New Slavic Ministries Director seeks to re-connect with Russian-speaking constituency
by Myra Holmes
Although Aleksander “Aleks” Borisov is on the pastoral staff of a U.S. Mennonite Brethren congregation, his initial knowledge of U.S. Mennonite Brethren was limited, to say the least.
“I knew two things,” he says: “first, the letter M and second the letter B.”
It was nothing more than extra letters at the end of the name of his church, Pilgrim Slavic Baptist MB Church, Spokane, Wash.
Unfortunately, Borisov’s experience is not unique. On any given Sunday, 34 of the 194 USMB congregations worship in Russian—30 on the West Coast in the Pacific District Conference (PDC) and four in the Central District Conference (CDC). But for many of these Slavic congregations, their USMB connection is “just a signature on paper and nothing else,” Borisov says.
As the USMB new Slavic Ministries Director, Borisov says, “I’m trying to change this situation now.”
In recent decades, waves of Slavic Christians have immigrated to the U.S. as the former Soviet Union loosened its grip on those it had long persecuted under Communist rule. As these Russian-speaking Christians sought to form church communities in the U.S., they found an advocate and financial partner in USMB—a church formed by immigrants from the Ukraine and South Russia in the late 1800s.
“We welcomed them with open arms,” says USMB executive director Ed Boschman.
But too often the relationship stopped there.
“In subsequent years we were not effective in keeping the partnership alive and healthy,” says Boschman.
Members of the same church family felt like strangers.
That didn’t sit well with Boschman, the Leadership Board or other USMB leaders. So a new, half-time USMB staff position was formed and funded through a partnership with USMB, PDC, CDC, MB Foundation and MB Mission to build bridges between the Slavic MB churches and the rest of the USMB family.
“The goal was to develop a healthier partnership for the sake of stronger ministry and for mutual edification and growth,” Boschman says. “It seemed the best way to do that would be to have someone who could help us bridge that relationship.”
After an extensive search, Borisov began serving as Director of Slavic ministries for the USMB in September 2011.
“God provided Aleks,” Boschman says.
Borisov is an immigrant himself, having come to the U.S. in 2005, and speaks both English and Russian. He is well-respected within the Slavic community, lives near many Slavic MB churches and is active in a Slavic MB church. He is positioned age-wise to connect with both younger Slavic Mennonite Brethren and the older, first-generation immigrants.
“He’s an enthusiast, a visionary, an idea guy,” Boschman says. “He’s on a mission to help us follow through and build this relationship.”
Plus, his part-time position as pastor of education at Pilgrim allows him the flexibility to take on this new role. In his pastoral role, he helps organize or lead a variety of discipleship opportunities for this congregation of over 800: seminars for couples intending to marry, mentors for newly-married couples, Bible studies, leadership training programs, short-term mission orientations, small groups and much more.
“Anything that has to do with education I’m involved in,” Borisov says. It’s a full plate, but he admits, “I feel myself sick if I have nothing to do.”
So how does Borisov hope to improve connections between Slavic MBs and the larger USMB family? He begins with prayer.
“What I want to accomplish I couldn’t do by ordinary work,” he says. “I need a miracle in every step.”
In addition to personal prayer, he gathers a group of Slavic supporters every Friday before dawn to pray. They pray not only about Borisov’s ministry hopes and dreams, but also for awakening among the Slavic community and churches and for their own equipping as personal evangelists.
“Our desire is to make this world different,” Borisov says.
Only after laying a foundation of prayer, Borisov works at connecting with Slavic MB churches through letters, phone calls and visits. When he visits a Slavic MB congregation, a good sermon is a must and earns him credibility and open doors.
“I pray God will give me the right message for each church to reach the heart,” he says.
Often after the service, he meets with pastoral staff and leaders.
“I have to be prepared to give answers for very many questions,” he says, not only about the Mennonite Brethren but also about “the whole area of life.” He’s grateful for broad experience in church ministry and missions, both here and in Russia, from which to draw.
In addition, Borisov wants to help equip these congregations with seminars on topics like evangelism and developing small groups. It’s important, he says, to not only be accepted, but to be needed. He wants to be “a good servant.”
It hasn’t been easy. While Borisov describes Slavic MBs as very loving, having open hearts and open doors, they also have a wariness and sense of independence that comes from surviving persecution and living as foreigners in a new land.
“We are aliens,” Borisov says. “We are alone and have to survive alone.”
He says he has seen similar attitudes among orphans who grow up with no family; they learn a certain self-reliance necessary to survive.
Given that, building trust will take time. Borisov refers to Mark 3:14 , noting that the disciples’ first assignment was simply to be with Jesus.
“I think this is a key to any relationship: to spend more time together.”
He dreams of Slavic, Anglo and Hispanic MBs visiting each other, praying for each other and working together toward common goals.
One such goal is church planting. The USMB has set a goal of planting 60 new churches in the next 10 years; Borisov says that simple proportions mean about 10 of those should be new Slavic MB churches. He and other USMB leaders are looking both at starting churches from scratch and at the possibility of adopting established, unaffiliated Slavic churches into the USMB family. These adopted churches could provide a much-needed model of a good relationship, he says.
As Slavic and other U.S. Mennonite Brethren grow in partnership, each can learn from the other. The USMB history as an immigrant church may provide guidance and assurance for Slavic MBs. Borisov points out that navigating a new culture, especially one with so much freedom, can be a fearful thing.
USMB have called the U.S. home for generations and would do well to learn from the deep, living faith of Slavic Christians—a faith born out of persecution. And when persecution grows in the U.S., Borisov says, U.S. Mennonite Brethren would do well to learn from the Slavic Christian experience.
If God blesses efforts to better connect, “MB” will be more than two letters at the end of a church name; it will signify a ministry partnership that both parties value.