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Reaching communities in Europe’s poorest country

What it is like serving in one of Europe’s poorest countries? Maricela Bejan describes the challenges the church faces, and how Innovista supports Christian leaders where they’re needed most.
Photo of Maricela Bejan smiling taken outside

Can we you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a Christian?

Many years ago, I met someone who loved God so much and I liked her life with God. 15 years after that I was very sick (emotionally and physically). At that time I remembered about my friend’s God and I said ‘If I have any chance, please, I want this God that she has’. The next day someone said, ‘I heard about you. Do you want to come to church?’ I came to church and I was healed. I had a disease that the doctor said I would not be able to work and I would only live some more years, and God healed me instantly. So I met God like a healer and a Father. So I fell in love with him from my first touch of God. So that is also the testimony of my friend! I was 24, when I came to God.

How did you come to work for Innovista?

When Jason [Lane] led the first Tempo cohort in Moldova, my pastor encouraged me to come to the course because I was a worship leader and with my husband we led the youth ministry. In the beginning [of our ministry], I wasn’t very happy, because I had already had a lot of training and in some ways I had been disappointed. But I liked a lot of what Innovista did and, after my first workshop, I didn’t think I would work with Innovista, but I saw that they gave a lot of practical teaching that is very good for the church. At that time I was praying for the church to be powerful and to impact the community. So I could see that it was what Innovista teaches and when Jason said ‘I am thinking that you would good for Innovista’, I said ‘No, no, you have to look for a man, not a woman! [laughs]’. In our context, women have to be silent in the church. In my church it is not like this, but it is in most of the churches in Moldovia. But I prayed a lot - for almost one year - and I felt that God was calling me. So I started to work with Innovista in 2019.

I think it's great that people from abroad [support us], because I can see how God brought a lot of staff here in Moldova and changed our mindset. Some people were in touch with people from abroad who love God, like Jason [Lane]. So there are other people that have the same heart and I am amazed how God works. I spoke to someone from Germany and they wake up every morning with a song for Moldova and pray for the country every day. I was not even praying for Moldova every day! I thought, ‘They are not here, so why are they praying for Moldova so much?’ So they taught me how to love Moldova and to pray for the country. Another example is how Jason believed in us… He saw some strong points in me that I couldn’t at first see. It was a big change in my life and, after that, we impact other lives.

We also try to see different qualities that people don’t notice and we already see the difference that [helping people see this] makes. It means to believe in people. We can see some good parts, but maybe we are only the beginning – to say “I believe in you”… To give trust, to encourage and to see in people good things. Sometimes we have to open our eyes and see them, so we are teaching others to do the same: to see good things and encourage, and for them to see good things and encourage too.

So it’s amazing how God works in his universal church, not only in England or Moldova. There is this love for other nations and to invest in it with time, resources and energy. So I am very thankful for that: God’s work in different parts of the world in different ways. It is one big church.

What would you say your vision is for your ministry?

My vision for my ministry is that the church has to be salt and light. That’s why they have to be equipped, powerful and skilled people to reach the communities for God.

Are there any Bible verses that are particularly important to you?

This year, God gave me the verse Mark 12:20: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’. That has impacted me a lot this year: to depend on God and to love him, because everything comes from him. It’s sweet to be near God and it’s powerful.

What keeps you going when ministry is more difficult?

I have another verse: Ephesians 2:10: ‘For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’. So I understand that God has already prepared everything, so I only have to walk on this path and to be patient sometimes and wait for the results. Not to be angry or scared that something will not happen. It’s like in Esther, when the Jews were going to be killed. God worked in amazing ways through Mordecai. So I understand God is at work and I only have to trust him and do what I can in this moment.

We talk of the gospel being able to transform lives. What hope does Christianity have to offer people and why is that important?

I think first through our identity. People can understand who they are - how important and precious they are and who their creator is (their loving God and Father). It’s great to know him, because it provides peace and joy. All good things happen where God is. So it’s a great, great gift to know God. So we Christians have the best gift to give people: to give them the knowledge or this touch of God.

Innovista supports leaders in challenging contexts. Can you tell us a little bit about Moldova and the challenges the country faces? 

The biggest challenge is our economical situation and not just this, but the consequences of it, because many parents have to go abroad. So we have a lot of kids [here] that are without parents who are with their grandparents or even in centres, where they have to live for a while. It’s an interesting generation (without parents)! So the biggest problem is that many people leave Moldova. We already have villages where there are only old people. In cities it is better – Chişinău is probably the best – but even in cities we have less and less people and the population becomes older and older – older in some ways, because people don’t live to the same age here (60-65 years).

