Training Church Leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean
by Edgar Avitia Legarda
In all mission work, carefulness, intentionality, and flexibility are needed. Even very small details that are handled poorly or left undone can create problems for a mission. Consequently, Global Ministries’ part in the planting of new mission churches is focused on the big picture. We engage in congregational development not directly but through partnership, structure, and education. Then, as local indigenous church leaders develop, planting new congregations becomes their role.
In the region of Latin America and the Caribbean, Global Ministries offers acompañamiento (accompaniment) to Methodist churches. We always work hand-in-hand with Latin Americans through the Council of Evangelical Methodist Churches of Latin American and the Caribbean (CIEMAL). We join in a roundtable type of conference with the church leadership in Latin America, CIEMAL, and with some of the US churches or conferences that want to work in partnership with Latin American Methodists. Together, we define the actions needed in the mission endeavor and the order in which they will be implemented.
The strategy for establishing churches in large regions includes all aspects of church development. One aspect is infrastructure—the way churches are connected and how they are governed, as well as the legal and fiscal framework needed for infrastructure support. A strategy must also consider the theological backbone of the church and how the worship elements will be developed: the liturgy, The Book of Discipline, and other resources necessary for solid Methodist growth. We discuss the kind of training and preparation for leadership that new indigenous leaders will require and consider how such preparation will be provided. Further, we plan how the basic ecclesiastical entities will be formed, such as women’s, men’s and youth groups, along with ministries to address poverty. And we ask what key programs in Christian education, community outreach, and health ministry are needed in areas that the new churches will serve.
Once we have a firm grasp of the big picture and have decided on our strategy in equal partnership with the Latin American leadership, the time has come to implement our plans. For a while, Global Ministries will continue to monitor the implementation of the strategy and to make any needed revisions.
It has been very difficult to successfully reshape the old pattern of developmental partnerships between US and Latin American congregations. Latin America is so close to the United States that it is all too easy for “Lone Rangers” to cross the border. Lone Rangers can take the shape of one large congregation or an entire annual conference that comes in on its own and establishes work outside the carefully designed strategy. Often these interlopers are sincere and honest in their desire to engage in mission work, but they have no idea that work has been ongoing and that a mission strategy already exists. We struggle with their unrelated efforts even as we are defining the specific parts and sequences of our strategy that still need to be implemented. We try very hard to safeguard the new faith communities because, at the outset, they are very fragile.
That’s why I am sometimes assertive when dealing with US partners. Latin Americans believe strongly in the roundtable approach. Let’s all come together, listen to one another, ask questions of one another, and decide together how to support the new church we are planting. Our concern is not one congregation or pastor or project. It’s about the larger issues, such as sustainability and leadership development.
Some of our efforts in redefining partnerships have had success. For example, the church in El Salvador is very young and has a lot of young clergy. The strongest area of Methodist work in El Salvador is in the city of Ahuachapan rather than in the capital city, San Salvador. The Methodists in Ahuachapan caught the attention of some US churches; but the head of the Salvadoran church there, to avoid problems, avoided any engagement with churches north of the border.
The North Georgia conference expressed a desire to begin work in partnership with the El Salvadoran Methodists. Since North Georgia is a large and strong conference, the Church in El Salvador feared being overwhelmed. Its leaders and members doubted their ability to handle such a lopsided relationship, so they were leaning toward an answer of “no.” But, sensing that reluctance, the people in North Georgia and their bishop, Michael Watson, backed off and proceeded with care. They sent smaller delegations, one at a time, just to establish a relationship, and they refrained from planning any projects. Bishop Watson himself visited Ahuachapan at least three times over two years. The El Salvadoran Methodists felt honored by his presence and interest. I visited them recently, and it was clear that they were beginning to feel that Bishop Watson was one of their bishops.
So Global Ministries has been helping to make that careful and mutually respectful connection between the conferences. After about two years, the North Georgia team met with the national Methodist board in El Salvador and talked about signing a national covenant. Little by little, delegations from Georgia have visited El Salvador and a relationship has been slowly forming. Now the two sides are ready to sign a covenant of mutual support. They want to pray for and to resource one another—making their visits an experience of spiritual growth for both partners. The North Georgia Conference will not come in as a Lone Ranger and start building in El Salvador. Instead, the Global Ministries Board of Directors just approved the purchase of land requested by the church in Ahuachapan, and the North Georgia Conference plans to help the El Salvadoran church build there.
Through this gradual growth in trust, the smaller church has not been overwhelmed. In fact, it has been strengthened by the responsibility it has taken and the decisions the partnership encouraged it to make. Building a mutual relationship was much more important than building a row of churches. Because of the strength of this partnership, and because it was formed mutually and organically within the Methodist connectional structure, Global Ministries can now relinquish some of its work of coordination.
