By B.J. Funk
After I was grown and out on my own, my daddy suffered a stroke. His keen mind was taken. The left side of his body became useless. Until he died seven years later, he was dependent on someone to take care of all personal needs. I often drove the 50 mile trip to see him in the familiar home in which I used to live. But, I could not find familiar again. I could not find daddy again. I looked at the man who looked like him, but was not him. I left still looking for daddy.
Mother was a champion. Somewhere in the course of those long months, she moved from denial to acceptance. Sometimes she longed for just a few hours of what used to be normal. What is that quote many are saying? “Look for the new normal?” It never became new, and it never became normal.
If you’ve lived any amount of time on this earth, you too have struggled with learning how to live when sadness invades your life. There is a big hole in your heart where peace used to rest. You spend a long time in shock and denial, never finding the key that will unlock your prison of pain and lead you to a new victory. You read your Bible and hear Paul say in Philippians 4:11 “…for I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances,” and you fall apart thinking there is just no way you will ever feel as Paul did.
One morning a king went into his garden and found that everything was dying. He asked the oak, “What is the problem?” and the oak told him he wanted to die because he was not as tall and beautiful as the pine. The pine had given up because he could not bear grapes, like the vine. The vine was giving up because he could not stand erect and produce large fruit like the peach tree. The geranium fretted because it was not tall and fragrant like the lilac. The garden died because those living there could not be content with the life they had.
Unless we accept our circumstances, no matter how difficult, we will never live in peace. We will fret away our days, angry over the changes that have come to us. Paul’s words pull us into sharp reality as he continues his wisdom in Philippians: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.”
We would be much more at home with Paul’s words if he had written, “I can’t believe this! Here I am, working in the Lord’s army, and this is the thanks I get? Why me? How can I spread the gospel if I am in this smelly prison?” Yet, Paul’s words move past any hint of pity and focus on a life’s lesson. “Grumbling produces grumps. Contentment produces comfort. We are the only one who can decide if we smile or frown.”
Paul’s secret was that he drew on Christ’s power for every circumstance in his life. But, you say, Paul was a giant in the Christian faith; we cannot be like him! Actually, he was a sinner, plucked and saved out of his sinful life. After uniting with Christ and giving up his old life, he was forever humbled. He even says in I Timothy 15 that he had been the worst of sinners. In II Timothy 2, he tells us why he could endure the chains of prison: God’s Word has not changed. That was his secret. Paul was content because he believed God’s Word more than he believed the circumstances in his life, and he knew how to draw on that power.
Streams in the Desert gives us these words: “Through the leaves of every trial, there are chinks of light to shine through. Thorns do not prick you unless you lean against them. The words that hurt you, the letter which gave you pain, the cruel wound of your dearest friend, shortness of money—are all known to Him, who sympathizes as none else can and watches to see if, through it all, you will dare to trust Him wholly.”
I think back to those days before daddy died. The reality of daddy’s helplessness haunted me. Could I ever be content with him this way? Finally, I stopped leaning into the thorns of this situation. I accepted the truth. This is the way it would always be. And, in accepting the truth, I found my daddy again.
By Donald Haynes
Readers misunderstand my role as a columnist for The United Methodist Reporter often enough to deserve an explanation of where I fit into our denomination’s connection.
I’m an elder who has served his church wherever he was sent in various capacities from 1954-1999, and since retirement, I have served five times as interim pastor. Currently, I’m pastor of a small rural church.
It is from this vantage point that I read the latest report of the Connectional Table to the Call to Action Committee, which will make rather dramatic proposals for change as the 2012 General Conference convenes. Like the folk philosopher of the 1930s, Will Rogers, “all I know is what I read in the paper.” But I hope that passing on their recommendations to you in the local church and in positions of connectional influence might enhance the dialogue.
According to these recommendations, the so-called “bureaucracy” of the church would be reduced sharply, both in numbers and in payroll. We would fold most boards and agencies into five offices: Congregational Vitality, Leadership Excellence, Missional Engagement, Justice and Reconciliation, and Shared Services.
