Odessa seminary enters second year

September 21, 2011

by Norman Threinen

Seminary students in Odessa with Dr. Threinen (right) and interpreter, Marya

After a two-day delay leaving Toronto due to Hurricane Irene, I was finally on my way to Odessa again on August 30. This is my fifteenth trip in as many years to the country from which my German ancestors emigrated more than a century ago.

Since seminary classes would not begin for a few days after my arrival, I took a two-day side-trip for research purposes to Lviv. This city was once called Lemberg when it served as the capital of the Austrian province of Galicia in the days when my ancestors lived in the area. Coincidentally, my modest guest accommodations were in the facilities of the former German Lutheran Church which had been handed over to the Baptists after the collapse of theSoviet Union in 1989.

On September 6, Concordia Seminary,Odessa opened its second academic year in its new building. With the local pastor Rev. Oleg Shewtschenko conducting the service, I preached on 1 Kings 3:5-9 with the theme, “What is your dream?” Our current six students attended along with Marya my interpreter, a young lady from Dnepropetrovsk where Lutheran Church–Canada missionary Rev. Alexey Novrotsky serves.

For the first six-week session in this academic year, I am teaching two courses. A study of the book of Genesis will occupy the students’ attention in three-hour blocks of time in the mornings and Christian Ethics studies fill similar periods in the afternoon. After this six-week session, other professors and pastors from Canada will teach courses throughout the year to prepare the students for their vocation as pastors. The seminary is not admitting new students until the current students have graduated in 2013.

Rev. Dr. Norman Threinen

Having taught these students for three months in September 2010, I am pleased to see a notable growth in maturity in their theological outlook and a greater seriousness about preparing for the ministry. Although the size of the student body has diminished from a year ago, I recognize greater cohesion in the group including our student from Moldova. Spirited discussion still takes place both in the classroom and in such places as the seminary dining room, but it is all an essential part of shaping future theologians and pastors for the Lord’s Church.

A grant from LWML-Canada is funding the installation of more adequate kitchen facilities, and plans are in place for additional development of the seminary facilities including a separate chapel. The overall setting in which theological training currently happens is already far superior to that under which previous classes of pastors studied.

The seminary program itself, including travel of faculty to Ukraine, is  funded by generous Canadian donors through the Concordia Lutheran Mission Society.

Our thanks to all who have, through their prayers and gifts, supported this mission of training of Lutheran pastors in Ukraine which is so vital for strengthening the Lutheran Church and for the expansion of the Gospel in this former Soviet Union country.

Rev. Dr. Norman J. Threinen is a professor emeritus of Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Edmonton and president of Concordia Seminary, Odessa.

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Six-hour service marks Nigerian anniversary

September 12, 2011

Archbishop Christian O. Ekong of the Lutheran Church of Nigeria

Dear friends,
This past Saturday and Sunday I was in Uyo, Nigeria, near the headquarters and seminary of the Lutheran Church in Nigeria (LCN). My good friend, Archbishop Christian O. Ekong, invited me to take part in this moment of joy to mark the 75th anniversary of their church, which began in 1936 with the arrival of the first Lutheran missionaries. In those days they called Nigeria “the white man’s grave,” because tropical diseases and other dangers took the lives of a number of mission workers. Some of their resting places are still very near the LCN headquarters.

The services were held in “Luther Hall,” a huge, open-air “cathedral” which seats thousands for worship. I had the honour of preaching on Saturday for the festival service that day. It was lengthy!

Then came Sunday, which brought likely the longest service I ever attended in my life. Worship began by 10 a.m., and we were just leaving the church before 4 p.m. There was no stopping for lunch, either! Several thousand attended the Sunday communion. Offerings are received multiple times during the service, and each time it can take 30-40 minutes, because all worshipers come forward, pew by pew, many walking rhythmically or even dancing.

This is the rainy season. Torrential rains cause multiple power outages, though the hotels very often turn on their generators immediately so you don’t go without power for long. At the end of Sunday’s marathon service, with heavy rain falling on the metal roof of the cathedral, you could scarcely hear the pastors’ voices, even when they shouted loudly and used microphones.

