Living in three countries – yet still journeying together

From April 11 to 14, 2019, the 85th session of Serbia-Macedonia Provisional Annual Conference took place at Skopje UMC (Macedonia). The theme had been chosen from Psalm 34:14: “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”
Wood can be used to build different things: high boardings to dissociate oneself from others, or a cross, as it can be found at Skopje UMC, or a bridge to reunite two estranged brothers. This image, which had first been used by Pastor Marjan Dimov and which was taken up later by Bishop Patrick Streiff, was an invitation to think about how to journey together with other people. And particularly against this background, it was remarkable how the participants of the Annual Conference session expressed their willingness to be one Church – in spite of different countries and a difficult common history in the past and in the present. To live together in one Church does not mean that everything is in harmony. But it was obvious how people knew and appreciated each other, how they listened to each other, and how they learned from each other. And how being one Church ultimately – or rather above all else? – means to jointly confess the One, Jesus Christ. 
In Macedonia, there is only one ordained elder in active service, Pastor Marjan Dimov. In the closing worship service, Pastor Dimov was appointed as new superintendent of the UMC in Macedonia, succeeding pastor Wilfried Nausner. It is a lasting prayer request that new people are willing to be called and to take over responsibility – all the more given the reality that the migration of the younger generations to Western Europe increasingly affects the UMC, as well. 
But there are also courageous steps. The Miss Stone Center in Strumica, for instance, with its various diaconal services shall be organized as independent legal entity within the Church in order to be able to continue being an instrument of love and hope for the poor.
For many years already, the UMC, as a member of the Interreligious Council in Macedonia, has been contributing towards building bridges in view of social challenges.
And there are young people who are very active in the Church – be it in ministries with children and youth, as musicians, or in regard to administration. There is a change of generations in various aspects. This was also visible in the closing worship service on Sunday, where astonishingly many children, youth, and young adults were present.
In Serbia, there is a good number of committed young pastors who have taken over responsibility in many regards – this change of generations is reason to hope and thankfulness.
The statistical report revealed an interesting reality: 75% of the church members are women. There are regular gatherings where they can strengthen and encourage each other – and from which they return to their groups, to their local churches, and to their everyday life in order to live their faith and to put love into action.
There are many efforts to get in touch with new people. In Sid, for instance, a worship service was celebrated with refugees from Iran, and German language courses are offered. Thanks to financial support from Switzerland, a new printing machine could be purchased, which helps to publish Christian literature in a better quality. Since several United Methodist congregations in Serbia share the same language with the UMC in Slovakia, there is a longstanding and helpful cooperation.
It was a historic moment when the Annual Conference unanimously decided to organize the work in Albania as a third district of the Annual Conference. The churches in Serbia, Macedonia, and Albania live in contexts that are, at least in part, marked by nationalism. Against this background, the decision was a conscious signal to take a different approach and to journey together. The next session of the Annual Conference will, for the first time, take place in Albania, and hopefully it will even be possible that the first Albanian pastor will be ordained as elder of the UMC.
It is reason to joy that after the last 10 years of church development, there are currently four vibrant United Methodist congregations in Pogradec, Tirana, Elbasan, and Durrës. About 200 people consider themselves to be part of the UMC, and each year, another 10 to 20 people are baptized – an encouraging development in a country that had been predominantly Muslim until the Communist government put a ban on all religions.
In 2018, a second national church convention of the UMC in Albania took place. About 150 participants celebrated worship services, shared a meal, and encouraged each other in faith. This reminded a bit of the beginnings of the UMC in other parts of the world.
It was amazing to see how the members and guests of the Annual Conference coming from three countries and speaking three languages tried to take wise decisions. Many things had already been discussed in District Conferences. Yet, the men and women consciously and appreciatively listened to each other. Trying to understand, as part of the worldwide UMC, the decisions of General Conference 2019 also caused many questions. In Serbia and Macedonia, there will be study days in autumn 2019 in order to discuss the content and the implication of these decisions. These study days will also deal with the important question: How can we continue to journey together – now and in future?
Source: Pastor Matthias Bünger, Thun (Switzerland)