Although the first evangelists were women, there are only a few places worldwide where women are approaching parity in ministry. One School of Theology-trained priest is working to encourage the shift toward equal Church leadership in his corner of the world—the Diocese of Buye in the Republic of Burundi in East/Central Africa.
The Rev. Jean Mweningoma was raised in the Anglican Church in the northern part of Burundi, a small landlocked country sandwiched between Congo and Tanzania, just south of Rwanda. He was ordained into the diaconate in 1999 and into the priesthood in 2000. He studied theology at the Protestant Institute for Arts and Social Sciences (PIASS) before coming to the United States to study.
At the School of Theology, Mweningoma was surprised and encouraged by something he had not seen back home. “The staff and seminarians at the School of Theology and other seminaries in The Episcopal Church (USA) include many women,” he says. “We have a low level of participation of women in ministry in Burundi, even where ordination of women is accepted.”
Mweningoma felt the obstacles were more cultural than religious. “We need to break the ancient culture that diminishes the role of women in conducting public affairs, which affects the Church of Burundi as well. I would like the Church of Burundi to take advantage of the talents that women have and can bring to evangelize the communities.”
During the 2017–2018 school year, Mweningoma applied for a grant from the Episcopal Evangelism Society (EES) to train 20 women in various aspects of evangelism during his summer break. Because the program was so successful, he was awarded another grant to build on and expand the training the following summer (2019).
EES offers individuals associated with Episcopal seminaries Evangelism for the 21st Century grants (E-21 grants), which are project-based grants for innovative ministry that has evangelism at its core. Day Smith Pritchartt, executive director of EES, says “We were attracted to Mweningoma’s work because of his vision for encouraging women in ministry in a place where it is uncommon. He believes that women's leadership is essential to the life of the Church."
In the summer of 2019, the EES grant funded two training sessions. The first session, in June of 2019, was a refresher course for the women Mweningoma trained in the summer of 2018. The second session was for a new team of 10 women, who gathered for 15 days.
The women were trained to serve the Church as evangelists. Classes included such skills as reading the lessons for the congregation, conducting worship services, preaching, seeking new believers, discipleship, and sharing testimonies. The trainees learned to teach the catechism and lead the church as lay readers. They also received some training on the content of the Bible.
Both sessions were held at the headquarters of the Diocese of Buye. The student evangelists lived together in the houses and used classrooms and chapel of the diocesan Bible School at the hill of Buye. Mweningoma says the experience of living together and interacting with one another greatly enriched their learning experience.
Together, the two trainings included 30 women from 30 churches in 20 parishes. “In the Anglican Church of Burundi, you can find many churches within one parish,” Mweningoma explains.
The grant was used to gather, house, feed, and train the 30 trainees. The grant also funded training materials, facilitators, and transportation for the participants. The specific objectives of the training were to build confidence, demonstrate possibilities, and lead to discernment for ordination.
“Above all, the trainees are now bringing new believers into the churches where they are serving as lay leaders and evangelists throughout the Diocese of Buye,” Mweningoma says. “Because of the EES grant, the church has new voices that are proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. Women, once neglected and often lacking confidence in their ability or calling, are now using their talents to build up the Church.”
Pritchartt says, “What we are all hoping for is to see an increase in women’s ordination in the diocese. Father Jean and the bishop have encouraged all the women to consider ordination. This is crossing a huge boundary. There is one ordained woman there, and one from a neighboring diocese. Father Jean brought both of those women into the training.” The Rev. Canon Bibiane Nsengiyumva is the Diocesan Worker of the Mother’s Union in the Diocese of Buye. The Rev. Canon Euphrasie Niragira works in the diocese of Buhiga as Dean of St. Peter Cathedral.
“Sharing their experience as women priests contributed to motivate the participants who were hesitating to join the ministry as women,” says Mweningoma. He also used resources such as From the Mountain, the biannual magazine of the School of Theology, to help normalize women in ministry.
Prichartt says, “We don’t have the final report [for the second grant] yet, so we are really looking forward to whatever surprises and delights await.”
EES grants are project-based, so the ministry they fund often does not continue in that form. The opportunity to fund a second grant, building on the work of the first grant, was particularly interesting for EES. Prichartt says the board was especially impressed with Mweningoma. “Father Jean is such a loving, gracious, infectious follower of Jesus. I can only imagine what effect he has on people back home. He met with our entire board when we were in Sewanee last fall, along with the Rev. Julius Junga, T19, and the Rev. Chanju Banda, T'19. We were really taken with all of them.”
Episcopalian students, faculty, staff, and their spouses or partners are eligible to apply for ES-21 grants ranging from $500 to $5,000. The parameters of the grants are specific to innovative evangelism, and exclude such projects as pilgrimages, cross-cultural experiences, or programs that only benefit the recipient’s institution. Most EES grants involves domestic projects with domestic students. The School of Theology has been notable for proposing and receiving many grants for international work.