Eastern European Lutheran bishops meet in Ukraine

Caption: Back: Bishop Alexander Yurchenko (SELCU), Vice President Oleg Schewtschenko (SELCU), Rev. Daniel S. Johnson (LCMS-SELC), Bishop Mindaugas Sabutis (LELB), Rev. Olav Panchu (ELCIR), Valera Partizan (DELKU). Front: President Matthew C. Harrison (LCMS), Bishop Serge Maschewski (DELKU), Rev. Dr. Albert Collver (LCMS), President Robert Bugbee (LCC), Rev. Andris Kraulin (ELCL), Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin (SELC).

UKRAINE – The heads of several Lutheran churches in the former Soviet Union recently met together in Ukraine for the Eastern European Bishops Conference, along with the heads of their North American partner churches.

The conference, held in Odessa in late February, was hosted by the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine (DELKU) and its Bishop Sergey Maschewski. DELKU, long associated with the state (territorial) Lutheran churches of Germany, has in recent years begun aligning itself with more conservative bodies like The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC). In addition to the presidents of LCC and LCMS, DELKU also hosted the bishops (or their representatives) from several other Lutheran church bodies in eastern Europe, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (LELB), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania (ELCL), the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine (SELCU), and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC). The conference also welcomed a number of ecumenical guests.

Ecumenical guests at the Eastern European Lutheran Bishops Conference. (Photo: Facebook page of the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral of the Apostle Paul).

During the conference, the bishops reported on their respective churches and the challenges they face. A number of these churches have to do their work over long distances: SELC, for example, is stretched out over a vast territory spanning 7,000 kilometers. DELKU, as another example, struggles with a severe clergy shortage, currently operating 28 congregations with only nine pastors. Many of these congregations are distant from the nearest neighbouring pastor or parish.

The bishops also discussed opportunities for future cooperation between their churches. “United by much of our common history and—what is of more relevance today—by similar theological outlook, we felt that there was a need for closer cooperation in the future,” explained Rev. Alexey Strelstov, rector of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church’s seminary in Novosibirsk, Russia. Rev. Strelstov presented on education in a confessional Lutheran context on the final day of the conference.

Part of that future cooperation may well take place on theological education. One evening of the conference, the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine invited participants to visit their seminary in Usatovo, a suburb of Odessa. Representatives of the Siberian church expressed interest in forging closer ties with SELCU on seminary education. There were discussions on assisting the Ukrainian seminary in procuring more Russian-language theological books for its library, as well as the possibility of SELC seminary professors coming to teach short-term courses in Usatovo. “The interaction between these Russian speakers, all keenly interested in the faithful biblical training of pastors, was a real joy to watch,” noted LCC President Robert Bugbee. LCC has long-supported SELCU’s seminary education program.

Morning and afternoon devotions at the bishops’ conference were held in DELKU’s Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral of the Apostle Paul in downtown Odessa, restored in recent years after having been destroyed by the Soviet regime decades ago. “Although this church was rebuilt on a somewhat smaller scale, it once seated 1,200 worshippers and was the centre for spiritual life of the entire German community before the communist repression,” noted LCC President Bugbee. Lutheran churches were severely persecuted during the soviet era.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church are both members of the International Lutheran Council, as are Lutheran Church–Canada and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine is a partner church of LCC, while the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania are partner churches of the LCMS. The German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine, meanwhile, has been seeking closer relations to the LCMS in recent years.

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Lutheran churches sign agreement in Ukraine

Signatories of the Ukraine agreement: Dr. Albert Collver (LCMS), Bishop Serge Maschewski (DELKU), President Robert Bugbee (LCC), Vice-President Oleg Schewtschenko (SELCU).
Signatories of the Ukraine agreement: Dr. Albert Collver (LCMS), Bishop Serge Maschewski (DELKU), President Robert Bugbee (LCC), Vice-President Oleg Schewtschenko (SELCU).

Ukraine – Representatives of four Lutheran church bodies signed an agreement in Odessa, Ukraine on August 12, pledging closer collaboration with one another and setting the stage for possible deeper cooperation in the future.

