From March 30 to April 2, 2023, this year's gathering of the Serbia-North Macedonia-Albania Annual Conference was held in Padina (Serbia). Its motto reminded that, again and again, from what exists, something new grows.
A special reality of this meeting was the presence of two bishops. One, Bishop Patrick Streiff, was bid farewell, while the other, Bishop Stefan Zürcher, began his ministry in this Annual Conference. Especially in the reports of the three district superintendents, something of the newness that is growing here and there also became visible.
Despite the difficult situation in which the country and the church find themselves, Superintendent Daniel Sjanta is grateful for an open and good dialogue among themselves.
One of the main areas of work is social projects. Two long-term projects in Pivnice and Vrbas are to be developed and promoted.
In Pivnice a plot of land could be bought and new possibilities and perspectives for both places are being examined. The KORAB association in Pivnice is the place where the local UMC congregation serves the people in the village (child care, kindergarten...) – a work that is very positively received.
In Vrbas an efficient soup kitchen was newly built. The service of this kitchen leads the church to establish good relations with various organizations (Red Cross, tourism organization of the city, press, etc.). The church would also like to establish a non-profit association so that the kitchen becomes legally independent from the church and has better chances to apply for financial and material support from organizations in the country and abroad and in this way expand the services.
Superintendent Daniel Sjanta posed the question for discussion: do we have a clearly defined mission for our church, for our local community?
The lack of pastors in the eleven active congregations is compensated by the work of lay people. Since last October, evangelistic services have been held in all congregations. Attendance at such services has risen sharply.
The association "Diakonia North Macedonia" (Miss Stone Center) is challenged in many projects:
• Meals on wheels: 180 people can use this service.
• Hot meals in Radovish: in this project, homeless people, socially vulnerable families and old people are reached. At the moment, 50 people can receive help because the space in the kitchen of the Miss Stone Center is limited and additional funding is not available.
• Home care ministry: the lack of medical staff and the complex work in this program do not make it easy to find suitable staff.
• If you invest in Roma children, you invest in their future. At a summer school in Ohrid, work is being done with preschool-age children for the first time. The most common topic is education and how to communicate between them and society.
• Counseling and support for Roma girls: Counseling sessions on various topics are organized, and future possible professions are presented.
• Individual social assistance: single parents, families with many children, etc., who do not have the means to cover basic needs, receive practical help: firewood, medicines, diapers, clothes, shoes, etc.
The UMC in Albania is a learning church. It wants to grow. There has been great progress in recent years. There are well-trained leaders and clear structures in the local churches and the district, as well as a cooperative style of decision-making. There is hope that new and young people will receive the call to ministry.
• In Tirana, the Diakonia Metodiste Foundation provides support for children with disabilities and their parents. The Early Intervention Program aims to support the community of families with children with disabilities, such as integration in kindergartens and crèches or increased cooperation with health centers and the Department of Child Protection. Training for staff and parents is also provided.
• The aim of the successful potato project in Buzahishtë is to help families, especially women, to contribute to the family budget. They receive seed potatoes in order to be able to grow them and earn an income by selling the harvest.
The reports and especially the attached questions of the superintendents were discussed in four groups before the results were presented and deepened in the plenary. Where are there good opportunities or in which areas can unity and mutual support between the three countries be strengthened? What should the Annual Conference focus on and enable exchange and cooperation? The common exchange in these discussion groups led to valuable meeting times.
Each evening, multicolored worship services were celebrated. This was also the setting in which Bishop Patrick Streiff and his wife Heidi were bidden farewell on Friday evening. Anecdotes and appreciation marked this celebration. On Saturday evening, Bishop Stefan Zürcher was warmly welcomed. The festive service on Sunday morning with joyful singing and the first sermon of the new bishop was the final event.
The next meeting of the Annual Conference will be held April 4-7, 2024, in North Macedonia.
Source: Esther Steiger, Rupperswil / Urs Schweizer, Zurich
Photo: Group photo of the Annual Conference members