I wrote this report in early 2007, following an extensive ministry trip in Ukraine. Ukraine previously was the western-most region of the former Soviet Union, where it bumped up against Europe, but is now an independent nation.
With all that’s happening in that part of the world, I thought it might be interesting to post this on Crossroad Junction. Please be in prayer for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. Since this trip, the situation in the country has deteriorated as Russia continues to challenge Ukraine’s fledgling democracy, the economy is in shambles, and political infighting grips the nation.
Of the eight or so trips I’ve had to Ukraine, my travels through this western-most part of the former Soviet Union in early 2007 were among my most intense. I left Virginia on a Sunday and arrived in the capital, Kyiv, on Monday.
Flying over the Atlantic and then Western Europe, I took the opportunity to continue my ongoing studies of eastern orthodox theology, history and culture. I wanted to understand that branch of Christianity and its impact on the institutions and mentalities found in their part of the world. Although I find some aspects of eastern orthodox theology odd, my understanding of our common faith has been deepened and challenged by their own rich tradition and doctrinal struggles over the centuries.
In Kyiv, I spent my first day “in country” settling into my sparsely furnished hotel room, then heading out to view the preliminary cuts for the first several TV programs produced by Serhiy Balyuk. Those programs were financed, in part, by Fulcrum Ministries.
Serhiy’s weekly TV programs will focus on issues facing the nation, and address them through an interview format (using guests who are engaging and have relevant expertise from a Biblical perspective), but without being overly “Christian”. His goal is reach the general population and begin changing attitudes on issues of concern, while using Biblical perspectives in a way that appeals to and influences non-Christians.
Serhiy is a very gifted man who heads a network of churches he helped build over the years following (and to some extent even before) the collapse of communism in the early 1980s. That network (which Ukrainians call a “union”) now has pastors and congregations throughout Ukraine. Recently, he moved over 500 miles with his wife and two young sons to the capital at great personal sacrifice. He’s now finding favor with various ecclesiastical, political and governmental national leaders. As an emerging leader to other leaders, Serhiy is working with them as a focal point for transforming their culture and emerging institutions using Biblical precepts.
During my previous trip, Serhiy and I scoped out several locations for taping the programs and also met with a man who was creating the look and feel for the TV shows, including the introduction. It was exciting during my return trip to see the actual programs, shot at the location we both thought would be best, and using the intro we discussed back in December. The production quality of these programs is excellent (although I can’t speak to the substance, given my deficiencies with the Ukrainian language!). Visually, they immediately draw and keep your attention.
Early that week I also met with a committed Christian who heads one of Ukraine’s many political parties to discuss the rapidly changing situation in his nation. My impression was that he is very sincere and dedicated, but very naive about what can be done under the approach he is taking. Essentially, he has set up a non-profit organization as a parallel to the political party he leads, with the intent of bypassing often corrupt local officials to build cultural centers in towns and villages using funds from the national government. At those centers, he wants people to be taught life skills and also set up non-profits to run, or possibly oversee, model “businesses” as an example for others to emulate.
The problem is his assumption that just because someone is a Christian, he or she will be immune from the corruption and graft that is ever present and prevalent in Ukraine. His plan does not contemplate the need for adequate accountability and safeguards and he is trying to create a system that has the potential for substituting one set of corrupt officials with a newly created set of corrupt quasi-officials. As they say even in Ukraine, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Also, the idea that non-profits can set up and run (or oversee) model businesses struck me as unworkable — this requires different skill sets and aptitudes than what is typically found in a compassion-oriented non-profit worker. Nonetheless, he listened very carefully as we discussed my perspectives and also the concept that government’s role is to enforce proper laws that promote the common good, rather than encroaching upon the differing roles of the church, family, self-government and private enterprise.
At its root, and because of the expediency of real and pressing needs, he was trying to use the power of civil government to change hearts and transform lives. This exceeds what we see God delegating in scripture to civil authorities (or non-profits acting as quasi-governmental entities!).
This, from what I’m seeing, is a pressing challenge and temptation in Ukraine. They want civil government and its resources to solve individual and community problems – top down – rather than build from the ground up on the firm foundations of self-government, healthy families, local communities, fully-functioning churches and the free enterprise principles of private property and freedom of contract. Also, why would government officials from other parties fund programs that advance the agenda and popularity of a competing political party?
Regardless of these obvious issues, our discussions illustrated the level of thinking that I commonly find in Ukraine as Christians seek to deal with the challenge of building an independent nation where none had existed for over a thousand years. They simply do not have the experience to see much beyond the pressing needs of the moment, nor do they generally have a well-developed Biblical framework that allows them to appreciate the adverse ramifications of trying to deal with those needs outside of that framework.