The German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine (DELKU) was represented by Bishop Serge Maschewski. Representing the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Ukraine (SELCU) were Bishop Emeritus Viktor Graefenstein and Rev. Oleg Schewtschenko, SELCU Vice-President for Church Relations. Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver represented The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), while President Robert Bugbee attended on behalf of Lutheran Church-Canada (LCC). The protocol signing followed two days of meetings at SELCU’s Concordia Seminary in Usatovo, an Odessa suburb.

LCC has worked in Ukraine for more than 20 years, providing theological education for the SELCU since 1998. SELCU is a church body which began after a separation from the DELKU in the mid-1990s. Though the two Ukrainian churches have had occasional contacts since that time, the stage for stronger relations was set more recently when DELKU began expressing a desire to firm up its commitment to the Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions.

DELKU Bishop Maschewski had been an early student in the “Russian Project” of Concordia Theological Seminary at Fort Wayne, Indiana (CTSFW), as the LCMS began working with developing Lutheran churches after the breakup of the Soviet Union. “It is such a joy to see to see these long term relationships grow and blossom,” noted CTSFW President Lawrence Rast. “It shows us how the gospel is ‘in the whole world’ and ‘is bearing fruit and increasing’ (Colossians 1:6), just as the Scriptures promise.” The Fort Wayne Seminary provided several continuing education seminars for DELKU pastors in the past year.

Since LCMS and LCC have a long-standing practice of cooperation in world mission areas, the recent discussions sought to foster cooperation and avoid misunderstandings in Ukraine, which has historically been an LCC mission field. President Bugbee observed, “When these talks began, the participants did not expect that we would end up signing an agreement to keep each other thoroughly informed of the work we’re doing, and to consider stronger joint efforts in the future. The discussions were marked by a great brotherly spirit. I thank God for that!”

DELKU includes congregations with history reaching back to the Lutheran Church in the Russian empire, which was extensive and well developed until the communist revolution of 1917 ushered in decades of repression. After dissolution of the USSR and Ukrainian independence, DELKU worked extensively with the Lutheran (State) Church of Bavaria in Germany, but recently began cultivating ties with the LCMS and its partners, like LCC.

LCMS and LCC are both member churches of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.

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Ukrainian Lutherans elect new bishop

Bishop Aleksandr Yurchenko preaches at his installation service.
Bishop Aleksandr Yurchenko preaches at his installation service.

UKRAINE – The Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Ukraine (SELCU), meeting in convention November 17-18, elected Rev. Aleksandr Yurchenko as its new bishop. He succeeds Rev. Dr. Viktor Gräfenstein, who served as bishop for 18 years and had declined to accept nomination for another term.

Bishop Yurchenko graduated from Odessa Theological Seminary in 2002. He currently serves as a missionary to prisoners in the Nikolaev region and as a temporary pastor at the newly organized congregaton in Nova Kachovka. He lives in Odessa.

The convention also elected Rev. Oleg Shewtschenko as Assistant to the Bishop.

Convention sessions were held at Concordia Seminary in Usatovo, a suburb of Odessa, located in the southern part of the country on the Black Sea. Long-time partner church Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) sent representatives to the convention, with President Robert Bugbee (Vice-Chairman of the International Lutheran Council) and Rev. Dr. Norman Threinen (who has long served as Rector of the Ukranian seminary) in attendance. President Bugbee preached for the opening service of the convention, brought greetings from LCC, and was asked for advice periodically throughout the sessions on various business matters coming before the assembly.

President Bugbee (front left) struggles to read a portion of the Russian-language installation of SELCU Bishop Aleksandr Yurchenko (right). Standing between them is outgoing Bishop Viktor Gräfenstein, while Dr. Norman Threinen looks on.
President Bugbee (front left) struggles to read a portion of the Russian-language installation of SELCU Bishop Yurchenko (right). Standing between them is outgoing Bishop  Gräfenstein, while Dr. Norman Threinen looks on.

