Learning what works: Shadowing Program sends five Europeans to South Georgia to learn principles of growing congregations

Vitali Baranov, Rev. Andrei Hinkonen, Rev. Joel Aulis, Rev. Jim Cowart, Rev. Ele Paju, and Triin Tarendi worshipped together at Harvest Church in Byron.

By Kara Witherow, Editor

A group of five United Methodists from Estonia and Finland recently visited two South Georgia United Methodist churches to learn the principles of vital congregations.

They visited Harvest Church in Byron and The Chapel Ministries in Brunswick and Effingham County. At each, they spent time with church staff and shadowed pastors to gain experience and insight into what makes an effective, growing church.

“The idea was that we could learn from their experiences, to see and experience how things are being done here (in the United States),” said Rev. Joel Aulis, who serves Tallinn United Methodist Church in Tallinn, Estonia.

The four pastors and one lay leader were chosen by their conference’s leadership to visit South Georgia and learn from churches that are growing, they said.

The group spent two weeks in Georgia, one week at Harvest Church and one week at The Chapel. They represent five congregations – four in Estonia and one in Finland – and hoped to take home principles of disciple making and vitality.

“Like all over the world in United Methodist churches, things are not very well in Europe and we are very worried about that,” said Rev. Andrei Hinkonen, pastor of four-year-old Russian-speaking Power to Change church in Helsinki, Finland. “But your churches are growing churches, and we want to learn the principles and secrets, why your churches are growing and how you do that, how you reach young people, how you think outside the box. We want to learn from you.”

After visiting both Harvest and The Chapel Rev. Hinkonen noted that while the two churches use somewhat different methodology, they are both growing.

“We want to take different methods from both and use them in our context,” he said.

One of the main takeaways they’ll take back to Estonia’s 25 UM churches and 1,600 members is the outward focus of both congregations.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is … the focus outside the church instead of inside the church,” said Rev. Aulis. “I’ll take that with me back home, how to be more focused outside the church.”

The team from Estonia and Finland was ready to learn and grow, said Rev. Jim Cowart, lead and founding pastor of Harvest Church in Byron.

“We enjoyed having them with us for the week. They were delightful and came eager to learn new systems and strategies,” he said. “We learned a lot from them, too. They have strong hearts for evangelism for their country. We hope to continue conversations and sharing ideas, and would love to continue this Shadowing Program with other pastors who are so eager to learn.”

Churches in Estonia are at a pivotal point, said Rev. Ele Paju, who serves Rapina United Methodist Church in Rapina, Estonia.

“We know we need change and this is our opportunity to share and do something,” she said.

Very appreciative that they were able to participate in the weeks’ meetings, planning sessions, and activities rather than just be spectators, Rev. Paju feels stronger as a pastor for having participated in the two-week Shadowing Program.

The passion she saw at both churches – on all levels – was inspiring, as was the service culture that has been cultivated.

“I noticed that (the congregations) serve at every level. It is so amazing. I will take that back,” Rev. Paju said.

While in South Georgia, Rev. Paju, Rev. Aulis, Rev. Hinkonen, youth leader Vitali Baranov, and lay leader Triin Tarendi enjoyed Georgia’s spring-like weather, Savannah’s history and charm of Savannah, warm hospitality, a few fun coastal activities like a dolphin tour and a walk along Jekyll Island’s beaches, and the South Georgia Conference’s Clergy Day Apart.

“It was an honor to get to spend time with them,” said Rev. Jay Hanson, lead pastor of The Chapel Ministries. “When your perspective is broadened through time with people from different places it reminds you of how much we have for which to be thankful. They were great people with great hearts and real passion for Jesus. They technically came to the United States to learn, but I think we learned a lot from them.”