The 2010 Russia Mission Network conference of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)  — held here Oct. 7-9 — drew participants from all around the world to learn from and teach one another about the practical — and impractical — side of the Twinning Program in Russia.

Five Russians joined 40 Americans at Wellshire Presbyterian Church here for a three-day intensive on the art and science of relationship-building between congregations in the United States and churches in Russia.

Present from Russia were three Baptist pastors; Sergey Belov from Golgotha Baptist Church in Moscow, twinned with conference host Wellshire Presbyterian Church; Mikhail Chekalin from Good News Baptist Church in Moscow, twinned with First Presbyterian in Columbus, Ga.: and Vladimir Grishkov and spouse Lyubov Grishkova from the Church of the Transfiguration, a Baptist church in Perm, partnered with Westminster Presbyterian in Charleston, S.C.

The fifth Russian guest was Larisa Zhukova, editor and translator from the Narnia Center, a publishing and children’s ministry center in Moscow begun by then mission co-worker Donald Marsden in 2000. 

Following 11 years of service in Moscow, Marsden is now an associate director for Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, a validated mission support group of the PC(USA). 

The gathering was planned and led by a Wellshire planning team co–chaired by Dora Lodwick and Amy Ruby. Lodwick, Russia Mission chair at Wellshire and long active at all levels of the PC(USA), facilitated the meeting. Ruby, with her husband John, Kimberly Norris, Mary Rogers, Sue Wildrick, Deanna Person and Jim Quin. Pastor John Bell and Associate Pastor Patricia Kitchen rounded out the Wellshire team.

Russian Mission Network leaders in attendance were network moderator Pam Moye and her husband Andy from First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ga.; Deborah Burgess from Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh; and Gary Payton of Sandpoint, Idaho, the PC(USA)'s regional liaison for Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, and Poland.

Al and Ellen Smith, PC(USA) mission workers in Moscow who have coordinated the Russia Twinning program since 2001, were also in attendance with daughter Emma, who celebrated her birthday on the last day of the conference.

The Smiths are currently on home leave in Green Bay, Wisc., until June of 2011, when they will return to Moscow to continue  their ministry with Russian Baptist, Orthodox, and Lutheran church partners and to facilitate the establishment and continuation of twinning relationships.

Ellen Smith, has at one time or another invited, cajoled, escorted, educated and befriended most of the people in attendance at the conference. Many conversations about the beginnings of twinning relationships included in the first sentence or two the word, "Ellen."

"Your Russian hosts are ready to love you," she said, as she and Al offered practical advice about travel to and from Russia, as well as what churches in the U.S. need to be aware of when hosting visitors from their Russian partners.

In a series of panels facilitated by Lodwick, Ruby, Payton, Burgess and Kitchen and translated into Russian most often by Smith and Marsden, experienced visitors to Russia and the Russians themselves weighed in on what and what not to do while traveling and working as part of the Body of Christ in the world.

"Americans talk and laugh very loudly," Chekalin noted, "but Russians talk more quietly. It is important to watch for cues about behavior."

Belov added, "Sometimes a group comes with a non-believer. It is very important for us to know this."

In an opening discussion about needs in Russia, Tori Horvath, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church in Fair Oaks, Calif., shared the results of interviews she conducted with a number of Russian pastors about what they perceived as their greatest challenges.

The erosion of the nuclear family was foremost … a major problem Russia shares with the United States, she noted. Horvath's keynote presentation Oct. 7 focused on the problem from the perspective of both clergy and congregation.

Breaking the subject into five parts, she addressed finding balance between family and work, strengthening family systems, strengthening the role of the father in the family, healthy relationships within extended families and the challenges of addiction.

Horvath hopes to bring a series of seminars to Russia about these issues, to "teach the teachers" — elders and deacons in the Russian churches. "What we teach," she said, "we get to keep."

In response, the Russian guests agreed that these issues are pressing in Russia, as well as in the rest of the world. Belov, for instance, said he believes that the biggest problem to be faced is the lack of Biblical knowledge about proper family relations.

"Mass media," he said, "gives absolutely destructive information." He also believes that the United States offers good information from both religious and secular sources.

Chekalin noted that cross-cultural pollination  can both exacerbate and potentially help solve these issues. "Russian people are adopting what they see coming out of America. Russians, too, would like to have the comforts," he said, "but we must learn that the comforts are not as important as right relationships with each other."

The subject of relationships within extended families found empathy from both sides of the globe. "Russian moms love their children more than the in-laws," Chekalin said, causing laughter to ripple through the group. "When there is trouble, they take sides with their child. Only the very wise know that they need to stay out of this."

The Russian contingent agreed that a series of conferences on the issues Horvath presented would be very helpful. "Americans give good seminars," Grishkov noted. The immediate needs Horvath cited for the seminar program to happen were organization, marketing, translation and feedback.

The Russians shared what they expect from twinning and what they saw as best practices for visitors. They said they endorse a model in which Americans come to help with what their Russian "twins" are already doing, rather than bringing their own agendas.

Payton agreed. "Twinning is about coming alongside" he said, repeating his frequent refrain. "[Twinning's] about being present to each other. It is about people helping people and being transformed by it."

Chekalin said, "When [our church partner from] Columbus visits us, we can see a real servant. Money is not the first line. The first line is Jesus, friendship, partnership. The best summer camp latrine we have ever had," he joked, "was dug by Jones Doughton." Doughton, in attendance, is associate pastor at First Columbus.

The last day of the three-day conference was a "practicum" about church-to-church visits.

The Russians advised visiting groups of between 5 and 8 people. Participants should be carefully chosen who don't have habits the Russian church finds abhorrent — smoking, for instance — or who can leave their behavior at home while they visit.

Ellen and Al Smith weighed in on practical matters such as how to protect belongings on Russian public transportation, changing money and travel. "To get ready to come to Russia," Ellen said, "it is good to walk two or three miles a day. Also, you must learn to drink tea — coffee and water are not ubiquitous — as well as learn to get along without snacks. There is plenty to eat."

"Remember, too," Al Smith cautioned, "to not bring luggage that you can't lift over your head to put in an overhead bin on a train."

The conference concluded with participants offering feedback on a training guide for mission to Russia being developed by Ellen Smith and Lodwick. When finalized, the guide will lead potential PC(USA) partners through a comprehensive six-month ramp-up to traveling to meet twins and potential twins.

Built in six modules, it takes mission visitors through week-by-week exercises to get them ready to be good guests and safe travelers during their time in Russia. "There is much to do yet," Ellen Smith admitted, "but we think it will be a great resource for the future."

Looking to that future, Payton introduced an idea born from the changing face of mission in the PC(USA). "Fifty years ago," he noted, "95 per cent of Presbyterian mission resources were channeled through the national church offices. Today, only about 5 percent of those mission dollars go through our General Assembly offices."

This is due to the willingness and ability of congregations and other groups to establish their own relationships with mission partners worldwide, as well as an ease of travel that, even though its been somewhat truncated since 9/11, is still unprecedented in human history.

Payton shared the concept of Communities of Mission Practice, developed in February 2010 as part of the new Presbyterian World Mission Strategic Direction.  A community of mission practice is the three-way common space occupied by PC(USA) mission participants, World Mission, and the church’s global partners.

"It's a way of helping to keep all PC(USA) mission participants on the 'same page,' "Payton said, "as well as providing a shared identity, knowledge and mission practices."

Sandy Compton is a journalist, author, conservationist and storyteller in Heron, Mont., and a member of First Presbyterian Church in Sandpoint, Idaho and of the Russia Mission Network.