Growing up in the Soviet Union, he was skeptical of the Christian faith. Then a group of friends invited the future bishop to church where he found what it meant to follow Christ, serve others, live joyfully, and be part of something greater. Today, United Methodist Bishop Eduard Khegay serves the Eurasia Episcopal Area which includes Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Kazakhstan.
During the Wisconsin Annual Conference, we chatted with the bishop about studying nuclear missiles as a hydraulic engineering student, leading his college student ministry before he felt ready, and what it is like to be a Christian in Russia today. He also shares the story of his call to ministry, relaxing with his children, and how the beautiful scenery of Russia helps keep his spirit in shape.
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Bishop Eduard Khegay
- Read Bishop Khegay's bio.
- Visit the website of the Eurasia Episcopal Area.
- Learn more about the United Methodist Central Conferences.
- Explore Upper Room, the devotional Bishop Khegay uses, and learn its history in Where the world meets to pray, by Joe Iovino.
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This episode posted on July 24, 2018.
Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
In this episode, we get to meet United Methodist Bishop Eduard Khegay of the Eurasia Episcopal area that includes Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Moldova.
Before becoming a United Methodist pastor, Bishop Khegay studied hydraulic engineering.
Bishop Khegay: Part of my study was nuclear weapons, and particularly, nuclear weapons missiles… We were trained to build better missiles to protect our country.
Joe: Though originally skeptical of the Christian faith, Bishop Khegay met a missionary and some Christians who invited him to participate in fun events and some meaningful outreach activities.
Bishop Khegay: I never felt so much love and grace and fun… If Christian faith is just like that, I want to follow Christ. I want to serve others. I want to have a joyful life, and I want to be part of something greater.
Joe: A quick note before we get started…
This conversation was recorded by Fran Walsh, my supervisor at United Methodist Communications. Fran and the bishop chatted during a lunch break at the Wisconsin Annual Conference, and it is fascinating.
Meet Bishop Eduard Khegay.
Fran: Thank you for joining us. As you know this podcast is about getting your spirit in shape. I’d like to start by talking about your own spirit. What was your first experience of going to church?
Bishop Khegay: I was in my early 20s when I came to a Methodist Church in Moscow. I was a college student at that time. The first experience, I think it was just overwhelming to see so many good people who just shared their love and friendship and were so open to me. That made the biggest impression on me, what Christianity is about, because I had a very negative image of Christian faith before I came to church.
Fran: Perhaps we should back up and you tell me about where you were born and raised and why it was in your twenties that you went into a church for the first time.
Bishop Khegay: I was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which at that time was part of the Soviet Union. I grew up there until I finished high school. And then I moved to Moscow to study at technical university.
While I was a student the Soviet Union collapsed. And I also had a search for meaning in my life. And my friends invited me to church.
Fran: You said you felt love in the church. When did you feel like you wanted to get more involved with the church? When did you come to think you had a call to be clergy?
Bishop Khegay: Well, the call to be a clergy came much later. But from the very beginning the amazing thing was that even though I hadn’t read the Bible and I didn’t know much about the Christian faith, but the people there invited me to participate in all kinds of activities like, like feeding the hungry or visiting the sick in the hospital or washing windows of the elderly people, anything, and having fun going to movies and all those activities. I was so blessed. I never felt so much love and grace and fun in the church.
Fran: And it made you see Christians and Christianity differently?
Bishop Khegay: Right. I felt if all of Christian faith is just like that I want to be…I want to follow Christ. I want to serve others and I want to have a joyful life. And I want to be part of something greater.
Fran: When did the call start that maybe you wanted to actually be a leader in the church?
Bishop Khegay: Well, I never wanted to be a leader. I came to faith because of a missionary from the U.S. who discipled me that year. And I was so inspired by…through the Bible studies and fellowship and friendship.
After 1 year of being disciple a friend of mine who is a U.S. missionary—his name is Jonathan Park. He’s a pastor in San Diego, California now. He said, “Well, I’m leaving now. I want you to lead the group,” which is the college student group. And I was very shocked because I hadn’t read the Bible from beginning to end yet. I only knew the basics. But somehow he believed in my abilities and gifts.
It was the toughest year of my life, I think, when he left, and asked me to lead the college student ministry there. I cried and I prayed a lot. It was very difficult because he was the leader for us, the teacher, the mentor and the preacher for us, and all of a sudden he’s gone.
I had to take care of the group of 50 people now learning the Bible and to follow Christ. And I thought, “Man, who am I to do this? I’m just a beginner.” But I think somehow God shaped me in so many ways through that experience.
Still, it took many years later when I—with encouragement of many of my pastors and friends who are older and more mature. They saw the gifts in me and encouraged me to study at seminary.