The rainy season makes some roads almost impassable; others become bumpy, and your spine really feels it, as mine did when I was seated in the rear of a van right over the wheel well. Along the roadside are people’s homes, often sporting a table in the front of the house where they sell food, electronics, or any other items to help their income. People carry enormous loads of fruits, grains, and even building materials on their heads as they walk along.

The young people at the Lutheran gathering on Sunday made quite the impression. Many of them belong to organized groups with their own uniforms and put on marches for church festival days. So many of them are incredibly polite and friendly, sometimes running up to a Canadian visitor like me, anxious to carry my briefcase, other times bowing or asking for the favour of having our picture taken together.

I’ll write a bit more in the coming days once I have collected my thoughts a bit. I’m now on the long trek back home, waiting for a flight here in Lagos, the former capital, which will take me to Amsterdam … then another to Toronto … then another to Winnipeg.

I sincerely hope you will pause and thank the Lord for the growth He’s given our friends in Nigeria these 75 years. Their synod is now bigger than ours! I hope also you will pray today and often for the witness God wants us to give to Christ in our beloved Canada, and in the communities, neighbourhoods and workplaces where He allows us to live.

Sincere greetings from Nigeria,
Robert Bugbee, President


President Bugbee reports from Nigeria

September 9, 2011

Dear friends,

I greet you all this Friday morning from Lagos, Nigeria. I arrived here yesterday after lengthy flights from Winnipeg, Montreal and Paris. It’s the first time I’ve set foot on African soil, and I treasure this chance to bring encouragement from all of you to our ministry partners here.

Today I’ll fly another 90 minutes farther east and am scheduled to end up at Obot Idim, the site of the seminary and synod headquarters. The Lutheran Church of Nigeria (LCN) is marking its 75th Anniversary this weekend, and I have the honour to preach at the festival service set for Saturday, September 10. I am here by invitation of their Archbishop, The Rev. Christian Ekong, who serves with me on the Executive Committee of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). Bishop Ekong is the area representative for Africa, as I am for North America.

I read a good bit about Nigeria in the airplane on the way over. I’m amazed to learn its the most populous country in Africa, and seventh most populous in all the world. Analysts say the economy will grow at a rapid pace in the coming decades. And now the Nigerian film-making industry (called “Nollywood”) is the third-biggest in the world, after the Americans’ “Hollywood” and “Bollywood” in India!

Our churches in Nigeria, however, are the primary reason I’m here. They’ve grown to rival LCC’s size, and function in several hundred locations across the country. If I can manage Internet access throughout this anniversary weekend, I’ll write you again to tell you a bit more. We’re in the rainy season right now, and have had four power outages just in my first day here. None of them lasted very long, but I was awakened in the night several times by torrential rains.

In the meantime, if you are reading these lines, why not pause to pray that God would bless our partner church here, and not just as an organization. May He bless our friends to find ways to get the Good News of Jesus, crucified and raised again, into the hearts and homes of those who do not know Him. As I send this off, I’m pausing to pray that blessing for all 322 LCC congregations in Canada, too.

In Christ our dear Lord,

Robert Bugbee, President


Fond farewell to Odessa seminary

June 9, 2011

by James Dimitroff 

Rev. Dimitroff and students Dima and Yuri stand at the top of the 192 steps leading to the Black Sea.

It was an ominous day for anyone to arrive inUkraine—25 years to the day of the Chernobyl meltdown. Students were still on their Easter break, so I had a few days to acquaint myself with the historic city of Odessa and its magnificent public squares, opera house and stately tree-lined boulevards leading down to the Black Sea.

One of the first places to visit: the famous Potemkin Steps, right at the edge of the sea. This staircase of 192 steps became famous in Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic, Battleship Potemkin (the baby-carriage scene). A quick descent and no-so-speedy return up the wide granite steps left me panting for breath! 

But this was not a tourist visit. The purpose of my five-week absence from my congregation at Grace (Saskatoon) was to share Lutheran doctrinal teaching, in the Russian language, with future pastors here in Odessa. I asked the students for permission to include some of their personal information so the readers of LCC On the Road might become better acquainted with the current crop of Ukrainian seminarians. The students now number six, ranging in age from Dima (43) to “Little Sasha” (18).

