Held at Thuchira Tourist Lodge at Mulanje Mountain by Phalombe
13-25 April 2017
by Rev JJ Lim
“Bam, bam! bam, bam!!” It was 5.20 am and still dark. I was already awake, but who could it be this early in the morning? My heart skipped a beat as my mind raced back to that night in December 2012 when three men smashed the door and charged in with machetes. “Who’s that?” I enquired. “Wata!” came the reply. I did not recognize the voice, but at least it did not say “Police! Open up!”
I opened the door. It was the water lady. She had a broad smile as she lowered the tub of hot water which she was balancing on her head! “Wata!” she said. “Oh, I do not need the water,” I protested. She nodded but proceeded to carry the tub into the attached bathroom, leaving a trail of muddy footprints all the way.
And this she did every day without fail in the two weeks or so that we stayed in the lodge in this picturesque locale. We even tried telling the manager that we did not need the water. But the next morning, at exactly the same time, she would be at the door again!
After a while, we gave up trying to change her mind, but simply worked our morning schedule around hers. There was nothing very wrong about her desire to serve or the way she served. We were just not used to it. We needed to adapt. It was something we needed to learn to do quickly.
It was the first day of the Presbytery Trials for the ministerial students of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Malawi and Mozambique. The previous day, we had gone from the airport to the money exchanger, to the Bible Society to put a cash order for 500 Bibles with funds from EPCA and PCC. Then in the three hours or so ride in the little truck to the Mulanje, we had cobbled up a rough plan for the trials. We had 14 students, but only 11 days if we exclude the Sabbaths. We decided to examine the students in six areas:
- Locus #1: Christian Character & Call
- Locus #2: Confessional Theology & Practice
- Locus #3: Bible knowledge
- Locus #4: Hermeneutics (Handling of the Bible)
- Locus #5: Church History & Knowledge of Contemporaneous Church Scene.
- Locus #6: Trial Sermon
An hour would be allocated for each student in each locus, and then the Presbytery would take 15 minutes to deliberate and vote on whether the student passed the locus. Although we were technically commissioners, the situation on hand demanded that Pastor Chris Connors served as the Moderator, while I served as the clerk. Pastor Rex and Pastor Precious would serve as interpreters.
Apart from that, the students were to organize themselves to lead devotions every morning and before lunch at the time appointed.
The presbytery was convened with prayer and a brief exhortation from the Scriptures. A roll-call or what should be a roll-call was taken. The six presbyteries were all represented by pastors: Pastors Rex Chitekwe and Precious Kanyowa would represent Luchenza and Shire Valley, Pastor Royd Waya would represent Phalombe and Zomba, and Pastor George Banda would represent Liwonde and Milange (Mozambique). Pastor Jack Mpakera of Liwonde could not come as he could not get anyone to help with his harvest.
“Where are the ruling elders?” This was the first question which Pastor Connors and I posed to the men when they were seated. “They were not invited! We had no budget for them,” came the reply. There must have been a miscommunication somewhere. But never mind, we adapt! It was a learning experience for every one of us. What is a presbytery without ruling elders? The Lord teaches us in different ways. Pastor Connors and I emptied our pockets and figured that with some withdrawals from a Credit Card we could cover the shortfall.
A few phone calls and an hour later, the first of the elders, Elder Godfrey Makhumula from Phalombe arrived and joined the Presbytery as we began to examine our first student Silas Sidrek on Confessional Theology. Then as the day dawned, Elder Allan Kalepa from Luchenza arrived. Elder Edward Alberto from Shire Valley and Elder Luciano Estavao from Mozambique would arrive early next morning. Though these elders were lacking in instruction themselves, they are faithful men who loves the Lord, and have a keen desire to do what is right. With help of the Westminster Shorter Catechism and a Catechism booklet published by GDS that had been translated into Chichewa, they were able to participate meaningfully as examiners while having a course in theology and hermeneutics themselves in the process!
The students were scheduled to be examined by drawing lots. They were examined in the first five loci one after another, and then scheduled to preach their trial sermon the next evening. In each session, the presbyters would take turns to query the candidate.
“Do you consider yourself a true Christian”; “Tell us about your conversion”; “Name three changes that resulted from your conversion”; “Do you conduct family worship”; “Will you be willing to relocate to a remote village if you are called to serve there”… These are some questions that were posed under the first locus.
“List the Ten Commandments”; “Recite the Apostles’ Creed”; “List the Five Points of Calvinism and provide a proof-text for each point”; “List the five solas of the Reformation”; “Shorter Catechism, Question 33, What is Justification?”; “Question 85, What does God require of us, that we may escape His wrath and curse due to us for sin?”; “In simple terms, what is the difference between justification and sanctification?”; “Which comes first, regeneration or faith?”; “What is the principle of worship adopted by the EPC, and which Catechism questions deal with it?” These are some of the questions asked in the second locus.
In the third locus, time is divided between questions related to the Old Testament and those related to the New Testament. “Where is the first gospel promise stated?”; “Where is the prophecy of the substitutionary atone of Christ taught?”; “Who were the kings at the time when the Kingdom of Israel was divided?” “Which king did the Lord Jesus Christ descend from?” These were some of the questions asked under the Old Testament segment. “Identify the chapter in which the Lord Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd”; “Where is the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ and of His Church taught?”; “Where do we find the doctrine of the armour of God?”; “Where do we find instructions for husbands and wives?” These and many others were asked in the New Testament segment.