Also we have our post-communistic mindset, which makes it very hard for us to develop businesses, because we were previously not allowed to. And for the church, I think it’s the same. We can still feel it. Some years ago the church [members] didn’t have the right to learn [further education], because only Communist members were allowed to do it. So even now we have the same mindset: not wanting to be in a high up position, or to learn, or to think about politics or money. But it came from this context and we have to unlearn that mindset.

The war has affected Moldova too. We were already in a crisis, but it is bigger now (emotionally and financially). There is a lot of fear here. It’s easier than it was in the beginning, but soon we will have an election, so many people who are pro-European are afraid that Russia will come back and then we will suffer a lot. So they are afraid about what will happen in the future…

We [also] have corruption even in institutions like universities and at different levels, such as in medicine.

What challenges does the church face in Moldova?

We have protestants. The rest are orthodox, but it is hard to say how many are Christians among them. Many of them [in the orthodox church] would believe that God is in their heart and their God is the universe or something like that. But I have noticed that many people in the orthodox church are really seeking God and want to know him. In a crisis, we are often looking for God, so maybe that is what is happening in our situation.

The protestant church is only around 3% of the population and the challenges are the same [as in the country as a whole]. It’s very hard to keep the church going. The first problem is the financial situation again, even when we work with teams. We can form a good team but, after a year, from eight to ten people perhaps only one or two are left, because the rest have gone abroad. And pastors can’t stop them going, because they understand they have families and they have to feed them. And it’s sad, because the church grows very slowly.

A second issue is that gifts [of the congregation] are not so valued. Only the person from the church is working and the rest come on a Sunday and they wait for someone to feed them and then they go back home. And that’s again a problem.

Maybe another problem in some churches is a woman is not officially a leader. Very often they are leading, but even if they do, the husband is often the official leader. So they don’t give the freedom for [people’s] gifts to work to their full potential.

What does Innovista do to help with these challenges?

That’s why we develop programmes. We have Tempo and it’s a great course, but we have developed other courses too, which we’ve already started, such as Mindshift [a Christian course designed to help people from post-communist countries]. So the training is not just about you being a member of a church or team, but it’s focusing on personality, character and mindset. We can’t change a lot of things without changing our mindset first. So we have started that course and we have already had some young people start their own businesses. In the beginning, they said ‘Okay, we will not be leaders in the church, because they are poor. My father was a pastor and I don’t want to have the same life.’ We had this case here, but now the person is a youth leader, who at the same time has his own business. When I asked how long he could see himself serving in the church he said, ‘All my life’. So that was very encouraging for me, because some years ago he said he would not serve in the church, because he was going to go into business. So we do this and they are little steps.

We do a lot of coaching, mentoring and counselling – they’re all together. Here, the term ‘coaching’ is quite new… With six people pioneers and innovators from different churches and denominations we developed a ‘Relevant’ programme. We finished it last year, and we are now testing it in some churches. It’s about involving almost all the church in social or church projects. At the start, people have to see their gifts, which the pastors and leaders help them with. So they might want to serve children, to be teachers, doctors or to feed someone. So they form a group and then they write a project and test it. After that we evaluate it. So we will see what happens. The project has twelve little steps. Celebration too is one of the steps, because we want our people to learn to celebrate. We often dream big dreams and when we only make little steps, we can get disappointed and then stop. So we teach them that we have to take little steps and to celebrate them – and to do that continually.

We do retreats with [Christian] leaders too (for 5-7 days, depending on what type), because many people are tired. People with similar experiences or situations come together to have fellowship and to have a lot of time with God with some input from each other, so they can think about their ministry and vision. Tempo works well at these retreats, because these very busy people have a number of days to rest and understand things better. We’ve had some pastors who wanted to leave the ministry, but during the retreat remembered again what God has said to them. So they have been refreshed by the retreat and then chose to stay in ministry.

At the same time, I understand that church members need to develop their own businesses. So I tried to do it myself and I am in the process of learning. Because if we want to teach someone, we have to understand it for ourselves. I hope in one or two years I can share more and use the experience to encourage others. ‘If I can do it, why can’t you?’ We want to create workplaces for others, for our members and for our communities.

