Leaders of The United Methodist Church of Poland expect the entry of their country into the European Union to bring both opportunities and challenges to their small but vital religious community.
The Rev. Edvard Puslecki, superintendent of the region, said that a projected increase in secularization may open new doors to United Methodist initiatives in the country where 98 per cent of the population is Roman Catholic.
Dramatic economic changes that will accompany European Union membership may at least temporarily erode traditional patterns of industry and agriculture, explained Puslecki. This could have a particularly negative impact on United Methodist families, who are concentrated in the northeastern part of the country where unemployment is already high. The superintendent is also concerned about a possible “brain drain” as bright young people seek careers in Western Europe.
Dr. Olgierd Benedyktowicz, lay leader of the Polish church, identified another set of opportunities and challenges arising from an increase of refugees and immigrants into Poland. The newcomers are from other parts of Eastern Europe, Somalia, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. “We have some xenophobia in Poland, and the church must become equipped to work with the refugees,” said the psychologist who also teaches pastoral counseling.
Puslecki and Benedyktowicz are General Conference delegates. They were interviewed during a break in the proceedings two days before Poland’s membership in the European Union goes into effect.
Puslecki is fearful that European Union membership will result in outside control of the Polish economy. He also predicts dire results for Polish agriculture, which is not subsidized. He foresees an influx of cheap food from Western Europe spelling disaster for Polish farmers.
United Methodist roots in Poland go back to 1921 and grew out of humanitarian work following World War I. Severely repressed during the Nazi occupation; the church survived the communist era and is growing today. Some 3,800 members, up 300 in the last five years, are in 38 congregations served by 24 ordained pastors and 7 lay preachers. There are also seven retired pastors.
Puslecki said that several other “preaching places” have not yet achieved status as full congregations. The United Methodist constituency in Poland is around 5,000. There are two districts, a theological seminary and retreat center outside of Warsaw, a youth hostel in the northeast, a publishing operation, and a headquarters building in Warsaw that also serves as an English language school.
The Polish church has a strong sense of social ministry. Benedyktowicz pointed with particular pride to the church’s ministry to alcoholics and their families. Called “A Glass of Water,” the program offers direct services and helps pastors learn to deal with the ravages of alcohol addiction upon individuals and families. Mark Wysogrocki directs this ministry.
The Polish church leaders say that the United Methodist Church is known throughout Poland for its English language educational program. In addition to the main school in Warsaw, there are five other centers and also summer language camps. United Methodist Volunteers in Mission often assist with the summer program.
A United Methodist Polish Network is part of the “In Mission Together” initiative of the General Board of Global Ministries. Nancy Eubanks, coordinator of the Poland network, says relations are particularly strong between the Polish church and the Kansas East Conference. “Twelve or fifteen congregations in Kansas East have strong covenantal relationships with Poland,” she said. “These are not primarily financial in nature but provide exchanges that mutually strengthen the participants.”
Volunteer teams are helping restore or build several churches in Poland. When the communist government fell in the early 1990s, the church had an opportunity to reclaim property seized after the Soviet Union gained control of the country. These properties can be reclaimed if they are to be used for religious or social purposes. The retreat center, where the seminary is now located, was restored in part with funds from the General Board of Global Ministries.
Poland has no provision for separation of church and state, but it does recognize religious minorities. The United Methodist Church is an “official” church and, as such, has periodic time slots on Polish radio and television. Each year it has six hours of radio time for worship services and several time allocations for informational programs and biblical interpretation. Its size entitles it to a single one-hour televised worship service per year and several 20-minute holiday programs. “We sometimes get new members because of these programs,” Puslecki said.
*Wright is a United Methodist News Service correspondent.
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