June 1995 marked my 25th year as a missionary, most of which has been spent traveling or living in Eastern Europe. Recently I observed one of the young Albanian female staff members on our Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Discipleship Training School in Tirana, which led me to reflect on the changes I have experienced and seen for women in ministry in the East. I watched as she sat prayerfully during a ministry time when the staff was praying for students. She went to one of the young male students and began to share something with him, concluding by praying for him. She shared with spiritual authority, aware of her right and responsibility as a staff member to speak to the students' lives as God directed her. What I realized watching her was that she had overcome, consciously or unconsciously, a traditional part of her culture to do that. In Albanian culture, women serve men; they don't work alongside them equally (although they do work very hard), and they certainly don't correct them or offer advice. Our staff woman has a gentle spirit and was not acting in a domineering or aggressive way. She was merely being a servant of God, speaking from Him to the student. And just as amazing to me was that he accepted her ministry.
Is this typical of ministry opportunities for women in Eastern Europe? No. The church in Albania is unique as former Communist countries go. Because of Albania's total ban on any form of religion from 1967 to 1990, there was no church presence and thus no tradition. Apart from two points in their history (1890s and 1930s), there was also no Protestant church in the country. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches counted 30 percent of the population among their adherents until the Communist ban on religion, and the remaining 70 percent were Muslim from 500 years of Ottoman occupation. Thus, when the country opened up to missionaries in 1991 and dozens of Evangelicals moved to Albania to plant new churches, the new Protestant fellowships were made up of new believers, some founded by missionaries who came from backgrounds where women are not encouraged in leadership. Today, four years later, there are many women missionaries in the country, and Albanian and foreign women play an equal part in the development of the church and mission.
This has not been the case in many East European countries where the Protestant movement was founded by people influenced by traditional denominations in Europe or the United States. I lived in Croatia for three and one-half years in the 1970s and remember feeling surprised the first time I attended one Baptist church--there the men and women were sitting on separate sides of the room. In the early 1990s I led a short-term team to Bulgaria where we ministered in a Pentecostal church. Much to my surprise, the pastor asked me to give the sermon in an evening service. That was not the norm in Evangelical churches in Eastern Europe!
I am privileged to work with a mission that has a founding value that people should be allowed to minister whatever giftings God has placed in them, regardless of age, race, or gender. My leaders have often believed in me more than I believed in myself. My being a woman did not prevent them from giving me responsibilities. This is not necessarily the case in all parachurch groups any more than in local churches or denominations. At one point in my missionary career I attended a consultation on behalf of the organization with which I worked. At the same consultation was a leader for whom I had worked in another group. He expressed great surprise that I was also there as a delegate.
I went to Albania concerned about being accepted in a leadership role since the country was heavily influenced by Muslim culture. My first assignment was to co-lead a Discipleship Training School with a veteran male missionary. Would that be acceptable in the male students' eyes? What would students' parents think about a woman co-leader when they visited? (I was careful to wear a skirt or dress whenever I taught a lesson or when we expected visitors.) There appeared to be no problem. I sensed a respect from the students and their parents as well as their pastors (most of whom were foreigners). Perhaps that was because I was a foreigner and older. I could take on a motherly role, which gave me a place of honor.
As pleased as I am that I am able to minister here, I am even more excited about some young women I know who are beginning to use the gifts God has given them. I think of two Albanian women in their early 20s who are full-time workers, leading Bible studies, discipleship groups, and doing evangelism in villages; or of the Russian woman who is a YWAM missionary from a Muslim town and from a traditional Evangelical church. Because she is from a Muslim region of the former Soviet Union and because her Evangelical home church does not envision women in leadership, she has had much to overcome to step out of a doubly restrictive setting to follow the Lord into missions.
Sandra Oestreich is national coordinator for Youth With A Mission, Albania.
Q. What percentage of recent converts would you estimate are women? How have newly converted women fit into the church?
A. There have always been more women in the Russian churches. Maybe this is because their lot in life is so difficult. Many men died during the wars and then especially under Communism. I would estimate that three fourths of many churches are made up of women. As for newly converted women fitting into the church--it is a difficult transition. The older women would like to put head scarves on all new Christians and teach them to be submissive to their husbands or to the men in the church. But this is changing slowly.
Q. As opportunities for the church to minister have increased since the fall of Communism, how have women of the church responded?
