Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Deconstructing the Partnership Model of Church Planting

by Vladimir ShaporenkoA young person speaks at the 2009 Russian Initiative Consultation in San Diego.

The United Methodist Eurasia Episcopal Area, which began as the Russia Mission Initiative in 1992, is now in its 21st year. This is not the developmental history of one congregation, or a number of congregations in one town, or even an annual conference in one country. Instead, over two decades, we have seen the development of an entire episcopal area that has crossed national boundaries in eight countries: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. 

From the very beginning, Global Ministries designed the program with an emphasis on the holistic mission approach of Wesleyan theology. According to the 1992 founding document of the Russia Initiative Task Force: the mission “will be holistic, ecumenical, indigenous rather than Western, and connectional, with emphases on partnership and mutuality and the international, global character of the church.”

The original proposal put in place the partnership model, defining an entirely new concept that paired US and European congregations with newly emerging churches in Russia and lifting the financial burden from World Service and other sources of apportioned giving. In addition, the model allowed the partner churches in the United States to feel some ownership in the mission outreach. This was the fi rst time that such a partnership was introduced on a massive scale.

Seeking Sustainability

From the early days of the Initiative, Global Ministries put emphasis on the development of a self-sustaining church. Russia Initiative consultations, which called together US Russia Initiative church partners once a year, kept the focus of participating churches on the growth and maturity of the emerging Russian congregations. However, before long, Global Ministries noticed that the program was running into trouble with the implementation of the partnership model. Some newly developed Eurasian congregations were becoming too dependent on their partners in the United States. By 2009, 17 years after the inception of the program, a survey showed that 40 percent of the Eurasian churches had been receiving more than 80 percent of their income from their partner churches abroad. As Eurasia Area Bishop Hans Växby put it, “We found ourselves in a deep dependency trap.”

Self-sustainability is part of a holistic ministry. So the church started a complex process of strategic planning—initially with a series of seminars beginning in 2007. In August of 2009, the Central Russia Annual Conference adopted a vision called “The Roadmap to 2015.” This was an all-inclusive plan of church development that put emphasis on key areas of growth—quality in ministry, education, self-sufficiency, mission and growth, and social outreach. The plan included proposals from all five annual conferences of the Eurasia Episcopal Area. Ultimately, the Eurasia church recognized its leadership role in the process of building the church.

The Roadmap was a breakthrough. The Eurasian church clearly defined self-sufficiency as not only the ability to pay pastors’ salaries but also to fund basic church programs. “Financial matters and spiritual matters always go together. If we try to divide them, both become weaker,” declared Eurasia’s Cabinet and Administrative Council in their joint statement on self-sufficiency. As for funds received from partnership churches abroad, the Eurasia churches decided that they should be used for further growth, not to perpetuate the status quo. Newly elected Bishop Eduard Khegay (left), of Korean descent, is the first Russian citizen elected to oversee the Eurasia Episcopal Area.

In order to create healthy partnerships of mutual accountability and transparency, the Eurasia church developed a covenant agreement with partner churches in the United States. The agreement put emphasis on equal relationships and made it clear that both sides have considerable responsibility in the partnership. Each partner must show progress by bringing God-given gifts to the partnership. With this covenant agreement, Eurasian churches have said that if they don’t show any progress on their end, they expect their partners to stop supporting them.

Many Eurasian churches have been struggling through the process, choosing to limit themselves, saying, “We should take less from our partner churches every year.” 

Global Ministries has assisted the Eurasian UMC in this journey. Its role is to facilitate rather than to administer the process. Together with Eurasian leadership, Global Ministries convened a roundtable in Connecticut in 2009, inviting a number of US partners to send representatives. The roundtable findings and suggestions were submitted to the Eurasia Area Cabinet and the Administrative Council. Among them was a commitment to support the Eurasian Roadmap, which seeks self-sufficiency by 2015. Based on the findings, the Eurasia Cabinet developed criteria on what it means to be a self-sufficient church. Today, the Roadmap continues to be a guiding document and Eurasian churches and annual conferences review their progress on a regular basis.

Partnership 101

Most US-based partner church teams and United Methodist Volunteer-in-Mission (UMVIM) teams are trained to make projects happen. Often, they pick their projects for implementation and make decisions about what needs to be done without consulting the indigenous church members they wish to serve. Global Ministries provides guidelines that focus on indigenous church leadership development; however the stronger US “make things happen” culture often prevails. Many church-to-church partners come with the desire to ensure a strong emerging church within three or so years—using volunteers, money, and materials from the United States to make it happen. In these situations, local folks often have little choice but to join the process and enjoy the ride.

