The Rev. Eduard Grigorevich Khegay of Moscow ― who on Jan. 1 became the new bishop of Russia for the United Methodist Church ― dreams about “brave and humble leaders” for his church.
Quoting John Wesley in a recent interview, Khegay said: “My dream is to raise up 100 brave and humble pastors and leaders ‘who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God.’”
Khegay succeeds Bishop Hans Vaxby, for who he served as an assistant since 2005. Vaxby, a Swede from Finland, has retired and returned to his homeland.
A non-Korean-speaking ethnic Korean, Khegay was born in Kazakhstan in 1970. His parents were Communist party members and he recalls that “when I was growing up, we never spoke about anything associated with spirituality or religion.” He moved to Moscow in 1987 to study hydraulic engineering and later graduated as an engineer.
During his studies, he was invited to a Christian camp. This opened up a completely new world for him and he converted to the Christian faith in 1992. A strong initial influence on him was the Methodist missionary Jonathan Park. When Park that he had come to Russia to share the love of Jesus Christ, Khegay was totally astonished and recalls: “I concluded this man was either working for the CIA or knew of things about which I had not the slightest clue!”
After seminary and service as a youth worker in Moscow and as a pastor in St. Petersburg, Khegay graduated with a Masters in theology from Atlanta’s Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2001. After serving as director of church development for two years, he was district superintendent for the St. Petersburg region from 2003-2005. Besides being an assistant to Bishop Vaxby, he served as district superintendent for the Central Asian region from 2009-2011.
Khegay says the new church leaders he is seeking may be of either gender. The fact that half of its pastors are women makes Russia’s United Methodist Church unique in a setting in which an all-male clergy is regarded as a primary trademark of Russian Christendom. Methodists along with some Lutheran and Charismatic denominations are virtually the only ones in the country having female clergy.
Khegay insists “It’s hard for me to tell the difference between male and female leadership. I have always lived in settings in which both women and men were in leadership, even during Soviet times. I feel comfortable with both. More important is the issue of character and skills.”
But not just any leader will do for the UMC in Russia and Central Asia. Khegay is its first Russian bishop who is also a citizen of Russia and he adds, “We place emphasis on raising up indigenous leaders. We are a global church that still understands the importance of the local context.”
Quality theological education remains a primary objective for the Russian Methodist church. Khegay notes that the other four priorities for the church’s “road map” until 2015 are quality ministry, mission, self-sufficiency and social ministry.
Dwindling numbers are one reason for the new bishop’s interest in strong local leaders. Though seven or eight years ago the church claimed up to 5.000 members in Russia, Khegay now speaks of 2.400 members in 100 congregations.
He attributes the drop to a “failure to adapt to a changing context. In 1991 we were poor and the church learned how to minister to the poor,” Khegay notes. “But today we have people who are doing well economically, yet many churches have not learned how to minister to them. Such persons expect a high-quality worship service when they come. Not all of our congregations are able to supply them with a high-quality ministry.”
Methodists want to be an “international bridge” for Russian Christians, Khegay says. Though international churches ― other than the Orthodox and Roman Catholics ― are barely tolerated by the Russian state and all voting members of a church’s legislative body must be Russian citizens, Khegay’s territory includes Methodists in seven countries.
Though the Baltic states are as members of the European Union now on the other side of the political divide, the Bishop insists: “We are together in our fellowship and friendship and we desire to continue our witness of unity to the world.”
In the ecumenical realm, hearty relations exist with the Lutheran and Reformed traditions and Methodists appear to be one of the few Protestant denominations in Russia striving for a good relationship with Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians.
Charismatics are often the Protestant group most active in the political arena and Khegay says together with them “we want to learn about contemporary trends in society and how we are called to be the church today.”
From them we can “learn many bold ways of doing ministry,” Khegay says, adding, “I love the power of the Holy Spirit and seek to experience it wherever I go. I desire to judge the Charismatic movement by its fruits ― it is important to check out its agreement with Scripture and the responses within our own fellowship. Time usually shows which movements are truly fruitful and which ones are just noise.”
Khegay places his conference on the conservative-evangelical end of world Protestantism. “Our context is different from most other parts of the world, but we remain open to discuss all issues relevant to our people, he says. “As John Wesley stated: ‘We think and we let think.’”
William Yoder is a communications officer for the Alliance of Baptists in Russia and is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.