The Bishop of Shyira, Laurent Mbanda, who was chosen this week to become the next Primate and Archbishop of Rwanda, has described his election as “a very humbling opportunity to serve”. Bishop Laurent was elected on Wednesday morning during a meeting of the House of Bishops at St Etienne Cathedral Hall in Kigali. He will succeed Archbishop Onesphore Rwaje, who retires in June. “I thank the Lord for the opportunity to serve, I thank my fellow bishops . . . for giving me the gift to serve them. I say it is a gift because when people choose you as a person to chair them, to lead them, it is a gift; because if they don’t want you, you can’t help them.”
In an interview with the Anglican Communion News Service, he said that the trust placed in him gave him “a lot of responsibilities.”
Mbanda is a world traveller. He grew up in Burundi and went to college in Kenya before being ordained in Burundi. After ordination he worked with the international non-denominational Christian mission agency Campus Crusade in what was then Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – helping to train French-speaking pastors and lay evangelists. After three years in Kinshasa he moved to the Ivory Coast before returning to Burundi to establish the work of Campus Crusade there, working on evangelism and discipleship programmes.
In 1984 he went to the US to further his education at the Fuller Seminary’s School of World Missions and the Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, where he earned a doctorate in education.
In between, he studied for a master’ degree in education in Denver Seminary: “I finished my course work but I didn’t get my degree,” he said. “The only reason was that I didn’t have the money to pay so they didn’t allow me to do the finals. So I didn’t get my Master’s Degree, but I didn’t need it.” He joked: “Maybe I was stubborn a little bit – I felt that I didn’t need it after my PhD.”
After completing his education, Mbanda began working for Christian Aid Mission in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mission agency serving indigenous peoples around th world. In 1993 he began what was to become a long association with the non-denominational mission agency Compassion International. He returned to Rwanda as Compassion’s programme director for Africa, serving there until the 1994 genocide, after which he was involved in relief work for Compassion in the area.
Eventually, he was asked to return to the to serve as head of Compassion’s programmes worldwide, before becoming vice president for programme develop at the agency’s Colorado Springs headquarters. But he felt a calling to return to Africa, “and no other place than my birthplace in Rwanda,” he said. “So I left my job with Compassion, but after three months of training they hired me again to head up a HIV and Aids programme. So I moved to Nairobi and was there for a year in 2004.”
He was re-appointed to Compassion’s executive leadership team, becoming vice president of the Africa region. He was the only vice president who was not based in the US and had to travel extensively back and forth between Africa and the US. In 2010 he was chosen “by God’s grace” to be Bishop of Shyira.
He accepted – and with it, a substantial pay cut in salary from in excess of US $100,000 dollars a year (approximately £72,000 GBP) to just $350 (£252) a month.
“I did that because it was God’s calling,” he said. “I did it because of a desire to serve the church. It was a drastic change of lifestyle; but my wife and I agreed it was a privilege to be able to serve the church.”
He was consecrated in March 2010 and served as coadjutor bishop until assuming full responsibility for leading the Diocese of Shyira in November that year. When he took over, he discovered a diocese that was “in distress”. It was “heavily, heavily in debt”, owing over three million dollars – a fact that Mbanda did not discover until he was in post.
But he used his experience of working with international non-profit making organisations to turn the diocese around. “I wanted a diocese that was self-sustaining, that did not have to extend a hand outside,” he said, not least because his work in non-profit organisations meant that he “didn’t have strong connections within the Anglican Communion. I was not connected with the churches in the UK or the US or other places.”
His 28 years of travel had taken him to churches across the world, but “they were in many, many different denominations.”
The diocese built a small 24-bedroom hotel, the Garden Place, which “is one of the most profitable places to date,” Bishop Laurent said. It produces net revenue of around $350,000 a year net; and it has built a commercial building that generates about 60 million Rwandan Francs (approximately £50,500 GBP) per month.
“That is money that is coming into the ministry of the church . . . into the ministry, into the church, to sustain the development of the diocese and the different programmes that we have: training pastors, evangelism and discipleship,” he said.
The diocese hasn’t only been looking to turn its own finances around, but has also been working on community development and capacity building. It has established 125 early childhood centres to ensure children get the best start to life. It is a model that has been adopted by Archbishop Albert Chama in Zambia. Yesterday (Thursday), Archbishop Albert sent a note to Bishop Laurent to tell him that this ministry “has borne fruit” in Zambia.
In his time as Bishop of Shyira, Mbanda Laurent has worked to improve the education of church workers. When he took over there were people who hadn’t finished university courses; people who had a diploma following three years of study at high school, and “maybe one or two people who have a university degree.”
Seven years on, and “today we have 10 people with a masters degree, another 15 who have got degrees and over 250 who have got a diploma in biblical studies,” he said. “My whole emphasis has been on ministry development, in-service training, different learning and also people who stay on campuses until they have finished their degrees.”
The diocese’s focus on evangelism and discipleship has paid off, growing from 292 local congregations to 345: a membership in excess of 100,000 people. More than 30,000 of them take part in community Bible studies, a tool that the diocese uses for discipleship.
The diocese has also started a polytechnic college which, over the past four years, is now teaching 1,300 students in subjects ranging from civil engineering to computing and management. It, too, is self-sustaining. “That has been another exciting development that we thank God for,” Mbanda said.
The churches in Shyira run more than 710 credit union offering microfinance. “They are helping the people to betterment but it is also a programme for evangelism; it is also an opportunity for discipleship,” he said. “We also have a very strong Church Mobilisation Programme which is supported by Samaritans Purse UK” a poverty alleviation programme.
“If I can summarise it, we have been helping in evangelism, helping in education, helping in health, helping in community development programmes, helping in income generating activities, and all that towards the sustainability of Shyira diocese. And it has been exciting these last few years.
“I have been extremely busy. I thank God for the good health that he has given me and the opportunities to serve.”
But now, Bishop Laurent Mbanda must prepare to become Archbishop Laurent Mbanda. In June, he will become Bishop of Gasabo and Primate and Archbishop of la Province de L’Eglise Anglicane Au Rwanda – the Province of the Anglican Church of Rwanda – and its 11 dioceses.
What are the Archbishop-elect’s priorities for his new role: “That is a little bit too early to say because it [the election] just happened,” he said. “It is something that I need to go home and think on so that I can develop a strategy. I had no idea that I would be elected. It is a gift that has been given to me to be able to lead.
“But I won’t go very far from what the province has been focusing on: evangelism, discipleship, community transformation, finding opportunities for the betterment of people’s rights; so in a way, fighting extreme poverty.
“[The province] has focused on health and education. We have paid attention to the needs of the people: even though we focus on evangelism, we have to look at holistic ministry.”
Mbanda said that he will look at the skills he has acquired from “the experiences that the Lord has provided” through his extensive work in non-profit organisations, his international travels and the Diocese of Shyira. “I believe that God has prepared me and given me a wide experience,” he said. “I want to take from that and serve the Church of God and the Communion as a whole.”
Archbishop Mbanda asked members of the Anglican Communion to pray for him and his family as they face “another huge change in our lives.”
“When you accept responsibilities like this there are challenges of different sorts,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of challenges I am going to meet.
“I expect that I will be working with people, bishops, clergy from different approaches: so pray for wisdom . . . that the Lord will guide me and pray that God will open doors for networking and influencing.”