6 months of wartime ministry in Ukraine
The most difficult moment in Sergey Nakul’s life took place in a crowded Kyiv train station shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. The pastor was sending his wife, two sons and a group of local church members to safety outside the attacked nation.
A few weeks earlier, Nakul’s wife insisted on staying with her husband and the church they love, but as the Russian assaults grew fiercer and a takeover of Kyiv seemed possible, Nakul pushed her away. gently carried away: “My beloved, it is time for you to leave.
He stood on the crowded train platform, holding his wife’s hand and wondering when he would see her, her sons and her church members again. “It was the most terrible moment for me as a father and pastor responsible for these people,” he says. When news came later that the group had reached safety in a border country, Nakul felt relieved. “Praise the Lord,” he remembers thinking. Now he could serve without fear.
If I am a shepherd in the image of Jesus, how could I leave my people?
Ukrainian regulations required the 45-year-old pastor to stay, along with most men between the ages of 18 and 60. But Nakul felt compelled to remain independent of wartime law. Why? “I’m a pastor, that’s the simple answer,” he said in a recent call from his home in Kyiv. He considered how Jesus is a shepherd who would never leave his sheep: “And then, if I am a shepherd in the image of Jesus, how could I leave my people?
Six months later, Nakul is still serving the church in Ukraine and hopes his loved ones will soon be able to join him. Serving without family is just one way Nakul and others have adapted to Christian ministry during six months of unexpected war. The bombardments, the displacement of 12 million peopleand uncertainty about the future require ministry leaders to adapt to a changing situation while holding on to the hope of the unchanging gospel.
Nakul says the gospel has kept him grounded. “I experienced the amazing faithfulness of the Lord,” he says. “And this very precious.”
For Nakul, the faithfulness of the Lord began long before he knew Jesus. As a child living under Soviet control in Ukraine, he had little exposure to the Bible, but he was curious. He spent time in the library reading atheistic books because they contained parts of scripture that the authors were trying to refute. It was the only way for Nakul to find what he calls “gospel pieces”. When he looks back, he sees his inexplicable interest as “just pure grace in [his] life.”
After Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged the former Soviet states into an economic spiral. Times were dark and often desperate, but one afternoon in 1994, Nakul met two young men on the street who asked him a simple question: “Would you like to talk about Jesus?”
The two men, who attended an evangelical church, explained the basics of the Christian faith. They also gave Nakul a copy of the New Testament. “You can’t even imagine what it meant back then to get a New Testament for free,” Nakul says.
When he read it, the message he found inside “was like fresh air”. “It was like a light,” he recalls. “It was like an open door to heaven.” A few months later, Nakul embraced saving faith in Christ and dedicated his life to ministry.
Nakul’s ministry included nine years as pastor of Grace Reformed Church in Kyiv. When the Russian invasion began on February 24, Nakul turned the basement of the church into a bomb shelter, where they continued to hold worship services, even when the number of attendees briefly dropped to four. .
The pastor adapted to the fluctuating numbers as some members evacuated the country and others were called up for military service in Ukraine. Nakul reported himself to a military training base, but authorities sent him home to serve his congregation. A friend who is the pastor of a nearby Baptist church recently declared serving as a soldier.
During this time, Nakul documented the destruction of war in his role as lead broadcaster for the Far East Broadcasting Company (CBEF), an international Christian radio network. At the start of the invasion, he recorded videos of destroyed buildings in his neighborhood and reported on the harsh conditions for Kyiv residents who remained in the city.
Your prayers help me not to be so afraid. They give peace to my heart.
Other FEBC broadcasters held online prayer meetings and directed listeners to the ministry’s counseling center for spiritual help. At a prayer meeting in June, a listener wrote in to say that the building next to her had just been hit by a rocket. “I hear people screaming,” she wrote. The broadcaster prayed for the frightened listener and heard a few minutes later: “Your prayers help me not to be so afraid. They give peace to my heart.
Aid to the injured
While peace is particularly rare in parts of Ukraine, citizens in most places face the trauma of living in a war-torn country. The tensions have created a need for spiritual care that Nakul and other pastors find as urgent as physical needs.
Fedya Minakov says this is also true in seminaries.
The Hebrew and Old Testament teacher at the Evangelical Reform Seminary of Ukraine fled his home in Kyiv when the bombings began in February, and he settled near the country’s western border. (He has since been reunited with his family, who joined him after he initially evacuated to the Netherlands.)
The seminary has adapted to wartime conditions by hosting online classes for a student body scattered across Ukraine and Europe, and they are preparing for a fall semester that will include a new course that is already nearly full: chaplaincy.
That makes sense in a nation where many men are suddenly called up for war, but Minakov says chaplaincy training isn’t just for soldiers. Pastors are calling for more specialized training on how to help congregants and other community members suffering from issues such as PTSD after months of shelling, death, destruction, family separation and displacement. “They need help to be a pastor in a country where everyone is suffering from war,” he says.
They need help to be a pastor in a country where everyone is suffering from war.
Pastors also need training to continue ordinary church planting work, even in extraordinary circumstances. Minakov says pastors and students scattered across Ukraine and Europe see the need for more churches with faithful preaching in areas where people are becoming more spiritually sensitive. “Their lives are in danger and so they ask big questions,” he says of people in local communities. “And we can tell them that the Bible and Christ have the only real answers to these questions.”
War as a Harvest Field
Sergey Rakhuba is encouraged by the responsive local church ministry he has witnessed as president of Mission Eurasiaan evangelistic ministry that trains and mobilizes church leaders throughout the region, including in Rakhuba’s native Ukraine.
Although the ministry is not a humanitarian organization, it has responded to many needs over the past six months. Working with local churches, the group supports refugee centers and day camps for thousands of displaced children. In Ukraine, the group also sent some of the first volunteers to help citizens in areas seized by Russia and liberated again by Ukrainian soldiers.
Rakhuba said a ministry team had recently reached a village of about 500 people in an area that had fallen under Russian control for two or three months before Ukrainian forces expelled the Russians. The team reported that residents were starving and desperate, saying Russian soldiers had slaughtered all the livestock in their small town. The team distributed food parcels and scriptures to residents – a ministry still ongoing in other areas as well.
Churches rise from the ashes of destruction.
Rakhuba is grateful to the many evangelical churches that have remained flexible and forward-thinking to serve their communities. “Churches are rising from the ashes of destruction,” he says.
Hope for the future
Back in Kyiv, Pastor Sergey Nakul continues to adapt and he continues to see the value in remaining a constant presence with his congregation in Kyiv as well as his work on the FEBC radio network. He hopes his family can join him soon, but says he has been boosted by a recent visit from his wife, the first time he has seen her since her evacuation. “It felt like we had a honeymoon,” he says. “It’s been six days that have been completely refreshing.”
Until the couple are together again, the pastor says he continues to be refreshed by the grace of God that has followed him since his early days. “I tell people I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” he says. “But the only assurance you could have as a child of God is to trust in the precious promises of God embodied in Christ.” Nakul says the message he put forth at the start of the war is the one he still proclaims today: “God is with us.”