By Linda Bloom
The Rev. Joseph Bishman loves motorcycles so much that he’s ridden nationally on behalf of Harley-Davidson.
So it seemed only natural for the United Methodist West Ohio Annual (regional) Conference to ask the 62-year-old Shawnee district superintendent to hold a motorcycle ride for Vietnam mission work.
What was unexpected was what happened next. His district of mostly small, rural churches on the edge of Appalachia has pulled together to raise nearly $650,000 so far for the conference’s support of Vietnam churches through the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
The district has held three “Rally in the Valley” events for Vietnam, with a fourth one approaching in May. Key to their fundraising success has been Bishman’s decision to treat the 159 churches in his district—which spans nine counties and 4,700 square miles—as one large congregation.
Or, as he characterizes it, “If we’re going to move a mountain, what would happen if we put all our shovels together on one single initiative?”
Bishman shared his strategies with Global Ministries’ directors on April 12 during the board’s spring meeting in Stamford, Connecticut. West Ohio Bishop Bruce Ough, who also serves as the board’s president, introduced him as a spiritual, visionary, passionate teacher in his region. “There’s one word that describes Joseph: leader,” Ough said.
A missional priority
Vietnam is part of the Southeast Asia Mission Initiative. It is one of the mission initiatives launched in recent years in countries where United
Methodist work did not previously exist or was disrupted in the past by political factors.
The work of the initiatives involves evangelism, social ministries, and church growth—including a commitment made in 2009 by the Board of Global Ministries to develop 400 new congregations outside the United States over a four-year period. About 280 congregations already can be counted toward that goal.
In a live webcast on the initiatives following Bishman’s presentation, board directors spoke via Skype with a district superintendent from Bulgaria, learned how the church in Cameroon uses play dates for children to grow membership and talked with church members in Senegal and Thailand about the difficulties in evangelizing in countries with non-Christian majorities.
Back in the Shawnee Valley, the missional connection with Vietnam has helped some in West Ohio—including Bishman himself—deal with the brokenness caused by the dispute over a long-ended but still unpopular war.
“We’ve really not known what to do about Vietnam for our own healing,” he states. “This has given a unique platform for many of our veterans to go back.”
Some have returned on the motorcycle rides, carrying Bibles instead of weapons. The most recent ride, involving a mission team from the Shawnee Valley District and Grove City United Methodist Church, occurred from late February to early March.
“I’ve put 36 new motorcycles in the hands of our pastors in Vietnam just through the motorcycle ride itself,” Bishman said.
Beyond motorcycles, the connection with Vietnam has helped bring the district together in a unique way. “What the Vietnam church has given us is an inspirational challenge which is unimaginable,” he said.
The partnership in Vietnam is not based on dependency, Bishman pointed out. Both Vietnamese leaders and denominational supporters immediately began developing a plan for self-sufficiency, with the goal that every church pay its own pastor’s salary and that members look to their “responsibility to the rest of the world as well.”
Ough, who was recently named by the denomination’s Council of Bishops to provide episcopal oversight to the Southeast Asia Mission Initiative, travelled to Vietnam with a small delegation during Holy Week to preside over the church’s annual meeting. The church in Vietnam currently has about 12,000 participants in 200 congregations.
The West Ohio Conference presented $12,000 worth of seed corn to the Vietnamese church. “They will double or triple it, and next October they will bring the harvest in,” Bishman said.
When the Vietnamese take their first national offering this year, they will donate one-third of the total to new church development, one-third to Wesley Theological College in Ho Chi Minh City, and one-third to mission work in Laos, he added.
The church also continues to work toward official recognition by the Vietnamese government. A year ago, the new United Methodist Mission Center was dedicated in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the steps deemed necessary to achieve that end. Another requirement is a constitution and bylaws. “We have a draft of a constitution done,” Ough said. “It is now being translated into English so it can be reviewed by legal counsel.”
The bishop expects that Vietnamese United Methodists will have an organizing conference a year from now to approve the constitution and elect their own leaders.
“It’s a very exciting time for Vietnam,” Ough said. “We’re running to keep up with what God is doing there.”
Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.