Life as a reverend in Uganda

Chris Howles

The first thing that often surprises people is that clergy in Uganda have absolutely no say in where they minister. Clergy will get a letter from the bishop telling them that in two to four weeks they will be moving to a different parish, potentially hundreds of kilometres away. Most will stay in a parish for three to four years before getting shifted on. The perception is that keeping someone in one place would make them lazy or complacent. But you can imagine how stressful it is to suddenly be told you’re off in a month’s time, when your children are settled in a school, your wife is content, and you are enjoying your ministry. 

The average minister in Uganda is in charge of between 7 and 15 churches as soon as they leave bible college. I have one former student with 38 churches and another with 42. In many ways it isn’t possible to lead so many individual congregations, but they give it their best shot! Churches are distant and transport is expensive – many have to walk long distances to visit their flock or spend the little money they do have to get to them. On a day-to-day basis many of their churches will be run by a lay-reader, who will keep the church going whilst also doing their farming or running a business. New clergy are given the most remote, difficult parishes, with more experienced clergy getting the parishes that are closer to towns and have fewer churches and wealthier congregations. 

In rural areas churches often have around 50-100 members, most of which are subsistence farmers. The church may meet in the shade of trees, or in a mud-walled and grass-thatched building. In churches where seats are just mud benches, the big desire is to upgrade to plastic chairs – or even nice pews! 

The services feel quite familiar to some Church of England services – hymns, Lord’s prayer, creed, readings, announcements, sermon, offertory. Sometimes people don’t have cash so they give a chicken or some maize they’ve grown and this will get auctioned off to be bought by someone with cash and thus ‘monetarised’. Services can be anything between three and six hours long. Most churches don’t run a regular Sunday school so children either sit in the service or hang around outside. 

Most things can be quite slow. Meetings may start a few hours late, so you just wait around. Rain might delay things by a few hours whilst you wait for it to stop. Pastoralia - which is visiting church folk in their homes or in hospital – can take six or seven hours for just a handful of visits, especially considering travelling on foot as well as taking food together. 

Preaching itself here is very different to what many of us might be used to in the UK. It’s often full of ‘audience interaction’ (call-response, questions etc.) and generally speaking is based around story-telling and anecdote (common in cultures like this with strong recent roots in orality). Altar calls are very common here and often involve people coming up not necessarily as a first-time conversion, but rather to ‘recommit’ to Christ after a time of spiritual weakness or faithlessness (I’ve seen someone respond to an altar-call at their own ordination service!). Because clergy are not often in the same church two Sunday’s in a row they rarely preach through a chapter or book like many of us are used to in the UK, but will either use the lectionary or follow the diocesan programme of things like ‘Health Sunday’, ‘Father’s Sunday’ and ‘Education Sunday’ and choose passages accordingly

I always try to encourage my students to invest in their lay-readers – to meet with them regularly to help them understand the Bibles and how to preach, pray and pastor people. Some clergy will work hard to do ‘house-to-house’ evangelism. Sickness is much more prevalent here and so clergy will spend a not insignificant amount of time ‘down’ with fever, malaria, typhoid etc, or taking sick family members to the hospital. Most will also need to spend some time growing food to feed their family or sell. 

There’s no proper salary schemes here – most clergy just get a certain proportion of the weekly offertory. The rare few - in Kampala or other towns - can support themselves well and drive a car, send their children to good schools and eat well, but these postings are few and far between. As one bishop once told me, clergy here need to have 'a bible in one hand and a hoe in the other.' The financial challenges are hard: to watch your children get kicked out of school for non-payment, or your wife suffer in sickness because you can’t afford treatment, or to know that a poverty-stricken retirement awaits you, all because you’ve chosen the life of ordained ministry. Well, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” These verses are as precious to our students as they are neglected in UK circles. 

Please pray: pray as Paul prays for the Ephesians (ch3): “I pray that out of [God’s] glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”