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Filipino Provisional Annual Conferences Flourishing in the Global Methodist Church

Por Walter B. Fenton

GM Church members in Doha, Qatar leads others during a service celebrating the launch of the Mega-Manila Provisional Annual Conference. Photo by Mary Lou Reece.

“When Bishop Scott [Jones] and his wife Mary Lou [Reece] visited the ministry where I am appointed, I immediately felt a spirit of partnership,” said the Rev. Joanne Valenzuela, the secretary of the Global Methodist Church’s Mega-Manila Provincial Annual Conference and one of three pastors serving Cansinala Christian Church in the Province of Pampanga, Philippines, a community about 35 miles north of Manila, the nation’s capital city. “I believe in my heart that the GM Church is thriving because its laypeople, pastors, conference leaders, and its bishops are being moved by the power of the Holy Spirit to lift up the name of Jesus!”

Valenzuela, one of six children from a small village in Pampanga, was pursuing a degree in business management at the University of the Philippines when God called her to transfer to Harris Memorial College to become a deaconess. After serving as deaconess for six years, she answered the call to ordained ministry and went to Wesley Divinity School (Nueva Ecija, Philippines) where she received a master of divinity degree.” In her twentieth year as a pastor, she is one of the leaders of a provisional annual conference that stretches from the greater Manila area to the Persian Gulf nations of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, where more than 2.1 million Filipino expats live and work, and where three GM Church congregations meet to worship and serve the Lord.

“It’s called the Mega-Manila Provisional Annual Conference for a reason; there’s no other conference quite like it” said GM Church Bishop Jones, who presides over the vast area. “GM Church members, whether in the Luzon, Mindanao, or Visayas regions of the Philippines, or in the Arab cities of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, or Doha, contend with challenges Christians in the United States can hardly imagine. But their faith is of the New Testament type – churches inspired and filled with the Holy Spirit. It will be a joy to see how they all grow in five, ten, or fifty years!”

As part of a 40 day plus trip to countries in Africa, Asia, and the Persian Gulf area, Bishop Jones and his wife, Mary Lou, celebrated the launch of the Mega-Manila Provincial Annual Conference in the Philippines and then in the Middle East. They first met in Manila, February 15-17, 2024, and then joined other conference members in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E, in early March. The new annual conference is the second one to form in the Philippines, joining the Covenant Philippines Provincial Annual Conference which launched in the summer of 2023.

Like all regions beyond the U.S., United Methodist local churches in the Philippines were not allowed to exercise a UM Church provision to disaffiliate from the denomination. Nevertheless, the Mega-Manila conference has eighteen local churches, ten mission churches, and it is currently reviewing the applications for three more. The largest church, St. John Methodist Church in Quezon City, averages over 150 in worship, while smaller congregations in outlying villages average around 40. The local churches in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates face some governmental restrictions when it comes to building churches; they tend to meet in homes or rent venues for church activities.

Rather fittingly, the Mega-Manila Conference’s president pro tem, the Rev. Dr. Luther Oconer, serves in an extension appointment in the U.S. Born and raised in the Philippines, Oconer is the Associate Professor of Global Wesleyan Theology, at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. Oconer, 52, lives with his wife Marion and their children Ilana and Wesley in Florida. He and other Mega-Manila Conference leaders traveled with Bishop Jones and his wife Mary Lou in the Philippines, Qatar, and the U.A.E. for worship services and times of celebration.

“For a while, it felt like we didn’t have a bishop but that changed when Bishop Jones and Mary Lou came. It was like receiving spiritual parents; we were no longer orphans,” said Oconer. “Bishop Jones was the most tangible representation of our connection to the GM Church, and he demonstrated for us a new kind of Methodist episcopacy that we haven’t witnessed in a long time. As a historian of Methodism in the Philippines, I would say his leadership is akin to the leadership of American bishops who served the Philippines in the beginning of the 20th century and were well-loved by the people. They include Bishops James Thoburn, Francis Warne, William Eveland, and Edwin Lee. Bishop Jones showed us a no-nonsense approach to getting things done. He and Mary Lou are also very approachable and down to earth. They prayed for many people during altar calls. It was clear that they came to serve and not to be served. They won the admiration of people everywhere they went.”

A conference the geographical size of the Mega-Manila Conference poses its challenges for a president pro tem. However, Oconer appreciates that he can reach out to Bishop Jones when necessary, and between annual visits to the Philippines and early morning Zoom meetings with conference leaders, he stays closely connected with other leaders and pastors across the vast areas.

Rev. Eleanor “Lhyn” Malonzo of the Mega-Manila Provisional Annual Conference is ordained an elder by GM Church Bishop Scott J. Jones in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo by Mary Lou Reece.

