Tea with Milk, Paul with Luther, Bashkortostan with Sisters and Brothers
It is hard for me to say which part of my ministry I enjoy more - returning to congregations where I have already been (which gives me the chance to see how God has been working there since my last visit) or coming to a place for the first time. The latter not only gives me the chance to meet new brothers and sisters in faith but, almost without exception, teaches me something new about the country where I am serving. This is particularlly true, I've found, when visiting regions of the country with significant regional ethnic and/or religious differences. This was the case when I visited Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, a majority-Muslim region in the eastern part of European Russia.
The Lutheran congregation in Ufa, however, fit in to a pattern I have seen in many places around the country - a strong lay woman, inspired by her faith and driven by a God-given strong will, accomplishes the miraculous. In this case her name is Elvira; she (not single handedly, of course, but certainly as the leader of the charge) was able to get the local government to return the congregation's historical building.
Not only that, she is able to find sponsors - in this case many of them local - to restore the "kirche," and today it is a small but beautiful church snuggled in Ufa's historical center. But the story doesn't stop there. Elvira was able to find a way to dismantle the warehouses that had been built in Soviet times on former church property and have built in their place a new congregational center. As sometimes is the case here, while all of these practical concerns have been on the front burner, congregational life as such has been given less of a priority. A clear witness to this fact - Sunday worship in which large parts of the liturgy are translated from German into Russian; hardly a satisfactory worship experience for anyone new, and certainly unnecessary when there there are no exclusively German speaking people in the congregation.
The lutheran church in Ufa
I learned all of this during the past month, after long discussions with congregational leaders finally lead to my first seminar in the region. The idea began to take shape in conversation with an extension student from Ufa at the Theological Seminary and started to take on concrete form after speaking with the congregation's at the pastors' gathering in Crimea in September 2016. We agreed then that the February Men's Day (February 23) holiday weekend would be the best time, and we were not mistaken - free days without many obligations led to us being able to attract a good-sized group of participants.
Our time in Ufa was broken up into a number of segments – teaching for members from the Bashkortastan and Orenburg deaneries, a public theological conference on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a youth group meeting (the first time I've led youth group for many years; I chose the theme “Be yourself, be free”) and worship.
The seminar was well attended, with 18-23 participants engaged at various moments. The conference (with speakers arranged by the local congregation in particular through ecumenical and scholarly contacts) had seven speakers and around 30 participants.
The wonderful facilities and hospitality in Ufa created a very positive environment for such seminars. There seemed to be a hunger there to expand and deepen congregational life and, while the topic was challenging for those who are not used to dealing with theology, I found that the participants were good, engaged listeners. I pray that as they look forward to their next steps I can help play a positive role in their journey of discipleship.
Men's Ministry in Russia
My years in Russia have taught me that some of my pre-conceived notions about mission and ministry are misguided...or, at least, that they are not completely applicable to this context. One of those examples is "men's ministry." In the past I had a notion that this was a way for men to assert their authority in the church and in their families. This looked a lot like encouraging patriarchy, certainly not something in which I would want the church to be engaged.
Here, however, in addition to there being a different set of issues around gender and roles than in the West, there is is the problem of an almost total absence of men in many congregations. "Men's ministry," as I see it being developed here in the Omsk region of Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Urals, Siberia and Far East, is not about re-asserting men's power, but is instead an attempt to help men see that there is a place for them in the church and to give them the opportunity to be surprised both by their potential usefulness and by the support which they didn't even acknowledge that they needed.
For that reason I've been hoping to find a way through the "Equipping for Service" program to support an idea I heard at the last synod assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in European Russia. There my successor as pastor of St. Nikolai Lutheran in Novgorod, Igor Zhuravlev, mentioned the lack of men's ministry (despite a thriving women's ministry) at the last ELCER synod. I suggested to him and then to the folks in ELCUSFE that he and I travel to Omsk, where they've been doing such work for a few years. He agreed, and our hope was to go a see a model that we might use to replicate (with certain modifications) in European Russia.
We arrived on Friday morning and left Omsk for the “Admiral Makarov” camp in the early evening. One of the most impressive things about the seminar was the way different types of activities were planned and balanced. We started with bowling and a meal Friday, while on Saturday we had activities that were more about listening (morning prayer, Bible study) or about talking (stereotypes about men, a survey of questions about our live's most significant moments), were more focus was on the physical (winter soccer and capture the flag) or the mental (chess with living figures).
Sunday morning was used for morning worship, another activity reflecting on mens' roles, and final reflections before leaving back for Omsk around noon.
By the end of the weekend the seminar's 13 participants had had the opportunity to reflect, be encouraged, experience renewal, and come away with a new sense of brotherhood.
While it would be wrong to underestimate the importance of the unique character of the gathered group (Omsk has a good team of leaders that know one another well) we came away from the seminar with the realization that, because this is a need that is not currently being met, it really is important to try to hold a similar activity in other places. Dean Vinogradov also saw the potential to build on what has already been accomplished, and he and I are making plans for a church-wide (including participants from other parts of the former Soviet Union) coordinators' seminar in September.
(Texts: Bradn Buerkle)