But with what bottom line effect? What will the trickle-down impact be?
The new name recommended for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the “Office of Leadership Excellence,” has a good ring to it. In the fall, I began teaching a seminary class of the “recently called.” What do I say to them? Do we need those whom God is calling? If Lovett Weems and other prognosticators are accurate, and I think they are, our impending “death tsunami” of loyal laity will reduce many of our parishes to a critical mass unable to support a pastor. Is it excellence or excising for which we are preparing?
The underlying assumption seems to be that we are preparing the way for the demise of guaranteed appointment and more quick and compassionate exit procedures for clergy who have mediocre measurable performance. On a practical level, it might well mean more part-time local pastors who—like those in our Pentecostal and Baptist sister communions—have to supplement their income from secular employment, retirement benefits or spouse income. Part-time local pastors or retired pastors will be more effective than the very uncreative resort to old circuit patterns.
My first surprise in reading the recommendations is that the present General Board of Global Ministries and General Board of Church and Society would anchor two of the new agencies, when the majority of observers have for a long time felt that the Board of Global Ministries has a philosophy and an agenda.
We have a sharply diminished number of traditional “missionaries” in the field. Since the days of the early-1930s debate between Hendrik Kraemer and William Hocking, the Methodist philosophy of missions has had more emphasis on socioeconomic and political agendas than on evangelizing. Our board adopted the theological position of Professor Hocking from Harvard, who called for the affirmation of indigenous religions. We moved overwhelmingly toward educational, medical, agricultural and socioeconomic-political emphases. We rejected the position of Kraemer who wrote a book on the uniqueness of Christianity.
In the developing nations since the end of colonial empires, the Board of Global Ministries abroad has reflected a philosophical ethos identical to that of the Board of Church and Society in American culture. How much connectional structure do we need for social justice advocacy? Do we not need stronger local churches who will “stir up the gift of God” to provide more foot soldiers “to serve this present age”? Do we need the Global Ministries and Church and Society boards and their respective advocacy agencies to occupy a full half of our connectional leadership and half of our fiscal support for board and agency costs? Would it not be more equitable to place these two giant boards and the agencies reflecting their philosophy under one umbrella? I do not write this as a cheap shot, but as a reality check.
My second surprise is that we are placing most of the praxis ministries of the local church in one “office”—Congregational Vitality. This means evangelism, nurture, worship and stewardship will all be in one board while missional engagement and social justice/reconciliation has two! How can we assume this to be a move toward effective general church resourcing for the local church? Already local churches are “doing their own thing” with literature, worship and ministry paradigms. The vertical connectionalism from the local church to Nashville or New York or Washington is only a shadow of what it was a generation ago.
Effect on local church
If the new paradigm is to be helpful, congregational vitality must be our focus. Elton Trueblood, the great Quaker, repeatedly insisted in his writings that every church must have a base and a field. The congregational base must be strong enough numerically, spiritually and financially to support “field ministries” in the culture or overseas. If our local churches become too weak to develop leaders and provide monetary support for missional engagement and social justice/reconciliation ministries, those cultural impact ministries will gradually die from asphyxiation. Whom are we kidding to think we can continue to “make a statement” in the marketplace if the muscle of our local churches is feeble and weak?
Let’s get real. We have literally thousands of local churches, some of them historically strong and large, that will not have a giving base alive and in attendance 10 years from now if we cannot bring people to Christ and into the mainstream of Christian discipleship. Who will sing in the choir, teach the Sunday school classes, deliver Meals on Wheels, go on mission building teams, or support with their money the outreach ministries of the church? Indeed, unless they have endowments, how many of our churches will reach a point when they cannot paint the columns and repoint the Gothic mortar and replace the fallen slate from the roof?
If we are to grow again, we must plant more new congregations, but we must rethink the cost of this endeavor. There will be less and less “conference and district” money to buy land, support a pastor for up to five years, and subsidize the building of a first unit. In the planting of congregations, we need a paradigm shift. Almost every American town, even in areas of population decline, has seen a rise in independent and fundamentalist churches and the decline of older mainline, theologically moderate churches. This is not because these independent churches have a superior theology. No one has a more theologically and emotionally healthy theology than the grace theology of United Methodism. Why then do they grow while we shrivel?
