It was the only time during our trip to Zimbabwe that I lost my composure. I simply had no words. When our Africa University mission team walked into the room, the district superintendent and all 25 pastors of the Mutasa Nyanga District of the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference met us dressed in their finest clothes and with warm smiles and the joy of Christ in their hearts.
As I greeted our clergy colleagues on behalf of Bishop Jonathan Keaton and the Grand Rapids District of the West Michigan Conference and saw their faces aglow with the Holy Spirit, I was overcome. I had been praying for and hearing about TheUnited Methodist Church inAfrica for the past 29 years. Now, after “seeing in a mirror dimly” (I Cor. 13:12), I was finally able to visit the country of Zimbabwe and see my brothers and sisters in Christ face to face.
It was too much. I could only stammer, “We’ve waited a long time for this moment. We greet you with love in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Since our primary goal for this gathering was to understand what life is like for pastors in Zimbabwe, I asked my first dumb question, “How many of you have cars?” They all laughed politely and said, “No one.” Except for the district superintendent, Givemore Chimbluanda, and 2 others who had motorbikes, every pastor walked to this 90 minute meeting, some for several days.
There are 25 charges and 2 mission areas in the Mutasa Nyanga District, and each charge has from 3 to 5 churches. Although it is conference policy to provide health insurance for its pastors, none of the circuits in this rural, mountainous district can afford to offer this benefit. Clergy families are able to receive basic medical attention from the Old Mutare Methodist Mission Hospital, but more advanced care is not available. In addition, the pastors do not have a pension in retirement, and many do not receive a living wage or are able to send their children to college. Most circuits have buildings under varying degrees of construction, but many do not have parsonages, so pastors either have to rent a home or find a family in the church with which to live.
We sang and prayed together. When I saw the inner strength and deep faith of these pastors, who have offered themselves without reserve for ministry, I thought of the words of Mary when the angel Gabriel announced that she would bear the Son of God, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”
The next afternoon we were scheduled to meet with the 29 clergy and district superintendent Tazvionepi Nyarota of the Mutare District, but when we arrived at the district office no one was there. We eventually discovered that the pastors had been expecting us 2 days before and waited 3 hours on Sunday evening for us to arrive. Because communication is much more challenging inZimbabwethan in theU.S., we never knew about the glitch. Our hearts broke to realize that 29 clergy spent several days walking to the district office only to find that we stood them up.
The district secretary located the superintendent, who was able to gather 5 pastors to meet us in the evening. We apologized profusely and asked them to join us for dinner at the hotel. After reluctantly agreeing, the superintendent explained that being invited to the table by a guest is contrary to Zimbabwean culture. Another dumb question. Our new friends then insisted that we meet them at the district office the next afternoon because they wanted to present us with gifts.
The six members of our mission team paired up with each of the pastors at dinner, affording us the opportunity to get to know each other in a deeper way. Rev. Nyarota, the superintendent, shared that her father is a polygamist and that she grew up in a compound with 22 siblings by 3 different mothers. She was determined to be the first girl in her family to complete school and is the youngest superintendent ever to be appointed in the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference.
We learned that of the 25 charges in the Mutare District, 12 are urban and 13 are rural. Only 13 charges have parsonages, and the average salary is between $150 and $280 a month. Because this salary cannot adequately support their families, the pastors are encouraged by the superintendent to supplement their income by poultry production, gardening, and making peanut butter.
It was inspiring to observe the intensity of the call of these Zimbabwean pastors to preach the good news and make disciples of Jesus Christ in their rapidly growing churches, despite great obstacles. Again, I thought of Mary’s courage to risk potential rejection by Joseph and the rest of her family by responding to Gabriel, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
A few weeks ago the United Nations issued its annual report on health, income, and education around the globe. In general, people the world over have a better quality of life than ever before, and most countries have seen great strides in the past 40 years. However, of the169 countries surveyed, Norway came in first, the United States was fourth, and Zimbabwe came in dead last – 169th.
The hardship of life as a pastor in Zimbabwe has continued to haunt me. Our lives as United Methodist clergy in the United States are so different, yet we experience the same challenges and blessings. When I asked Rev. Nyarota what the most difficult part of being a superintendent was, she replied, “Appointment-making.” I then asked if her churches and pastors ever experienced conflict, and she said, “Yes, we have conflict. But in Zimbabwe culture people do not often express their true feelings, so it’s difficult to deal with conflict when no one will talk about it.” Sounds familiar.
When I asked what the most satisfying part of her job was, Rev. Nyarota responded, “Meeting with district pastors to revive ourselves spiritually.” All district pastors are required to meet together on the first Friday of every month for fellowship and renewal. Rev. Nyarota said that the clergy are more open and honest during these times of revival, and she can step outside of her administrative and supervisory role to be a pastor to the pastors.
It was interesting for me to meet with 34 pastors in the Grand Rapids District for a day of spiritual growth and reflection shortly after arriving home from Africa. Under Rev. Jerry Toshalis’ leadership, we made a list of all the roles that we play as pastors and shared in pairs how we felt about those roles. What struck me was the amazing breadth of roles that we play as clergy: communicator, counselor, worship leader, preacher, teacher, administrator, supervisor, building manager, technology guru, referee, church historian, cheerleader, trainer, equipper, marketer, stewardship expert, musician, and juggler, plus much more.
I was gratified at the transparency of the group discussion. For most clergy, the accumulation of pastoral roles can be overwhelming at times. This is compounded by the myriad of expectations placed upon pastors today, which are far greater than our spiritual gifts or capacity to do everything well. As feelings about our roles were expressed, I realized that words like “not good enough,” “hypocritical,” “burdened,” or “not in my skill set” are more common when we are experiencing stress or burn-out in our ministry. By contrast, when our clergy lives have balance, our feelings are more akin to “enjoyment,” “fulfillment,” “gratitude,” and “empowerment.”
I was most startled to notice that my own list of roles simply included ministry tasks. Am I so attached to my roles that they define me, or does my relationship with God define me? In the absence of roles, who am I, anyway? Could it be that my one and only role in life is to be a channel of God’s love? In Mary’s words, can I be a servant of the Lord regardless of the ministry task I am performing at any given time?
The ministry roles of clergy in the United States and Zimbabwe may vary, and our standard of living may be different, but our call is the same. In fact, the call is similar whether we are clergy or laity. We are all servants of the Lord, called to be channels of God’s love.
In the end, what defines all human beings is not our wealth, position, status, or the dumb questions we ask. We are defined by a God whose name is love and who sent God’s very self to this earth in the form of a baby in order to incarnate that love. We are defined by God’s unconditional, universal, prevenient, and transforming grace and our response of joy and faithful servanthood.
“Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your Word.” That is the hope of Advent in Zimbabwe, in the United States, and around the world. How will you live out that hope during the weeks of Advent? If that’s another dumb question, just let me know, okay?