Even in seminary years I still…I still was not 100% sure that I wanted to be a pastor. I thought, you know, pastors are holy people who don’t eat and don’t go to restroom and do everything right, and I cannot do that (laughter). But God had a calling. So, you know, I just want to be obedient to God and serve with my life.
Fran: Had you done another job before that, or were you just a student? What did you think your career was going to be?
Bishop Khegay: I could share for another 2 hours about that, but briefly speaking I was studying for hydraulic engineering in my studies at the technical university. In fact, part of my study was nuclear weapons and in particularly nuclear weapons missiles of the United States Army.
So I studied classified material. We signed a contract of not sharing this knowledge with anybody for 50 years. So we were learning the hydraulic systems of U.S. missiles. And we were trained to build better missiles to protect our country.
As you know well we had a cold war at that time. So my mindset was U.S. is our enemy and we need to protect our country. So I thought that was kind of cool. I would be working for the… developing weapons and protect our land and things like that. But when I met U.S. missionary everything has changed because I realized people don’t want to kill us or they don’t hate us. It’s just politics, of course. Just like today. But people are people and they want to have families and they want to build churches and have a happy life, peaceful life. And so I thought, I’m gonna work for peace rather than for war. So I’m very glad I made that choice. And I’m very glad God brought me all these people in my life so I can change at that time.
Fran: What do you think about that makes you a better bishop today? What about that life experience of seeing maybe the other side of how things are perceived? How are those skills things you still call on every day?
Bishop Khegay: The training in my university was excellent, I think. We had the best brains in the country. One of the professors in my university said, “You will forget all the formulas you study now. You will forget all the things that we teach you; but one thing you need to be able to do when you come to a new place. You need to figure out how the system works and how you can improve it.”
I think, “Man, this is true very much just like a church.” You come to a new place, local church or district or conference, and you figure out how it works and then your task is to improve it. I think what’s we do all the time as bishops.
Fran: You’ve certainly said that missionaries make a difference and people who mentor us make a difference. How are you messaging that out to the people in your flock? How are you helping people understand that to be United Methodist, these things make a difference?
Bishop Khegay: Well, I emphasize in my area that everybody from lay person to a bishop needs to be a part of a small group. We call it Wesleyan groups, just like in times of John Wesley. So you can have a support group where you can share your soul, just like in John Wesley’s times. How is it with your soul? What have you been successful about? What have you failed to do, or what are your temptations in life? All that list of questions that still we have from Brother John Wesley.
Today I believe it’s important for us to be a part of that kind of a group of trustful friends. It’s a small group, but you need to confess your sins. You need to challenge your friends in a trustful circle as regular as possible.
Of course people are busy today, but I think without that we have a risk of burning out or losing focus in our ministry. Also I think conferences help us to be…stay in touch with each other and help each other.
I think just like the theme of the Wisconsin Conference where I visit right now, “Being one with each other.” I think that’s a very important message there, that we are not alone. We need to be together with others to encourage one another and to challenge one another.
Fran: Let’s talk about where we are right now talking, why you are here, and what you want to say to this group of United Methodists.
Bishop Khegay: We are here at the Wisconsin Annual Conference 2018, with the theme: One with Each Other.
I’m very grateful to Bishop Hee-Soo Jung who visited Russia many times, encouraged me in many ways. He invited me and my colleague Andrew King, who’s a superintendent from Russia to visit their church. They had a team of Wisconsin leaders visiting us in St. Petersburg just last month. And we had a wonderful time together. And now we are visiting them. And we’re gonna share about context in Russia in our ministries, and invite them to partner with us and visit us with their mission teams.
I think it’s important that we build relationships. I think as United Methodists we are so blessed to have a connectional church. And when we visit each other, serve with each other shoulder to shoulder, I think our people are inspired. And that it makes a big difference for us.
Also, I think, if I can speak briefly in terms of politics, as you know our governments do not get along very well. And as a child of cold war, I’m very saddened by that. Some of our people in Russia say it’s a cold war 2 now. And I think as a church, as Christians, we need to send a different message, that we are people of faith. We can be friends even though our governments are not very friendly with each other. But we as a church can continue to visit each other to build relationships.
We need to message that very strongly because already I’ve seen in the last 4 years the number of mission teams to Russia from the U.S. dropped significantly. And when I ask people why they say, “Oh, people afraid to come to Russia because of war in Ukraine or other things.” But I’m telling them that being in Russia is just as safe as in the U.S. Same thing happened to Russian people. Russian people say, “Oh, we don’t want to go to U.S. because they shoot…shoot, you know, guns everywhere in the U.S.”