Among other things, the convention determined to resume instruction at Concordia Seminary in September 2015. The seminary had suspended classes in the past year due to the political instability caused by the Russian invasions. Odessa is fortunately far from the fighting, and so students and teachers should be able to do their work in a secure environment. The convention resolved to ask LCC to extend the appointment of Dr. Threinen to continue serving as Rector of the seminary as preparations are made to begin classes again.

President Bugbee took the opportunity of this visit to accept preaching invitations at local parishes in Nikolayev, Oktyabrskoye and Savran. He was also the featured preacher at an evangelistic service hosted by the congregation in downtown Odessa on a Saturday evening as it sought to invite unchurched people from the area.

“Our brothers and sisters here have gone through a very trying time in recent months,” President Bugbee observed, “but I am impressed with their willingness to carry on and make the best of the crisis besetting their country. They are deeply grateful for the attitude of support on the part of the Canadian government and people, and are glad for the partnership between LCC and their church. They took time during their convention to pray for the work we do in Canada, and I do hope our churches will repeatedly name them and their needs before the Lord in their public prayers. The relationship to this church remains one of our primary partnerships, and there’s still a lot of work to do here!”

Lutheran Church–Canada—a member church of the International Lutheran Council—has long supported SELCU in its outreach work, its social ministries, and its theological education. SELCU is a young church body, with thirteen congregations throughout the region. Five of these congregations are in Crimea. Consequently, the emergence of a new federal border between these congregations and the rest of SELCU’s congregations (in Ukraine) has created significant difficulties for the church.

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Ukrainian Lutherans band together in face of conflict

SELCU’s new Commission on Theology and Practice: Rev. Oleg Schewtschenko, Bishop Viktor Gräfenstein, Rev. Alexander Yurchenko, and Rev. Alexey Navrotskyy.
SELCU’s new Commission on Theology and Practice: Rev. Oleg Schewtschenko, Bishop Viktor Gräfenstein, Rev. Alexander Yurchenko, and Rev. Alexey Navrotskyy.

UKRAINE – While conflict continues to rock the eastern border of Ukraine, Lutherans are firm in their resolve to remain united, even as recent events have made that goal more difficult.

Earlier this year, Ukrainian citizens of the Crimean Peninsula participated in a disputed referendum to join Russia. While the vote passed and Russia officially accepted Crimea as a member of the Russian Federation, its legitimacy has been challenged by the international community, given the presence of suspected Russian military in the region during the vote.

The move has led to increased difficulties for the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Ukraine (SELCU). SELCU is a young church body, with thirteen congregations throughout the region. Five of these congregations are in Crimea. Consequently, the emergence of a new federal border between these congregations and the rest of SELCU’s congregations (in Ukraine) has created significant difficulties for the church. Where the churches could formerly visit together easily, the new militarized border makes passing from one area to the other significantly more difficult. Moreover, as SELCU’s Bishop Viktor Gräfenstein is a German citizen (and thus a member of the European Union), he is unable to cross the border into Crimea without acquiring a visa.

Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC)—a member church of the International Lutheran Council—has long supported SELCU in its outreach work, its social ministries, and its theological education. LCC helped found Odessa Seminary in 1998, and provides visiting theological professors to instruct students at the school. In 2013, the seminary celebrated the graduation of six students who went on to begin two-year vicarages in SELCU congregations. Prior to the unrest in Ukraine, the seminary planned to welcome a new class of students to begin studies this September. The new border-crossing realities, the conscription of a number of SELCU members (including one pastor) into military service, and battles between the government and pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine has put those plans on hold.

Despite these difficulties, Rev. Alexey Navrotskyy— LCC’s missionary in the region—reports that SELCU congregations on both sides of the Crimean border continue to express their desire to remain one church body. And the church continues to operate as normally as possible given the situation. Acting on a directive from its 2013 Convention, the church recently appointed a Commission on Theology and Practice (CTP) in June to help the church better define and understand its work together. Members appointed to the commission include Bishop Viktor Gräfenstein, Rev. Alexander Yurchenko (missionary pastor), Rev. Alexey Navrotskyy, and Rev. Oleg Schewtschenko. Rev. Schewtschenko was selected to serve as the CTP’s Chairman.

