Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay

Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC).


As we begin a globally challenging 2023, what is your biggest hope?

Dr Pillay: I hope that we will be able to inspire and excite member churches to get involved in justice issues, to enable them to be able to realize that what is happening in one part of the world happens to them as well, and affects them, as we have seen in the Russia-Ukraine situation. We are focusing on issues of economic justice, gender justice, and ecological justice as part of the climate change situation, on a special Commission on Health and Healing, and many other aspects of justice.

How are you planning to introduce yourself to WCC member churches?

Dr Pillay: The WCC is a fellowship of churches, and the member churches are crucial in terms of our work and what we do. Although member churches are important in terms of collaboration, we go beyond that to reach the world. The idea is also not only to focus on well-established churches but to focus on the small churches that are part and parcel of the WCC family. All churches are significant. All of them make up the family; when one suffers, we all suffer, and when one rejoices, we all rejoice. We are a fellowship of churches, and every church is of equal importance to the WCC.

Regarding introducing myself, we are looking at visiting the regions. One of the things Im hoping to do is increase the development of our regional responsibilities. The regions are there; the member churches are there. We have elected presidents in the different regions. One thing Ill be doing more specifically is to work with these presidents in those regions. Thats something that I believe very strongly in because I believe the WCC has so much to give to the world. I also believe that the WCC has so much to offer to and through its member churches.

More specifically, I believe we are called by God to serve Gods purpose in the world. That is something that I plan to do. I hope to make myself available to churches, regions, and other stakeholders.

The WCC is situated in Geneva, and we are blessed to have, in this particular context, many, many global bodies dealing with significant issues— the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, Red Cross, the UN, and many other important bodies that are doing global work. As general secretary of the WCC, I believe we need to be connected to these non-governmental organizations. I plan to introduce myself to these people to find out how we can work for the common good to create a better world for all people.

How does the WCC serve its member churches, no matter what size?

Dr Pillay: I will say to member churches, to churches and pastors in small congregations, that there are significant issues in the world that we all have to tackle together, and we cannot tackle them alone, and even issues in your own context you cannot tackle alone. We hope to serve you in your context as we journey with you in your situations.

Many Christians struggle with different issues, and the WCC creates a platform for dialogue. The WCC will allow you, in your small congregation, to be drawn into a more extensive body of conversations, to understand the different dynamics of theology, of doctrine, of life, of experiences where we can draw on the wealth of other Christians. To encourage spiritual engagement, we need a bigger family. It is a joy knowing that God encompasses the earth—heaven and earth belong to the Lord. This provides you with an inroad to be connected to a great body of Christians across the globe.

What are the biggest challenges to serving?

Dr Pillay: We continue to engage in Gods mission and do as much as we can—and even beyond that—with what we have. While finance is a big thing, thats not the real thing we focus on. We are driven by faith as we seek to fulfil God`s purpose in the world.

There are a lot of churches and a lot of denominations that tend to be focused on themselves. They tend to ask: whats happening in my church? Whats happening in my denomination? Sometimes we get so narrowed by that, that we fail to realize the bigger vision. How do we change our lifestyles? How do we change the way churches tend to function? The challenge is to interest and connect churches with the wider church.

Even local churches tend to build empires rather than be in kingdom-based ministry. How do we move them to kingdom ministry? Lets make sure that the WCC is out there, creating an impact and becoming known not only to member churches but to all churches in the world and to all people who are not even part of the Christian faith.

Is the Pilgrimage of Justice, Reconciliation, and Unity for all people?

Dr Pillay: In the last eight years the previous pilgrimage—the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace—showed us that it included all people. It helped mobilize people. It helped people to find support and journey together in their situations. Solidarity was the key thing. The reports are often very moving stories. The Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace captured the stories of people and shared the stories of people around the world who managed to journey with them in their context.

This is why the WCC 11th Assembly decided we will continue with a Pilgrimage of Justice, Reconciliation, and Unity. It is a journey that speaks of interfaith dialogue, interfaith collaboration and cooperation, and interreligious networking. How, then, do we work with these other religions? How do we work together to bring peace? The pilgrimage transects social, political, and economic issues. It is an inclusive pilgrimage.

How do you plan to include and inspire youth in the ecumenical movement?

Dr Pillay: The ecumenical movement can never succeed in the future or present without the involvement of young people. Young people are the ones who bring new ways of thinking, new changes, new insights, a new appreciation of things, and new levels of engagement. Because young people bring this to us, we cannot neglect the young people. We cannot say, they can wait until later.”

The WCC 11th Assembly said that young people should be involved in WCCs governance, they should be involved in our programs, in our reference groups and our commissions, and they must be involved in the life of the WCC. I believe young people bring a greater understanding of spirituality different from what some of us have been accustomed to, yet challenging and engaging, relevant, and contextual. Young people make us think differently about many issues but help us realize the need for spirituality, the need for recreating the one human race, and dealing with environmental issues—I find young people are so geared up about environmental issues.

We need them to bring new life to our churches. We need them to speak into ecumenical organizations and into every aspect of Christian life and living. We dont want tokenism. We want challenge. We want insightful movements. We want engagements. We also have the Bossey Ecumenical Institute that actually focuses on young people and theology. Without young people, we are in trouble!

How does unity relate to justice?

Dr Pillay: You cannot talk about unity without talking about justice. For me, unity and justice are two sides of the same coin, two sides of a scissor or two wings of a bird. I think it is important to understand that true unity must include on the agenda justice issues as well. We need both, and without the two working together, we will not be giving full credit to the gospel imperative. Unity and justice ought to and must go together.

What does prophetic leadership mean?

Dr Pillay: To be prophetic means to stand up for truth, to be the voice of the voiceless, to champion the cause of those in unjust situations. To be prophetic means to speak truth to power but it also means to speak truth to ourselves. If we want to be prophetic to the world, we also need to challenge ourselves. How does what we say to the world relate to ourselves in terms of our own practices? Being prophetic must start within ourselves, within our churches.

To be prophetic is to stand where God stands. Unfortunately, today we focus too much on wealth and prosperity, and this influence has found its way into the church. The church dancing with power is not the way to go. The church should be where people hurt. The church should be where people are victimized and dehumanized.

What is your vision for the WCC?

Dr Pillay: I think we just have to say we are in a new phase of the WCC. We have new leadership in some positions in senior leadership. We are moving in some new directions. We are looking at a new strategic plan for the next eight years.

I really do believe that the WCC should be more focused on lifting its profile in the world and that the WCC should draw its member churches together to heal and restore a suffering and broken world. As the theme of the WCC 11th Assembly said, Christs love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” As the WCC, we are called to exemplify and engage the love of Christ in the world.

We are facing some serious challenges now— the war in Ukraine and Russia, rising nuclear threats, climate change, poverty, gender-based violence, HIV and AIDS, and the COVID-19 pandemic. All these things require Christians to come together and work together—but not only Christians, people of other faiths and no faith as well. The most important thing I want to say is that the WCC creates space —a safe space, an open space for people to engage on many different issues, whether they are controversial or not. The dialogue opens possibilities of understanding, possibilities of a new direction, and hope.

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