A. It is amazing how much work Christian women do in the church. They have always been very active. For example, when there is a baptism, it is the women who fill the baptistery. It is the women who wipe up the floors. They do the hard work in the church. They are the clean-up crew.
But now there are many new avenues opening up for them to minister, including acts of charity. I have a friend, Ludmila Voronina, whom I have known for many years. Ludmila does charity work from one of the large rooms in one of the Baptist churches in Moscow. She is very organized and uses a computer to keep track of all the people whom she has helped and also to keep track of what is in stock. Ludmila is not recognized as the one who does the work. There is a man in charge of charity in the church and people know him. She just loves the work and people. People adore her. When she gives rice to a family of four, she makes sure there is enough for several days. Some refugees from Kazakhstan came without any winter clothes. We sent them to Ludmila and she outfitted them for the winter.
Women are exercising leadership in the development of children's ministries. Vera Belova has worked out a Sunday-school curriculum for children and is sharing it with all the churches in Moscow. She actually wrote it out by hand and made photocopies. I am encouraging her to have it published. This curriculum includes a lot of poetry and examples from life in Russia, which makes it quite different from the Sunday-school curriculum that we bring in from the West.
Q. Can you give some other examples of Russian women ministering effectively in churches and in parachurch ministries?
A. Nadia Komendant is a very outstanding Christian worker and serves as the president of women's ministries for the Evangelical Christians-Baptists of Ukraine. She has a tender heart, especially for widows and for widows of pastors. Often widows have been forgotten by the brethren. Nadia has organized handicraft projects for these women. She gets them together at least two or three times a month. They make cloth covers for books, aprons, bookmarks, and little shirts for newborns, and so on. When she has a conference, Nadia sells these products to women at the conference. She divides the proceeds among the widows. This helps them with their expenses because they really do have it difficult.
Vera Kadaeva runs children's camps during the summer and, through the children, reaches unsaved parents. It is such an exceptional ministry. She is actually the president of the women's ministry for the Evangelical Christians-Baptists of Russia. But her first love is children's ministry.
Svetlana Vorubliova is the general secretary for the Euro-Asiatic Federation of Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. For some time she had wanted to start a Christian women's magazine, but she did not have the blessing of the brethren. Katherine Allen, a missionary with the Southern Baptists, encouraged her. She printed the first issue in January 1995, just in time for Russian Christmas. It is a very nice magazine, called Maria. The women chose the title, Maria, as Svetlana explained to me, "Because there are so many Marias in Russia now who long to sit at the feet of Jesus."
Q. What lifestyle and family issues are of greatest concern to the women with whom you minister?
A. When you hear the women pray in church, it is almost always for a husband or wayward son who drinks. These women love the Lord, but they have no idea how to handle anger at these things their husbands and sons do. Most Christian women are not married to Christian men. There is much stress in the family. I have written a book for Russian Christian women, Women in the Whole Armor of God, in which I give some examples of Russian Christian women to whom the Lord gave much wisdom--how when the wayward son is coming home, instead of scolding him and driving him away from the home, she would stay up waiting for him to come home, quickly wash his face, put him to bed and kneel down and pray, caress his face, tell him she loves him. She would pray that the Lord Himself would convict her son and bring him to trust in the Lord. This is in contrast to being angry and having a fight in the home. Many Russian men seek a fight--and if the woman answers back then they can slap her and beat her up. If she is quiet and puts out some soup for him, it could help in a family situation. The unchurched women would not tolerate this. They would just send them off. That would be the end of the marriage.
Q. How is the Western missionary force a help to the women of the church?
A. Actually, it is refreshing for Russian Christian women to have visitors from the West. Through them, windows to the West have been opened. Quite a few of the women with whom I have become close friends have shyly expressed that they wished that the women from the West would not copy them by putting on scarves in church. They should dress the way they dress. I advise them to be happy. They don't have to put their scarves on for the church. People are different now. However, many of the older women would like to keep the scarf on the head. This comes over from Orthodoxy. The men like to think this symbol of servitude is really what the Scripture teaches.
Q. What advice would you give to a Western missionary woman hoping to start a ministry with women in post-Soviet society?
A. Don't start anything yourself. Get alongside a Christian young woman and train her personally and help her start a ministry that would be useful and profitable for spreading the gospel in her area. In other words, be a sister Paul and find a sister Timothy for yourself. Get next to the people. Help them to do the work. Your role should be to encourage them and train them to do the work.
Rose Leonovich has worked with Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries since 1992. She has served as a missionary to Slavic peoples for 47 years.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies