Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Jeanie Reimer: Doing Mission by Videoconferencing

Today's post is by Jeanie Reimer. Jeanie is the Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia In Mission Together Partnership Coordinator for Global Ministries.

Using videoconferencing for mission has been a new experience for many during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is a long-standing practice among United Methodists in the Baltics. Through my consulting work with Global Ministries, it has been such a blessing to build relationships with people from all over the Baltics, not only by in-person visits but with the wonderful world of videoconferencing!

My local church, FUMC of Neenah, Wisconsin, and our partner church, Pilviskiai UMC in Lithuania, started doing monthly Skype Bible studies in 2014 shortly after one of our mission trips. The idea of videoconferencing was born out of the desire to keep our relationship strong and to grow spiritually together in between our in-person visits.  Although it was a step outside our comfort zone, little did we know that 6 years later this connection would continue with great enthusiasm.

That first Skype Bible study back in 2014 reminds me of the parable of the mustard seed, which has grown in profound ways that we never imagined. We have planted and nourished seeds as we sought new ways to communicate and build relationships, despite being physically distant from each other. Together, through our openness to videoconferencing, we have been able to be the hands and feet of Christ for each other, halfway around the world. Grounded in prayer and devotions, we are now more involved in each other’s lives and more connected to our mutual spiritual journeys. Although it has not been easy, we have patiently and steadily developed the tools to gather people together virtually.

Connecting over a computer screen does not change the importance of being together in person and doesn’t replace the “real” hugs, but it certainly can keep partnerships alive and strong in between visits. And during this time of pandemic, we have been able to lift each other up and listen to the sharing of similar struggles and challenges. It has been very meaningful to see each other and pray for each other during this difficult time.  I am grateful for the groundwork laid in 2014 between UMC Pilviskiai and FUMC Neenah that has brought us to this point.

Even more exciting has been to see how the concept of videoconferencing has been embraced by more Methodist groups in the Baltics as a result of our first Bible study between our two partner churches, 5,000 miles apart. Here are the Methodist groups from the Baltics that are now using videoconferencing on a regular basis: 

Friends of Lithuania – This is a group of partner churches, individuals, and clergy from the US and Lithuania who have engaged in In Mission Together partnerships with the Lithuania UMC. We have been meeting monthly, and more recently quarterly, through WebEx since January 2018. We are grateful to Global Ministries for providing this resource. Beginning with devotions and prayer, we learn about what is happening in the Lithuania UMC and we keep each other informed about our partnerships. It has deepened our relationship with each other and has definitely improved our communication. It is a joy to have these calls!

Friends of the Baltics – This committee was born out of the desire to connect the three Baltic “Friends” groups – Friends of Estonia, Friends of Latvia, and Friends of Estonia. These are all groups in the US who partner with Methodist churches in the Baltics. Noticing that there was little communication between these groups, Dr. √úllas Tankler, Regional Representative – Europe, Eurasia & North Africa, Global Mission Connections, and I launched this group in the fall of 2018. Consisting of the co-chairs and leaders of each group, we meet quarterly though teleconferencing. The goal is to build relationships, learn from each other, and create a vehicle for communication. These “Friends” groups are passionate about their relationships with fellow Methodists in the Baltics. There are many similarities and challenges with United Methodism in these post-Soviet occupied countries and we knew there was a wealth of information that could be shared. One day, we hope to have a Friends of the Baltics gathering.

Friends of Latvia – This is a group of partner churches, individuals, and clergy from the US and Latvia who have engaged in connecting congregation partnerships with the Latvian UMC. We had our first call in January 2020 before even knowing what COVID-19 was! Since then, we have had two other teleconferencing calls. Our last call on April 25th replaced what was supposed to be an in-person gathering in Dallas, Texas. There were 40+ people on the call from the US and Latvia, and people stayed on the call for the entire time! I was blown away … I thought we would lose people, or they would be disengaged, but quite the opposite was true. Initially, this group was hesitant about getting started, but once we did, we realized how amazing it is to be connected. Our next call will be May 30th, and we look forward to our ongoing connections and conversation.

Development Committee of the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary (BMTS) in Estonia – We are excited about the newly-formed BMTS Development Committee which held its first meeting in early 2020 and continues meeting almost weekly.  Through Webex and Zoom resources from Global Ministries, this committee consists of BMTS leadership and board members and the Friends of Estonia co-chairs from Estonia and the US.  We were already working virtually on a 2020 Development Plan when suddenly everything changed with COVID-19. Creating a new development plan specific to the response to COVID-19, we quickly adjusted because we had the resource of videoconferencing available to us.

While the idea of doing mission through teleconferencing may seem foreign to many people, the partner relationships I am seeing in the Baltics during this pandemic are only heightening our steadfast commitment to each other. Teleconferencing is making real connections possible! Because the relationships are personal and ongoing, people are caring about each other, praying for each other and taking opportunities to engage with each other via videoconferencing. Our collective willingness to stretch outside of our comfort zones has made this growth possible.

These examples of groups using videoconferencing have reaffirmed my strong belief in the concept of In Mission Together where the framework embraces ongoing relationships. Promoting sustainability versus dependency, creating a journey of engaging in spiritual development with each other, each of us bring to the table our own unique gifts to share with one other. And just like the mustard seed, I see these covenant relationships growing in mutuality through God’s grace and love. We are joined together in human connection by participating equally as the body of Christ. I continue to marvel at God’s wisdom, guidance, and hand in this process for certainly the Spirit has inspired, and will continue to inspire, this journey.

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