Thursday, February 10, 2011

The United Methodist Church of Venezuela


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 finished his course work on 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. He and Nancy now live in Venezuela where he serves as Dean of the Seminary while writing his PhD. Dissertation.

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 continued to meet for six years even though it had 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 person 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 and they became the first long term United Methodist Missionaries to live in Venezuela before moving to the Seminary in Mexico.

They were soon followed by the second United Methodist missionary family who worked primarily with the Wesleyan Seminary of Venezuela. They continued to live in Venezuela until 2010 when they were reassigned to Mexico as well.

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 had traveled to a foreign country on a mission trip. This was followed in January 2007 by Bishop Lindsey Davis 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 ( the church planted by uvenal Perez, the first Episcopal leader elected by the church in Venezuela) 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 along with the Senior Minister. Many other US churches have since developed partnerships with the church in Venezuela.

Work progressed in drafting a Discipline to form the new United Methodist Church of Venezuela. Many meetings were held with the pastors interested to being a part of this work. Now

On August 17, 2007 the first Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church of Venezuela will convened in Barquisimeto with Warren Lathem preaching the opening service and presiding under the appointment of Bishop Lindsey Davis until the delegates elected their first Bishop. 42 lay and clergy delegates attended this historic event. They proceeded to unanimously adopt the Discipline of the UMC of Venezuela and elect their first Bishop, Juvenal Perez, who would later graduate in the first class matriculating from the Seminary.

It is Done! The United Methodist Church of Venezuela is Born!
Newly Elected and Consecrated Bishop Juvenal Perez

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. 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 Rivera, 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. These leaders came from five different cities of Venezuela. They represented 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, Dean Dan Dunn, and President Warren Lathem laid hands on each of them and consecrated them to the task of pastoral ministry. Orders of Ministry were still being 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.)

 On Friday, March 10, 2010 Dan Dunn, David Cosby and Warren Lathem met with Bishop Juvenal Perez.  He had some questions for us and we discussed at length issues such as ministerial ethics, church planting, Disciplinary fidelity, the 10% mission offering from each church for the work of the Conference, the role of the Seminary, Clergy accountability, statistical reports, planning and communication.  It was a full agenda, but well worth the time since Obispo Perez is such a mature and devoted Christian evangelist and pastor with a teachable spirit and hunger for knowledge. He also serves as the UM pastor in Punto Fijo as well as having planted three other new congregations and assigned lay pastors to them.

Saturday morning we traveled to the Seminary for a United Methodist Pastor’s seminar. At the request of the Bishop I taught and Dan translated for about 4 hours and addressed several issues for the UMC of Venezuela using the Church at Antioch in the Book of Acts as the pattern. It was a wonderful time with many of the UM pastors and spouses.  While we missed some who could not be there, these pastors had gathered from all across the country at significant expense and inconvenience.   

Many pastors shared great testimonies of what God had done and is doing through their churches.  These testimonies sounded like they came right out of the Book of Acts.  A medical doctor and graduate of the seminary told of a recent event witnessed by a number of doctors in which a man was being autopsied and revived. He had been dead so long much of his innards were destroyed and had to be replaced with plastic parts.   But he is alive and praising God for the miracle, giving thanks to the Great Physician.  Another pastor shared the picture of a man who was completely debilitated by a tumor on his brain.  It had cut his brain function to just 30%.  The pastor shared how difficult this was for him and his family.  The church gathered and prayed for him and he was instantaneously healed.  The healing was certified by his doctor. As the pastor showed me a picture of the man he told me he had been cleared by his doctors and was employed driving an 18-wheel truck across the country.  Another pastor told of the new church plant north of the city and had the layman in whose home it is meeting at the seminar.  He will be enrolled in the Seminary on Monday! More stories like these there were shared and we rejoiced.

 United Methodist Camp in Puerto Ordaz

In 2010 during Holy Week 120 children, youth and adults are camped on the river near Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela engaged in a Methodist Campmeeting.  They were ministered to by the Methodist pastors of the State of Bolivar.  This is a joint effort of all the Methodist churches in the area with support from other United Methodist congregations across the country.  All the pastors working in the Campmeeting were students or graduates of the Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela.

The Seminary has had tremendous impact on the pastors and churches in the Bolivar State.  New churches, new Christians, and new pastors are just some of the results of this ministry in that state. 

The Connectional Church is alive and well in Venezuela. For example, two of our United Methodist student/pastors held services over the past weekend.  Pastor Thoby Ramirez is the pastor of Casa de Dios UMC (House of God) in the large city of Puerto Ordaz.  Pastors Alexander and Amaryllis of Ondas de Paz UMC (Waves of Peace) in Cabudare led the services for Pastor Thoby. On this past Sunday 50 persons made professions of faith! 
Bishop Juvenal Perez called to order the 3rd annual conference of the United Methodist Church of Venezuela at about 3:00 on Friday, August 6, 2010 on the Campus of the Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela in LaPiedad, Venezuela.  Pastors and laity came from all across the country to be a part of this time of reunion, reporting, worship, celebration and business. As the afternoon session adjourned for dinner, pastors were still arriving by bus from 20-24 hours away.
Pastor Toby Victor Ramirez led the opening devotional time followed by typical spirited Venezuelan singing and worship (Oh, how I long for the Church in the US to experience such vital worship). This was followed by a few words from the Bishop and then Warren Lathem taught/preached on Paul's call to the church at Philippi to "Shine like the Stars in the Universe." Dean Dan Dunn translated for me and did his usual excellent work.  A short break followed (with VZ coffee!) and then pastor Carlos Perona preached from Exodus and defined the difference between selfish dreams or visions and God's vision and the necessity of the church holding on to the vision of God for the church.  Needless to say, he preached circles around the gringo.

There followed a break for dinner and then the Conference gathered for a time of high worship at the Ondas de Pas UMC in Cabudare.  This church has outgrown its former meeting place and is now renting space in the community of Aqua Viva.

On Saturday, the Conference worshiped and heard reports of conversions and new churches started. Then the Bishop asked Warren Lathem to take the gavel for the election since he felt to preside at what  might be his own election would be inappropriate. According to the Discipline of the United Methodist Church of Venezuela, the Bishop is elected to serve a three year term.  After a long process Bishop Perez was reelected and then presided over the closing worship service and Holy Communion.

The Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela was the birthing room for this Conference of the United Methodist Church of Venezuela and continues to provide a critical link for the connection here among the United Methodist churches and pastors across all regions of this large country.


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