By Joe Isenhower Jr.
ST. LOUIS – The president of the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, says that when it comes to helping that seminary prepare pastors for the largest Lutheran church body on earth, The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod “is not there for lip service, but they are honestly with us.”
The Rev. Dr. Belay Guta — whose seminary with more than 5,000 students is challenged to prepare pastors, theological educators and lay leaders for the 6.8 million-member Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) — thanked the Synod for its help in a Sept. 9 interview for Worldwide KFUO’s “Reformation Rush Hour” program. He also met with Synod President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison and other Synod leaders during his Sept. 8-10 visit here.
The Rev. Dr. Albert C. Collver III joined Belay for the “Reformation Rush Hour” broadcast with host Rev. Craig Denofrio. Collver is the LCMS director of Church Relations, assistant to the president and director of Regional Operations for the Office of International Mission.
Belay (pronounced “bell-EYE”) told listeners that the seminary is particularly challenged as it strives to help the EECMY — also the world’s fastest-growing Lutheran church — attain a strategic-plan goal of growing its membership to 30 million members. For that plan, the seminary aims to prepare 12,000 additional pastors and leaders at the Bachelor of Theology degree level, 200 at the Master of Arts level and 30 at the doctoral level.
With more than 10,000 congregations, the EECMY adds, on average, about 100,000 new members each year, growing by some 314,000 in 2013 alone, Belay said. But he added that the church has only 3,000 “fully ordained and trained pastors” — one for every three to four churches.
“We want to train 12,000 who can serve pastorally at the congregation level,” Belay said.
So far, the LCMS has provided full scholarships for some 60 Ethiopian students for the pastoral ministry.
The EECMY was established in 1959, when it had about 20,000 members in some 100 congregations. It grew out of mission work started by several northern European churches and The American Lutheran Church – one of the church bodies that eventually formed what is now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
The EECMY ended its formal fellowship with the ELCA in spring 2013, primarily due to concerns that the ELCA’s allowing gay and lesbian clergy was counter to the Holy Scriptures.
In January of this year, EECMY and LCMS representatives met in Addis Ababa to discuss entering formal discussions about the relationship between their churches, leading to plans for beginning those discussions Nov. 10-14 in Addis Ababa.
A joint EECMY-LCMS press release after the meeting this January stated that representatives from the EECMY and LCMS have discovered that “both church bodies believe that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God and the only source and infallible norm of all church doctrine. Both churches also subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions.”
Belay said in the KFUO interview that when Harrison and Collver visited him at the Mekane Yesus Seminary and asked about the seminary’s needs, especially how many additional students he wanted to train, he “told them the field is ripe. I need laborers. I need somebody who can train the truth of the Word of God.”
He said he also told the two LCMS leaders that because of limited classroom space, the seminary could realistically aim to train only 30 new pastors at a time. “And they gave me full scholarships for 30 students going to [the] MA program. This year another 30.”
Belay said that “with other [previous] mission partners, I think in 10 years we didn’t have even 20” new seminary students.
“So when we say with Luther, ‘Here we stand,’ we don’t compromise the truth,” Belay said in the interview. “The Lord sent the LCMS to the Mekane Yesus Seminary to train our own local people. I’m very thankful.”
He said that in helping the seminary grow its pastoral-education enrollment and capacity, “the LCMS was instantly there.”
Donofrio asked Collver to share his impressions of the EECMY, its seminary and “the kind of growth that’s going on over there.”
“I think Ethiopia is an example of how global Christianity is changing across the world,” Collver replied. “Ethiopia is a place where a lot of ministry is going on, where they need trained pastors. It’s not a mission field with a bunch of heathen people who have never heard the Gospel. You have an established church that is trying to expand and train future pastors. Their greatest need is theological education. And this is a difference or a shift in mission paradigm from past years.”
“I’m curious,” Donofrio said to Belay. “You see how Lutheranism in the United States isn’t prospering like it is in Ethiopia. I’m curious if down the road you might be sending missionaries to us. Have you thought about that?”
“Well, definitely true,” Belay answered. “What we need to see is to move with the Spirit. Now is the time that the global south is ripe and … is open to the Gospel. The United States is not as bad as Europe. … The Lord is reigning among the poor and humble in the south, to send missionaries back to the north. We owe you. We owe the northern global mission organizations and churches to present the Gospel that we have received earlier. The opportunity is there. And [with] these windows of opportunity, we must capitalize on them.”
Donofrio then asked Collver to “share with us what the partnership is between The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and this church body in Ethiopia and what the future might look like in that partnership.”
Noting that the LCMS “is not in altar and pulpit fellowship with the Mekane Yesus right now,” Collver recounted that the EECMY’s “tradition came out of the Swedish and the American Lutheran Church that became [part of] the ELCA. And you heard that Dr. Belay said that they took a stand on truth, and that was over the matter of sexuality. The Mekane Yesus actually asked these churches to repent for their position on homosexuality and those churches chose not to.
“And so we are in the process now. This fall we are going to go back to Ethiopa and begin doctrinal discussions with them. We’re going to talk about doctrine and practice and how we have similarities and differences.
“I don’t think that this will happen quickly, but the future could be that the Missouri Synod is in altar and pulpit fellowship with the Mekane Yesus Church down the road. And that’s pretty exciting, [considering] that the Mekane Yesus church is the largest Lutheran Church in the world.”
To download an audio file of the Sept. 9 “Reformation Rush Hour” interview with Belay and Collver, click here.
Posted Oct. 1, 2014