In background they vary from Valera, 34 (a college grad with technical and entrepreneurial experience in the large northern city of Dnepropetrovsk) to Yuri, 26, who began preaching as a youngster in the church his father pastors in a small Ukraine village. Sergei, 24, graduated from the Dnepropetrovsk State Finance Academy where he majored in Human Resources and Economics. “Big Sasha” served in the Army reserve as a competitive rifle marksman for a number of years. He now does some part-time work as a refrigeration mechanic. Dima, a native of Moldava, worked for 15 years in a deep-freezer assembly factory. 

The one thing that unites all the men is their love for Jesus Christ and their call to serve Him in pastoral ministry. Not all the students were born into Lutheran families. Yuri writes that Christian faith was once absent from his family. Some years ago, however, the Lord brought his father to faith and, later, to Lutheran pastoral ministry. His mother teaches Sunday school and now Yuri himself has enrolled as a second-generation pastor-to-be. Little Sasha’s father also serves as a village Lutheran pastor. Another student comes from a Ukrainian Baptist background, until his confirmation into the Lutheran Church here some years ago. 

The students will need to look for employment when seminary adjourns for the summer. Many students have families and need to budget carefully to make their study possible in Odessa. This little flock of the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine (SELCU) may be small but it is mighty. With each graduating class more pastoral servants go to work in the Lord’s fields, which, He tells us, are white for the harvest—a particularly apt image in this agricultural country of broad wheat fields. During the academic year the students do their seminary fieldwork at the hundred-year-old St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in downtown Odessa. These duties range from leading Bible study to Sunday morning preaching.

This seminary class is smart and quick to learn. One of the joys I counted during my stay was the shared meals with the students. Since this is Ukraine, the conversation was lively, punctuated with lots of humour and bursts of laughter. The greatest contrast with Russia (where I served previously as Missionary Counsellor for seven years) is the young people’s outlook. Ukraine is by far more carefree and inventive in language. Unlike their peers in Russia, these students are unself-conscious. They will share their honest thoughts about almost any topic that reflects on Christian morals and faith. Some visitors to Russia note that nation’s tendency to “national melancholy.” Nothing like that shows up in Ukraine. Here, the talk is always upbeat, forward-looking and full of fun.

Then there is the influence of the countryside that is so strong in Ukraine. Yesterday I happened to hear a cuckoo sing for the first time this spring. It’s hard to imagine such an event in heavily urbanized European Russia.Ukraine values its ties to the earth, the vast wheat fields, the beautiful forests and salt marshes. Each natural beauty witnesses to the glory of God and the splendid work He is doing among the students at Odessa seminary. I count it a true privilege to have shared with the students a few weeks of their seminary lives, and will remember them all in continuing prayer for their well-being.

Rev. Dr. James Dimitroff returned to his parish, Grace Lutheran Church, Saskatoon in early June after spending five weeks teaching seminary students in Odessa. Support for this project comes from Concordia Lutheran Mission Society.


Passing the test of fellowship on a special day

May 22, 2011

by James Dimitroff

Seminary students prepare a birthday barbecue for instructor Rev. James Dimitroff

The last several days at the Odessa seminary have seen heavier study loads. I gave the students their first test (which, in Russian, is called “control work”) on Tuesday, May 17. The seminarians wanted all true/false questions because, they said, people in Ukraine disdain ambiguity in theological discussion. I compromised with some true/false but also five short essay questions. The results proved they have good retention and excellent understanding of their introduction to Dogmatics.

Next were oral reports, with each seminarian given 30 minutes and a theme. The themes seemed simple on the surface, but led to deeper issues. For example, “faith” as a theme required some attention to what the Bible calls “saving faith.” Likewise, the theme of “the kingdom of God” saw the seminarian quickly identify its polar opposite, the kingdom of evil that bedevils each of us in our daily life.

After sweating over the challenges of this week, word got out that Wednesday was my birthday. A rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” in English punctuated the morning meal!

