Retired UMC Pastor in Hungary Recounts Life in Ministry During, After Communist Rule

The call from Jeremiah to promote the welfare of the city serves as a life motto for the now-retired Hungarian pastor István Csernák. His service spanned more than four decades. In that time, he saw his country transition out of communism and toward a representative democracy. At the same time, his Church transitioned from one of reclusive worship to one able to openly share the Gospel of Christ. 

Rev. Csernák’s service began when he was 18. A friend invited him to travel by bus – Sunday after Sunday – to the outskirts of the small town of Alsózsolca in Northern Hungary where he volunteered to teach Sunday school to the small United Methodist congregation in the Roma neighborhood. There was no church building, but they met in the homes of the Roma church members and read the Bible, sang hymns, played soccer and partook in each other’s lives.
What he thought had been a simple invitation to teach Sunday school, became a life changing experience. He was shaken to his core when he encountered the extreme poverty and discrimination experienced by the marginalized Roma community. It was here that he first felt the call to full-time ministry. It took several more years of prayer and discernment until he finally accepted the call. He first studied business administration, and following college worked in the offices of a state farm. During this time, he began his theological studies in Budapest. Soon, the desperate shortage of pastors in Hungary forced the church to call him into full-time ministry at the Miskolc church where he served while continuing his theological studies part time. This church is where he also met his most important partner in ministry, his wife Eva.
Rev. Csernák was ordained in 1984 and served in a number of churches until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Previously, the communist government had forced the church to work in isolation and seclusion. While they were now free to openly share the Gospel, the transition was not easy. “We were not prepared for the new freedom that came with the dramatic and sudden change,” Rev. Csernák said. “We were overwhelmed and needed time to change our own mentality and grasp the opportunities.”
He and others did not have experience practicing ministry outside of the church walls. Up until that point, social public engagement by the church was not allowed by the government. So, when Rev. Csernák became superintendent in 1996, he and Bishop Heinrich Bolleter, who was based in Switzerland, led the church through a time of transformation. The UMC in Hungary started to evangelize outside the church. It formed new faith communities, built churches, visited prisoners and even started a home for the elderly. Family summer camps became a hallmark. The whole Csernák family played a role, seizing on the new opportunities to teach young families Christian values.
Another highlight for the Csernák family was when Eva was invited to join a task force led by the late Bishop Rüdiger Minor, who had just started his episcopacy in Moscow. The task force was called to explore opportunities for Methodist mission and ministry across the former Soviet Union member states. One example of the task force's work was to enhance the Methodist presence in the Carpathian region of neighboring Ukraine, which for a number of years was part of the Hungarian annual conference before it was assigned to the Eurasia Episcopal Area.
The connection with the world-wide church was strengthened through the joint ministry work in Europe and within the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference. In addition, the General Board of Global Ministries’ In Mission Together program promoted partnerships and collaboration between local churches and conferences in the United States and around the world.
Rev. Csernák, who retired in 2016 after having served for 44 years, remembers how much the opening of the borders and the end of the Cold War meant for the members of the small Church in Hungary. “We were excited and inspired to see the worldwide Methodist connection extend it hands in solidarity to the small United Methodist community in Hungary,” he said.
Source: Thomas Kemper, Germany (Consultant for the Central Conference Pension Fund)
This article appeared in a publication of the Central Conference Pension Fund, which was established to help retired pastors in countries outside of the USA to live a life full of dignity, without having to work in retirement to survive.