Heart with Understanding
Christians functioning in the Ukrainian political arena have much heart but not much understanding. Nonetheless, they seem to appreciate the perspective I bring from my many years of political, legal, entrepreneurial and church involvement in the U.S. However, they have a hard time getting their heads around even the most basic concepts because they are too consumed with the problems of the day to see the bigger picture. They also sometimes think that their problems are unique to them, rather than arising from our common human condition.
This is a theme I picked up on in some of my teachings during the trip. They are not adverse to outside advice; it’s just that they are so overwhelmed by the immediate problems that they can’t find time to think about developing a comprehensive Biblical worldview. This is where I find I am able to help provide some perspective.
Ministering to Business and Political Leaders
I also was invited to speak to a group of about fifty top Christian business and political leaders in the capital, Kyiv, on Tuesday evening. This was at a building owned by the mayor of Kyiv, who is an outspoken evangelical but who has had his own set of problems (often of his own making). The group meets weekly and is sponsored by a church that caters to influential business and political leaders because the pastor (Sophia – an older sister in the Lord) values and has a tender heart for them.
During my first day in Kyiv, I met with Sophia and a close bond developed between us. I had briefly met her several times during previous trips, but during this trip we had several substantive conversations while I was in the capital. There is deep disappointment in Ukraine with politicians who promised reform, but have failed to deliver, and this is coloring everything – even among the pastors and other leading Christians. I was able to be an encouragement to Sophia, and told her that I felt God was blessing her ministry to the nation’s leaders because she was “attracting them because she values them, and is keeping them in the Lord because she is teaching them.”
Too often, I see pastors in the U.S. and elsewhere who reach out to business or political leaders because they think it will advance their own ministries through hefty tithes, or bring prestige to their churches through upgraded reputations. They fail to value the fact that God can gift men and women to serve as leaders in the economic sphere, with perfectly valid callings, even though it occurs outside the four walls of their church. I also see pastors who fail to hold onto outside leaders because they teach platitudes or simplistic sermons Sunday after Sunday, rather than hard principles, or fail to engage in the kind of personal discipleship that actually equips them to make a difference in their – rather than the pastor’s – area of calling. Sophia has risen above those limitations, and is having an impact on her nation’s leaders.
Anyway, I digress!
The Tuesday group gave me about an hour and a half to share on Biblical principles for starting and growing businesses and thus bringing health to that aspect of the nation, and also to share some perspective on the political situation in Ukraine. Our time of follow-up questions and dialog was very good and probing.
Conference on Civil Government
Later that week, I taught on civil government at a conference of pastors, bishops (which is what they call the heads of their church unions), government leaders and NGO executives from throughout Ukraine. This was organized by Serhiy. After several hours of teaching (including sessions by Sophia and Serhiy), we took the group on a tour of the Ukrainian parliament. For most of them, this was their first opportunity to walk the halls of power and meet with Christians working there to bring Godly influence to civil government. It helped expand their vision and give them a practical, hands-on perspective.
Is There A David Among Us?
After visiting parliament, we returned to the conference room and had a time of extensive questions and dialog. Toward the end, something welled up in me and I started challenging the men and women gathered there to stop fretting over the problems facing their nation and to start building solutions. I asked several times, in a direct and forceful way, if there was not a David among them? I explained that David saw Goliath and rose to the challenge because he had learned to fight seemingly insurmountable foes while tending sheep. Because he was prepared, he was not intimidated. He didn’t need to have everything figured out – he simply dealt with the immediate situation based on his preparation and experience up to that point in time, and trusted God for the rest.
I think there was a breakthrough as I pushed this challenge, and I could see that God was stirring the hearts of some among them to be Davids. I also admonished them to identify and affirm those whom God was raising up as Davids to the whole nation, rather than specialized spheres of influence, and give them their support and encouragement. I closed by sharing some practical ideas on what could be done, drawing on my own experiences when I started and led a large grassroots Christian organization back in the 1980s. It was powerful, and all felt and affirmed God’s presence as they were being challenged to impact the life of their nation.
Bus to Rivne
On Friday, we were joined by Lanny Clark and Jeff Rogers, two pastors from Maryland. I’ve known Lanny many years, and we previously ministered together during other trips to Ukraine. On Saturday morning we left for Rivne – a city midway between Kyiv and the western city of L’viv – in a small commercial bus.
I will never forget the restaurant where we stopped a couple of hours into our trip. Jeff, who had never been to Ukraine, was inaugurated into the realities of Ukrainian life outside the big cities. The toilets were outside the main building in a large shed sitting ten feet in the air on stilts over a twenty-foot square, uncovered, putrid cesspool.
