It’s an anniversary no one wants to celebrate.
And these Ukrainian pastors are tired.
“I’m so tired and exhausted – physically, emotionally and spiritually,” wrote Stephen,* one of our training partners, in recent correspondence. “It is a spiritual war as well, and we can feel it.”
This February marked one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. One year of bombings, of stressful decisions – should we stay, should we go? One year of losing friends and neighbors both to war and to fleeing from war. One year of uncertainty, of disrupted life. One year of financial strain – of limited supplies, heating problems, infrastructure damaged by bombs. It’s a year of churches closing – 450 from the Baptist Union denomination, for example. Nothing – not even a simple shower at the end of a long day – comes easy.
“We haven’t had hot water in our apartment for three weeks already, and we have electricity for four hours and then four hours of blackout and then four hours again,” Stephen wrote.
It’s also been a year since WordPartners Regional Director Sean Martin has gotten to see the Ukrainian training partners there.
“That’s a real ongoing pain for us and ongoing pain for me because usually I go there two to three times a year,” said Sean. “So not being able to see them face to face has been really difficult. Ministry has mostly been on online Zoom meetings, catching up and praying: ‘How are you? How’s your family? What’s going on with your church? How are your children?’”
Or as another training partner, Gregory,* puts it, it’s been a year since the history of Ukraine was split into two parts: before the war with Russia and during the time of the war with Russia. The “after” part is still a distant hope.
“There will be Victory Day, which is going to change the second part to ‘after the war with Russia,’” wrote Gregory in an update letter.
Before the war started, the pastors could already feel the tension.
“I was in Ukraine six weeks before the war hit,” said Sean. “Even then, I remember the guys saying to me, ‘War is coming.’ They could feel it in the air. Something was brewing.”
The day after Russia invaded, the decisions became fraught. Gregory and his wife made the hard choice to evacuate from their home in a suburb of Kyiv. They weren’t sure where to go. They just knew that they needed to move out of harm’s way. The very next day, that wouldn’t have been possible. The Russian army had started to invade the area, and all the people who were trying to escape by cars were blocked by Russian tanks on the highway.
“The Lord simply snatched us out of danger!” Gregory wrote.
“The Lord simply snatched us out of danger!”
While most refugees were heading toward western Ukraine, the rest of Europe, or to the United States, God had other plans for Gregory and his wife.
“The Lord directed our thoughts in a different direction,” Gregory said.
They contacted a family friend in another part of Ukraine.
At first it was a place of escape. But like so many other stories from these Ukrainian pastors’ lives this past year, it became a place of ministry.
“A new page of our life began as we became displaced from our home and, in a very literal sense, had to rely on God’s guidance and provision,” Gregory wrote. “It has to be that way when you are to experience more of your Heavenly Father’s care and new depth of His love. Now my wife and I say that God’s intention is not to just rescue you from a danger but, at the same time, manifest Himself through you so that people around you will glorify Him.”
“We had to rely on God’s guidance and provision. It has to be that way when you are to experience more of your Heavenly Father’s care and new depth of His love.”
WordPartners is a ministry of training, of passing on principles for studying and teaching God’s Word. But it’s also a work of encouragement in how to live God’s Word in real life and ministry, said Sean. As the war shapes the lives and ministries of these Ukrainian pastors, Sean has gotten to watch how their faith in God shapes their response.
These pastors wrestle with the deep, unanswerable questions of war: Why is God allowing this to happen? We never did anything to the Russians. Where’s the Lord in the midst of this?
And yet, they continue to minister faithfully.
Even though, according to law, he could have left the country with his wife and three young children, Stephen made the difficult choice to remain in Ukraine with his kids to continue to lead the church and help the people.
“Our church is doing a lot of things for refugees, soldiers, and people who live in our community,” said Stephen.
For Gregory, it’s been a time of growing something in the midst of ruins – a new church – in his location of evacuation. The church plant he and his wife have become involved with has been a place for life and care and hope for those fleeing the war.
“So far, we have been involved with it by preaching, leading church services, building youth ministry, building a worship ministry, and mentoring individuals,” he said.
He could’ve returned home near Kyiv last summer, but he and his wife decided to stay.
“We realized that we need to stay with the church plant some longer as we saw things that the Lord had been accomplishing there through us,” he said.
A lot of their work is with refugees in their strategic location near the border. The church has provided housing and food and has been a catalyst for others in the community to serve and provide for refugees’ needs.
“The local authorities were very impressed by what Source Of Life church did,” he wrote. “It was a very good representation of God’s love shown by His children.”
This work has also brought people who wouldn’t normally come to church into a place where they both see and hear the gospel.
“Despite the war, God keeps expanding His Kingdom through His church in Ukraine . . .”
“Many of them got a chance to hear the gospel of Jesus and accept Christ as Savior,” Gregory wrote. “That’s one thing which God does in our country.”
But ministry during this time is exhausting for pastors.
“It’s quite a stressful and busy period in my life and ministry,” Stephen wrote. “I thought Covid was the hard one, but I was wrong.” “A lot of leaders are experiencing burnout or big challenges in their churches.”
In the midst of that, Stephen decided to gather pastors together again. He had been passing on WordPartners training to a group of them, and they had only one workshop left in order to graduate from the four-year study.
“Thank God, we had the graduation for 18 brothers. Unfortunately, the whole group couldn’t come, but most of them were there. Brothers were glad to see each other.”
The book they studied? One of Paul’s epistles – written to a young pastor ministering in the midst of suffering and in need of encouragement. “We finished with 2 Timothy, because we wanted to encourage the brothers in their ministry not to give up but to continue in their ministry. Brothers said that this book and all this training was a huge blessing for them. . . . It was a good time of fellowship and refreshment in God’s Word.”
As God refreshes the hearts of individual pastors, He’s also working on a larger scale.
“It is obvious that God works with a big picture reaching several goals at the same time,” wrote Gregory. “Despite the war, He keeps expanding His Kingdom through His church in Ukraine by establishing new churches and raising a new generation of the ministers of the gospel. I am confident that when the war ends, our country is not going to be the same.”
* Names changed for security reasons.
The photos below are from Pastor Stephen’s church and their ministry to the people of their community and country.
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