Kitchener, Ontario, Canada – “What can you do for your part of the world?” That’s the question the International Brethren in Christ Association (IBICA) has been asking Brethren in Christ church leaders across the globe, during a series of national summits.
Launched in 2011, these national summits have drawn together a diverse mix of Brethren in Christ church leaders for intentional conversations about identity, theology and ministry.
The first summit was held in Biratnagar, Nepal, in 2011, drawing together Brethren in Christ leaders from India and Nepal. For the second summit, held in June 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa, leaders gathered from six countries across the African continent. And the most recent gathering—which took place in San José, Costa Rica, in December 2013—brought together many leaders from eight countries. It was the first gathering of its kind among Latin American Brethren in Christ.
The summits’ sponsoring agency, IBICA, is an associate member of Mennonite World Conference. Many of the participants in each summit are leaders in MWC member churches.
Developing a ‘mutually beneficial vision’
At each summit, coordinators asked the participants to think more intentionally about ways to share and to cooperate with sister churches in their continental region.
“Our goal for each of these summits has been to ignite conversation about a mutually beneficial vision for these leaders’ areas of the world,” says Don McNiven, executive director of IBICA.
And to do that, McNiven adds, leaders must first build relationships with one another. As a result, each summit set aside considerable time for fellowship and conversation.
McNiven reports that during the sessions “leaders prayed for each other, shared with each other what the Lord was doing and what kinds of things each church was struggling with.” He said that many participants were surprised to find out that churches in neighbouring countries were experiencing the same struggles—and the same blessings.
“With that recognition,” McNiven says, “the question then becomes: what do we do about this as Brethren in Christ? Not as Zambians or as South Africans or as Kenyans, but as brothers and sisters in Christ?”
Fellowship and unity across dividing lines
At each summit, participants experienced warm fellowship and an increased sense of unity as a global Brethren in Christ family—a positive outcome, notes McNiven, given the different cultural contexts in the various continental regions.
Furthermore, the summits were a “first” for participants in Africa and Latin America. No such event had ever gathered together church leaders and pastors in such a way. Yet those in attendance expressed excitement about the opportunity to connect and to begin building relationships across differences.
Danisa Ndlovu, bishop of the Ibandla Labazalwane Kukristu e-Zimbabwe (Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe) and president of MWC, participated in the African summit. He notes, “We discovered that while we might be coming from different countries and different cultural contexts, different political and socio-economic experiences, yet we can all be Brethren in Christ in our beliefs and practice.”
Ndlovu adds, “The meeting strengthened our unity and resolve to live out our faith and convictions in the light of the Word. And we all agreed on the need to guard jealously our Brethren in Christ identity as expressed in our core values.”
Alex Alvarado, pastor of Ciudad de Dios (San José, Costa Rica) and regional coordinator to Central America for Brethren in Christ (U.S.) World Missions (BICWM), reports that the Latin American summit was an “historic event” for the pastors in this region.
“There was a void in the identity, communication and relationship with the Brethren in Christ, and it was discouraging some pastors,” he noted in a report filed after the event. “For some, the Summit was their first contact with the Brethren in Christ’s DNA. They discovered aspects of the Brethren in Christ [identity] that were unknown to them. They took back to their countries teachings, materials and connections that will be like a seed that will bear fruit in due season. It was amazing to see the joy, the unity and the goals that resulted” from the gathering, he concluded.
He adds that as a result of the summit, Brethren in Christ church leaders in Central America have committed to meeting yearly.
Moving beyond parent/child relationships
In addition to facilitating cross-cultural connections and casting vision for future ministry, these summits also focused on the crucial issue of self-sustainability. Many of these national Brethren in Christ conferences have existed for well over a century; others are still in their infancy. Yet conversations at each summit centred on ways that all conferences can work toward strengthening their ministries without relying on support from the Global North.
“One of the lessons we learned was that it was our responsibility as church leaders to teach and stir away our members from the dependency syndrome,” says Ndlovu. “We encouraged each other to help our churches develop home-grown initiatives that will result in greater self-reliance.”
Chris Sharp, executive director of BICWM, took part in each of the summits and was encouraged by these conversations. “BICWM began investing in these regions over 100 years ago,” she says. “Now, many of the countries are established as their own national conferences, and are becoming their own mission senders. BICWM desires to see these churches grow to full-fledged conferences, come to a place of self-sustainability and then thrive by investing in global outreach.”
IBICA has similar aims, notes McNiven. “Our goal is to help churches move away from the parent/child relationships of an earlier era. IBICA seeks to do this by facilitating corporate association – the very purpose these summits served.”
Yet self-reliance does not mean rugged individualism, Ndlovu asserts. “As leaders there is a need to share notes from time to time so that we may grow together. Our young conferences such as Mozambique, Kenya and South Africa need the support of the older conferences as they are finding their feet through their young leadership.”
Ndlovu recalls a powerful parable shared at the African summit about a cow brought to a village by a well-meaning missionary: “The cow was everything to the village, in that it provided milk and other necessities. This was true for very long time until a missionary and his assistant came to village and pushed the useful cow over the cliff, killing it! Painful as the experience might have been, it provided the village with an opportunity to think of other means of supporting themselves besides the cow. The village was amazed at the ideas that emerged and how for a long time, had been imprisoned themselves by viewing the cow as the only hope of sustenance.
“The message of the story was clear to all as participants,” he concludes. “The dependency syndrome can be a killer of initiatives. Our conferences must shy away from it, realizing that it is possible to be self-supporting and self-sustaining. We should not always think of churches in the Global North as the only cow that will forever provide us with milk. We must believe in God and in ourselves recognizing the many resources that we have among ourselves.”
– Devin Manzullo-Thomas