In other places, where new churches do not yet have mature leadership but where struggling congregations may want to get something and US churches may want to give something, we are likely to end up with a lot of white elephants—things built with no strategy behind them and with no connection to the larger church that might sustain them.
A Complex Environment
Methodism was originally planted in Latin America by both British and North American missions. The region was divided up among different denominations, so some regions are strongholds for Methodists and others for Presbyterians, or Disciples of Christ, or Pentecostals. Today, there are some Latin American countries in which the Methodist church is a century old and others where Methodism was introduced within the last 20 years. In general, Methodists are present in all Latin American countries exception Suriname and French Guiana. Global Ministries works mostly with autonomous Methodist churches in the region, though we have a United Methodist Mission Initiative in Honduras, where we have more specific responsibilities. But when Global Ministries coordinates training, we involve all Methodist churches because we are connected and want to strengthen church development and growth across the entire region.
There are three types of Methodist churches in the region. The historical churches—those in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay—were started in the 19th century. The churches in transition are located in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Guatemala. And the new Methodist churches and emerging churches are developing in Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela, along with the United Methodist Mission Initiative in Honduras.
Most of our recent church developments have taken place in central and northern South America. These are regions where the Presbyterians and the Disciples of Christ had established historic churches. There, the General Board of Global Ministries has developed a program of clergy formation and credentialing with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The mission work centers on establishing a core leadership for mission—not just in a given country but for the whole region. The mission agency provides some key accompaniment, relationships, and programs for the training, formation, and credentialing of new clergy.
In addition, Global Ministries has crafted several training pieces in partnership with the General Board of Discipleship, especially in Christian education and curriculum development. For the credentialing of clergy, United Methodists have developed the Course of Study for Central America.
Twice a year, we bring together leaders from the new churches and the churches in transition, along with people from some of the historical churches that have critical needs in clergy development, for a 10-day Course of Study session. The church in Panama, for example, hasn’t ordained any new clergy in the past 30 years. As part of long-term leadership development, we are also doing some faculty development in the eight Methodist seminaries operating in the region.
Higher Education and Ministry provides accreditation for the Course of Study and sets the 20-course curriculum. A student can take a maximum of three courses in a session. Higher Education has also provided funding for travel and honoraria for the Course of Study faculty. Lately, Higher Education has been instrumental in consulting with new churches in the credentialing of their clergy—even being part of the candidate interview process.
Two US seminaries—Duke Divinity School in North Carolina and Perkins School of Theology in Texas—have become involved in the Course of Study for Latin America. Duke administers the Course of Study and secures the faculty. It is instrumental in credentialing clergy and in offering theological advice to the churches as they craft their Book of Discipline and other core documents. Faculty members of the Divinity School, along with professors from Duke’s Hispanic Studies House, have also made contributions.
Perkins has a long history of working among Hispanics and Latinos in the United States as well as among Latin Americans. Faculty members from Perkins are working to strengthen the faculties of the existing Methodist seminaries in Latin America. British Methodists have also joined in the roundtable discussions and have been providing additional funding for the Course of Study. Following this strategic process, Global Ministries—in partnership with some US bishops and conferences—ordained the first of three elders in Nicaragua and the first of two elders in El Salvador.
The Indigenous Church
Once a church has ordained elders, the elders assume the leadership. In both El Salvador and Nicaragua, the elders are taking responsibility for the church. It is they who mentor potential pastors, discern candidates for ordination, and decide what vocational training these students will need. At that point, Global Ministries can take a smaller role in the credentialing process.
This lengthy, fragile process is the way in which indigenous leaders take over the church. The new church leaders assume responsibility for the finances, sustainability, and future of their churches. Global Ministries and CIEMAL take on entirely different roles at this point. We are still accompanying, but our leadership role has changed, for the indigenous church has been newly empowered to take charge of its own growth and existence.
The Rev. Edgar Avitia Legarda is the Executive Secretary in Mission Relationships for Latin America and the Caribbean, General Board of Global Ministries.
A young musician rehearses for worship sessions as part of the Course of study for Central America in Ahuachapan, El Salvador.
Photo: Juan de Dios Peña
Rev. Dr. Juan Quantinilla, New Church Development, North Georgia, welcomes students to the Course of Study for Central America.
Photo: Courtesy Methodist Church in El Salvador
Latin Americans believe strongly in the roundtable approach, in which they all come together, listen to one another, ask questions of one another, and decide together how to support the new church they are planting.
Photo: Juan de Dios Peña
Edgar Avitia Legarda (first in the first row) and participants in the Course of Study session held in Ahuachapan, El Salvador.
Photo: Courtesy Juan de Dios Peña