The year 2020 will be a milestone in history and a milestone for many people who lived through it. For me personally, it was a year of profound crisis but also a year of new ministry opportunities.
A Melancholic Reflection
More than CoVid, the event that defined our year was a crisis that arose in our local church and that had serious repercussions for our family and my ministry. In February our elder board (of which I am the chair) met with the leadership team at Narnia Elementary School and some questions were raised about the transition of leadership from Slavo and Martina (Slavo was the pastor of our local church and is Jana’s brother, Martina is Slavo’s wife and founding Principal of Narnia). The whole thing is too personal and confidential to discuss in a post like this but what followed was more than six months of mediation and attempt at conflict resolution. In the end, Slavo and Martina left our church a couple years ahead of schedule.
As chairman of the elder board I inherited primary responsibility for our congregation. This, of course, has meant less time for other ministry activities. For me, the year 2020 is marked by deep sadness over time lost on activities I love and that I consider my primary calling. On the other hand, I know the Lord has used this to teach me to love his church. I have always desired first and foremost to be a “churchman” (as Ben Sawatsky, former head of our mission, used to say). I’m not first of all a professor or a missionary, I am first and foremost a member of and servant to the body of Christ. This has become more of a reality than ever before as I have, in a small way, taken on the burdens of being a shepherd for his flock.
There are other positives that have come out of this crisis. While I have “primary responsibility” for our congregation this has not been nearly as burdensome as it could have been. Our team of elders remained united throughout the crisis. Each and every elder is gifted, wise and willing to sacrifice. The Lord has given us a mixture of gifts that have helped us through the crisis and helped us lead Christ’s church in the aftermath (and through CoVid). Through this experience I have gained a deeper appreciation for Christ as head of the church and for the Holy Spirit who gives gifts as the church needs them. Christ and the Holy Spirit indeed are active in the church.
Of course, I’ve also learned that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it” (Jer 17:9). During the crisis we had no choice as elders but to judge people’s hearts. In the process we sometimes compounded the sins of others by our own sins. I’ve mourned this year over mine and others’ sins and especially over the injustice that remains in their wake.
This year I had the opportunity to preach three sermons from the early chapters of Genesis. I preached on Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 with a sermon that emphasized sin’s power to separate us from God. No mere man can overpower sin, and yet that is what must happen. In the summer I preached on the genealogy of Adam in Genesis 5. There we see the irreversible fate of sin which is death for everyone caught in its clutches. Sin comes to the apex of its power over creation just before the flood when “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). In a sermon on the flood narrative we saw how God stretched out his hand to judge sin, but how, at the same time, he stretched out his hand to save and to renew creation.
So while I have mourned this year over my sin and the sin of others and the injustice and pain that it leaves behind, I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for God’s faithfulness and lovingkindness, for his mercy and grace, for our weakness and his strength, for the depth of our loss and glory of his victory.
Minimal Impact from CoVid
CoVid was by all means disruptive for everyone. Still, in comparison to most, it was nothing more than a hiccup for me. While working on my PhD in the States I continued teaching at the seminary in Slovakia and so all the materials for all my classes were already online when our classes switched to distance mode. I had even recorded lectures for distance students. I’ve had to transfer this to the Moodle platform (not my favorite) but it’s been more or less a matter of setting up links, rather than creating a lot of new content.
Opportunities Contracting and Expanding
I always say that my primary calling is not to teach at a seminary but to help God’s church better read and live out his word in everyday life. One of my ministry priorities is therefore to teach lay leaders in the context of the local church. CoVid meant that I wasn’t able to travel to churches and teach in person. Neither were there any conferences. Three congregations cancelled five weekend seminars and one conference was cancelled, but then online meetings opened up opportunities I would not have otherwise had. I was able to preach at a church where I have never preached before and spoke at a campus group in Bratislava. I’m praying that the Lord will use these new contacts to expand my ministry in the future.
In 2019 I started meeting with a group of about 15 young church leaders from all over Slovakia to help them learn to better read and live out God’s word in life and ministry. That carried through the 2019-20 academic year but when school started again in the fall of 2020 I was unable to continue because of my new commitments in the local church. However, I did continue meeting one on one with a future church planter. This led to some additional mentoring opportunities and I’m formally or informally mentoring/coaching five young church leaders.
All in all, my non-seminary ministry opportunities greatly expanded in 2020 and that is a trend for which I am thankful. You can pray for me in this area as I learn better ways to make in-depth study of Scripture available to everyone.
This year our seminary was awarded a small grant to organize a conference in 2022 entitled “The Matej Bel Conference for Science, Theology and Human Philosophy.” This is actually a sub-grant from Templeton via Oxford University’s Ian Ramsey Centre and their project “New Horizons for Science and Religion in Central and Eastern Europe.” The goal of our conference is to promote the cooperation and integration of science and theology in Slovak academics. The whole CoVid situation all over the world is a good example of how science, theology and philosophy need to speak to one another as we seek humane solutions to complex problems.
I’m heavily involved in the organization of the conference. We’re hoping that a successful conference will lead to a larger grant down the road.
In addition to this conference, I am also organizing the last year of our Pentateuch Study Group at the annual meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research. And then of course there are my two articles on creation that I still owe to the Henry Center for Theological Understanding. One article was submitted but I learned that it was rejected so I’ll need to change it slightly and resubmit to another journal. All part of the process.
This year we are also hoping to return for home assignment in July and August. Those plans remain unclear, however, since we’re still not sure how much we’ll be able to meet with supporting churches or individuals. No matter what happens, all things point to Elisabeth coming back to the States for college. Please pray for our home assignment plans and for Elisabeth’s college decision.
I will close by expressing our profound thankfulness for your prayers and financial support. Despite the CoVid crisis, giving toward our ministry remained a constant. We are amazed at the generosity of God’s people.