Tuesday, May 22, 2007

June Seminary

Last night I was asked to meet with the Mission Committee of a church that has been very supportive of the work at the Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela. They had questions for me to answer about the work of the seminary and their continuing support.

I struggled to find words adequate to describe the critical work of the Kingdom being done through the Wesley Seminary of Venezuela. Since I am so passionate about this work and so very much in love with the people of Venezuela, I am always amazed that others do not see the value as clearly as I do. However, I must realize that it is like the love for one's own child. Others may love your child, but they will never love him or her as much as you do.

After some time to think about it, here are some of the reasons for the passion we have for the work in Venezuela:

1. The greatest single need of the church in Venezuela is the need for trained and equipped pastors. For example, San Christobal is a city of 600,000 people. The evangelical (protestant) church recently celebrated 100 years in San Christobal. Yet the pastors estimate there are only 5-6,000 evangelical Christians in San Christobal - after 100 years of ministry and dozens of churches. This scenario is repeated all across the nation. The level of training and the models of ministry embraced by the indigenous church have not been as effective as needed in reaching the lost of Venezuela. Pastors need and receive excellent quality education at the Seminary in a fashion that is relevant, affordable and accessible. The 90 students enrolled are getting a practical theological education at the undergraduate level that simply is not available in all of Venezuela.

2. The people of Venezuela are primarily a secular people. While most claim to be Roman Catholic, in fact a very small percentage of the people have any religious life. Secularism is the dominate religion of the population. This is a country that desperately needs the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is presented in our best Wesleyan tradition. Through the seminary we are making a significant difference in the practice and effectiveness of the ministry of our students and many new congregations and missions have been started as a result of the education received at Wesley Seminary. These new congregations and missions are the very best way to reach the lost of this great country.

3. The United Methodist Church of Venezuela is in its infancy. Wesley Seminary is providing the educational and spiritual foundation needed for the establishment of a strong and effective Conference touching the entire nation and impacting the church in all of Latin America. Venezuela is a strategic country in Latin America for many reasons. We desperately need a strong United Methodist Conference in that country. All the work of writing the Discipline and organizing the Conference has been led by the staff of the Seminary. This is even more critical given the political upheavals in the region.

4. The North American Church needs the enrichment provided by partnering with the church in Venezuela. Pastors here get embittered if local church does not pay a minimum compensation package of about $60,000 (total cost to the church). Many pastors in Venezuela earn less than $4,000 a year. Churches here feel entitled to all the facilities, programming, budget and staff of a well established congregation. Many congregations in Venezuela have bi-vocational pastors, no other staff, minuscule budgets and have to meet in homes or rented garages. Yet they are joyful and thankful for God's blessings and generous with others less fortunate. We need a good dose of that in the US. Taking American professors, pastors and lay leaders to Venezuela to help with seminary allows them to be touched by some of the most dedicated servants of Christ I have ever known.

5. The work of the Seminary is a long-term commitment. Most churches use a shotgun approach to Global Missions investing limited time and money in many different places, resulting in very small long term gains. That is how I learned to do mission work and perpetuated that pattern for many years. However, a long term partnership with an indigenous church in another country resulting in spiritual and theological formation of the leadership of that church for several generations has far greater lasting impact for the sake of the Kingdom. Therefore, the Seminary needs many US partner churches to support and expand this great ministry. We do not need to cut back or lose any of the current support. We need to increase and expand the support for this great work.

One of the ways of looking at the ROI (Return on Investment) of mission dollars focuses on immediate gains of professions of faith or new members or churches. We certainly have those results in Venezuela. However, those are all immediate and measurable results and if they are the only criteria of measurement of effectiveness, we will miss the greater significance of the ministry of the Seminario Wesleyan de Venezuela. That is like measuring the effectiveness of a church solely on Professions of Faith. No District Superintendent in North Georgia has said more about the need for our own churches to be more effective in measurable ways, such as average worship attendance, professions of faith, net new members, etc. However, as a pastor for over 30 years, I know those are only part of the work. They are tangible. The intangible includes the spiritual growth of the pastors, staff and laity of a congregation, the primary outward focus of a local church, the holiness of heart and life of the people of the church, the generosity of the congregation toward others, the sense of divine call evidenced in the life of the laity and lay leaders of the congregation. The raising up of new mature lay and clergy leadership is of critical importance. It is not measurable, except anecdotally. However, it cannot be over-valued.

Finally, please pray for the seminary as we meet in June. David, Dean of the Seminary, will be teaching an Old Testament Course and I will be teaching a worship course, "Worship that Transforms." Also, please prayerfully consider how you can support this critical work.

In Christ,