One such leader and pastor is the Rev. Elenor “Lhyn” Malonzo, who co-pastors a congregation in Abu Dhabi with Rev. Tristan Jayme. They planted the church in March 2023 with just less than 30 members, and it has now doubled in a year.

“Whenever I think of how we started as a church, it reminds me of how good and faithful our God is,” said Malonzo, who has lived and worked in the U.A.E. for 17 years. “We’re amazed how the Lord has blessed us: from zero finances, no instruments, and no place to hold our worship service, we’re now a growing church. Our community is one that loves Jesus and seeks the Holy Spirit’s leading. We are not only growing in numbers; more importantly we are growing deeper in our intimate relationship with Jesus as the Lord of the church. People are hungry and thirsty for the Word.”

While Qatar and the U.A.E. are Arab nations, overseas Filipino workers (OFW) make up the majority of the populations in both countries. Eighty-three percent (260,000 people) of Qatar’s population are OFWs, and OFWs constitute 61 percent (700,000) of the U.A.E.’s. They work in a range of industries in the two countries, and join with other ex pat Filipinos to send tens of billions of dollars back to the Philippines.

In addition to her pastoral duties, Malonzo chairs the Mega-Manila Conference’s Middle East Coordinating Committee. Her 15-member team planned and celebrated the Middle East portion of the conference’s launch in Abu Dhabi. During a commissioning and ordination service, Malonzo herself was ordained by Bishop Jones as an elder in the GM Church. Also present for the services and celebrations were conference officers Oconer and Valenzuela, and the Revs. Brad McKenzie, David Sablan Jr., and Sis Celia Mendoza from the Philippines and the U.S.

“The opportunity to give Bishop Jones, Mary Lou, and other leaders a brief tour of the U.A.E. was an honor and a joyful experience,” said Malonzo. “Bishop Scott and Mary Lou blessed us with their humble presence both on and off stage. The Holy Spirit worked through them, confirming the profound connection being formed in the GM Church.”

Covenant Philippines Provisional Annual Conference

Celebrating its second annual conference, the Covenant Philippines Provisional Annual Conference met in Santiago City, February 23-24, 2024. Visiting the region for the second time in eight months, Bishop Jones joined the Rev. Virgilio Olonan, the conference’s president pro tem, to preside at worship services and business sessions.

Local churches in the Covenant Philippines Conference were some of the first to join the GM Church after the denomination’s launch May 1, 2022. The conference covers the northern portion of the country, comprised of 15 provinces with a population of 10.8 million people. The area is composed of a mountainous region and plains where agriculture is the main livelihood for people in the area.

“We currently have seven local churches, and one mission congregation that is preparing to be officially recognized,” said Olonan. “Our local churches range in size from an average worship attendance of 25 in smaller congregations and up to 250 who typically worship at Santiago City Methodist Church.”

Olonan, 65, has served in full-time pastoral ministry for 43 years. His wife, Fe, is a retired social worker who served with World Vision for 41 years. They have two adult children, Virson Tillich, a lawyer, and Virson Hegel, a physician.

A member of the Covenant Philippines Provisional Annual Conference participates in a service where people cut parts of a fishing net to remind them to help plant churches in their communities. Photo by Mary Lou Reece.

In addition to serving as the conference’s president pro tem, Olonan continues to lead Santiago City Methodist Church, a congregation he was appointed to during his years with the UM Church. He serves the congregation on voluntary basis as its pastor emeritus.

“The greatest challenges we face are, as always, soul-winning and church planting. The harvest is great, but the workers are few,” says Olonan. “We are maintaining 21 church planting and children’s ministries initiatives in the conference. And nearly 60 people have pledged financial support to sustain and grow our efforts. We are looking for a sister conference in the U.S. to partner with us so we can continue to expand our reach.”

During the conference’s second gathering, attendees were invigorated by the impassioned testimony of Rev. Kevin Pedrosa, a dynamic 27-year-old circuit rider who has pioneered two churches in Bacolod City in the Province of Negros Occidental. He has also started seeds for potential future GM churches in nearby provinces through four mission points or Bible studies. At the close of the service, Rev. McKenzie, a presiding elder from the Trinity Conference, issued a stirring challenge to all present, urging them to cut pieces of a fishing net to carry back to their respective congregations, serving as a poignant reminder of the imperative to actively engage in church planting.

“We were challenged by the messages from Revs. Pedrosa and McKenzie,” said Olonan, “And it was also a great blessing to have Bishop Jones and his wife Mary Lou join us. Their twice coming to the Covenant Philippines Provisional Annual Conference is a great symbol our connectedness to a greater Global Methodist Church filled with warm-hearted Wesleyan orthodox believers. No matter how small our conference is right now, we are proud to be a part of the GM Church!”

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El reverendo Walter Fenton es el responsable de conexión adjunto de Iglesia Metodista Global.

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