Valentina Stavrova, South Russia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in Eurasia
In January 2013 I arrived at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., to do additional theological study to enhance my future ministry. I had served for six years in ministry in churches in the Russian Federation as part of the Eurasian Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church and was a graduate of the Moscow Theological Seminary of the United Methodist Church. I had visited the United States before, but this was my first experience of living for a longer period of time and as part of a diverse community of women and men preparing for ministry in a wide variety of settings. In this article I will simply share some personal reflections on my experience.
Sometimes differences are made clear in small things. When I ride the Metro to school in Washington. D.C., I am not surprised to hear male or female train operators announcing stops through the speakers. In contrast, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, only men are hired to be train operators. There is still a law that lists a number of professions considered too hard for women and which have a bad impact on human health, and it recommends that employers refrain from hiring women to work in those professions. Some companies are also reluctant to hire women because it would make them incorporate into the working space separate, extra lockers and places of rest for women employees. This is a minor example of the secular society in Russia that represents a harsher reality for women in the traditional church.
Russia’s majority church is the Russian Orthodox Church. Theirs is a Christian belief that has a deep faith and a lot of appreciation for historical church traditions. Regular members of the Orthodox Church often know the writings of “holy fathers” (monks and martyrs who belonged to the Orthodox Church in past generations), but not the Holy Scripture. This fact makes this traditional community of believers very patriarchal. Some commandments that are not in the Bible but in the writings of holy fathers and mothers are still followed and passed into future generations. Women were never allowed to serve in the church as pastors or priests but could only be helpers, assistant, or nuns. Some church fathers tell women not to enter a church in a certain time of month. And if you are a good, God-fearing woman, you are supposed to wear a long skirt and a scarf when you enter a church.
The Methodist Church started its ministry in Russia in 1882, and in 1889, in St. Petersburg, the first Methodist congregation was organized. In Communist times, the Methodist Church and many other churches could not have any open ministry in Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United Methodist Church renewed its mission and ministry in Russia. In 1992 a United Methodist seminary was organized in Moscow, and the first group of students was enrolled to become future pastors of the United Methodist Church. Moscow Seminary was open to all people who felt a calling from God. Men and women became students of the seminary. Those women as well as other women who serve in the Russian UMC today have a very joyful but hard mission from God.
In the Russian mainline tradition, it is not appropriate for a woman to be a pastor or a leader in the church. Women are supposed to be subordinate to men and follow them, as they are the head of the family. It is also hard for a male to be a pastor of a Methodist Church, because many people still do not have enough knowledge about other Christian traditions, and for many of them, to be in the Russian Orthodox Church is almost equal to being a patriot. However, the growth of the United Methodist Church in Russia is demonstrating that nothing can stop you if you have heard the call from God. Our women, before becoming pastors, were engineers, teachers, economists, lawyers, and social workers. They left their careers and followed God wherever He would lead them. God rounded us up “from all over the place,” from different nationalities, from different religious backgrounds.
Some of us had grandmothers who went to church secretly during days of the Soviet Union. When I was six and my brother was five, we found two crosses, hidden at the very back of our grandmother’s wardrobe. They were wrapped in a white piece of cloth and had an icon with them. When we asked our grandmother about it, she told us that we were baptized in the Orthodox Church. She also said that this was a big secret and we should not tell anyone. Other women pastors have Muslim backgrounds; many of them had not heard about Jesus Christ before coming to faith in the United Methodist Church.
“From the four winds” God called us into his ministry. Our churches are situated from the westernmost region of Russia, in Kaliningrad, to the Pacific Ocean, in Vladivostok; from the North of Russia, where it is -40 degrees Celsius, to the south, where it is much warmer. We have twelve districts and more than one hundred churches, where almost 50 percent of appointed pastors are women and many of them also serve as district superintendents. But even though some, like myself, were baptized in the Orthodox Church, it is only in the Methodist Church that women can exercise their calling in leading God’s people, in preaching and teaching. In the Methodist Church we find a place where our gifts and talents are valued and where we have a legitimate way to resist patriarchal traditions.
When I think about Russian women in ministry I cannot help but remember Esther. We do not face death, but very often face hostile attitudes, rejection from our families and friends, and misunderstanding in our community. Following our calling in everyday life, we find our comfort in God and joy in seeing our people being saved. If you know that those you love are in danger of spiritual death, there are no traditional customs or norms that can stop you. In the hard times we remember that we were sent by God to do that, and we fast and pray, and God gives us strength to move forward. Some of our pastors are called to help handicapped children and their families, to open day schools for street children where they can find love, food, and education. Other ministers strive to build rehab centers for addicted and homeless people. Female pastors with backgrounds in medicine and law have started free programs to support older people and provide them free-of-charge assistance. Ministers with foreign language knowledge lead free classes and support foreign students. We have female pastors working in prisons with people who got very long sentences, and helping their families to still be part of their life. It takes time for the thinking of a people to be changed, and it takes time for culture to change. We cannot educate everybody in a day, but we can fight for every soul, and we can witness to the people around us whom God will change and who will have renewed minds that are no longer guided by what is valued by the passing secular world of inequality. Being a pastor is not a duty even if it’s hard, but it is an understanding that God chose us as His daughters to go and bring the news of salvation to our people. And even when men sometimes are waiting, we are first at the tomb to hear the good news.
The United Methodist Church is one of a very few Protestant churches in Russia where women are being ordained in ministry. Very often our clergy do not find understanding either among Orthodox clergy or among our Protestant brothers and sisters. It differs from place to place, but in some areas women pastors are not invited to ecumenical prayers and councils. And if they are invited, they are asked to keep quiet and exercise the virtues of patience and modesty.
When people ask me why I chose to be a member of the Methodist Church and serve there, I always tell them that only in the Methodist Church have I found sermons that correspond to my mind as well as my spirit. Only there have I found a place that is far ahead of the society around in achieving equality, and only there can I fully answer my call without compromising what I am called to do. But very often in dealing with the world we must follow what Matthew wrote in chapter 10 verse 16: “Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
In Romans 10:15 Paul said “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” and the message we bring to our people is the message of love, hope, comfort, and peace. God has a plan for salvation of all the nations, and to be part of that plan we must follow His call to go and share His good news in spite of all the hardships in our lives.
We remember that if we “conform to the pattern of this world” we will not be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (Romans 12:2).