In Russia, Christianity can translate a little differently. The Rev. Elena Melnikova has a unique ministry that allows her to unlock cultural differences and serve as a bridge between United Methodists in Russia and the Baltimore-Washington Conference.
As part of its Eurasia Initiative and its Partnership with the Black Soil District, the BWC provided Melnikova with scholarship funds to pursue a Doctor of Ministry degree at Wesley Seminary. In May she graduated and is now working as a vice president of administration and development at Moscow Seminary.
While she was in seminary, Melnikova worked as the Director of Women’s Ministry for Eurasia. Her territory stretched across nine time zones. In that work, she met the Rev. Rod Miller, a BWC pastor who has traveled to the Black Soil District in Russia. The pair teamed up to do a workshop on discipleship and began learning from one another. They Skype every few weeks and recently realized that Melnikova, in Russian means miller, – someone who grinds grain. So, they literally share the same last name.
This summer Miller will be traveling to the seminary to work with Melnikova on a seminar on stewardship.
The word for stewardship means something very different in Russian, Miller said. In the U.S. church, it relates to money and financial gifts. In Russia, it involves the maintenance and keeping of a house and caring for a home.
Together, the pair will be empowering people to discover a deeper sense of stewardship and discipleship.
But this is where things get tricky, Melnikova said. In Russia, there is no word for “empowerment” and the concept has strong political and legal overtones. So, together, Melnikova and Miller are creating new meanings – helping people realize they are empowered by the Spirit to be who they are – and to fully and richly respond to God’s call.
This idea of empowerment lies at the heart of Melnikova’s doctoral thesis, which she completed which she worked on with the Rev. Bruce Birch, a renowned Old Testament scholar at Wesley University.
Melnikova explored the story of Jacob as a life-transforming experience for women.
In Russia, she explained, feminism and the empowerment of women is at a different place than it is in the United States. Women in Russia tend to embrace more traditional roles as wives and mothers. In the denomination, which exists beside an Orthodox patriarchy that is millennia old, gender limits leadership. The United Methodist Church is the only one in the nation with women leaders and attitudes towards them are often mixed.
Melnikova labors to help women understand that “leadership is not about gender, it’s about God’s call and Gods’ gift.”
Like Jacob, women in Russia, understand and are embracing the idea of their ministries as “a stolen blessing,” she said.
Melnikova is an eager evangelist for United Methodism.
“United Methodism in Russia is not mainstream. It’s counter-cultural and very appealing to young people because it brings new life and is about relationship, rather than ritual,” she said. “We’ve inherited good things from the Orthodox Church – mysticism and the spirituality of hearts strangely warm -- and combined it with the Western simplicity of community and the Open Table.”
As a woman leader, empowering other women, Melnikova returns over and over again to her call, in which she heard in her heart the words of Jeremiah 5:14, “God has called me to make His words in my mouth a fire.”
There were times in her ministry, she said, “when I held back, reluctant to use the power I was equipped with. I experienced trials and hardships. It took the direct encounter with God and the divine revelation to empower me to be who I am and connect it with whom I am called to be.”
As she begins her work at the seminary, Melnikova is excited about adopting another concept she learned in the Baltimore-Washington Conference – planting seeds – investing in people and sharing loving and inspiration to help others grow.
“You teach me,” she said “if you seed something it will bloom.”
HIGHLIGHTS OF IN MISSION TOGETHER - EURASIA
By Rev. Charles Harrell
- Partnership between BWC and South Russia Conference began in 2007, as partnership with one district (Central Black Soil); now is with both districts (Central Black Soil District, South District)
- We are committed always to supporting the priorities and initiatives of our Eurasian covenant partners, not imposing our own.
- Support for ongoing renovation of Camp Kristall near Voronezh (south of Moscow), which is used for camping and retreat programs, conference sessions, meetings and training events, family and personal retreat and relaxation. We have been involved with Kristall since 2006, and substantial progress has been made in improving and upgrading the camp and adding accessibility features. Our teams have provided volunteer labor, in addition to helping to purchase materials and equipment (such as the water filtration system).
- We have also supported specific programs at the camp, such as “Camp Trinity” (for persons with physical and intellectual challenges and their families), and the Youth Missions Conference (bringing together young adults and youth from different parts of Russia and Ukraine as well as international students for the purpose of doing discipleship development while providing volunteer labor for refurbishing and enhancing the camp).
- Support for the ministry with the Roma people in the Caucasus region. This includes a range of services for improving the practical situation of the Roma and enhancing the educational success of their families, plus Christian education.
- Leadership development. Several pieces to this: (1) Continuing education opportunities for pastors and leaders. This includes sending or securing qualified persons teach and lead training there. (2) Supporting advanced education for Eurasian leaders who will then contribute powerfully to the future of ministry in their setting. (3) Encouraging development of young leaders through the Youth Mission Conference. These leaders are not only Eurasians but international students as well.
We have so far as an annual conference provided support for the further training of three persons. With the graduation of Rev. Elena Melnikova as a Doctor of Ministry through the joint Wesley Seminary - Cambridge University program, we celebrate a wonderful success as she begins working at the Seminary in Moscow, and also seek to discern whom we hould be similarly supporting.
This summer, Rev. Rod Miller spent 18 days in Russia, doing training for leaders in three separate venues through the South Russia Conference and the Moscow Theological Seminary, focusing on stewardship, leadership, and coaching. We will have more to share about his work and experiences this fall.
Moscow Theological Seminary
- We have not directly supported the Seminary financially; however, we have supported its work indirectly in two ways: (1) by syncing our continuing education seminars with the Seminary’s curriculum; (2) by promoting the training of persons who might potentially work or teach through the Seminary. Elena Melnikova is now working for Moscow Theological Seminary, in fulfillment of that dream.
What We Are Also Excited About (in addition to the above)
- Ministry with international students, chiefly from African countries, who spend several years in Russia or Ukraine studying at technical universities. Some of our Eurasian churches have a strong ministry of welcome and encouragement to these students, and are like family to them.
- Spirited worship and music ministries, such as that of the Resurrection UMC in Voronezh and Krasnodar UMC, reaching new persons for Christ.
- Continuing expansion of the ministry to new place in Russia and Ukraine, and deeper into the countries of Central Asia.
- In August, a Consultation, typically a biennial sharing and planning event, will be taking place – this year, for the first time, in western Ukraine. Four persons from BWC (Ann and Tom Dudley, Rob Pierson, Charles Harrell) will be traveling to participate in that event, and there will be more news to share following that Consultation this fall.
Ways to Get Involved
- Attend an event highlighting ministry in Eurasia, come to a bimonthly meeting of the In Mission Together - Eurasia Committee, or (best of all) join a team going to Russia. One or more new teams for 2020 will be forming, starting this fall. Contact any member of the IMTEC group for more details or to indicate your interest.