Monday, August 20, 2007

It is Done! The United Methodist Church of Venezuela is Born!

Newly Elected and Consecrated Bishop Juvenal Perez

What began as a conversation between two United Methodist Bishops, a Venezuela pastor attending school in the US and a United Methodist pastor over 12 years ago became reality on Friday, August 17, 2007 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. The first conference of the United Methodist Church of Venezuela was called to order, Dr. Warren Lathem, presiding. In the absence of a bishop present and with the full knowledge of his bishop, Warren called the meeting to order.

The Conference began in the chapel of the Assembly of God Bible Institute with a worship service marked by singing led by Alfonso Riveria, a young adult leader of the Lugar Altissimo United Church and student in the Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela. Dr. Lathem preached on the “Required Attributes of a Bishop” citing the 13 requirements outlined by Paul in his first letter to Timothy, Chapter 3, verses 1-7. He then stated an additional 13 attributes needed in the first Bishop of the United Methodist Church of Venezuela.

Following the worship service and a short break, the conference reconvened and Dr. Lathem explained the process that would be followed in the election of their bishop. Forty-two lay and clergy delegates were pre-qualified to vote. While many guests observed, an orderly and peaceful process began. The first Ballot was taken and declared invalid as many of the ballots contained only the first name. Three subsequent ballots were taken and tallied, the third resulting in the election of a Bishop.

Juvenal Perez, pastor of the Rey de Reys (King of Kings) United Methodist Church in Punto Fijo was elected. On the announcement of his election, the congregation erupted in applause and Bishop-elect Perez bowed his head as the weight of the episcopacy descended on him.

Dr. Lathem called Bishop-elect Perez to the front where he was joined by his loving wife and co-pastor, Nohely. The Bishop-elect and Nohely knelt and the pastors, then the lay delegates, then the guests gathered around them for a time of commissioning prayer. In the absence of a bishop, the conference consecrated its own Episcopal leader.

Bishop and Mrs. Perez were then joined by their three wonderful sons as he gave his first remarks as the leader of this new conference. His words were marked by gratitude and true humility at the confidence placed in him by his fellow United Methodists as well as his willingness to execute the duties of the office of the Bishop.

The Conference adjourned for the dinner break and pictures of the new Bishop and his family. An hour later Bishop Perez called the Conference back into session and began the work of perfecting the external Discipline. This document had been before the United Methodist Leaders on at least three other occasions and had been over a year in composition and editing. After some nominal perfections to the document were approved, the document was adopted to be sent to the Venezuelan government for legal organization of the United Methodist Church of Venezuela. The Conference adjourned for the evening about 9:00 to reconvene at 8:30 on Saturday morning.

Bishop Perez called the conference to order at approximately 8:40 on Saturday morning. Dr. Leroy Lindsey gave the opening sermon of the day from the Book of Ephesians and great time of worship and celebration was experienced. There was a contagious joy that spread throughout the room.

Following worship, Bishop Perez led the conference in the election of the officers required by the External Discipline adopted the previous evening. They are:

Vice President Jeremias Lopez

Secretary Jose Codero

Treasurer Yolanda Caicedo

Pastor Representative Victor Ramirez

Lay Representative Rafael Baez

Lay Representative Eliana Morales.

These leaders come from five different cities of the country of Venezuela. They represent the remarkable leadership being given to the work of the United Methodist Church of Venezuela. Bishop Perez led the conference in a prayer of dedication of these leaders.

Bishop Perez then called all the pastors to come forward and the conference prayed for them as Seminary Dean David Cosby, Professor Dan Dunn, and President Warren Lathem laid hands on each of them and consecrated them to the task of pastoral ministry. Orders of Ministry are still be established in the Internal Discipline, but these pastors, all of whom are currently enrolled in the Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela, were commissioned to the work of pastoral ministry.

A motion was made putting the rest of the business before the conference into the hands of the newly elected Bishop and executive committee to be brought back at a later conference to approve the Internal Discipline and other items of business. Bishop Perez adjourned the conference at noon on Saturday, August, 18, 2007.

This author cannot express the joy that accompanied the privilege of having a hand in leading the work in Venezuela to this historical step. I now look forward to supporting the Venezuelan leadership as they lead their country to faith in Jesus Christ, building on the work of Wesley and reaching out to the world. Praise God for all His bountiful blessings! Please pray for this new United Methodist expression in Venezuela and newly elected Bishop Perez and his family.

(Editor’s Note: The requirement of the “External and Internal Disciplines” is a state requirement peculiar to Venezuela. The two documents combined would constitute the Discipline of the United Methodist Church of Venezuela. However, they must remain separate due to church and state laws in this country.)

A Memorable Week of Seminary at Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela

Seminary began on Monday afternoon, August 13, 2007 at the rented facilities of the Assembly of God Bible Institute in Barquisimeto, Venezuela with Dr. Leroy Lindsey, Professor. Dr. Lindsey is the Dean of the OMS Biblical Seminary of Mexico (SemBiMex). A lifelong missionary, he speaks perfect Spanish. He also has a great heart for the work in Venezuela having been here on previous occasions. He is loved by the students and always makes a great impact on them.