The CTP is schedule to issue a report in advance of SELCU’s upcoming 2014 convention, set to take place in Odessa in November—assuming all congregations can attend. In the meantime, SELCU congregations continue to reach out to their communities with the Good News of the Gospel—a message sorely needed in these difficult times.

Lutheran Church–Canada is calling on members of the International Lutheran Concil to remember the Ukraine in their prayers—that God would allow SELCU churches on both sides of the Crimean border the ability to work together for the sake of the Gospel; that political leaders in Russia, Ukraine, and the West would all work earnestly for the re-establishment of peace; and that further bloodshed in disputed areas may be avoided.

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via The Canadian Lutheran.

Ukraine’s bishop asks for prayer

SELCU Bishop Gräfenstein (left) and ILC Vice-Chairman Bugbee in Ukraine (file photo).
SELCU Bishop Gräfenstein (left) and ILC Vice-Chairman Bugbee in Ukraine (file photo).

UKRAINE – The situation in Ukraine continues to be tense, following the occupation of the Crimean peninsula by Russian military and pro-Russian militia. And things are only getting worse, according to Bishop Viktor Gräfenstein of the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Ukraine (SELCU).

“The situation is deteriorating every day,” Bishop Gräfenstein reports in a March 4 letter. “Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. One of our brothers from Odessa, who is currently serving in the armed forces, reported that all soldiers are armed and constantly in a state of readiness for war.”

“Of course the Crimean Peninsula is the primary focus,” the letter continues. “Crimea formerly belonged to Russia, but was transferred to Ukraine in the Soviet period. Now, while Ukraine grapples with the question of whether to line up with Russia or with the European Union (EU), Russia threatens Ukraine with war, especially if Ukraine goes with the EU. Most Crimean residents are Russians who wish to be part of Russia. So now Russia uses this sentiment to hold the Crimea back from the EU.”

SELCU has five congregations on the Crimean peninsula, but Bishop Gräfenstein notes that, while the situation is tense, the people are still safe. “Our brothers and sisters are not doing badly at this moment,” he writes. “People in general are rushing to stockpile groceries, and nearly all the store shelves are empty. Everyone is concerned that, if it comes to war, a famine will break out.”

Bishop Gräfenstein ends his letter with a request for prayer: “We pray that the Lord would give to the responsible leaders grace and wisdom to govern in peace,” he writes. “Thank you for your prayer support.”

We pray that the Lord would give to the responsible leaders grace and wisdom to govern in peace.

SELCU is a young church body, with thirteen congregations throughout Ukraine. It has strong ties to Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) which has long supported its ministry, especially with theological education and missions. Late last week, Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee (President of Lutheran Church–Canada and Vice-Chairman of the International Lutheran Council) called on the wider church to hold up Ukraine in prayer.

“We ask the Lord to comfort the sorrowing who have lost loved ones,” President Bugbee wrote. “We ask Him to meet the legitimate needs of the Ukrainian people, regardless of their preferred languages and political orientation. We implore him that the work of our mission partners in the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Ukraine may not be disrupted by the trouble.”

“Above all,” he continued, “we ask God to give courage to our pastors and people there in the mist of turmoil to point their neighbours to Jesus Christ, the great Prince of Peace.”

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Published concurrently at The Canadian Lutheran.

Ukrainian unrest spreads, Lutheran pastor assaulted

Rev. Andreas Hamburg is pulled away from the violence by a police officer. (Photo from a Dumskaya report on the assault on the protesters.
Rev. Andreas Hamburg is pulled away from the violence by a police officer. (Photo from a Dumskaya report on the assault on the protesters.)

UKRAINE – As unrest in Ukraine continues to grow, news emerged today of the assault of a Lutheran pastor in Odessa on February 19.

Rev. Andreas Hamburg reports on Facebook that he was present at a peaceful protest taking place at Odessa’s regional administration building when a pro-government civilian group arrived and began attacking the protestors. “I stood still, hoping that my peaceful attitude and pastor’s shirt would have a calming effect,” he writes. But he was attacked nevertheless. “I lay on the ground, and no one prevented them from beating me, first with their feet and then with bats.”

