Sierra Leone Conference
Through the years, Sierra Leone has been our largest and most prominent mission field. It was also our first overseas field, with American staff arriving in 1855.
Sierra Leone National Conference was formally established in 2001. It now consists of
- 78 churches
- 40 primary schools
- 5 high schools
- Mattru Hospital, a highly-respected hospital in southern Sierra Leone.
The conference is led by the bishop, who is selected by a Council of Ministers. Rev. John Pessima is the current bishop.
Through much of the 1990s, the Sierra Leone church was buffeted by a devastating rebel war. In 1994, all Global Ministries overseas staff were subject to emergency evacuation aboard a US military transport. Most UB churches were closed for many years. Peace didn’t return until 2001, thanks to foreign military intervention. Today, a nationally-elected government is in office and the country is being rebuilt.
In 2007, at the request of Sierra Leone Conference, Global Ministries sent the first overseas staff since 1994. Rev. Billy Simbo and his wife, Mamei, natives of Sierra Leone who had been pastoring a United Brethren church in the United States, were asked to serve in transitional leadership for a three-year period. He worked to reorganize the conference, mentor new leaders, and otherwise put the conference on a firm foundation. In December 2010, he turned over the leadership to a newly elected bishop, John Pessima.
Evangelism is the conference’s main emphasis. Global Ministries continues to provide project funds, assistance for the hospital, and other financial support.
Sierra Leone Conference has a sister congregation in Germany which consists primarily of immigrants from Sierra Leone. Several other Sierra Leonean congregations exist in the United States.
John Pessima was elected bishop of Sierra Leone Conference in 2010.
Sierra Leone is about the size of West Virginia.
We have churches in the three largest cities:
Freetown (1.1 million)
The Story of Sierra Leone Conference
Sierra Leone was our first mission field, and it has been our largest and most prominent mission field. Missionaries were first sent in 1855, and the first two churches were organized in 1876. Scores of missionaries have served in Sierra Leone, several of whom died there.
Over the years, the work in Sierra Leone expanded to include over 50 churches, 40 primary schools, 5 high schools, and the highly-respected Mattru Hospital. The conference also co-sponsored, with several other denominations, the Sierra Leone Bible College, where many of our pastors have been trained. That institution, located outside of Freetown, now bears the name The Evangelical College of Theology (TECT).
In 1985, under the leadership of Field Director, Kyle McQuillen, the work in Sierra Leone was nationalized. Missionaries continued serving in Sierra Leone, but under the leadership of Sierra Leoneans. Rev. Henry Allie, a pastor in Freetown (who happened to be blind), was elected as the first Sierra Leonean General Superintendent.
Through much of the 1990s, the Sierra Leone church was buffeted by a rebel war. In 1994, all UB missionaries were evacuated on a military plane and we closed Mattru Hospital. Shortly afterwards, rebels invaded Mattru and stripped it of nearly everything of value. Nearly 2.5 million people were displaced in the country during this time of unrest. Most of the UB churches were closed for a long period of time.
By 2001, thanks to the intervention of Nigerian, United Nations, and (especially) British troops, a high degree of peace had returned to the country. Rebel activity continued in some areas, particularly in diamond mining regions. However, church life resumed and began expanding.
Doctors Without Borders made a substantial investment in reopening the Mattru Hospital, which had been devastated during the war. Doctors Without Borders left in 2002, returning administration of the hospital to Sierra Leone Conference.
Leadership problems plagued the conference, and they asked for help from Global Ministries. In early 2006, Global Ministries Leadership Team members Ruth Ann Price and Randy Fennig traveled to Sierra Leone to do a needs assessment with over 200 persons from the conference. A leadership development team went during the summer. During that meeting, attendees identified their top need as a strong leader around whom they could rally and who would walk with them in “rebuilding the walls.”
In September 2006, the conference asked Billy and Mamei Simbo to return to Sierra Leone to fill that leadership role.
Rev. Simbo, a Sierra Leonean, had been president of Sierra Leone Bible College before immigrating to the United States in the 1970s. He accepted the challenge, and arrived in Sierra Leone in 2007 to begin serving in trasitional leadership for a three-year period.
