A visit to Serbia

IMG_0227Not that I have a bucket list of countries I want to visit in whatever time remains to me on earth (I’ve been to Hawaii), but I never really thought of the possibility of visiting Serbia.

Until an email from a pastor friend forwarding a call for help from a small Bible school just outside Belgrade. The visiting teacher who had been due to teach Hebrews had had to cancel his visit. Like the Irish rugby team (!) I answered the call.

So it was off via Zurich, with the opportunity for coffee and a catch up with a former member of our church in Nyon, three days in country, and back via Frankfurt.

I managed to get a visit to Belgrade on Friday: it’s an impressively located city, built at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.

The evangelical community in Serbia is small. To be Serbian is practically the same thing as to be Serbian Orthodox. In a nation of 7 million, it’s reckoned that there are may be 10000 who are part of the evangelical mainstream: for more on the situation of evangelicals in Serbia, the European Evangelical Alliance published this interview with the director of the Serbian Evangelical Alliance a couple of years ago. Interestingly, a friend suggested to me that Serbia may not have had as much attention in terms of Christian mission as other parts of the area, given what he suggested was the Church’s propensity to be drawn to the underdog. It’s actually been suggested that many Western Christians in fact lost interest in Serbia during the 90s.

The school is hosted in a former 3-star motel around 35 minutes’ drive from the airport. It’s part of the work of The Belgrade Christian Trust (HUB for short – in Serbian) and has been running for 21 years (the current school year concludes at the end of this week). It was started, and initially run by an English couple (Andy and Faye Mayo) who’d been visiting Serbia under the auspices of Oak Hall, the Christian Holiday organisation. These visits involved bringing humanitarian aid to the area during the wars of the 90s.

After 10 years, the Mayos left Serbia and handed the leadership of the school over to a young local leader – Sladjan Milenkovic. He has continued to lead the work for the past 11 years.

Students work hard (the photo shows the director on his lunch!):  the first year of study aims to cover every Bible book (I think they told me they had missed one), and students work hard. Most days they have 6 45 minute classes. We had 18 classes on Hebrews: other books have 30 classes. There is a day for practical service and on Sundays they get around various churches to help (the Sunday before my visit they had been in Bosnia). Over the course of the academic year, they have 950 classes (compare that with the number of lectures in an average university year in the UK!!). A second year allows the possibility for increased ministry involvement and the focus is on more practically-oriented subjects. Days are bookended by early morning devotions and evening prayer.

Unlike many Bible colleges in the UK and Ireland, the school has chosen not to seek external accreditation: they are not convinced that would help them to maintain their focus on the mission of training disciple-makers.

Beyond the school, the HUB centre hosts summer camps and has recently opened a coffee shop in the small nearby town of Opovo – a way of facilitating contact with local residents.

There were just 8 students in the class I taught – at times the school has bigger numbers. Students range from having left school to at least one with experience in ministry. Since my Serbian is limited (!), I taught via translation. My translator did a good job. I’ve no way of knowing how accurate she was, but she worked quickly without hesitation (my Northern Irish pronunciation of ‘cow’ stumped her towards the end of the week).

Over the 21 years of its existence, the HUB Bible School has seen around 35 students graduate and some 60% of these are serving in ministry: around this time a year ago they celebrated their 20th anniversary.

For a bit more about HUB, you can click here.


The crucible of success

Your Leadership Journey


A leader’s response to success and prosperity are as significant as his/her response to failure and adversity.

Success can distort our hearts, leading us to forget that apart from God we can do nothing of significance. It can lead us to become proud, not only to forget who God is, but to forget who we are. I spoke to a leader who told me that he had been reluctant to consider himself as a leader (even though he led) and that part of the reason for that was his observation of people whose success and status changed them for the worse: their ego took over as they were increasingly celebrated as leaders.

External success might draw a blind over what may be going on in the hidden parts of our lives. It might even lead us to think that the hidden and inner parts of our lives don’t really matter too…

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Leadership 101: The Making of a Leader

Leaders don’t simply drop out of the sky, fully fitted with all they will ever need. For sure some of them seem to be born with a clear predisposition to leadership. But there is a journey of shaping and formation and the best leaders will go on learning.

Your Leadership Journey

14_leadership-01Last week’s post explored some of the questions around the definition of leadership. This week explores another question in the form  of one of leadership’s old chestnuts: are leaders born or made? Apparently a Google search for an answer to the question could fetch you millions of results!

If, with Thomas Carlyle, you subscribe to the Great Man theory of leaders, you’re likely going to say that they are born. They land on the planet, equipped with ‘the right stuff’ and lead simply by living.

It’s probably more than an academic question. After all, why bother with leader development programmes if leaders come pre-programmed to lead? Is there any value in leaders participating in such programmes? On the other hand, if leaders are made (at least in part), even those leaders who are born with an impressive array of leadership traits oozing from their pores will be able to benefit…

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Do you ever just let God love you?


I remember a long night sitting in uncomfortable Naugahyde chairs in O’Hare Airport, waiting impatiently for a flight that was delayed for five hours. I happened to be next to a wise woman who was traveling to the same conference. The long delay and the late hour combined to create a melancholy mood, and in five hours we had time to share all the dysfunctions of childhood, our disappointments with the church, our questions of faith. I was writing the book Disappointment with God at the time, and I felt burdened by other people’s pains and sorrows, doubts and unanswered prayers.

My companion listened to me in silence for a very long time, and then out of nowhere she asked a question that has always stayed with me. “Philip, do you ever just let God love you?” she said, “It’s pretty important, I think.”

I realized with a start that she had brought to light a gaping hole in my life. For all my absorption in the Christian faith, I had missed the most important message of all. The story of Jesus is the story of a celebration, a story of love.

(Philip Yancey: The Jesus I never Knew)

‘A swirling conflict of fears and foibles’

I came across the following statement – from Dr Edward John Carnell – this morning in a blog post from Ray Ortlund, on The Gospel Coalition website. He was reflecting personally on the sad passing of Dr Carnell, a former president of Fuller Seminary.

“Whoever meditates on the mystery of his own life will quickly realize why only God, the searcher of the secrets of the heart, can pass final judgment. We cannot judge what we have no access to. The self is a swirling conflict of fears, impulses, sentiments, interests, allergies, and foibles. It is a metaphysical given for which there is no easy rational explanation. Now if we cannot unveil the mystery of our own motives and affections, how much less can we unveil the mystery in others? That is, as we look into ourselves, we encounter the mystery of our own, the depths of our own selfhood. As we sing things like ‘Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings within and fears without, O Lamb of God, I come.’ And having recognized the mysteries that dwell in the very depths of our own being, how can we treat other people as if they were empty or superficial beings, without the same kind of mystery?”