Methodism growing in Cambodia

May 28, 2014

Cambodia Consultation brings together wide-ranging group to hear updates on ministry

By Neill Caldwell -

Representatives from around the world gathered May 1-3 to talk about the growing Methodist mission in Cambodia.The United Methodist Church is one of five denominations working in the Southeast Asia nation of 16 million that is still recovering from the 1977-79 genocide that wiped out millions, mostly the educated and professional. Aldersgate United Methodist Church, not far from George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, hosted a gathering of Cambodian guests and others from California to Switzerland who are involved in ministry there. 

During the three-day gathering participants worshiped together, shared America meals, danced to Cambodia music and heard ministry reports.Perhaps the most special of the special guests was the Rev. Sok Sovandy, the first native Cambodian to hold the position of Mission Superintendent, or head of the Cabinet in Cambodia. Prior to his taking office last September the position had been held by a Korean pastor.“Our vision statement is ‘To grow stronger and grow more rooted in Jesus Christ,’” he said. “We are working to equip clergy and lay people, encourage young people as leaders, create self-supporting churches and plant new churches. 

The Cambodian Methodist Church has 11 districts, some of them very large geographically.

“There is opportunity for growth in the number of churches,” Sok said. “There is also population growth in the urban areas, which is providing new opportunities for us.”

Seven new churches are already on the drawing board. Currently in Cambodia there are 27 local churches, 68 “preaching points” and 57 “outpost” churches, for 152 total churches The Methodist Mission there has about 140 pastors.

Sok said that what Cambodia needs to continue its growth is partnerships. 

“My proposal for is for churches to partner with churches, districts with districts… not just here in America but with our other partner churches in Singapore, Malaysia and Korea. For example, a church in Virginia would be a partner to a church in Cambodia. The keys to this partnership? To share prayer, encouragement to serve the Lord, and help train our youth and young adults.” 

Other goals expressed were to be an autonomous denomination by 2016, to translate the Book of Discipline into to the native language of Khmer, and to have a Cambodian bishop by 2020. 

“It all depends on your prayers,” Sok said.

Virginia Conference Director the Rev. Glenn Rowley said he was disappointed in the lack of participation from Virginia churches who might be interested in overseas mission. “Once you take away the (Virginians) who have already been to Cambodia, or the planning team, there really wasn’t anyone,” Rowley said. “But often at these events you wind up with people who are already involved.”

Rowley said the biggest benefit was hearing what other U.S. conferences are doing in Cambodia. 

“Learning about this cross-fertilization of conferences like Louisiana and California is very helpful,” he said. “The continued strength of the Methodist movement in Cambodia amazes me. There is really no other mission by The United Methodist Church that is as successful as this one right now.”

United Methodist County Director Dr. Romeo del Rosario reported on fellow General Board of Global Ministries missionary Claria Biswas’ ministry to street children, which has spread to five locations. The famous Phnom Pen garbage dump has moved, but the parents moved with it, leaving the children behind. Biswas’ ministry provides Christian education, plus music and computer classes to mostly orphan children.

“It’s one of our most successful ministries,” said del Rosario. “Everyone who comes to Cambodia wants to see Clara’s ministry. Her gift to the children is hope, and an alternative vision that’s filled with love. She empowers them to dream and to envision a new possibility in their lives.”

The very successful “Faith Engine” program has been temporarily suspended because of a budget shortfall. The program combines Christian education with practical training for young men to repair car and motorbike engines and has had 208 graduates in 23 groups to date.The Rev. Nathan Decker, the pastor at Ivey Memorial UMC and a member of January’s United Methodist Volunteers In Mission (UMVIM) team organized by retired pastor Sam NeSmith from Virginia, said he found joy “in being with people of a different culture and experiencing their hospitality, their lives, and sharing the experience with them.

“I’m tired of building stuff for people instead of working with them,” Decker said. “Sam, as a good leader, first asked what was needed. The answer is mainly money. But the Cambodians also need leadership training, so we taught workshops at a two-day conference. 

A leadership training event for women, to be led by another UMVIM team from Virginia, is being planned for next January.

In his sermon during opening worship, Charlotte Area Bishop Larry Goodpaster talked about dark and light, and how dark it was as his plane was landing in the capital of Phnom Pen for his first visit. “Jesus wants us to be the light, not to keep it to ourselves, but spread it, push it… We cannot keep the light hidden. To witness about that light. And to take risks and make sacrifices. When we do that, we become light to the world.”

Goodpaster, who is the Council of Bishops’ representative for the Cambodian initiative, said that we in the U.S. have a lot to learn from the people of Cambodia. “You are light to a dark world,” he said to them. “We have to redefine what it means to be in mission, not as donor and recipient, but as partners together. We must form a partnership in Cambodia that will shed that light of Christ into the dark corners of the world.”

Dr. del Rosario thanked the people of the Virginia Conference for their support over the past two years as Cambodia has become an Initiatives of Home partner. “Virginia is one of the most generous of our supporters,” he said. “I spoke at Virginia Annual Conference last year and Cambodia’s share of the offering taken at 2013 Annual Conference was $47,900. And that is extra, on top of their regular giving... I don’t know how we would survive without Virginia.”

-Neill Caldwell is editor of the Virginia Advocate