He was eventually saved by a policeman who came and pulled him out. Before order could be restored, the assailants also attacked others, including members of the media. Rev. Andreas Hamburg is a pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Odessa, a member congregation of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Ukraine (GELCU). GELCU has ties to the Lutheran World Federation.

The Patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), Archbishop Major Sviatoslav Shevchuk, called Rev. Hamburg shortly after the incident to express support and solidarity. “During the call, both sides stressed the importance of peaceful resolution of the crisis in Ukraine,” a UGCC release notes. “Every person, no matter which side of the fence they are on, is a child of God and needs to protect every human life.” A local Odessa ecumenical group—with Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant members—also condemned the attack.

In addition to being the headquarters of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Ukraine, Odessa serves as the headquarters of the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine (SELCU). SELCU has strong ties to Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC), a member church of the International Lutheran Council. SELCU and GELCU have a cordial working relationship in Ukraine, even sharing buildings in certain locations.

LCC’s missionary in Ukraine, Rev. Alexey Navrotsky, notes that, currently, “The most dangerous places are in Kiev, Lviv, and cities on the west side of Ukaine.” SELCU has no congregations in these areas, and in communities where the church is represented—like Odessa—the situation is not yet considered dangerous, comparatively speaking. “But the situation changes every hour,” he explains. “The waves of human anger and sorrow are flowing from Kiev to all regions of Ukraine.”

Asked how other Christians across the world can help, Rev. Navrotsky is clear: “We really need and appreciate your prayers.”

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Ukranian Lutherans meet in convention

Meetings at SELCU's 2013 convention.
Meetings at SELCU’s 2013 convention.

UKRAINE – The Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine (SELCU) held its annual convention November 25-26, 2013 in Odessa, Ukraine. The convention opened in worship, with Bishop Viktor Graefenstein delivering a sermon on 1 Peter 4:10.

SELCU is a young church, having been founded in 1996. It has thirteen congregations, nine pastors, four vicars, and about 300 members. At the convention, each congregation was represented by its pastor and a lay delegate. Three vicars also attended, as did guests from other church bodies.

Among these guests was Bishop Serge Maschewski of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Ukraine (GELCU). Bishop Maschewski was elected a month earlier at GELCU’s October 21-23 convention, also held in Odessa. GELCU has twelve pastors and approximately 3,000 members. It is a member church of the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia and the Other States (which is affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation).

SELCU is supported in part thanks to the work of mission societies in Germany and Poland. It has also long been supported by Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC), a member church of the International Lutheran Council. In particular, LCC has been instrumental in offering theological training in the Ukraine, having founded Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Odessa in 1998. This past summer, the seminary celebrated its third graduating class: six students who have completed their three-year education program and are now beginning two years of vicarage in SELCU congregations. In total, more than 20 students have graduated from the seminary, with many now serving as pastors in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. A new group of students is scheduled to begin classes in September 2014.

Delegates to SELCU’s convention heard positive reports on the synod’s prison ministry, care for the elderly, and ministry to orphans—programs also supported by LCC. One such report concerned ministry at a large prison near Nikolaev where 1,500 prisoners are housed. SELCU pastors lead services on a regular basis there to groups of about 20 people, rotating between cells to avoid large concentrations. One pastor noted that, in addition to the opportunity to preach the Gospel, “There is always great time for fellowship, dialogue, and tea with the inmates.” The outreach is making a difference in the inmates’ lives, with one pastor noting that “inmates who are released from prison continue faithful to Christ and to the fellowship of a local church.”

Lutheran Church–Canada’s Executive for Missions and Social Ministry, Rev. Dr. Leonardo Neitzel, was present at SELCU’s convention. “We pray that the Lord continue to strengthen our partnership and fellowship in the Gospel,” he said, noting that “through the proclamation and acts of mercy by our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, many are hearing the Gospel of Jesus.”

Additional information on SELCU’s convention is available from The Canadian Lutheran.

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