Ghana’s Setri Nyomi pursues justice agenda as global church leader

NyomiThe general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), Setri Nyomi, believes in the right of all people to be treated with justice and respect. This conviction has brought him from his home community in Anloga, Ghana to Geneva, Switzerland where he serves as the organization’s first African leader.

Leading a global organization with 229 member churches in 108 countries is a demanding task. It is one to which Nyomi brings a combination of ecumenical experience, theological scholarship and the firm conviction that Christians must oppose systemic injustice within society and the financial system.

Nyomi says that as a young person he chose to study theology as he felt a strong sense of God’s calling to ordained ministry in order to be “an instrument of help to others”.

Things could have turned out differently though. The year Nyomi was 18, he was sent on scholarship to study in the state of Mississippi in the southern United States, an area known for high levels of racial intolerance at that time. When he realized the racism affected even the church, he wrestled with whether to put aside his plans to work for the church. Ultimately that experience built in him a passion for justice which has led the young Nyomi to have a career in ministry and global ecumenism focused on transformation within the church and society.

Following ordination in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Ghana, Nyomi completed a Ph. D. in pastoral theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in the United States. He went on to serve the church in several capacities, including time as a senior executive with the All Africa Council of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya, where his responsibilities included theology as well as Christian education and family life.

In April 2000, Nyomi was elected General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) – the first non-European to be in this position. When, in 2010, WARC merged with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to form WCRC, Nyomi was named to head the new group.

The theologian and pastor is now concluding a combined 14 year term as general secretary to WARC and WCRC. He is due to leave the post in September 2014 following the election of his successor. To mark his final year of service, the organization’s executive committee has chosen to meet in Dodowa, Ghana from 7-15 May, a way of acknowledging the local roots of this global church leader.

Looking back on his time with WARC and later with WCRC, Nyomi acknowledges that being the first African general secretary to head the global Reformed church movement has offered both challenges and opportunities.

The Ghanaian justice advocate notes that, on the one hand, because he comes from a country that must deal with inequities in global structures, his appointment has allowed him the opportunity to “lead from the margins” on the world stage.

“I could help create a better sense of ownership by churches from the Global South who may have felt previously that the Reformed church movement ‘belonged’ to the Global North in which they were mere passengers,” Nyomi explains. “With me, they have felt that the General Secretary is someone they can identify with and who identifies with their issues.”

On the other hand, Nyomi has faced challenges as an African leader of a global body. Some of them were financial.

“I came in at a time when finances available to ecumenical organisations and church head offices were very much challenged and, being an African, I was not linked with the traditional sources of funding,” he says.

The decline of funding for global ecumenism has been a constant theme throughout the past decade and has created significant challenges for WCRC. During a meeting in Berastagi, Indonesia in May 2012, WCRC’s executive committee approved plans that led to approval later in the year for moving the organization’s head office from the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva to Hannover, Germany. The move was spurred by calls to reduce staffing costs and avoid the high cost of converting member church donations to Swiss francs.

Nyomi’s tenure saw the creation and adoption of a statement that says that Christian theology and Biblical texts make it imperative for Christians to work for economic and social justice in their communities and in global decision-making forums. The statement was approved during the organization’s global assembly (General Council) held in Accra, Ghana in 2004. Dubbed the “Accra Confession”, it has been both celebrated and criticized by member churches. However, it remains a foundational document, underpinning theological, educational, advocacy and mission work of the WCRC’s member churches, partners and others in the ecumenical movement. Nyomi was one of the inspiring forces behind the document and believes it is key to living responsibly as a Christian in the 21st century.

“As an African Reformed theologian, I have a sense of awareness that our theological reflection would be bankrupt if it did not touch on our lived experience. This means we cannot be silent when one part of the world is suffering or when global structures are tainted with injustice. It is this spirit that is behind the creation of the Accra confession and its dissemination. These are not merely African theological expressions. This understanding has helped me address criticisms of the Accra Confession in Europe and North America,” he states.

Looking forward to the meeting of the executive committee in Ghana, Nyomi sees it as an opportunity for WCRC’s Ghanaian member churches to offer hospitality to the global body and to share stories of their history and faith in action today. “Ghanaians love to do that,” says Nyomi.

This is the first in a series of profiles of three of the African leaders of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC): Setri Nyomi, General Secretary (Ghana); Jerry Pillay, President (South Africa); and Veronica Muchiri, Executive Committee member (Kenya). WCRC’s executive committee will meet at the Forest Hotel in Dodowa, Ghana 7-15 May.

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