We also encourage all of the teams to come to our training, not just men. We want them to bring all the people who are involved in ministry. A lot of women come and sometimes there are more of them than men. It’s encouraging. We have already had feedback from a pastor, who had a lot of women helping at church, but who said he had never stopped to think who in reality was his team. He said, ‘I am so happy we could do the course and we’re a good team’. He is now wanting to lead the Mindshift team, but in a very innovative way. He wants to do it not just with the church, but with key people in the city: the mayor, teachers and doctors (people of influence). So we will test that new project this year (doing it together with the church and other institutions that have influence in the community).

Moldova is right next to Ukraine. How has the war affected the country and has the situation in Transnistria (a region in Moldova allied to Russia) changed?

Yes, from the beginning it was a big fear - that the war would come here too. Now we have it, but it is in the background. Many people in our country already have some bags with their most important things, if something happens, they will take it and go away.

The second problem is that our financial crisis is worse now, as Ukrainian people have come here and that has caused the cost of rent to go up (and our salaries remain the same). Even the cost of buying apartments is high, but I know that in many countries prices are rising.

We have Russian and Ukrainian minorities here and there is tension between them. Even if people are speaking Russian it doesn’t mean they are guilty, but we can feel and see this attitude.

At the same time, we have a lot of people who work abroad in Russia. So for them it is hard to take money from the country, because the banks are not working.

The latest in Transnistria is that it used to rely on goods from Ukraine, but now they depend more on Moldova. Some people are ready to go from there, because they are worried that if the war starts [in Moldova], they will be the first place where it will take place. We [believers] are working together to help refugees in Transnistria.

We sometimes describe the church as reaching people on the ‘margins’/’edges’ of society. Is that your experience in Moldova?

Our churches work with vulnerable kids. I mentioned that many parents are going abroad. We have a lot of alcoholism here. Women will go abroad and then men drink and the kids are without supervision. So some churches have day-centres in or near the church to help the kids. We are working more with kids than the adults [in this situation]. Some churches work with people who are addicted [drugs/alcohol]. We also help some families by going with bags of food (with the help of other big organisations that help provide these products).

What can the western church learn from the Moldovan church?

I think after the war, I could see for myself one highlight was the church being flexibility and open. When the war started our churches were mobilised. Even if we didn’t have any resources (financial, material or food), people opened their houses and their churches. I think on the 3rd or 4th day of the war, the churches were full of beds where people could come. There was a lot of unity at the time. The war is a very bad thing in Moldova, but God made a good thing come, in the form of unity. You can see the heart of people.

In the camps, even when we have less resources, we are very creative. Sometimes it is good to know what we have in our hands and to use it, not to say it is less. So I think in Moldova we started to understand and do that. I like our hearts: that you give the best you have in the fridge or your best bed for a guest. We were surprised to see that when it happened the church did this for people we didn’t know. They were not afraid of them killing us or throwing something from the house. So I liked a lot what we saw from our people: their hearts and hospitality.

You have mentioned that leaders have been affected by previously being part of the Soviet Union. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Firstly, I think there was less initiative to do something as a result [of being part of the Soviet Union]. My parents told me that if you finish university the State has to give you a house and a place to work. So they didn’t have to think about that. So when we became independent, no one taught us how to think differently, and no one gave us anything for free, like they [the previous generation] had.

People with initiative at that time [when part of the Soviet Union] were sent to camps in Siberia, so there was a fear. Many wise people were made examples of. So those who stayed here didn’t have to think.

So my kids think differently, but I can see even in myself and my husband there is a fear to try something. Things are changing though, because people are coming back from abroad with different mindsets.

There was also [in the Soviet Union) the idea that a leader is the boss. They will tell you what to do and if you do it wrong, they will ask you why you did it wrong. I don’t know if in the church has also been affected by this, but it seems like the same communistic style. It’s the pastor and there is a hierarchy rather than a team. Maybe it is the same in other countries too, but you can feel this style of leadership here. So the leaders says do it like this and they control everything. They are afraid to delegate, because they consider themselves the best at doing things. So there can be many things hidden. They are smiling and it seems open, but there are a lot of things hidden, like in the communist society. They say ‘We are all equal’, but it wasn’t true.

So I think this is where we have suffered a lot. There is a lack of initiative and teaching about how to do it (and people to be role models). We have grown up with parents who are dependent, so we haven’t had an example of how to do it. There are some exceptions, but they’re not always good examples, as there is corruption.