Each of the independent churches’ new congregations is an entrepreneurial experiment—“root hog or die.” There is not a paternalistic hand to feed them. Secondly, they have a passion for evangelistic methodology. Their people brag on their preachers and churches. They have lively music, usually a band their first month of opening. Every week they have members bringing friends and neighbors. They use social networking like Facebook and Twitter. Their sermons are often shallow but delivered with “fire in the belly.” The preacher speaks the language of contemporary culture—illustrations, idiomatic expressions, current events, and dealing with “our demons.” Are we preaching from heart to viscera? Does our message on Sunday morning sound like it came from the Internet or from our experience this week with God and humankind?
We tend to stereotype and stigmatize those churches, and disparage them with political imagery, but they look disturbingly like the early Methodists, United Brethren and Evangelicals in the days when we were growing while the older Congregationalists and Anglicans were slipping. We were stereotyped and caricatured but our circuit riders and class meeting leaders were connecting with common people and caring for the wounded.
If our new structure of connectionalism is to help us recover our declining numbers and influence in the culture of “our towns,” our clergy must be re-tooled in “shoe leather connecting.” We have a message: God is love, inculcates a proactive, seeking love, fills us with a “blessed assurance of forgiving grace,” and disciples a faith community for supporting each other on our journey. Let every “call to action” keep the vitality of the local church in ministry as its focus.
Church-ianity has less and less appeal; the cookies aren’t that good and the committees make us weary in well-doing. The hope of our future is an infusion of “Christ-ianity.” Or, as Len Sweet puts it, “a Jesus manifesto” to rescue the perishing.
“Down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter, feelings lie buried that grace can restore. Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness, chords that were broken can vibrate once more.” How can our denomination infuse that new blood into our corroded arteries?
Donald Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference and a columnist for The United Methodist Reporter. This article is reprinted by permission of The United Methodist Reporter. Dr. Haynes is also the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals.
By Thomas A. Lambrecht
Much of the attention leading up to the 2012 General Conference has focused on the Call to Action report and the implementation of their recommendations and principles. The report calls for radical and far-reaching changes to United Methodism’s culture and structure that will affect every United Methodist, from the smallest local church to the largest general agency.
The Council of Bishops and Connectional Table constituted the Call to Action process in May 2009, which extensively studied the state of our church and proposed some restructuring principles (www.umc.org/calltoaction):
• Make the building of vital congregations “job one” for at least the next ten years
• Reform the way we develop, deploy, and evaluate clergy
• Use statistical information on church vitality to measure progress and adjust strategies
• Make the bishops more accountable to lead the church toward growth and vitality, while creating a culture of accountability in the annual conferences
• Restructure the General Church agencies to align their work with the church’s four priorities and to support our commitment to build vital congregations. This restructuring will include smaller, competency based boards; eliminating diffused and redundant activity; and reducing expenses caused by multiple independent structures.
The Call to Action Task Force then turned these principles over to an Interim Operations Team (IOT), which was instructed to come up with proposals to implement these principles legislatively and programmatically through the General Conference, Council of Bishops, Connectional Table, and General Church agencies. The IOT essentially came up with a business plan for a turnaround of the denomination (www.umc.org/calltoaction) that includes the following elements:
1. More rigorous evaluation of clergy, appointments based on proven performance, and elimination of the guaranteed appointment to allow moving ineffective clergy out of the profession.
2. Annually evaluate bishops on their effectiveness in spiritual leadership and temporal oversight of the church.
3. Elect a non-residential bishop (not responsible for an annual conference) to lead the Council of Bishops and support the work of bishops in building vital congregations.
4. Institute a study process with UM seminaries to adapt the curriculum to 21st century needs and create accountability for meeting expectations in pastoral training.
