When I set out for Africa in 2014, my interest in governance was always challenging me to consider the ideal scenario for building healthy, functional and effective Christian denominations. Of course, I knew there would be many things I needed to learn about the African context that would challenge my pre-conceived ideas. It has certainly been a bit of a steep learning curve during the past three years. But I have come face to face with some of the realities of denominational leadership in Africa recently that made me sit back and reflect all over again. And it happened at the Africa Leadership Exchange (ALE).
Photo: Jonathan and Rev. Saphano
This picture (above) is me and Rev. Saphano Riak Chol, Secretary General of the Faith Evangelical Baptist Church — South Sudan (FEBAC). He is one of 16 exceptional leaders who gathered for the ALE retreat in Naivasha, Kenya the first week of May. If you think you have problems in your job, Rev. Saphano is literally trying to lead his denomination in the middle of a war zone. South Sudan just gained its independence in 2011 after years of conflict. But in 2015 a dispute among political leaders has led to a civil war which continues today. Here are a few of the challenges Rev. Saphano shared with the ALE group:
- South Sudan is a big country with very poor infrastructure so connecting with churches and leaders is difficult
- Mobile networks have limited coverage, and in some places the government has shut them down to interfere with rebel coordination. Many places are completely cut off from any form of communication
- Because of the civil war, it is unsafe to travel. No one is safe on the roads — even pastors have been killed at roadside checkpoints
- Poverty is widespread because no one can cultivate or harvest
- Millions of people are living in refugee camps or camps for internally displaced people
- FEBAC churches are growing but they do not have qualified pastors. There are only 29 pastors with theological education for over 109 churches
Yet, despite the challenges, Rev. Saphano talked about the response of the people, and particularly the leaders of FEBAC. He spoke of their courage as they continue to minister in terrible conditions. Many pastors and evangelists have left their homes so they can work among the refugees in the camps. He said, “they are my heroes. No one asks to quit.”
So, in answer to the question, “how do you lead a denomination in a civil war” the answer is: Trust God, and carry on. Every ministry leader has challenges and opportunities to consider, and the burden of leadership requires us to make prudent, wise and strategic choices in order to further God’s work.
Photo: Praying for the one another.
One of the most inspiring outcomes of the ALE was the way people responded to each other. There were four delegates from four of CBM’s African partner denominations. After each partner shared about their denominational context including opportunities and challenges, there was a question and answer time followed by prayer. When Rev. Saphano finished sharing about FEBAC’s work in South Sudan there was a groundswell of support expressed by the other three denominations. One offered to provide theological training for their pastors. One offered to provide English training for school teachers. A third denomination offered support in peace-making and reconciliation. There was a deep sense of unity in the Spirit, and the subsequent prayer time was inspiring.
Photo: Three men from FEBAC (South Sudan), and Dr. Jonathan Wilson our Devotional Leader
What is the Africa Leadership Exchange?
The ALE is an idea that I have developed with the support of CBM to provide a forum for African leaders to gather and discuss issues relating to leadership and governance. It is not a classroom in which Canadian teachers convey information to African students, but rather, it is a place for dialogue and peer learning among African leaders in a retreat setting. This first retreat (May 1-6, 2017) brought together four partner organizations: Association of Baptist Churches in Rwanda (AEBR, Rwanda), African Christian Churches and Schools (ACC&S, Kenya), Baptist Church in Central Africa (CBCA, D.R. Congo), and the Faith Evangelical Baptist Church (FEBAC, South Sudan).
Photo: The Africa Leadership Exchange group*
This first retreat launched this ministry initiative by casting a vision for the ALE among these four partner denominations. Leadership and governance concepts were introduced and the participants provided input concerning their perceived needs for future sessions. We plan to hold four subsequent retreats over the next two years where we can explore these topics in greater detail. As I listened to each of the partners make presentations about their denominations, I was inspired by the quality of the leaders who are dedicated to building healthy churches for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Photo: Jonathan Mills and Dr. Jonathan Wilson*
One of the highlights of the ALE was the devotional leadership provided by Dr. Jonathan Wilson and his wife Soohwan Park. A professor at Regent College in Vancouver, Dr. Wilson and Soohwan led us in the fascinating devotional series “Ancient Wisdom: Reading the Old Testament as a Spiritual Guide.” Dr. Wilson also made a special presentation on Creation Care and Integral Mission. Rev. Jeremiah was very excited to get an autographed copy of Dr. Wilson’s book on Creation, God’s Good World.
Photo: ACC&S Moderator Rt. Rev. Jeremiah Ngumo Kiguru with Dr. Jonathan Wilson’s book on Creation
The retreat was not all work. Part of the experience was to provide a retreat setting conducive to personal reflection and relationship building away from the daily pressures and responsibilities of work. The camp at Crater Lake provided the perfect setting for this retreat. In fact, because of its location down in a natural volcanic crater cell phone reception was very poor — which was frustrating to be out of touch with our families but turned out to be a blessing because work could not track us down.
Photo: Morning mist over Crater Lake
We also made sure we maximized the nature reserve setting by setting out to enjoy God’s good world. A hike up to the top of the crater provided spectacular views, and in the surrounding open spaces we encountered a number of wild animals.
Photo: A walking safari through the game reserve
Even in the camp itself, we were visited daily by a family of Colobus Monkeys. They were not afraid of people and everyone was fascinated to get a close look. It seems the feeling was mutual as this family group climbed a tree next to our meeting room so they could listen in.
photo: A curious family of Colobus Monkeys
The next retreat for ALE is scheduled for November 2017. At that time, the delegates will reassemble for dialogue and peer learning in areas relating to leadership and governance. The goal is to facilitate engaging and lively discussions which bring together principles of good governance applied in the African context. After this initial gathering, I am excited for the future of the ALE and the impact it will have on the partner organizations.
Please continue to pray for CBM’s work with our many overseas partners. For most Canadians, the context of their ministry is unimaginably challenging. But the ALE partners unanimously expressed their thanks, indicating that the support of Canadian Baptists helps to give them strength and encouragement to carry on. So, thank you for your prayers and ongoing support for the work of CBM.
For more information (and pictures) about the Africa Leadership Exchange visit the blog of Aaron & Erica Kenny, the Africa Team Leaders.
For more information about CBM and its work in Africa, please visit Canadian Baptist Ministries website.
*These photos courtesy of Aaron Kenny.