I think in 10-15 or perhaps 20 years it will be another society and community, but now we are still fighting with that [the legacy of the Soviet Union].

What have you done to help overcome that mindset?

We worked together with our other National Directors from the east [other countries that were part of the Soviet Union] to develop Mindshift [a training programme for those from post-Soviet Union contexts]. We wanted people to understand their thoughts and mindsets… because a lot of what they’re thinking is from their past experiences. So they are given time to think, analyse and understand themselves and others. The first goal is to understand that we have different gifts and we can think differently (a ‘mind shift’). We wanted to offer a place where we could gather leaders, so that they can support each other and think together – and feel free in the atmosphere.

At Tempo, we saw that leaders are sometimes trying to remain at the level of the leader, but we wanted to make a platform or space where people can feel free and be vulnerable, because change sometimes starts with our vulnerability. So we cover different topics, like habits, the leader, how to make changes, and emotional intelligence. In Moldova we have a big problems with the latter, as it is a new term for many people. We communicate in a very direct and sometimes aggressive way. We will often not even ask ‘How are you?’ or even say ‘Hi’. People in our culture also speak a lot about people’s mistakes. So we help leaders to give good feedback and to be encouraging, because sometimes they don’t think they need to do this, because people helping with ministry are doing it for God, not them. So we speak about emotional intelligence and how to communicate better with constructive feedback. We also speak about how to deal with the pain of our mistakes, because some people want to serve, but they don’t do anything, because they are worried they will make a mistake.

So Mindshift is about understanding yourself, the way you live in your context, and the need to find your own potential and that of others. If you speak to leaders that’s the key to success: partnership [working with others in teams].

What role does the Christian message play in this?

Mindshift is based on the Bible, like Tempo. Every training we do is based on the Bible and what it teaches. The Bible talks of renewing your mind and it’s true and good. It’s not our psychology. So we learn about our habits, behaviour and emotional intelligence from the Bible from examples like Paul (seeing how he was in his early life and how he was at the end). So we use passages from the Bible and the trainers have only a very short input, because we give them to the teams and they have to find think and find themselves through the Bible – they have a lot of study to do at the workshops and at home.

They will say that they never thought about how the Bible teaches us about our character and emotions. So for them it is very surprising and very good. But we work like this. Even if we work with leaders in a room, they have homework because Innovista’s training is applied to teams. So it’s like this. We believe the word of God transforms our minds.

Innovista is often involved with pioneering ministry (and Mindshift has been one of those)? What other new/pioneering forms of ministry have you been involved with?

We have started doing retreats (and different types of them). We have a retreat for leaders, where they are given time to spend with the word of God and to think about the mission of God (for the vision God gave them and the strategy of how to make it happen). Because often we have a vision, but we don’t have a time to build a strategy with God. So it is a time of quiet for people to encourage each other and share their vision and strategy to get feedback on it… ‘I thought about this, but when I shared I thought about that’. So we started these treats.

We also saw that families involved in mission are suffering. They have some bad luck and we saw that great church leaders were divorcing. So we understood that we maybe needed to do something like this. So in our second year we provided a family retreat, where all the family could come to. This year was more in the Innovista style: thinking about vision and values with the family. There was such good feedback. One family said it is so hard to find time together to gather everyone to stay to think about our values and vision, so it was good to be part of it… It is important to help families understand how to be involved in ministry, but to remember they are family (their first duty). And how you can involve kids is great, because they can do all the stuff with their parents and feel joy with that.

We have a great discipleship school too. It is for younger leaders (16 to 22-year-olds). They are the ‘right hand’ of leaders, because they are very involved [in ministry]. We speak a lot about the new covenant and the heart of God. We speak about their vision: where God has put them and what their purpose is. We have seen a lot of changes in young people and, to be honest, I didn’t expect it. The pastor said the young people who came are starting to read their Bibles every day and to share what they have read with me – and they have started ministry with kids. This has been going on for a year – not just a month. I see that young people are very open, as this is a time when they form their personality. So it’s easy with them, because they feel a hunger and are seeking their path. So we have seen great results there.

It is also the second year in which we help and mentor [church] teams to organise camps. They can do this if there are some conflicts they need to resolve or if they need helping with brainstorming. I’m hoping to develop that more in the future.

Again, we’re are working on the Relevant programme [described above], which starts in September. We are testing this for four months.