5. Free annual conferences to structure themselves in the way they believe would be most effective in building vital congregations by making all annual conference boards and agencies optional.
6. Combine nine of our General Church agencies into one super-agency, called the “Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.” The Center would consist of five “offices” that would align the various current agencies into workgroups. (See diagrams).
The Center would be governed by a 45-member General Council for Strategy and Oversight (meeting annually) and a 15-member Board of Directors elected by the Council. The work would be overseen by one Executive General Secretary for the Center, along with heads of each of the Offices and other staff as needed. Current agency staff would be rolled into the new Center and realigned according to needed functions, with the possibility of future staff reductions, as tasks are defined and duplication is eliminated.
United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men would become independent organizations whose place within the structure has yet to be determined.
UM Publishing House and the Board of Pensions and Health Benefits would remain as stand-alone boards that are self-funding. These two agencies’ structures would be studied and adapted for greatest effectiveness.
Additionally, $60 million of our General Church apportionments for 2012-2016 would be set aside for special allocation by the General Council for Strategy and Oversight, with $5 million going to young people’s lay leadership development and $5 million going to Central Conference theological education. The rest would go toward funding seminary education for ministerial students under age 35 and to annual conferences for building vital congregations.
A new task force on funding would study our apportionment and funding systems, looking for ways to reduce costs and increase effectiveness. They propose a more equitable and effective apportionment system across all annual conferences for 2016.
Many of the structural proposals coming from the IOT move in the right direction. Focusing on local church vitality really should be the most important priority of the denomination. Neglecting local church health is one reason we have experienced decline. Holding bishops, pastors, and congregations accountable to pursue the “drivers” that lead to more vital congregations is also a welcome move. The denomination exists to support and extend the ministry of the local church, but too often, denominational leaders have viewed the local church as there to support the denominational structure. This proposal helps get back to the right ordering of priorities.
It is also very positive to move toward combining and streamlining our General Church agencies. Boards should be based more on competency and skills in order to have the best people providing leadership and ideas. Placing most of the agencies under one board of directors and one general secretary ought to help unify and coordinate the work of the agencies, avoiding duplication and “turf warfare.” It will be helpful to have one head person and one board to hold accountable for results and effectiveness, rather than nine. Freeing annual conferences to adapt their structure to local needs may also enable more effective organization for ministry at the annual conference level.
We have some concerns, however, about how the General Council and the Board of Directors will function. First, the Central Conferences are underrepresented on the General Council. While the Central Conferences make up over 36 percent of the church membership, they have only 25 percent of the representation on the Council. Part of being a global church is to reflect fully our global membership and give a representative voice to our brothers and sisters in the Central Conferences. We should treat them as full partners in the work of governing our church.
At the same time, while preserving a sensitivity to representation by gender, ethnicity, geography, and clergy/laity, the members of the Council must be united in their commitment to United Methodist theology and doctrine, as reflected in our Book of Discipline (particularly doctrinal standards). Only through such unity of commitment will the Council be able to give clear direction to the overall mission and program of the church.
A second concern is how effectively a board of 15 people will be able to oversee the work of hundreds of employees that used to make up ten different agencies. They would need to put in 10-20 hours a week and meet monthly in order to keep abreast of what the various Offices are doing and give adequate oversight. These 15 board members and the 45 on the General Council will replace some 560 current board members overseeing the various General Church agencies! Alternatively, the Board of Directors may only be able to set policy and evaluate the effectiveness of the work in general and the Executive General Secretary in particular. If so, why could the more representative General Council not do that job, eliminating a layer of redundancy and ensuring that there are enough people “at the table” to adequately represent the concerns of worldwide Methodism?