As for the fourth locus, since Pastor Connors was the main instructor for hermeneutics, he starts off every session with questions designed to see if the students remembers and understand the theory: “What are the three-fold principle of Reformed hermeneutics?” The answer expected is, “Grammatical, Historical, Spiritual or Theological approach.” “What is the difference between types, symbols and figures of speech?” Most of the students were able to do fairly well here. With this out of the way, the presbyters took turns to query the students on specific verses in the Scripture to see if they are able to apply their knowledge competently.
I found the fifth locus to be most amusing. The ruling elders of the EPCM are quite concerned that the candidates are familiar with the history of the EPCM, and so they would often ask questions related to the founding of the denomination and the training that took place. “When and where did the first training seminar take place, who were the teachers?”; “Who accompanied pastor Connors and who helped fix the pastors’ motorbike?”; “Who accompanied pastor JJ?” In this way, elder Phil Connors, brother Jonathan Burley and elder Arthur Koh found their way into the presbytery trials. Pastor Connors and I tried to see how much Church history the students knew, and very quickly discovered that they knew only as much as could be found in the introductory material of a course of Calvinism that we taught and in the supplementary pages of the Catechism for Young Children printed by the GDS! It became clear to us that there is a crying need for catechetical material on church history and contemporary church scene.
At the end of each session, the student is dismissed temporarily while the presbyters share their opinion of how the student did in the locus because motion to vote whether to pass or fail, or pass with qualification is put up. It is interesting to see how the EPCM elders become more stringent and constructive in their opinions with each passing session as they become more accustomed to what they should expect from the students. It is interesting also to see the EPCM pastors rising to the occasion to raise motions for particular students when the moderator did not feel he could recommend any motion. While the EPCM presbyters gave due considerations to the comments made by the commissioners, it is clear that they were able to make up their minds independently when they finally voted.
The decision on whether a student passed and might be licensed to preach and given a certificate of eligibility for call was made on the last day after every student had been examined in all 6 loci including their trial sermon.
In the end, of the 14 students, we were able to pass four: (1) Samuel Kepesi of Seti De Abril, Milange; (2) Philip Mukakama of Safai, Luchenza; and (3) Patrick Selenje of Khanyepa, Luchenza; and (4) Patrick Chome of Katundu, Luchenza. Of these, the first three were eligible for a call while the last had to meet a requirement related to preaching before being eligible for a call. Seven were given provisional passes which required them to take re-examinations on 23 September 2017. Sadly, we had to fail three of the men. These were faithful men who love the Lord, but were simply unable to meet the basic requirements set by the Presbytery for them to serve as ministers of the gospel. They were encouraged instead to serve as ruling elders in the church.
The EPCM has come a long way. It began in 2004 with seven ministers from various denominations who had grown weary of the apostasy of their denominations and the neglect of the poor in rural Malawi. Their cogitations and prayers eventually led to the first visit by the EPCA in August 2011. It was then, in the five days seminar from 12-16 August 2011, in which PCC participated, that the Westminster Shorter Catechism was introduced to the church through the three hundred or so delegates. Since then the EPCA and PCC has been taking turns to conduct training classes for the ministerial students identified by the various presbyteries. Much has happened in these 6 years. Some students were found to be unsuitable for the ministry either due to their disposition or their lack of academic ability. These were asked to drop out of the training. A few had to drop out due to family issues or cheating at examinations, while one by the name of Jonathan Issa, a very promising student, was taken to glory while on the way to share what he learned with a remote village across the Lake Chiuta. Then there was the flood in 2014 followed by the failed harvests of 2015 and 2016. We thank God that through all these the Lord sustained His Church and continued to prepare the students for the ministry, and the church has continued to grow with hundreds being converted or added to the church almost every month. With the four men now licensed, the ministerial ranks of the EPCM would be almost double, and if the seven are eventually licensed, it would increase threefold! But with more than 25,000 members scattered in 90 congregations spread across Southern Malawi and Mozambique, it is clear there would still not be enough ministers! “The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest” (Lk 10:2).
In the meantime, the churches are growing, and the poor are crying out for more Bibles, Catechism materials and Psalters, even as they battle to provide food for the table due to a deficient harvest despite the return of the rains and brotherly helps from concerned churches overseas.
Oh may Jehovah Jireh, the Lord of the Harvest provide!
 Silas Sidrek (Sukusa, Milange); James Semani (Namiwa, Luchenza); Fosco Chagoma (Namiwa, Luchenza); Matthew Odala (Blantyre, Luchenza); Vincent Wilson (Dulanya, Milange); Jeremiah Mkuluthu (Ngokwe, Liwonde); and Edson Fombe (Khisimisi, Shire Valley).
 Dion Makina (Machemba, Phalombe); Stanley Mitambo (Katundu, Luchenza); and Chris Bonongwe (Dzaone, Zomba).
 Including Pastor Geofry Sakhura and Pastor Magriva Mugaya (Mozambique) who have already been called to glory.
 Dec 2012 (by PCC); Aug 2013 (EPCA); Dec 2013 (PCC); Aug 2014 (EPCA); Mar 2015 (PCC); Aug 2016 (EPCA).