I want to share a little of how this trip came to be, what happened, and reflect on a few themes I hope will encourage you. You can see more photos at bit.ly/Montenegro-Ministry-Trip
In January 2017, I traveled to England for a class on Church Planting in an Urban Context. I extended the trip to visit our missionaries in Albania. In preparation, I posted to a missionary care Facebook group, hoping I might make a few connections for our missionaries. I got a message from Ton Vegt—a Dutchmen passionate about missionary care in Albania.
A few months later, he wrote back and invited me help provide member care at the annual AEP (Albanian Encouragement Project) conference—a consortium that represents missionaries from 40 countries and 70 organizations, all ministering in Albania. I checked my calendar, and the dates worked. So, we reached out to a small group of our core supporters, and they pledged enough money to cover airfare for both Kriss and me. Then when we were sharing about this opportunity with our neighbor, the first thing she said was, “Packy can stay with us!” It seemed that God was in this, so we went for it.
Our trip began with a long layover in Athens. Our first stop was to pray at a church built on the site where St. Philothei was martyred. It was especially meaningful because she is Kriss’ patron saint. We also visited Mars Hill, where 2000 years ago St. Paul made the “unknown God” known (Acts 17:16-34).
We spent the next three days in Tirana, Albania acclimating and visiting our Orthodox missionaries. On Tuesday we drove to Montenegro for the conference. It was held at a beautiful resort right on the beach of the Adriatic Sea.
On Wednesday morning I gave a presentation on Missionary Resiliency. I’ve been working in this material for over 18 months, refining my thinking as I engage multiple communities. This was the first time to share with a group of missionaries living through the process. You can listen to my 40 minute presentation at:
What followed surprised me. For the next four days we kept having heartfelt conversations with missionary after missionary. I expect a bit of small talk in building trust with someone, but there wasn’t much of that. The only explanation is that God heard and answered our prayers.
We are extremely blessed to have a small group of people who pray faithfully for us. On average, we send them three texts a month. (How we are praying for them, how they can pray for a missionary and OCMC staff, how they can pray for us.) That group has been praying for this trip for several months now. On Wednesday, one person texted:
God heard that 140 character prayer and answered it!
From Montenegro we went to Durres, Albania and spent the weekend with our missionary family there; then we flew home with an overnight layover in Rome. A date in Rome…not a bad way to end a great ministry trip.
As I reflect on the experience as a whole I have three thoughts I want to share with you:
First, Jesus prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one (John 17:21). That was the verse for this conference, and it drives my ministry with couples. Unity among Christians requires that we show up and interact with people who are different from ourselves. But when we do, we must treat them like beloved brothers and sisters.
The road to unity is not uniformity. We will never resolve our differences as a preamble to extending good will. We get this backwards all the time—as if uniformity rather than love begets unity.
The theme of the conference was celebrating the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation—for an Orthodox Christian there are real doctrinal points of disagreement there. But the capacity of these missionaries and us to welcome one another as brothers and sisters in Christ was not contingent upon that.
Ecumenicalism is something we as a couple are very committed to because Jesus goes on to say that this unity would be THE witness to the world of God’s redemptive mission. Our divisions leave us little to offer our fractured world.
Second, God is at work in Albania. During the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, Albania was where the Islamic expansion stopped. Think about that for a moment. If Albania had fallen, the Ottomans would have sailed across the Adriatic sea and conquered Rome. St. Peter’s Basilica might have became a Mosque as Hagia Sophia in Constantinople did!
During the period of Communism, Albania was as closed off to the rest of the world as North Korea is today. But God never forget Albania. As I listened to the missionaries’ stories, again and again they shared “I felt God calling us to Albania. Our first question was “Where is Albania?” As I listened to their dreams, again and again they shared a vision for how the Albanian church might reach the rest of the Balkans.
I can’t express how powerful and humbling it was to also participate in worship—to hear Christians from 35 different nations praising God in the language of Albania, the land in which they have given much blood, sweat, and tears to see God’s Kingdom come and reign. It was a foretaste of That Day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that the Lamb is Worthy!
Finally, while missionaries are remarkable, they are not immune to hardship, and they cannot fulfill the task before them alone. Again and again as we asked what the greatest need was, it was fellow workers. Missionaries face all the challenges that the rest of us face. One of the points I made is that we don’t have “holy cortisol” that floods our bodies when the stress we experience is the result of ministry: Stress is stress, and it takes a toll in our bodies, minds, hearts, souls, and relationships. For all of us.
This is the calling that Christ has given Kriss and me—to walk alongside His co-laborers, helping them to be united in marriage and resilient in ministry. We do this from a posture of solidarity as fellow brothers and sisters familiar with the blessings and burdens that accompany the life of following Christ with cross in tow.
And we cannot do it alone. We need people to pray for and encourage us—they are the wind God uses to fill our sails. We need people to invest their financial resources. This trip would not have happened if a dozen people didn’t believe in it enough to financially support it—that’s right, it took just 12 people who generously gave what they could to make this trip happen. In fact, just under 40 people gave financially to our ministry this year!
If you’re reading this, it’s because you are a part of our support team—you might encourage us, pray for us, or give financially to support us. Thank you! We can’t fulfill what God has called us to do without you!
In the next few weeks I’ll be sharing with you about our ministry goals for next year and asking you to prayerfully commit to continue this journey with us.
Thank you again for partnering with us!