A team of Western PA laity and Director of Connectional Ministries Greg Cox returned to Western PA from Zimbabwe inspired by the worship, music and ministry of United Methodist brothers and sisters there and warmed by the extreme hospitality shown to them as they helped lead a Lay Academy at Africa University in July.
About 500 people, who all seemed enthusiastic and excited to learn, attended the Lay Academy, Cox said. Sponsored jointly by the Western PA Conference and the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area, the Lay Academy is a major component of an on-going Zimbabwe Partnership launched in 2010.
“One of the priorities of the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area is to strengthen lay leadership,” Cox explained. “Bishop (Eben) Nhiwatiwa and his Cabinet work very hard at that. The Lay Academy is one of their focuses. It was exciting to see the support of the Cabinet and the Bishop and Mrs. Nhiwatiwa. They were all actively engaged in the worship, teaching and devotions.
“Africa University s a beautiful campus, he added. “It’s truly a place to develop principled Christian leaders for the church and the world. “
Teaching sessions at the Academy were:
Bonnie Harr of First UMC in Latrobe, who focused on discovering and using spiritual gifts;
Donna Doutt of Faith Community UMC in Rochester, who addressed Balancing Church and Home;
Annette Swart of First UMC in Warren, who shared insight on Conflict Management, and
Lorren Riggle, director of operations at Charter Oak UMC, who gave an overview of technology and its use in the church.
The subjects were selected by Zimbabwean church leaders. All the presenters said they were gratified by the thoughtful questions they were asked in their sessions. “I was impressed with the quality of the presentations by the Zimbabwean leaders,” Swart added. “They were very professional and insightful.” Others echoed her thoughts and saw similarities between issues in the church in the U.S. and Zimbabwe.
Certain dynamics, such as conflicts in churches, have the same roots “here, there or anywhere, no matter how they manifest themselves”, Swart said. “We think of conflict as a bad thing, but it is our response to conflict that can be sinful. It’s important to Idenitfy conflict and manage our response. It is conflict management, not resolution. Conflict comes as the result of the differences in the way that God made us.” One of the Zimbabwean presenters, she noted, talked about contemporary versus traditional services, often a source of disagreements in U.S. congregations.
In Doutt’s presentation on Balancing Church and Family, she asked everyone to draw a circle, then cut out pieces of “pie” for their family, work and church. They examined commitments in light of the 3 Simple Rules based on John Wesley’s teaching. “We used that to go into how to balance our time and commitments,” Doutt said. “Bishop Nhiwatiwa and his wife were sitting in the front row and also did the exercise. The Bishop came to me at lunch and said he could see he was not doing a good enough job allowing for his family and admitted that he needed to plan more for family time. He was grateful for the insight.”
While the Lay Academy presentations allowed the Western PA team to establish common ground with the Zimbabwean church leaders, Cox said the highlight for him “was making and continuing connections and reconnections with the peope we have come to know and love. Every time we come back, that relationship continues to grow. I am very pleased to have those relationships.
“It feels like the Partnership is really starting to take off,” he added. “Everyone is excited about the programs—the immersions and reverse immersions and the lay academy. Bishop Nhiwatiwa is very pleased about the direction the partnership with Western PA is taking. He asked us to pass along his thanks for the relationships and greetings to Bishop Bickerton and our Conference.”
Doutt, too, saw the relationship-building as a highlight. “For me it was like a homecoming,” she said. “I could not be more delighted with how warmly I was welcomed. It was like seeing family. I wish you could bottle their warmth and hospitality and bring it back here!”
Doutt was able to reconnect with Memory Chikosi, who hosted her last year during the Zimbabwe Immersion Project, and with Molly Mwayera , the Zimbabwe East Lay Leader, who stayed with the Doutts in June while visiting Western PA as part of the reverse immersion project. Memory came and helped us with registration the first day and Molly led a session.
Cox was asked to preach both Saturday night and Sunday morning. “It was one of the most spirit-filledl experiences that I can remember,” he said. “It was powerful.”
Harr and Doutt agreed. “The power of the spirit was with him. We were inspired by his words and his leadership,” Harr said. “God really used him like a torch to lead.“
For Riggle, the most exciting part of the experience in Zimbabwe was when the group was visiting churches and a clinic. “Being in the community and seeing the progress that being made on the (Greensburg) district project –a church building in Kariba-- was great,” he said. “Now the church has an average attendance of 70 worshipping in a sort of lean-to outside. The new church will accommodate up to 150. There are 3,000 people in the community and 2,000 in a neighboring community,” he said.
At the church, the gorup met with the District Superintendent, the chair of the trustees, the district building committee and the location chair. “Good work is being done in the growing community by a woman pastor from Zambia who is multi-lingual,” Cox added.
The group also visited the Honde clinic in Nyanga Province, which Harr said was another powerful experience.
One of the most wonderful things about the experience for Harr was the music, which she described as “absolute waves of praise washing over you. It’s spectacular and moves you to the throne of God.” The hospitality too was just spectacular, she said. “It was just glorious. God was with us. The Holy Spirit bonded us together throughout our time.”