Then, for the evening meal, there was silence. Literally, silence. The clock moved past 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and well beyond 7 p.m. Normally, we all take the evening meal together at 5. Something was up. With hunger pangs gnawing at my stomach, I decided to start exploring.

After a few minutes, the reason for the quiet kitchen became obvious. Way out by the rear seminary gate, the students had dug a fire pit and were concocting a birthday barbecue to surprise me. Fortunately, I didn’t spoil the surprise too much since the cooking was all finished. I ran to grab the camera for a shot to share with family and friends back home.

The grilled chicken was excellent, but getting it was not as simple as making a trip to the supermarket. The students first had to find the chicken, which in Ukraine took some extra reconnaissance in the neighbourhood. Our cook made a big tub of mashed potatoes to serve with the meal and whipped up a 20-layer (count them!) birthday cake and brought a jar of red tulips to grace our table.

As we completed today’s topic, “The Love of Christ in Christian Fellowship,” our theme was demonstrated again and again in this spontaneous birthday surprise. Even with a test and oral reports looming, the students went out of their way to express kindness and generosity at this Odessa birthday surprise. I’ll always remember the lesson so well taught, of fellowship far from home.

Rev. Dr. James Dimitroff, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Saskatoon, Sask., is currently teaching seminary students in Odessa, Ukraine


A bishop’s visit stirs vivid memories

May 18, 2011

by James Dimitroff

Bishop Graefenstein (centre), Rev. Dimintroff (second from right), and the delegation headed to Yalta with humanitarian aid.

There was a buzz in the classroom. The seminary students had heard they may receive a visit from their bishop, Rev. Dr. Viktor Graefenstein, this weekend. Bishop Viktor lives in Marburg, Germany, and his visits to Odessa, while consistent, are not always planned far in advance. Whenever he sees a need or wants to make the trip, he drives—some 30 hours one way—usually pulling a trailer full of humanitarian aid. 

I met Bishop Viktor 15 years ago in St. Petersburg, Russia, during my previous mission service there. He sat behind me during a major meeting (Sinod in Russian) of ELKRAS, a now-defunct entity that tried to draw together all German Lutheran believers then living in the former Soviet Union. As the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod representative, I was given a courtesy invitation. My task was to try to understand the rebuilding of the Lutheran church after the Soviet collapse and what role LCMS Lutherans might be allowed to play.

Bishop Viktor was one of the leading voices of Lutheran churches in Ukraine. What made this particular meeting most memorable was the open and very public clash between Viktor and the presiding ELKRAS officer, the celebrated Lutheran theologian Georg Kretschmar. It hinged on women’s ordination and the German State Lutheran Church’s decision to bring female pastors immediately into Russian and Ukrainian ministry. 

Apart from being contrary scriptural teaching, this was an unprecedented action, with no prior consultation. Bishop Kretschmar wanted to move quickly over the thorny question. But Bishop Viktor refused to be silenced. Finally, after loud parliamentary objections, Viktor rose and informed President Kretschmar that Ukraine Lutherans would walk out of the Sinod and never return. Kretschmar suggested they adjourn to a quiet room, suspend the agenda, and try to resolve female pastors’ activity in Ukraine. Bishop Viktor said no, he would not accept “secret discussions” and right then and there walked out with his entire delegation of Lutherans from Ukraine.

Today’s meeting gave me a chance to get reacquainted. This time Bishop Viktor led a delegation of 10 German-Ukrainian Lutherans who now live in Darmstadt,Germany. They collect aid for some of the aged Lutheran pensioners and travel back into Ukraine several times every year. This delegation will worship with us today, Sunday, and then continue 650 kilometres to Yalta in Crimea. Bishop Viktor explained that there is only a Lutheran Prayer House in Yalta, not a full-fledged congregation, because there are no funds to support a Lutheran pastor.

Two elders from the delegation presented sermons and then Bishop Viktor preached his own sermon. This is a regular part of Ukraine Lutheran worship, with three sermons the norm at Sunday worship. Some of our seminary students had travelled Friday night to Dnepropetrovsk to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Alpha and Omega Christian Student Fellowship. The guest preachers from Germany were welcome as seminary students often have the privilege of preaching on Sunday mornings.

