About 400 Ukrainian Baptist congregations have been lost in Russia’s war on Ukraine, said Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary (UBTS) president Yaroslav Pyzh, which works to restore pastoral leadership in affected towns.
As volunteers from six We Care relief centers across Ukraine help internally displaced people winterize their homes, replacing roofs, windows and doors, Pyzh said the real challenge for UBTS is to rebuild pastoral leadership in places where pastoralists have been displaced.
“Since the start of the war, six months already, we have lost about 400 Baptist churches. And so the real building is rebuilding leadership capacity, because if you rebuild buildings and you don’t have pastors to lead churches, I don’t think that’s going to do any good,” Pyzh, graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said Baptist Press Last week. “So the real challenge is not so much to rebuild the walls, windows and doors.”
“The real challenge is similar to Nehemiah’s challenge,” he said, referring to the biblical story of Nehemiah. “It’s not just about rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. It’s about rebuilding the nation of Israel, worshiping God. … It’s the same here in Ukraine.
Many pastors have been displaced from war-torn areas, Pyzh said, leaving no one to bring divine hope amid fear and despair. About 2,300 Baptist congregations existed across Ukraine before the war began in February, according to the All-Ukrainian Union of Evangelical Christian Baptist Churches.
“Our main challenge in the future, when the war is over, is to bridge the leadership gap that we have lost,” Pyzh said. “And unfortunately, the longer the war lasts, the greater the gap will be. The church is not buildings. It’s people leaving this place and moving to the United States, and with people moving to Germany, or people moving somewhere else. And with these people, the pastors also left.
While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that a third of Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes, many pastors have remained and churches have largely met wartime needs, Pyzh said.
“The biggest thing the community has in these times of destruction and bombardment is fear; it’s desperation,” Pyzh said. “And the only ones who can relieve and bring hope to the desperate are pastors, churches, Christians.”
Pyzh estimates that up to 150 graduates and students from UBTS are working in the We Care Centers which he says will bring spiritual light and salt to war-torn communities while helping to structurally rebuild communities and provide the necessary supplies. UBTS trains volunteers to serve as counselors to internally displaced residents and those who remained.
Donations from Southern Baptists help fund support for We Care centers, but Pyzh said donations have dropped significantly as the war continues. The care centers have grown out of local church ministry outreach activities established in conjunction with local governments and are housed in buildings that governments provide free of charge.
“We stepped in and tried to help them be more effective in what they do and share some of the resources we received from Southern Baptists. So we use those resources that we got from Southern Baptists,” Pyzh said. “Instead of the seminary dealing directly with humanitarian aid (as in the first months of the war), we work with these health centers and help them.
“The basic idea of care centers is to provide a platform for churches to cooperate with each other to serve the community. This is the basic idea. It’s not just about meeting the needs of war, but actually creating something that can stay in the community for a long time.
UBTS, which provided free education to students during the war, plans to work with a dozen health centers by the end of the year, Pyzh said. With an inflation rate of nearly 30% in Ukraine, UBTS has suspended tuition fees and is focusing on raising funds to support its educational efforts.
Pyzh, who is the founding pastor of Journey Church in Lviv, encourages Southern Baptists to continue to pray for a miracle of peace and victory, to pray specifically for the rebuilding of church leadership, to continue to contribute to humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine and to consider establishing scholarships to support UBTS students during the war.
“Send Relief helps us with donations that we use at We Care centers,” Pyzh said. “But overall donations are down significantly, not like we did two or three months ago. People are just tired of the war, but I see a huge drop in donations.
In one of his last UBTS Videos, Pyzh expressed continued hope. “The same God who was faithful in the past will be faithful in the future. So in the midst of all the struggle we are going through right now, we are waiting with great hope, knowing that God is with us through you,” he said on the video. “Thank you for your help.”