A third concern is the dominant role of bishops in the governing process under the new structure. The Council of Bishops (COB) will have an equal voice with the General Council in setting long-term strategies. The COB will have a role in electing the first Center Board of Directors. There will be five bishops on the 45-member General Council, and one bishop will chair that Council, which gives the COB strong influence on the overall direction of programming, as well as the hiring and firing of staff. Bishops already have a leading role in the nominating process of persons to be elected by the jurisdictions to serve on General Church agencies, and the Jurisdictional College of Bishops is empowered to fill any vacancies that may occur during the quadrennium. The COB will have an equal voice with the General Council in approving churchwide financial appeals. The COB is to be consulted in any reallocation of funds within World Service and General Administration budgets during the quadrennium. The COB is also to be consulted on all funding considerations to be set before General Conference, which would include apportionments, budgets, and the amount of the Episcopal Fund.
This extensive involvement of the bishops in the governing of the General Church could prove to be a distraction from the primary responsibility of building vital congregational ministry in annual conferences. One of the greatest complaints heard about bishops is that they are gone from the annual conference too much on General Church business. With the new level of accountability being placed on bishops to lead and motivate clergy and congregations to increase vital local ministry, would it be wise to increase the attention bishops must pay to the budgets and programming of the General Church?
Finally, there are concerns about eliminating the guaranteed appointment for clergy. There is no question that greater flexibility is needed for bishops and superintendents in appointing clergy and removing ineffective clergy. However, we have seen a significant number of cases where bishops or superintendents misuse the power of appointment to intimidate clergy who disagree with them or who hold to a more evangelical theology, even though those pastors may be having an effective ministry. If that kind of abuse of power is happening when clergy have a guaranteed appointment, what will happen when there is no guarantee? The proposed legislation sets up a category for “transitional leave,” but it fails to set up a process that protects clergy from unfairly or arbitrarily being denied an appointment.
The IOT calls for “a just, reasonable, and compassionate process that provides for the transition of low performing clergy from the itinerancy.” However, the legislation proposed by the Study of Ministry Commission establishes a category without creating such a process. Pastors could be out of a job with as little as 90 days’ notice, with no recourse, no opportunity to improve effectiveness, and no support. Clergy surrender a lot of power by agreeing to the itinerant system (going wherever the bishop sends). In exchange, they have been given the security of knowing they would always have a job. If that security is taken away, then should clergy be given more power to accept or reject a proposed appointment? And if guaranteed appointment for clergy is being eliminated, should we not also look at the lifetime election and appointment of bishops, who are also clergy?
All of these issues of structure are complex, and the IOT proposals are welcome, in that they restore the priority of local church vitality, advocate a new culture of accountability, and unify and streamline the structures of the General Church. We need to give careful consideration to these ideas and tweak them to make the best structure our church can have going forward. Surely there will be evolution of the structure, as well, as we try out these new ideas in practice and learn how to operate in a new system. But we must remember that structure is only part of the solution, just as the skeleton is only part of the body. The flesh and blood are the people who will populate the new structure. The best structure in the world will be undermined if the people chosen prove to be ineffective. And finally, the Spirit of God must fill our church once again, in order for it to live and fulfill God’s purpose for us, just as the Spirit needed to bring to life those old, dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley. By the grace and power of God, The United Methodist Church can be vital and growing once again!
Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president and general manager of Good News. As a member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, he served 29 years in pastoral ministry before joining Good News. Rev. Lambrecht has worked on renewal efforts at five General Conferences.
By Thomas A. Lambrecht
Every four years, United Methodists gather for what is a cross between a political convention and a revival camp meeting. For almost two weeks, 1,000 delegates and more than 2,000 observers gather to represent a snapshot of United Methodism. At General Conference, we experience uplifting worship in a variety of styles, including U.S. ethnic flavors, as well as customs and traditions from our brothers and sisters in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Bishops and others bring challenging and inspiring preaching. We usually get to experience some aspect of local culture and entertainment in the host city (which rotates each quadrennium from one U.S. jurisdiction to another).
Our primary purpose in gathering, however, is to examine the current state of The United Methodist Church (through hundreds of pages of reports) and set the policies and direction of the church for the next four years (through thousands of petitions, resolutions, and other proposed changes in our Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions). We elect people to serve on the Judicial Council (supreme court) and the University Senate (credentialing body of our educational institutions).
