By Walter B. Fenton
“We never believed we’d be living in a time like this,” said the Rev. Tsvetan Iliev, the lead pastor of a local Global Methodist Church located in Sofia, Bulgaria, the country’s capital city. “Our country is not right next to Ukraine, but we are, so to speak, very much in the same neighborhood. Our church has hosted and is still hosting war refugees in its guest rooms. We also keep in touch with the people that stayed with us and decided to go back to Ukraine. We are trying to help in any way needed.”
Iliev serves the Dr. Albert Long Global Methodist Church, a congregation with a storied history in Bulgaria. Long, a Methodist missionary from the United States, spent much of his adult life in Bulgaria and the Balkans in the nineteenth century when the region was ruled by the Islamic Ottoman Empire. He was instrumental in the founding of the Evangelical Methodist Episcopal Church in Bulgaria, and he was also a lead translator of the first edition of the Bible in the modern Bulgarian language.
Despite the great legacy of its namesake, Iliev says the Dr. Albert Long GM Church congregation faces many of the same challenges local churches confront all around the world. The congregation’s average worship attendance is between 30 to 40 people with most attendees north of 60. The major difference is that its challenges are greatly complicated by the war in Ukraine. While serving refugees, the congregation is still emerging from the Covid pandemic and is now contending with high inflation and serious concerns about enough energy resources to heat homes and buildings as winter approaches.
“Tsvetan Iliev is a young and enthusiastic pastor,” said the Rev. Dr. Daniel Topalski, who is the presiding leader of the Bulgaria Provisional Annual Conference during the GM Church’s transitional period. “He has very good potential, and he serves a congregation that is a very good steward of its resources. Despite the significant challenges it faces, it is prepared to invest in new and successful ministries.”
Like many Bulgarians his age (38), Iliev was born into a country that was still under the grip of Communism. He was a raised as a traditional Orthodox Christian, but only nominally so. He says he became serious about the Christian faith and the “Triune God” when he was 17 years old, and that he became a Methodist when he was 23.
Reflecting on his call to ministry, Iliev said, “I was terrified when my pastor said to me, ‘You should seriously consider a call to ministry.’ I had a great job and a good standard of living – I didn’t want to lose those things. But a year and half later I was ready to embark on that adventure. And – oh, what an adventure it is!” He was ordained an elder in 2019 in The United Methodist Church, and along with his colleagues and all 24 of the local churches in Bulgaria, he moved to the GM Church earlier this year.
Appointed in 2020, to what is now the Dr. Albert Long GM Church, Iliev, his wife Ivaneta, and their two year old son Michael, were forced to try and acquaint themselves with their parishioners just as the pandemic hit.
“As the pandemic recedes, we are getting ourselves ready for evangelism,” he said. “We know we need to attract young people, and there is a clear understanding among our members that things have to change in our ministry, so we are able to evangelize our city.”
Topalski explained that the church is in downtown Sofia, very close to the nation’s parliament and government buildings. On the one hand, the church’s location gives it the opportunity to advance important evangelical causes in dialogue with other institutions. But on the other hand, it is not in an area where younger people live. He believes Iliev and the congregation can rise to the challenges they face.
“As a part of the Global Methodist Church,” Iliev said, “I believe we are holding to the historically traditional beliefs of the Methodist movement. I believe we will be able to extend our mission to reach the unreached. I am thankful that in our GM Church family people want to pray for each other. Our biggest prayer request is for God to show us ways we can serve the society we are put in, and to give us grace so we can witness to our neighbors and friends the love of God we experience in our personal and corporate lives. Let us pray for the members of the Church in Bulgaria not to get discouraged by the hardships of the time we live in and to lean on God as our only help and hope for the future!”
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The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer.