March 18, 2019

Tanzanian bishop and Canadian author collaborate to resource pastors

Written by  Joyce Maxwell
Elizabeth Randa (standing), church leader and nurse, responds to a question during a  workshop session. Elizabeth Randa (standing), church leader and nurse, responds to a question during a  workshop session. Photo by Joyce Maxwell.

SHIRATI, Tanzania — In mid-February, 50 Tanzania Mennonite church leaders, under the guidance of Palmer Becker, a Canadian Mennonite author and teacher, studied spiritual leadership, pastoral care, and Anabaptist essentials using the translated publication, “Begin Anew: Christian Discipleship Seminars.”

The training was hosted by Bishop Chris Kateti of the Shirati Diocese of Kanisa La Mennonite Tanzania (KMT, Tanzania Mennonite Church). Bishop Kateti had organized the translation of the “Begin Anew” publication and printed copies for the workshop participants.

Tanzanians primarily speak and write Swahili, meaning that for materials to be useful they must be translated.

Through the facilitation of Debbi DiGennaro, the Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) regional representative to East Africa, EMM funded the printing of the Swahili translation.

Becker traveled to Tanzania to introduce the book. He shared three days’ worth of materials on the topics of leadership, pastoral care, and Anabaptist essentials. Participants walked, bicycled, or took public transportation to the workshop that began on February 14.

DiGennaro helped with the coordination of the event, providing some translation from Swahili to English during the workshop sessions.

Bishop Kateti estimated that about half of the pastoral couples in the diocese were attending. Various obstacles prevented others from participating.

As in other dioceses of KMT, Shirati typically hosts training for pastors and spouses twice a year, although many do not have the international component that this one did.

In July 2017, newly ordained Bishop Kateti, along with three other Tanzanian Mennonite church leaders, participated in the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando, Fla. — where he met Becker.

The two, one a Tanzanian Mennonite leader and the other a Canadian Mennonite pastor, author, and teacher, had already been in communication about translating Becker’s book “Begin Anew” into Swahili. Impressed with Becker’s credentials, Kateti invited him to Shirati to present his materials to Tanzanian church leaders.

Concerning his vision as an ordained bishop, Kateti said he wanted to build the capacity of “my team” — meaning the pastors, deacons, and spouses in his diocese — to become strong leaders and to provide pastoral care.

For participants, the workshop gave not only an opportunity to learn and study but also to praise and worship each evening, to meet and interact with church leaders living in the area, and to relax and rejuvenate in the welcoming atmosphere of the diocesan headquarters — a one-story building around a grassy courtyard shaded by an enormous fig tree — that comprised church offices, dining hall, and amenities.

Pastor Jakob Okeno, in his 60s, is responsible for a jimbo (church district) having five churches. Speaking through an interpreter, he described how, following a career teaching at the primary (elementary) school level, he became a church leader: first an elder, then a deacon, and finally a pastor. He credited pastoral training like this one with giving him the tools to live with others peacefully and with knowing how to coach church members.

Beddina Okeno, Jakob Okeno’s wife, also through a translator, described her role as one of advisor to her husband and, in addition, as hostess to church workers. “When visitors come to our house, I give them hospitality until they have finished their ministry,” she said. She described doing evangelism “close by.” She explained that while her husband travels throughout the jimbo, she as the homemaker relates to people in the vicinity of their home.

In the Shirati Diocese, a pastor is assigned to a jimbo with multiple congregations. The diocese recognizes the tension this may have on the relationship between an itinerant pastor (almost always the husband) and his spouse. Therefore, the spouse is recognized as an equal partner in ministry.

Pastor John Ojallah noted that for someone to be ordained in the KMT, they are expected to show “competence and some professionalism.” KMT has a theological training college, and most pastors from Shirati Diocese have studied there.

Kateti anticipates that pastors might use Becker’s newly translated book for further training of church leaders in their home districts. “We have his materials, so we can continue using them,” he said.

In a 2015 interview for Mennonite Church USA, Becker said he wrote “Begin Anew: Christian Discipleship Seminars” as a resource for anyone seeking to “make life-changing commitments to Christ, to the church, to spiritual disciplines and to a ministry in the church or mission in the world.”

He added, “the resource is for anyone interested in growing in Christian faith from an Anabaptist perspective, regardless of his or her background or previous church experience.”

Response to the 2014 publication was so positive that it was translated into several languages and Becker presented the materials in seminars in places such as China and Ethiopia. Becker initially decided to give four years of time to developing and introducing the materials. Now over 80 years of age, he continues to be committed to this project.