Upon returning to Sierra Leone, Rev. Simbo began working to mentor new leaders, restructure the conference, and focus the churches on health and outreach. He became the first bishop of Sierra Leone Conference in 2009, when the conference decided to begin using that title for its highest leader.
In addition, Rev. Randy Fennig and his wife, Toni, began serving in Sierra Leone in August 2008, teaching at The Evangelical College of Theology and spearheading agricultural development projects.
In December 2010, Rev. John Pessima was selected as the new bishops of Sierra Leone Conference.
The conference continues to rebuild with a focus on evangelism, theological education, and agri-business development.
Bishop John Pessima leading a strategic planning meeting.
Sierra Leone operates under the leadership of a bishop, who is chosen for a five-year term by the Council of Elders, which consists of all ordained ministers (just under 30). The conference must then ratify the selection. The bishop can serve a maximum of three terms (15 years total).
On Sunday, January 16, 2011, Rev. John Momoh Pessima (right, with his wife) was consecrated as bishop of Sierra Leone Conference. The service was held at the AU Memorial church in Kissy, a neighborhood on the east end of Freetown. Rev. Pessima had been pastor of this church. Rev. Henry Allie, the first national superintendent of Sierra Leone Conference, also pastored this church when he was elected to that post in the 1980s.
The Council of Ordained Elders, which consists of all United Brethren ordained ministers in Sierra Leone Conference, recommended Rev. Pessima to become the new bishop. Their recommendation was referred to the National Conference meeting in December 2010, where it was unanimously approved.
Bishop Pessima succeeded Billy Simbo, who now carries the title “bishop emeritus.” Rev. Simbo served three years in Sierra Leone under the umbrella of Global Ministries, during which time the conference began using the term “bishop” for its highest leader (the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Jamaica also use that title).
Rev. Pessima is a graduate of The Evangelical College of Theology in Sierra Leone, where Rev. Simbo was once his professor. He just recently received his graduate degree in Religious Studies from the University of Sierra Leone.
In December 2008, the 102 delegates to Sierra Leone Conference approved a variety of other leadership changes:
- Superintendents are appointed by the bishop, rather than elected by the conference.
- Superintendents are appointed to functions–finance, pastoral development, and other areas–rather than geographic regions.These superintendents, along with several other persons, comprise a Bishop’s Cabinet.
- The churches were divided into four regions—the same as the country’s four political regions (north, south, east, and west). Each region has its own leader.
Sierra Leone’s 6.4 million people are 60% Muslim, 10% Christian. About 30% follow African indigenous religions.
Two tribal groups each comprise 30% of the population: Mende (mostly in the southeast, where many of our churches are located), and Temne (north and west).
The History of Sierra Leone
The early inhabitants of Sierra Leone came from several different tribes—the Kono, Sherbro, Temne, Limba, Tyra, and Mende. In 1462, a Portuguese explorer named the land Serra de Leao, meaning “Lion Mountains.” The Italian rendering is Sierra Leone.
Portuguese traders built a fort in the Freetown harbor, and were joined by Dutch, English, and French traders, all of whom used the port as a trading point for slaves. Sierra Leone became an important center of the slave trade until 1792, when Freetown was founded by the British-based Sierra Leone Company as a home for about 1200 former slaves from America who had escaped to Novia Scotia. Freetown became the first refuge for former slaves. In the years ahead, thousands of additional slaves, from many parts of Africa, were liberated in Freetown.
Sierra Leone became a British colony and remained under British rule until 1961, when the country gained full independence. Sierra Leone remains a part of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which includes 54 independent countries.
In 1991, the brutal civil war in neighboring Liberia spilled over into Sierra Leone. A group called the Revolutionary United Front arose, led by a Sierra Leonean army colonel named Foday Sankoh. The national army crumbled. In the year ahead, the country was rocked by civil war, coups, atrocities against civilians, and all kinds of political mess.
In 1998, a Nigerian-led force entered the fray and restored some order. Then the United Nations sent 13,000 troops, and the British added a smaller force which got very serious about battling the RUF. By January 2002, the war was declared over. UN forces stayed until 2005.
Presidential and parliamentary elections were held in 2007.