In the shed, lined up every couple of feet along a thin middle wall, were open, unadorned holes in the floor. They were large enough to fall into if you weren’t careful. These open holes were the “toilets”. The men’s and women’s sections were separated by that thin wall, and you couldn’t help but see everyone’s “business” fall ten feet and splashed into the odoriferous cesspool below.
For the privilege of using these “facilities”, you got to pay a premium in the local currency to a portly, indifferent matron in peasant garb who guarded the entrance. Business was good, with a long line of desperate people waiting to heed nature’s call at the only available facility and a non-stop supply of buses that kept disgorging a steady stream of passengers. That was some business model!
I went ahead of Jeff and, after taking care of nature, came out laughing and warning Jeff (he’s a big guy) to be sure to not slip on the slimy wet floors. Jeff didn’t “get” what I was saying until he to entered the shed. As he exited several minutes later, I asked if he watched his footing to keep from falling through the holes into the cesspool below. His eyes were big as saucers as he tried to fully comprehend what he just experienced, while vigorously applying copious amounts of hand sanitizer to his hands and face. Needless to say, he confirmed with great earnestness that he was very careful not to slip!
Such is life in the Ukrainian countryside! Lanny and I then had great fun regaling Jeff with stories of some of our other Ukrainian toilet experiences over the years, much to Jeff’s horror and Serhiy’s quiet amusement. Needless to say, Jeff had no appetite to eat at that stop, so we boarded the bus and continued to Rivne.
That afternoon, I taught for about four hours on Christian entrepreneurship at a seminar organized by several Rivne churches. The meeting was in the main hall at the city’s former communist cultural center. It was a blessing to proclaim God’s principles, and teach believers, in a “temple” originally constructed to advance atheism and state oppression.
Vasily, a brother who I met many years previously during one of my first trips to Ukraine, and who I’d been mentoring off and on during my subsequent travels to his part of the world, also taught at this seminar.
Vasily is an attorney (although no longer practicing law) and a former law professor. When I first met him, I sensed that he had a restless heart and an innate need to create and build – the sure signs of an entrepreneur! I encouraged him, shared some basic principles, and didn’t see him again for a couple of years. By the time we met again, he had proceeded to launch several successful business projects, purchased and renovated an office building in the heart of his city (Uzhgorod – a regional capital in southwestern Ukraine), and was roaring forward as a full-blown entrepreneur. During our second time together, he stole me away for a day from the conference where I was speaking (this was about two years previous) to show me – with obvious pride and to also honor me – the various business projects he had either brought to fruition since our last time together, was still cultivating, or was considering.
During our second time together, I spent several hours of quality time sharing more principles and mature counsel with him, and affirming God’s entrepreneurial gifting in his life. He is still growing, and learning to temper his considerable gifts with a dose of humility, but is a great example of what I see routinely in Ukraine. Christians there may not know the fundamental principles that we take for granted, given the opportunities all around us in the U.S., but once you teach them the basics, encourage them and affirm that “this is good and of God” – then stand back! They take it and run with it! By nature, Ukrainians are very entrepreneurial – it’s just that they have no history to learn from, “fathers” to teach them, or institutional structures to nurture budding businessmen and women.
Releasing God’s Gifts
I can’t keep track of the number of times someone would come up to me at a meeting, say they heard me teach such-and-such several years ago (often I can’t even remember saying what they remember!) and then proceed to tell me how it changed their understanding. They applied it, and now they are doing something that they never thought would have been possible – maybe it’s a business, starting a charitable ministry, growing into church leadership or running for political office. Inevitably, a wholesome pride will light up their faces as they thank me.
In Ukraine, people are teachable. Once they know they can trust you, they take what you say uncritically and with wonder at – and openness to – the richness and relevance of God’s precepts. They receive your encouragement with gratitude, and then apply it! This is why I keep accepting invitations to return.
Whenever I’m in Ukraine – even if I’m hundreds of miles away – Vasily now tracks me down to meet and use me as a sounding board. He always sucks all the experience and perspective he can out of me. As a result of his own experience over the last several years, he now can serve as a role model and encouragement for other Christians in his country who have entrepreneurial giftings, so I asked him to teach along side me during this latest trip.
The next day in Rivne was Sunday, and Lanny, Jeff, Serhiy and I took turns teaching at three churches (morning, afternoon and evening), with smaller meetings in between and afterwards. At the afternoon church service, following Lanny’s teaching to a youth group, there was a time of dramatic healing that I will never forget. The pastor of that church leads the main association of evangelical churches in Ukraine, and we knew each other from prior trips. He was in tears as God fell on the meeting with signs and wonders to affirm the message we were bringing.