After a quick  lunch at a downtown Odessa cafeteria, the delegation (a van and a minibus) were back on the road to Yalta, dropping me off first at the seminary. Classes resume tomorrow, on biblical teaching concerning the Christian Church as the Body of Christ. Today’s international flavour at worship makes a perfect introduction into the very meaning of the term “Body of Christ” for pastors-to-be in Ukraine.

Rev. Dr. James Dimitroff is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He is currently teaching at Concordia Seminary, Odessa. Preparing Lutheran pastors for the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine is a project of Lutheran Church–Canada financially supported by Concordia Lutheran Mission Society.


Visit to Ukrainian village parish inspiring for LCC pastor

May 14, 2011

by James Dimitroff 

Seminarian Yuri, Rev. Sasha Yurchenko, and Elder Misha greets Rev. Dimitroff (right) at the door of the church.

Wednesday’s (May 11) invitation to travel to Kagarlik was a bit out of the ordinary. Usually church is held on Sunday, even in small villages. The added invitation to attend Holy Communion made the trip all the more appealing. Besides, this was an opportunity to visit the home village of one of our seminarians and meet his family. In an effort to become better acquainted with the students, it was an offer I wouldn’t want to decline.

Kagarlik is about 40 kilometres away from the million-plus city of Odessa. Wednesday’s preacher was to be Rev. Sasha Yurchenko, who graduated from the first Ukraine seminary class almost 11 years ago. As we drove toward Kagarlik, one could see endless fields of yellow-flowered canola. No wonder so many people have remarked on the similarity between Ukraine and Saskatchewan. Other fields awaited seeding, but overall the agricultural enterprise seems efficient and up-to-date.

To get to Kagarlik, the car passed through the even smaller village of Kamenka. I remembered that Kamenka was the site of the original seminary LCC helped staff and organize in 1998. I hoped we would pass by that first seminary building, but later was told that the church area in Kamenka is now, unfortunately, in ruins.

As we arrived in Kagarlik, the entire congregation was already seated. I entered along with senior pastor Yurchenko, church elder Misha and seminary student Yuri. After singing a number of beautiful hymns, the normal style in Ukraine of two consecutive sermons followed.

My student, Yuri, preached first on Luke 24. He brought out the important message of Our Lord’s constant caring and companionship along the road of life. Next, Rev. Yurchenko spoke. He impressed me deeply with his God-given ability to zoom in on important Bible themes. His style was intense and full of vigour.

After almost half an hour, the congregation sang a few more hymns before Communion began. The tradition in this congregation, and possibly others in Ukraine, is to allow individual congregants to pray personal prayers aloud, just before consecration of the elements. On this day, some seven people raised their voices to ask for help at the throne of grace. Personal prayers also followed, once the sacrament was finished.

All congregation members in Ukraine receive Holy Communion kneeling—but there are no pads or pillows. This meant everyone knelt and rose on the linoleum, without a mishap. When my turn came, I hoped I would not tip over, and fortunately, there was no problem.

It was my pleasure to bring greetings to this congregation from all the believers in Lutheran Church–Canada. The congregation, in turn, sent back praise and glory to God for the faithful support LCC has given over the years to seminary training and congregational support of the small, confessional Ukraine Lutheran Synod (SELCU).

Following the service I was delighted to meet Yuri’s wife and six-year-old daughter. The elder, Misha, announced that this coming Saturday would be a work day for the congregation–the entire third floor needed painting. Many volunteers offered to help.

Even though the village is one of thousands scattered in southern Ukraine, Kagarlik was very special. Here we see the Lord’s hand steadily at work, bringing Word and Sacrament to all who believe, even on a Wednesday afternoon. I am still trying to determine why Sunday was unavailable and it may have had to do with the church repair and painting set to begin Saturday. But in any event, this was a most memorable village that formed a solid contrast with metropolitan Odessa. Odessa may be “Mama” in the local slang (meaning flamboyant and intrusive) but Kagarlik is faithful, devoted to the Lutheran confessions, and inspiring!

Rev. Dr. James Dimitroff is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He is currently teaching seminary classes in Odessa Ukraine.


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