Next April 24-May 5, 2012, the General Conference is coming to Tampa, Florida. This article is the first of several that will address the issues that will face our church in Tampa.
Since 1976, Good News has worked at General Conference to speak on behalf of evangelical concerns. More recently, we have joined with other ministries in the Renewal and Reform Coalition. We help in writing and submitting legislation. We evaluate proposals and communicate our point of view on issues to be dealt with by the General Conference. Many other caucus groups organize to influence General Conference, as well, including those of a more liberal or progressive viewpoint. This is the greatest opportunity we have to impact the church in the direction of spiritual renewal and organizational reform.
And the Lord knows we need renewal and reform! Over the past 40 years, The United Methodist Church in the U.S. has lost 3 million members. We are poised for even greater losses in the decades ahead, due to our aging membership and difficulty in attracting younger people to our churches. For the first time ever, over 50 percent of our active ordained clergy are older than age 50. Churches are closing at an alarming rate, while many others are reducing to part-time pastors or lay pastors. For the first time ever, the proposed budget for the General Church over the next four years is a reduction in amount from the previous four years.
The good news is that our church leaders have finally awakened to the crisis facing our church, and momentum is building to take radical steps to address that crisis. The bad news is that the proposals coming to General Conference deal with only one-half of the problem.
Good News believes that the crisis facing our church is caused by both a spiritual problem and an organizational problem. The organizational problem is that we have failed to adapt our mid-20th century structure to our current 21st century global reality.
But the other half of the problem is a spiritual shortcoming. We have allowed the Gospel message to become diluted by a variety of theologies that are not consistent with our doctrinal identity as United Methodists and sometimes contrary to our doctrinal standards as defined in our Book of Discipline. While giving lip service to our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, many pastors have abandoned their belief in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior of the world. They no longer hold to the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ. They no longer preach that people must turn in faith to Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness and restoration.
Some of our seminaries now believe that Christianity is just one of many ways to God, and that evangelism is no longer necessary or even advisable for United Methodists (despite Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8). In our desire for the “transformation of the world” via political and social ministry, we have neglected the power of God for personal transformation and holiness that must necessarily precede any impact we are to have on our culture. In fact, in many ways we have surrendered to the culture in an effort to become more “relevant,” rather than living in God’s way counter to our culture at times. And now we have the very real possibility that as many as 5 percent of our clergy will openly disobey our church’s teaching on sexual morality and marriage.
Until we address our spiritual problem as a denomination, we will have at best a half solution. We may slow the decline by changing our structure and our processes, but we will not experience true renewal and growth as a church until we return to our first love, proclaiming the pure Gospel message of salvation and transformation of life through faith and obedience to Jesus Christ alone.
Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president and general manager of Good News. As a member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, he served 29 years in pastoral ministry before joining Good News. Rev. Lambrecht has worked on renewal efforts at five General Conferences.
By Greg Jenks
“Don’t talk to me about God,” Angelique sobbed quietly. “If there is a God he doesn’t love me.”
Those were the words of a young Rwandan orphan three years ago as she spoke with my colleague Epiphanie Mujawimana, ZOE Ministry’s Africa coordinator.
Like millions of children across Africa, Angelique’s 15 years of life had been filled with tragedy and pain. When her mother passed away, just six months after her father’s death, Angelique and her siblings moved in with her elderly grandfather. Soon, the grandfather also died and Angelique became both mother and father to her 12-year-old brother and 10-year-old sister. Despite having no time to grieve her losses, Angelique had to find a way to feed her family. Even when her parents were alive, life was difficult, but now providing for her siblings was nearly impossible. She soon learned that even the good Samaritans in her village were already overwhelmed with hundreds of desperate children just like her.
Her suffering was compounded when the mud hut she was living in collapsed under the heavy Rwandan rains. Suddenly, Angelique and her siblings were not only orphans, they were also homeless. She began going through her village begging for a place to live. No one would take all three children together, so they each ended up in different homes. Although the brother and sister were given a place to sleep, Angelique was still expected to provide their food. Angelique was relieved when some of their neighbors did offer her a place to sleep. Even this, however, was not offered as an act of compassion. Angelique had to work two days a week in exchange for a bed upon which to sleep. The rest of the week she spent working for food in the fields of other neighbors so she could feed herself and her siblings.