To L’viv and Uzhgorod
That evening, we met with that pastor in the home of another pastor for a late meal, and finally left for L’viv around 9:30 pm (we wanted to leave much earlier, but we couldn’t break away given all the questions and discussions – Ukrainian people are very relational and it’s hard to say goodbye!). We didn’t get to our hotel in L’viv until early Monday morning, where I then became sick and was up most of the night with an upset stomach. That morning, I asked the other brothers to pray for me, which they did and then graciously let me sleep late while Serhiy met with the head of the Ukrainian Bible Society to interview him for a possible future TV show. Upon their return, I awoke completely well (although tired) – God answers prayers! – and we proceeded to Uzhgorod by way of Mukachevo.
After over four hours in a cold van going over poor roads with a driver who would be very successful on the U.S. NASCAR racing circuit (get my drift?), and many personal pleas to God to protect us from all the oncoming traffic that we were dodging as we ignored all civilized concepts of traffic lanes and speed limits, we finally made it safely to Mukachevo. Serhiy’s original church is in that city (he now lives in Kyiv), as is the headquarters for the union of churches over which he serves as the main bishop. (In the Ukraine, what we might call a denomination is called a “union”, and the head of the union is called a “bishop”, much like many traditionally black churches are structured in the U.S.)
We had a chance to see the ongoing construction of the church center that Serhiy started, and which was a work in progress going back several years. In Ukraine, you build as resources become available – there is no concept of building first then paying later via a mortgage. Thus, when you can afford to buy bricks, you build the walls and then wait until you can afford the roof, etc.
There was much progress since I was last there, with the roof now on the building. It was beginning to look like something! When completed, this will be one of the larger structures in Mukachevo – and will also serve as a concert, arts and cultural center for the city to the glory of God – in addition to housing a growing church.
Teaching Young Emerging Leaders
After waiting for Serhiy to visit his favorite barber, we proceeded to a ministry center in Uzhgorod called Nehemiah House (about 30 minutes away). Following our lengthy and harrowing road trip that took up most of the day, we arrived about five minutes before I was to begin teaching at a evening seminar on entrepreneurship which Vasily organized (this was in his home city). The large meeting room was packed with men and women in their twenties and thirties. I was zonked – both from the illness of the night before and the adventures of our road trip from L’viv, but when I started teaching, I felt God’s pleasure and energy. It was one of the most precious times of teaching I’ve had – the people were like a sponge soaking up and hanging on every word I had to share.
Normally, Ukrainians are not publicly expressive and sit very stoic in large meetings (although they are very warm in informal settings), but this time they were visibly engaged and animated during the seminar in a way I had never seen before. We all noted and commented on this afterwards, following an extended period of questions and answers after the main session. Vasily also shared a short word, as did Lanny and Serhiy, but the bulk of the time was me simply opening up scripture and sharing Biblical precepts, laced with stories from my own experiences as a believer who has started and grown a number of businesses.
The next day, Vasily took us to his office building, which he bought and renovated, and showed us the architectural drawings for a new, very impressive office complex he plans to build in the center of Uzhgorod. We then left for a several day pastors’ conference in the trans-Carpathian mountains that lie about an hour outside Uzhgorod.
During the pastors’ conference (Tuesday and Wednesday for me, although it continued through Thursday after I left), I met and talked with many leaders I have come to know over the years. It was a good time for me to ask questions and gage what they were thinking about and the challenges they were facing. On Wednesday afternoon, Serhiy wanted me to teach on post-modernity but I took the liberty of sharing with the pastors on how to minister to, encourage and equip those who are gifted in business and thus have leadership abilities and roles outside their local church.
This, I learned from my private conversations with them, was a very big issue – especially since most pastors do not have this gifting or motivation themselves, and thus were finding it hard to connect with people in their churches who had this tug on their hearts. As a result, they were losing people from their churches who had the most potential to impact the larger culture and to serve as faithful stewards over the nation’s economy and developing secular institutions. I had several hours of frank and tender sharing with the pastors, interspersed with laughter and gently challenging them to expand their vision. I encouraged them to value God’s leadership gifts in others, even if they did not fit the traditional “church leadership” mold.
Early Thursday morning, Vasily drove me to Uzhgorod’s airport and I boarded a plane that would never be allowed off the ground in the U.S. – which, as a pilot myself, I couldn’t help but notice. Nonetheless, this is not the U.S., and you simply need to adapt and cover uncomfortable situations with prayer and grace! I made it to Kyiv in one piece and caught my return flight to New York without any complications, only to be delayed several hours at Kennedy Airport. I finally arrived at Reagan National after midnight – with total travel time of 27 hours and no sleep. Needless to say, I was tired – but gratified for the privilege of being part of what God’s doing in the earth today.
~ Jim Wright