Another problem with the hands-on working partnership was this: Every time a US church returned to a partner project in Eurasia with a volunteer team, the team leaders brought along different people. Understandably, they wanted as many US congregation members as possible to get involved in a hands-on mission experience. But this practice meant that members of the developing church had to begin the conversation and build up the relationship anew every time a group of volunteers arrived.

At times, a US-based partner church will select a meaningful project. What the US team fails to realize is that its overseas friends are not yet strong enough to shoulder the project. Yet, money has been raised, enthusiasm has increased, and the team is ready to go. The church’s pastor feels the pressure to report back to the congregation on the project they defined and for which they designated money. At the end of the day, the US team finishes the project, even though the local congregation is not able to follow through with it. A project in church development has turned instead into humanitarian aid.

The goal of a church in mission is to help to build up an indigenous church, not to build a US church in a different country. The first mission trip a congregation plans to meet their new emerging church partner should happen, really, with no concrete agenda. Come, have a cup of tea with your new friends. Get to know them, start building relationships, and learn what the local people dream about. If you find the emerging congregation is not strong enough yet for the project you have in mind, then you shouldn’t even consider starting it!

Instead, work in partnership on a project with the emerging congregation that the congregation thinks it can handle. Then, together with them, move up gradually to more challenging projects. Let the emerging community lead the process, and use the funds raised as a development tool, rather than as humanitarian aid.

Migration in Europe

In the United States, the church has been aware of immigration and the changing ethnic makeup of its local communities. Global Ministries developed a number of national plans to encourage US annual conferences to engage with these different immigrant communities and build relationships in the United States. But, within the last three to four years, we have started talking about migration on a global level. Participants in the 2011 Russian Initiative Consultation.

Global Ministries has sent representatives to the People’s Global Action on Migration and Development, a nongovernmental global forum that considers migration issues, similar to the United Nations Global Forum on Migration and Development. In addition, Global Ministries is in the process of coordinating the efforts of central conferences and annual conferences in response to migration, as these issues are important for churches globally. In January 2011, representatives of various groups and churches that work with migration issues put together a preliminary plan. 

These issues of migration are important for churches globally, particularly for the central conferences in Europe. There are a growing number of multicultural churches there, just as there are in the United States. The four episcopal areas of Europe and Eurasia have been grappling with the changing populations in their communities. Global Ministries and the European central conferences sponsor annual seminars for pastors and lay leaders of immigrant churches. They come to share their experiences, stories, and challenges. At one of these meetings, participants concluded that the key to building church communities amid global migration is both integration and autonomy of various ethnic groups within the same church. Integration—the church helps people of different groups, cultures, languages (those who are local and from different countries)—come together to share food, friendship, ideas, and traditions. They participate in various events and mutual ministries as one church. But also, the church provides an opportunity for different ethnic groups to form congregations and worship together with a certain level of autonomy.

Global Ministries has placed a number of missionaries in Europe to develop ministries for immigrant churches. The Rev. Lorenz Richard Koch from Brazil, for example, is serving in Geneva, Switzerland; the Rev. Dr. Rodney Aist serves in Italy; and the Revs. Carol and Kevin Seckel serve in Germany. All of them attend the annual seminar and work together on how the church should respond to global migration.

This kind of integration at a community or group level is something that governments cannot do. Really, only the church can build this connection. United Methodists respect the different languages and the cultures and understand—people need to worship in a language they know. However, we also recognize that United Methodists are connected as one church. This growing diversity makes the church stronger.

Vladimir Shaporenko is Executive Secretary for Europe, Middle East, and North Africa, General Board of Global Ministries, Mission and Evangelism.

Photo Captions:
A young person speaks at the 2009 Russian Initiative Consultation in San Diego. Photo: Jan snider/UMNS

Newly elected Bishop Eduard Khegay (left), of Korean descent, is the first Russian citizen elected to oversee the Eurasia Episcopal Area. Bishop Christian Alsted of the Nordic-Baltic Episcopal Area of northern Europe is shown with him. Photo: Karl Anders Ellingsen

Participants in the 2011 Russian Initiative Consultation. Photo: Felipe Castillo