When it comes to congregation-to-congregation relationships between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and international partners, money is no object.
Meaning: money is not the object, leaders of a number of denominational congregational partnership efforts told workshop participants on the subject today (Oct. 23) at World Mission Celebration ’09, which caps World Mission Challenge ’09 — a month-long effort to connect Presbyterians around the country with their mission workers around the world.
“The most important resources we have are not in our checkbooks,” said Ellen Smith, director of the Presbyterian Twinning Project in Moscow, Russia, that brings together Russian and PC(USA) congregations. “Our most important resources are our experiences, our life stories, our willingness to find common ground with brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. Too often these are resources most Presbyterians don’t even know they have.”
The Rev. Bill Paul, who launched an international partnership between Pittsburgh Presbytery, where he served on staff, and the Blantyre Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian in Malawi, agreed. “When we hammered out our relationship in 1991, said the now-retired Paul, “our main principle was how we could be a support to each other — the kind of mutual encouragement modeled by the Apostle Paul in Romans.”
Though Pittsburgh’s governing body to governing body partnership began as a far different model than the Russia Twinning Project’s strictly congregational pattern, it eventually grew into 40 congregation-to-congregation partnerships, Paul said.
What the two models have in common, said Gary Payton, the PC(USA)’ regional liaison for Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus, is that both “have been able to sustain congregational partnerships in amazing ways in Russia and Belarus.”
The key, all agreed, is a “critical mass” of Presbyterians who have what Smith called “a spark for partnership.” It can even be a one-person spark to begin with. Smith called herself “a regular Presbyterian in North Carolina, teaching middle school, when she felt a call to try and rekindle a dormant partnership between her congregation and a Russian Baptist church.
Pre-occupied with a “crisis” at home and the disorienting conditions in Russia at the time — shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union — Smith said she found herself “wondering what in the world I was doing.”
Then, she said, “I remembered the purpose was engagement so I just dove in, and as I talked with church members there I realized that genuine partnership is about ‘being’ not ‘doing’ — to come along and become family with the twin. We’re all learning from each other how to be better Christians.”
Smith and her husband, Al, have been based in Moscow coordinating the twinning project since 2001. There are currently upwards of 50 twinning relationships between PC(USA) congregations and Baptist, Lutheran and Orthodox congregations in Russia.
Many more Russian congregations want PC(USA) twins, Payton said, “but there aren’t enough willing PC(USA) congregations to meet the Russian need.
And that swung the conversation back to money. “Most of our churches are larger and wealthier than Russian twins,” Smith said, “and so they fall into the misconception that twinning is about money. Russian congregations are well aware of how much wealthier we are,” she said, “but they’re also well aware that money will not solve their problems. Twinning is about putting people first, not money first.”
Paul conceded that the disparity in wealth between the United States and Malawi is “a very difficult issue — genuine mutuality is very difficult to achieve in such a disparity situation.” Pittsburgh Presbytery tries to ensure that money does not get in the way of partnership by requiring that financial and material requests go through both the presbytery and Blantyre Synod. Church-to-church gifts are limited to $500 and person-to-person gifts to $100.
Betty Noah, an elder in the presbytery’s Mt. Hope Community Church in Penn Hills, Penn., outlined “five words that will take you anywhere you want to go in partnership” based on her 18 years of organizing trips to Malawi: “communication, prayer, patience, family and follow-up.”
The one way money can (and must) help in cementing genuine partnership lies in U.S. partners making it possible for the overseas partner to be able to come here for reciprocal visits. “We tend to emphasize Presbyterians traveling to the partners,” Payton said, “but we can’t over-emphasize the importance of reciprocal visits.”
As an example, he cited the twinning relationship between Good News Baptist Church in Moscow and First Presbyterian Church of Columbus, Ga. Most partnership groups are adults, but the Columbus group, upon witnessing an innovative Good News summer camp program during one visit, invited a group of Good News young people to come lead the First Church summer day camp. The Russian young people learned new approaches from the Georgia counterparts and now the two congregations exchange youth leaders in alternating summers.
“Twinning is all about who we are as the body of Christ,” Smith said. “Russia was cut off from the body of Christ for 70 years during the Soviet period ... their main desire now is to reconnect with the rest of the body of Christ.”