About half of the 55 students attending these classes were United Methodists and the rest were from a variety of denominations, the Assembly of God being prominent due to his long history in Venezuela. Fortunately the United Methodist movement in Venezuela has been able to establish a very close working relationship with the AOG. Several of our professors have spoken in their chapel classes and taught in their classrooms. This has been a tremendous blessing since our Seminary still does not have its own location.

In the morning classes, Dr. Lindsey taught the Inductive Study of the Book of Hebrews. In the afternoon classes, he taught Wesleyan Holiness. The two subjects complimented one another perfectly. His passion for teaching and ministry through teaching was evident in all he did.

On Wednesday afternoon, as he was speaking of the purity of heart that God desires of his children and the holiness of life expected of those who follow Christ, one of the students stood up, interrupted the lecture and declared, “I want this now!” A revival in the truest sense of the word exploded in the classroom. Dozens of pastors and students began to weep and confess their sin and their need of the “holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Some stood, some knelt and some sprawled on the floor as the power of the Holy Spirit descended on that upper room. A transformational work of the Spirit was experienced in many lives. It was as if the years of teaching these most receptive students erupted in one afternoon of transformational glory. This experience of the Spirit of Christ will bear fruit for many years in the work of the Christian church in Venezuela.

This also set the stage for a most remarkable experience on the weekend as the United Methodist Church of Venezuela was officially born. Praise God for his mercy and grace in Jesus Christ!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The United Methodist Church of Venezuela - A Story of the Miracle of Grace

In 1995 Bishops Paulo Lockman of Brazil and Lloyd Knox of North Georgia met with Warren Lathem, then pastor of Mount Pisgah UMC in Alpharetta, GA and Carlos Gonzalez, Hispanic Pastor at Mount Pisgah and a native of Venezuela, to discuss our starting the United Methodist work in Venezuela. In April, 1996, Carlos Gonzalez, Ray Lathem, Roger and Dana Lane left Atlanta for our first venture into Venezuela. They traveled around the country, worked with a mission team from Norcross UMC building a church in La Marita, VZ and contacted pastors and entities who might be interested in becoming United Methodist and begin the organization of the ministry.

Unfortunately, these mission pioneers were killed in the ValuJet Crash in Miami on May 11, 1996 while returning from Venezeula. All of their records and contacts died with them. At least that is what we thought since no records were recovered from the crash scene.

However, by the grace of God, we received pictures from the Norcross team showing them at the work site in La Marita. These are the last pictures we have of these selfless servants and martyrs for the faith.

We had no names to pursue the relationship and our grief blinded us to so obvious options that were available to us. But God was still at work.

In 1997, Bishop Luis Palomo, Bishop of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Venezuela, contacted Warren Lathem telling him he had received inquiries from some pastors in Venezuela asking if he would help them get the Methodist work organized in their country. He said he would visit the pastors and then share with Warren his findings.

What he discovered was the pastors did not understand why there had been no follow up after the initial contact made in April and May of the previous year. They had not known the fate of those who had come to them from the US. As a result of this meeting, Bishop Palomo asked Warren if Mount Pisgah UMC would sponsor a Venezuelan national missionary living in the US. He would move his family to Venezuela and start the Evangelical Methodist Church of Venezuela. As a result of this request, Mount Pisgah provided all the cost for this pastor to move back to Venezuela, provided him with a car, a house and expenses.

At the missionary's invitation, Warren Lathem traveled to Venezuela for the first time in 1998. He was invited to preach an evangelistic crusade in Arcarigua, VZ, the city where the missionary lived. He was accompanied by Rev. Miguel Torres, a native of Maricaibo, VZ and the new Hispanic Minister at Mount Pisgah. While the crusade was effective in leading many people to faith in Christ, it was transformational for Warren Lathem. Additionally, Warren met Tito Santiago, dear friend and colleague in ministry now in Georgia. God broke Warren's heart for the people of Venezuela. In the early morning hours of solitude and prayer in Arcarigua at the mom and pop Posada (Bed and Breakfast), God birthed the vision of a training program for the pastors of Venezuela. This soon became the dream of starting what became the Seminario Wesleyan de Venezuela.

The next year Warren was invited to return to Arcarigua to conduct another evangelistic crusade. He was accompanied by his wife, Jane , Dan and Nancy Dunn, and lay members from Mount Pisgah, along with Rev. Miguel Torres. In was on this trip that God broke Dan Dunn's heart for missions, especially in Venezuela. This began a pilgrimage for the Dunn's that led to Dan being the co-founder of the Seminary and his own journey back to Seminary at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY where he is pursuing a PhD. in Evangelism to enable him to teach in theological schools in Latin America and serve as Dean of Students at Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela.