The most tragic part of the story is that the bed she was given was in the same room as the twenty-four year old son of the couple in whose home she was sleeping. After three months of continual abuse, Angelique became pregnant. With no other options, Angelique remained in the home and continued to suffer attacks. She was pregnant with a baby she did not want, responsible for a brother and sister she could not feed, and grieving the loss of parents who could no longer support her.
As Epiphanie looked into the eyes of this child she saw the pain and hopelessness that she has seen in the eyes of so many orphans. Epiphanie saw the fear of a child who had been betrayed by those she trusted. She saw the shame of a teenage pregnancy and the isolation that poverty brings. Yet she could see also something that Angelique could not. Epiphanie could see hope. She began to softly reassure Angelique that she was loved by God and that God still had a future for her. Although Epiphanie knew that Angelique could not yet believe those words, she spoke these words from her own experience.
Epiphanie Mujawimana knows what it means to have the world on your shoulders as a child. Growing up in Rwanda, Epiphanie was only nine years old when her own father died in a tragic accident. Her mother suffered with a physical disability and could not work. She soon learned what it meant to be poor and to go to bed hungry.
Epiphanie was a resourceful child. Gifted with stubborn resilience, she began finding solutions to improve her life. She worked small jobs and started growing and selling vegetables which earned enough money for her to stay in school. When she reached secondary school, the fees were too much for her and she borrowed money from a fund established at a local church to assist poor students. Epiphanie completed her education and became a very popular school teacher. With her first paycheck, she returned to the church to repay her loan. The church leaders were shocked; Epiphanie was the first person who had received funds from the church and ever returned to repay the loan.
In 1994, when the shadow of the Rwandan genocide of the Hutu majority on the Tutsi minority descended upon the world, Epiphanie had to rely on her deep Christian faith. Fleeing from the 100 days of killing with her husband and two children, Epiphanie, a Tutsi, barely escaped. Hutu teachers helped to hide their beloved colleague. Miraculously, Epiphanie and her family did survive, and she decided to dedicate her life to helping her country recover.
Epiphanie began where the resources were and went to work with a well-known Western relief organization. She threw herself into this work for several years, but eventually became disillusioned.
“I watched as these generous people came to my country, to give things to my people that they desperately needed,” she recalled. “I then watched as my people became so good at receiving that they forgot how to do anything. Then when the grants dried up, or the focus shifted, my people were left worse off than before.”
The children she had served through her relief work ended up right back on the streets after having been temporarily propped up by handouts. Epiphanie feared that more harm than good had been done. It was clear that the children had only learned to wait to be given money, food or clothing rather than how to provide for themselves.
Driven by a call from God to care for children, Epiphanie became gripped by the vision that more was possible. She began to truly believe there had to be a way to help orphans escape the cycles of poverty and dependency in which they were trapped. The key, she found, was not in listening to the strategies developed by adults, but rather in listening to the dreams that survived in the hearts of these orphans.
Epiphanie watched as orphans struggled in her community. As she visited with them, she learned that they would either beg for handouts or work for food. Rising early in the morning, they would carry water, shovel out animal pens or work on their neighbor’s farms until the evening. For this backbreaking labor, they would be paid just a few potatoes.
Epiphanie asked them, “You have some land your parents left you, why don’t you grow your own food?”
“We are only orphans and do not have anything,” they replied. “We do not have a hoe to till the soil, and if we had a hoe we have no seed, and if we had these things we would still need an animal to provide fertilizer so the land would yield.”
All that stood between these children being exploited as opposed to caring for themselves were simple start-up materials like hoes, seed, and an animal. Then Epiphanie had, well, an epiphany. The key to actually helping these children for the long term was not to be found in the standard model of relief; the key was empowerment.