That’s kind of the media propaganda works on both sides these days. So I think we as a church needs to send a different message, you know. I feel safe here visiting U.S., and I feel safe in Russia, and we need to help our mission teams to overcome that stigma and build relationships. I think once people visit each other and share bread at the table, visit each other homes, there would be nothing to stop them to build relationships.
Fran: Is it hard to be a Christian in Russia?
Bishop Khegay: It’s not hard, I think, but it’s sometimes challenging to be a Protestant in Russia because we are a very small percentage still. And many people do not know much about Protestant faith. And because they do not know they kind of feel hostile towards Protestants.
I think once they know about us and know us and know our faith and our ministries, they are much more friendly and open. But also another, I think, factor kind of underneath all of that is that many people presume that if we are Protestant or Methodists we are kind of like a branch of the western church. Because it’s western, they feel like threatened by the western influence.
So it’s important for us also to explain to people that we are a Russian United Methodist Church, although we’re a world church. But in Russia we are, you know, entity of its own. People often ask me whom do I report to. I say, “Well, I’m the bishop of the Russian Church. I’m in charge.” They say, “Well, do you report to like a pope in Vatican or something?” I said, “No, we have a Council of Bishops, but we are considered to be a body of equal servants. But in Russia I am responsible for our church.” So for the people understand that we are local, but we also global.
Fran: Part of why we do this podcast series with the bishops is because I’m afraid United Methodists forget that bishops are also members of the church, have their own spiritual walks, and maybe don’t always see them as other folks on this journey with us. Tell me a little bit about how you relax from your bishop job, or what you do when you want to feed your own soul.
Bishop Khegay: Well, I have 2 children—2 girls—16 and 4. And I have no better way to relax than hugging my 4 year old baby. Then I forget about everything that burdens me.
But in terms of my spirit. I do the reading in the morning, and it can be a devotion from The Upper Room magazine which we have in Russian also. It can be just a psalm from the Bible or a certain book of the Bible that I study in different periods of my life. I pray and I also…. Recently I restarted my journaling habit. I like to write. I have so many projects in my life that I haven’t accomplished yet. But I think writing helps to concentrate and to kind of leave that secular noise behind. So that helps me a lot. And I just write my prayers to God, or reflections of what happened throughout the day, or the day before. And I pray…I write a prayer for my friends or people in need whom I know. So that helps me to, again, concentrate and have a quality time with God individually.
I also like all kinds of physical activity, although I’m not in a…best rhythm of my life as a bishop. I was in the better shape when I was a pastor, since I didn’t have to travel much and could visit like fitness club 3 times a week. But now I try to do exercise here in the fitness room in the hotel, or so some walking or running. Whatever it takes. I think it’s important. You know, as Methodists, especially as bishops, we do sit a lot. So I try to move as much as possible whenever I have time.
Fran: How do you stay close to God? I know you’ve spoken about that a little bit, but what other advice can you give us about keeping our souls in shape?
Bishop Khegay: I like to read. I think reading helps me a lot in my spiritual journey. Now with audio books, I listen to a lot of audio books. When I became a bishop, I read a lot of leadership and spiritual growth and also in my ministry.
When I started in 2013 I asked many conferences and pastors how I can be a good servant for you. Believe it or not a lot of people said that they feel spiritually burned out. So I try to practice that myself and also encourage my people to practice individually. Also, we started the Academy for Spiritual Formation in Russia at that time with the help of Bishop Hee-Soo Jung and his wife Ing, when they were in Northern Illinois Conference. So that’s where I had my first academy. N ow I have Academy every year in my area where I participate either as a lecturer or just as a participant. That feeds my soul when I just can’t stop and reflect and be in the forest for 5 days. I think that’s my very good quality time, and I recommend it to every person to do an Academy for Spiritual Formation.
Magazines like Weavings from the Upper Room Ministry also helps me a lot to focus on different topics of my ministry. I like to walk, on the nature. I think as an urban guy we miss that a lot. So whatever opportunity gives me time.
I like the Russian landscape when I drive in my car through the fields and fields. Just like here in Wisconsin we have like fields of wheat or sunflower or green pastures. You know, it’s cool to stop and just listen to the…what you call that sound of wheat field. It reminds me of God’s creation and who created all of us. So I think as urban people, many of us who live in big cities now, we need that quality time.
Joe: That was United Methodist Bishop Eduard Khegay of the Eurasia Episcopal area. I hope you enjoyed meeting him through that conversation as much as I did.
To hear more from our bishops go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for the section called “UM Bishops’ faith stories.” Also at UMC.org/podcasts you will find more Get Your Spirit in Shape episodes and other United Methodist podcasts you might enjoy.
If you have a moment, write us a review on iTunes or send me an email with your suggestions, comments, or questions. My address is [email protected].
Thanks for listening to this episode. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.