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Energy, ambition fuel NZ Tongan synod

With bulging congregations, lively youth groups, and numerous outreach programmes, the newest district synod of the New Zealand Methodist Church is also its largest and most dynamic.

Vahefonua Tonga ‘o Aotearoa met as a synod for the first time in February 2003 after acting as an advisory committee for 20 years. Vahefonua Tonga now has 35 congregations throughout the country – from Henderson to Dunedin – and that number is growing.

The majority of the Tongan congregations are in the greater Auckland area and many of them have more than 500 people on their roles.

District superintendent Rev ‘Epeli Taungapeau and secretary Rev Sylvia Akau’ola-Tongotongo say church is even more important for Tongans in New Zealand than it is in Tonga because it is a substitute for village life. In addition to nurturing their faith and practicing their religion, Church is the place Tongans here establish networks, socialise, and exchange news. (Picture shows Vahefonua Tonga o' Aotearoa superintendnet Rev 'Epeli Taungapeau and secretary Rev Sylvia Akau'ola Tongotongo.)

When Vahefonua Tonga was an advisory committee it had responsibilities but with limited authority. Now it has more authority over its leaders and office bearers and Tongans matters are given a higher priority in the church.

“The Methodist Church has begun to acknowledge its diversity. The church has said ‘You are able people and now you have the space to be church in a way that is most appropriate and effective for Tongans’,” Sylvia says.

While pleased with the autonomy they have gained, ‘Epeli and Sylvia believe the Methodist Church can still do more to resource Tongan leaders and provide ministry training better suited to Pacific peoples.

Most Tongan ministers are self-supporting, and Vahefonua Tonga would like see more of them funded through stipends. Also, many Tongan congregations run social service programmes that could be linked to Methodist Mission programmes.

Currently Vahefonua Tonga has a pool of about 20 people who want to undertake ministry training to become presbyters either in full Connexion or in a home setting with a particular Tongan parish. However, there is only space for two or three a year to enter the church’s training programme.

“The church has made some efforts to change ministry training but it is still basically a Palangi model,” ‘Epeli says. “There could be more input from other cultural groups. There isn’t even a course in pastoral care for Pacific peoples.

“Vahefonua Tonga is still in its early stages of development. As we mature we would like to put in place a training programme in the Tongan language. If the church has the resources to set up the new Ministry Training Unit, it could afford to set up a programme to train Tongans and Samoans.”

The largest parish in Vahefonua Tonga is Auckland-Manukau. It has 17 congregations but the leaders of Vahefonua Tonga are encouraging these congregations to become multiple parishes.

Some congregations have already taken this step. Last year the Papatoetoe Tongan congregation became the first to separate itself from the Auckland-Manukau parish and the Otara congregation recently decided to do the same.

“We need to do some deconstruction in order to do some reconstruction,” Sylvia says. “A congregation that becomes a parish is empowered to carry out its own worship, social activities, and other functions without going through a bureaucracy to get permission for everything.

“There are also financial benefits. A parish keeps its resources within its own parameters while a congregation must contribute to the pool of funds that props up the structure of the large parish.”

‘Epeli adds that another benefit for congregations to become a parish is that it enables people to establish direct links with the Methodist Connexion.

“As a parish they can send representatives to conference and take part in decision-making. This gives people a better understanding of church structures and their destiny is in their own hands,” he says.

Tongan congregations have large, active youth groups. Every three years Vahefonua Tonga holds a national youth camp that attracts 1500 young people. Tongan young people from New Zealand also take part in international gatherings.

This year 200 people from Vahefonua Tonga went to San Francisco for the annual Easter gathering of Tongan youth. In 2002 New Zealand hosted the same event.