UM Church in Latvia struggles, asks for friendship, funding
By Annette Spence
Bishop Christian Alsted speaks to Friends of
Latvia gathering Nov. 2-3 in Alcoa, Tenn.
The United Methodist Church in Latvia faces funding cuts from the General Board of Global Ministries at a time when the resident bishop says it’s crucial to start new churches.
“In the church in Latvia, we are poor. We have few resources. Sometimes that is a challenge but it is not a problem, and it is not something that will prevent us from growing,” said Bishop Christian Alsted, leader of the Nordic and Baltic area of the United Methodist Church.
Alsted spoke to about 30 people gathered Nov. 2-3 as “Friends of Latvia,” a group dedicated to aiding the United Methodist Church of Latvia since the nation regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The 13 United Methodist churches existing in Latvia have newer congregations, assembled within the last 20 years. However, the need for additional United Methodist churches is great in this nation of 2.2 million people, Alsted said.
“Thousands of people have no idea what Christianity is. Thousands of people focus their lives on everything else but Jesus Christ -- focus their lives on materialism,” he said.
The church must begin a “second wave” of church growth soon, and it must be low-cost and driven by lay members, he said. Small groups could routinely meet in homes, occasionally meeting in larger, rented spaces. Church buildings could host two separate congregations – a practical suggestion in a nation where 38 percent of the population speaks Russian instead of Latvian, Alsted said. (Only one of 13 congregations are Russian-speaking.)
“As long as we don’t start to focus on having buildings and employing people, church can be low cost,” Alsted said. “Where we got that idea that to have a church you need to have a pastor, I don’t know, but we did not get it from our heritage.”
The General Board of Global Ministries has gradually reduced its annual funding of $20,000 per year and in four years will stop all funding to the United Methodist Church of Latvia, said the Rev. Gita Mednis, Baltic District superintendent and pastor of First United Methodist Church of Riga. “We are in desperate need of financial aid and friendship.”
About 14 U.S. churches were represented at the meeting, each having sent teams or funds to Latvia. The represented churches were based in Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, and Virginia.
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The two-day gathering at First United Methodist Church of Alcoa, Tenn., included presentations from key leaders in both Latvia and the U.S, breakout sessions, and worship. The meeting was live-streamed for the first time. (See videos.)
Several decisions were made about the future of the Latvian church’s ministry partnership with U.S. churches, according to Randy Tolleson, Friends of Latvia chair and a member at Smithfield United Methodist Church, North Richland Hills, Texas.
Friends of Latvia will prioritize work with the Wesley Camp with continued support and emphasis on youth development and youth leadership, Tolleson said. Holston Conference’s Camp Wesley Woods, in Townsend, Tenn., has a formal partnership with the camp on the Baltic Sea.
Other priorities include funding for Hope Center -- a home for single, pregnant teens – and Sarkani United Methodist Church.
“Sarkani is the poorest of the poor, a rural village with basically a 100 percent alcoholism rate,” Tolleson said. Two U.S. churches – First United Methodist Church of Trussville, Ala., and First United Methodist Church of Heber Springs, Ark. – have partnerships with Sarkani.
See "Connecting Congregations in Latvia."
One of the 13 Latvian congregations, Paplaka United Methodist Church, is in need of a partnering U.S. church.
Friends of Latvia will also prioritize helping the church in Latvia fund clergy salaries, Tolleson said. “Seventy-five to 80 percent of clergy salaries in Latvia are funded by connecting congregations or Advance funds,” he said.
Advance project numbers have been established for donations to the Hope Center (Advance #3020447), Pastors’ Salary Fund (Advance #14706A), Wesley Camp (Advance #15160N), and Latvia Mission Initiative (Advance #00235A).
The next Friends of Latvia meeting will be held April 17-18, 2013, at Fairview United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tenn.
Holston Conference connections
Members from First Maryville, Broadway (Maryville), Fairview (Maryville), First Alcoa, and Middlebrook Pike (Knoxville) attended the Nov. 2-3 meeting. The Rev. Carol Wilson, Holston’s executive assistant to the bishop, and the Rev. Charles Maynard, Holston’s Maryville District superintendent, also participated.
These Holston congregations have partnerships with local churches in Latvia: First Sweetwater (Cesis UMC); Norris, Wears Valley, Sinking Springs and First Maryville (Kuldiga UMC); Fairview (Second Riga UMC); and Middlebrook Pike (Jelgava UMC).
"Answering the call: Latvian pastor grows through U.S. friendships" (The Call, 12/3/12)