Paul revisited the churches that he planted, the Russian churches need revisits from established individuals and support from established congregations. One pastor explained that his salary ($125/week) does not really meet his needs let alone provide funds to create improvement. Another pastor told of a church in the USA that promised $1500/year. The money never came.
Believers must truly believe. Russian followers of Jesus are not always treated fairly, kindly or respectfully. One pastor shared that a home or church can suddenly be in violation of building codes if the wrong person takes offense to a believer’s faith. I don’t think most Christians in the USA have experienced real persecution for their faith. (maybe some verbal harassment)
Second, what should be my response to this situation?
Right now I think my greatest awakening is in the concept of giving. I give of my time, talent and treasure out of my surplus. I don’t sacrifice any necessities (food, water, shelter) when I tithe or give. I believe, now, that I must give sacrificially. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I don’t want that belief to be anesthetized while I listen and consider the right thing to do. I want it to gnaw at me until I make a step in the right direction.
The Russian Christians that I met were tough, dedicated people. For example, one of the pastors was unable to attend the meetings so a layperson came as the stand-in. She brought her teenage daughter. It was a twenty-hour train ride – one way. The outdoor temperature was in the 90’s, even hotter in the train car. This 16 year-old sat through 4 hours of talks each morning, taking notes. In her broken English she was able to explain that she was focused on how the information could help her reach her friends with the Gospel.
And how do I see myself involved in Russia? Weren’t the Russian churches the whole point of the trip? I don’t know about the first question. Time will tell. I believe the second question has a “No” answer. God was the point of the trip. He may use the trip, the people or anything. He may use me to aid the Russian churches, and he may use the Russian churches to aid me. I would like to think it can be both ways. I am excited to see what God does with me. If God wills, I will be retired in June, 2006. Talk about open doors…the options are incredible. There are more things that I want to do than can be done. Perhaps Russia is in God’s picture.