Subsequently, successive trips led to an Evangelistic Crusade in Barquisimeto with 10,000 in attendance, the beginning of construction of the Lugar Altissimo Church in memory of Ray Lathem and honor of Jared Lathem, and the inaugural session of the Seminary with Bishop Palomo and another professor teaching. (Never try to do that much in one week!)

The Seminary began its first session in rented space at the Assembly of God Bible Institute in Barquisimeto where it continues to meet even though it has outgrown the space available. In subsequent years, many mission teams from Mount Pisgah returned to build relationships and churches. Many people were involved in these early stages, too many to mention.

Then trouble began to dawn. It became apparent to Dan and Warren that the relationship with the Missionary Mount Pisgah had been sponsoring was untenable. However, they did not want to injure the work of the pastors or seminary and did not know how to proceed. In the grace of God, some of the Methodist pastors asked to meet with Dan and Warren without the presence of the Missionary. At that meeting, they informed us that they could no longer work with this persons due to serious problems, especially related to integrity and leadership. As this was resolved, the relationship with the missionary was terminated, most of the pastors and churches pulled out of the fledgling organization and began to work to form an new association. Warren and Dan traveled to Costa Rica to discuss this decision with Bishop Palomo and discovered he had independently reached the same conclusion.

Virgil and Jo Almond, members of Mount Pisgah, became our first US missionaries spending 3 months in Venezuela securing a house in Cabudare and looking for a potential permanent location for the seminary. After their time, they came back to the US, moved to Suches, GA and discovered their pastor was planning to go to a Latin American country as a missionary. The door closed for them and Virgil shared this with Warren. Warren invited them to consider Venezuela and they became the first long term United Methodist Missionaries to live in Venezuela. They serve there in a partnership between Venezuela Now, Inc. and The Mission Society.

They were soon followed by the second United Methodist missionary family who works primarily with the seminary. Both of these families live in the greater Barquisimeto area and work very closely with the pastor and churches, the seminary and US Mission Teams.

Then in August of 2005, the Bishop and Cabinet of the North Georgia Conference made an historic mission trip to Venezuela. This is the first time an entire US Cabinet has traveled to a foreign country on a mission trip. This was followed in January 2007 by Bishop Lindsey returning to Venezuela to teach in the Seminary.

During the intervening years, several other United Methodist Churches began to work in Venezuela. The first one after Mount Pisgah was McEachern UMC in Marietta. Their long-term partnership with the congregation in Punto Fijo is a model for other churches. Rev. Donna Goff, Minister of Missions at McEachern and veteran missionary of Kenya, led this effort and also teaches in the Seminary.

Work has progressed in drafting a Discipline to form the new United Methodist Church of Venezuela. Many meetings have been held with the pastors interested to being a part of this work. Now we are on the brink of a great next step.

On August 17, 2007 the first Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church of Venezuela will convene in Barquisimeto with Warren Lathem preaching the opening service and presiding until the delegates formally approve the Discipline and elect their first Bishop. Some 50 lay and clergy delegates are expected for this historic event. The exact number is unknown to this author at this time, but it appears there will be about 25-30 churches joining the conference as well as about 20 pastors and their spouses and lay delegates from each church.

We rejoice in Christ for so many things related to Venezuela. The most current is this inaugural conference. However, this is just one of many miracles which have come into our lives through the brothers and sisters in Venezuela. We will be forever grateful to our Gracious Lord Jesus Christ for bringing new life out of death, joy out of tragedy and hope in the face of despair. May our voices ever praise the One who turns darkness into light, who creates something out of nothing, who defeats death with resurrected life! What a joy to be a part of what Jesus is doing in Venezuela. Thank you, Lord!

August Seminary, Finishing Our Fifth Year

August 13, 2007 is the beginning of our August Seminary session with Dr. Leroy Lindsey, Dean of the SeBiMex Theological Seminary in Mexico, City and a favorite visiting professor of Seminario Weselyano de Venezuela students. This class is the last of our first five years of operation. We are still one year away from graduating our first class, meeting the academic requirements for an excellent undergraduate seminary degree.

Please pray for the 50-55 students likely to participate in this week of classes. Also pray for our Dean as he leads the week. And, please pray for Dan Dunn, Professor of Missions and Evangelism and Dean of Students, and Warren Lathem, Professor of Church Ministries and President of the Seminary who will be at the seminary along with the Dean and his wife and Warren's wife, Jane.

While we are in Barquisimeto, we hope to close the final purchase of 10 acres across the street from the Lugar Altissimo Church and future home of the Seminary. We also hope to receive final papers placing the 25 acres surrounding Lugar Altissimo UMC de Venezuela in the name of the Wesley Association of Venezuela, the legal entity that holds the property and assets of our work in Venezuela. Once these properties are legally transfered, we will begin to develop plans for construction of the seminary. We currently have an architect working on our first building and hope to be able to raise funding soon. Please pray for this as well.