World Council of Churches Office of Communication|
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CENTRAL COMMITTEE 1999 No.1
YOUNGEST WORLD COUNCIL PRESIDENT HAS COME
OF AGE IN ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT
The 29-year-old clergywoman from Bison, Kansas, USA, has been getting requests for interviews since 1991, when delegates to the World Council of Churches (WCC) seventh assembly in Canberra, Australia, elected her to the WCC Central Committee.
Then in 1998 delegates to the eighth assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, elected her as the youngest of eight presidents of the WCC and there was a renewed flurry of media attention, especially in Kansas.
"Itís interesting to be interviewed by Kansas media," she acknowledged with a slight midwestern drawl and apparent understatement. "They have so little understanding of life in the church."
Bannister suspects itís curiosity that brings reporters to Bison, a tiny town near the geographical centre of the USA, surrounded by seemingly endless fields of rural farmland. "Here is a young woman out in the middle of rural Kansas and they have no clue about her," she said with an amused smile. "I come as a surprise."
Big-city reporters may come to Bison to spin a story about a woman from a provincial town who has a high-sounding title in a worldwide church organization. But thatís not the story they go away with.
"They have a real lack of identification with rural people," Bannister said. "I try to change their perceptions. People in rural areas are much more sophisticated than they think." People in agriculture have special survival skills and shrewd acumen in international financial and political arenas, she maintained.
As more reporters go to Bison to meet her, theyíll find a seasoned interpreter of the WCC and the ecumenical movement. Bannister has spent most of her adult years in World Council of Churches governance and she has never known a life outside the church.
"I grew up in church with my father, a United Methodist pastor," she said. After she became a member of the Central Committee she found herself thinking about pastoral ministry herself. "That was after a number of years of running away from the prospect of serving in a local church," she said, laughing.
Bannister always suspected that whatever she did with her life, it would be some form of ministry. "I understand (Christian) vocation to be everyoneís vocation," she said. "Iíve always believed in the priesthood of all believers, that itís a Christianís responsibility to discern how to channel oneís life in service to the gospel."
In Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, Bannisterís sights began to narrow. "In seminary I came to see what a vital vocation pastoral ministry is as you live your faith as servant leader among the people of God."
Today Bannister is the busy pastor of four yoked Bison-area churches called Rush County United Methodist Parish. Like the circuit riders who became legendary in rural ministries in the U.S., Bannister motors from church to church and to the farms and homes of her parishioners. Happily, she now has an associate minister to share the burden so she only preaches in two churches each Sunday. Even so, any free time she has left is devoted to her husband, Ted, and young daughter Hannah.
How does she find time to do everything on her agenda and catch her breath at the end of the day?
"This morning in the Central Committee we talked about setting priorities," she said. "Thatís my struggle on a daily basis. My family as a day-to-day vocation has a clear priority."
Shortly after her election in Harare, Rush County parish got a glimpse of how busy a president can be when Bannister was invited to accompany four Council staff persons to the United Kingdom earlier this year. "It was a very educational experience," Bannister recalled. "It was very exciting to introduce the council to others post-Harare, and to listen to people, reflect on new methodologies, meet people face to face, build relationships."
Life for Bannister will probably get more hectic in the six years remaining in her term. Fortunately, both her family and Rush County Parish are among her strongest supporters.
"They share the vision," she said. "They get excited about what it means for me to be involved in the ecumenical movement at this level, what it means for a small country parish, what I bring to them and what I connect them to. They make it possible."
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 336, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.