Coaching is also new too. It’s not innovative for you [in the west], but it is here. We are asking God how to lead us with this tool. Like I said, it’s not comfortable, because sometimes when you do coaching the questions can feels like a personal attack. So it makes you feel vulnerable, which is why we need a lot of wisdom in how we do it. But it’s a great tool, so it’s important people understand it is for them. It is about learning the skill to stop and to think. Sometimes it is uncomfortable to be face to face with your thoughts, your challenges and weak points of view. Even seeking your strong points can be challenging too. So we have to be wise to do it in a way in which the person can receive. I am sure it will develop over the years, but it’s the first steps.

You have been involved with a lot of leadership training. What is different about how Innovista works?

One piece of feedback we received is that as well as liking the course, they really liked the way we worked together: me (a woman) and a colleague (a man). We work together, so sometimes I teach at the front and my colleagues co-leads – and they like it a lot, because it’s a good model in Moldova. There is no shame if someone adds or completes what you have said. The leader said that he understood that one mind is okay, but two is better…

Another we received is that they like that we understand them. We are very open and we go to their context. In Moldova there is a bigger context but, at the same time, there is a context in every church, whether it’s in a village or a city. So we go there and we listen to them, so that we can help with their problem. We don’t come with a set programme that we have. Tempo, is a very good programme, for example, but we are very attentive to the specific challenges that they have. So we can offer additional training, meetings or mentoring.

And I think most importantly we go alongside for the long term. It’s not just one training and it’s ‘Goodbye’ or ‘See you in 10 year’s time’. We invest a lot in the teams with whom we are working with – especially in the first year, and after that we keep in touch to find out how they are doing.

So it is practical teaching based on the Bible. It’s something that is special. There are other good trainings, that are good, but they can be like our own thoughts. But we come with the model that God has, but in a very practical way.

What is very innovative is that we work with teams. We don’t just work with leaders, but we always encourage them to come with their teams. In the beginning it can be hard for people who don’t have a team, but it’s always what we encourage (practically). In our eyes we form the team - it’s the Innovista way.

In our training, we give a short input and they [the teams] have to think a lot. We don’t give them a vision, but we teach them how to understand their vision in their context according to what God gave them. So we lead them and we give them some tools and show them how to use them. We do it step-by-step and then we add, add and add. We want to answer their needs, but we don’t do the work in their place. We help them do it, but not just that, but also to how to teach others in their church. So the process of learning is very different. It is very practical with a lot of activities. We also use games that have a purpose. Often we are so serious and although there is a time to analyse, when we are playing, things can sometimes be simpler to understand. Very often the feedback is about the game activities. During these we only ask questions like, ‘What have you understood about the team?’ They will say something about the need for unity or to have a vision or purpose. And very often I will say ‘You know all this stuff. I don’t need to say anything!’

What have been highlights for you in the past few months?

The retreats are now very fresh in my mind, because we didn’t have the money to do them initially. We try to support their financial needs, because we want to serve the leaders, because they serve a lot and know about sacrifice. That is why we want to serve them. So we’re thankful that God has provided so that they can happen. The results have already been great with two that we ran.

We are learning too and I am very thankful for this, and that God gave us power, and that the people are open and we can see a change in them. They are not only open, but very involved. We sometimes speak about very new things [for them], which can feel strange, but they are open and afterwards you can see the results. Sometimes it can hard to speak with their families about vision, but they said it was hard, but so great. So that has been our highlight. The retreats and how God works.

How can we pray for you (what are your needs)?

Yes, it’s nearly the time to start a new year of work (from September), so wisdom from God to understand how to go, where to go and what we have to do. I want to only what he has prepared for us. So to be wise and with all of the team. We have an Innovista retreat with our team and with the Board. So we pray for God to provide it and to have a great time – and I wish to have a great unity between the board and Innovista. Because in our board we have great, amazing people and God called us to work together, so we want to understand how to do it better. So firstly its for us to plan the whole year, but secondly, our tiny relationship with the Board and put all of the gifts together. And for my family and other families, because we have big families in our team, so protection and for health.

NB: These questions were part of a videoed interview with Maricela. Some of the language has been modified slightly for the written format. You can watch some of the original interview here.

About Innovista

Supporting leaders where they're needed most.

Innovista identifies, equips and develops Christian leaders working in challenging locations. Every year, we train and mentor around 1,500 leaders in Britain, Ireland, Moldova, Ukraine, Central Asia and beyond. We help leaders transform people and communities through churches, ministries and enterprises. Inspired by Jesus, we equip leaders to build a better world.