Epiphanie began designing a new way to help these children. Eschewing orphanages, Epiphanie was committed to keeping the children in the villages in which they had grown up. Helping them establish support groups among themselves, she began connecting them with local churches and reintegrating them into schools. Then she began to provide basic resources and training which would equip the children to pull themselves out of poverty in only two to three years. Today, by using a culturally appropriate system, Epiphanie’s methodology provides these children with not only farming skills for food security, but also with micro-grants and micro-loans to start and grow small businesses, training in health and hygiene to prevent illness and disease, adequate housing, reintegration into schools or vocational training, and spiritual nurture with connections to local churches. Within only two to three years, more than 90 percent of these children never need charity again. The percentage is so high because the orphans become like family to one another, and within their groups they refuse to let each other fail. It is difficult to believe that African orphans are able to care for themselves with such limited assistance.
In 2007, I met Epiphanie and was overwhelmed by the power of her model. Over the past four years, ZOE Ministry has been in the process of transitioning out of traditional relief work to fully implementing Epiphanie’s empowerment model. ZOE now has over 12,000 children in the program or recently graduated from it, and has expanded from Rwanda into Kenya and then into several other sub-Saharan African countries. Children are coming to know God’s love and are living full lives resounding with dignity and hope.
I met Angelique two months after that day that she had wept with Epiphanie. A team from the United States was visiting Rwanda and helping to construct a home for her. Even then, still pregnant, she was sad and suffering. She wore a jacket in an attempt to hide her pregnancy and was unable to look anyone in the eye. The hood from Angelique’s jacket was constantly pulled over her head as she sought to conceal her shame. Only once did I see a thin smile coaxed out of her.
It was a year and a half before I saw Angelique again. United Methodist Bishop Earl Bledsoe and his wife Leslie accompanied me as I went to Angelique’s home to visit with her. When we arrived, I could hardly believe the transformation. She greeted us at the door with a Bible in her hands. When we entered her home she opened the visit by reading Scripture to us and then praying for us.
Then, as a friend held her baby, she told us her story and shared her newfound faith, hope and dreams. She rejoiced that her younger siblings now lived with her. In 2008, I saw a girl, frightened and ashamed. Less than two years later, what I witnessed was truly amazing.
Angelique was bubbling over as she talked about what God had done in her life. She shared her joy at being reunited with her siblings; she described how she was making enough money to survive through her small business of selling sorghum drink; she explained that her next goal was to start selling used clothes through a “boutique” in the local market. Then, an astonishing thing happened. As Angelique described all the good things happening in her life, this 17-year-old girl got a case of the teenage giggles. She began laughing so hard that she could not speak. Finally, in a moment of joyous exasperation, she covered her face with her Bible to hide the smiles!
Once Angelique composed herself, we visited her small business. When we returned to her home, she presented each of us with a gift. Each person received a Biblical promise written on a small slip of paper. This girl, who once felt rejected by God, was now ministering to us through the promises that had come to mean so much to her.
After we left, Epiphanie told me the rest of the story. Not only was Angelique caring for her family, but Angelique was also caring for other orphans in her community. Two boys who had no one to care for them were coming to her home every day. Every day, Angelique was feeding them. Because of ZOE, many thousands of African orphans have stories just like Angelique’s. God is at work in Africa.
I had engaged in relief work for nearly three years before meeting Epiphanie. I had fed children, given them clothing and medicine, and told them of God’s love. I knew the joy of giving charity, but I never understood the power of walking with a child as they are cared for in ways that allow them to support themselves. It is truly transformative to watch them grow into the men and women God wants them to be. I challenge you and your church to think beyond charity when reaching out to the least, the last, and the lost in the name of Christ.
Greg Jenks is founder and executive director of ZOE Ministry, and a United Methodist clergyman. If you would like for a ZOE representative to speak with you or your church, please contact the Rev. Gaston Warner at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 919-414-4167. You can learn more about the ministry and how to support it by contacting Rev. Warner and/or visiting the ZOE website at: www.zoeministry.org. All photographs were provided by ZOE Ministry.