Ugandan Pastors ‘Preach, Teach and Reach Out’ Under Trees and in Huts

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Rt. Rev. Dr. Joel Samson Obetia
Rt. Rev. Dr. Joel Samson Obetia

By Patty Huston-Holm

 Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 1 Peter 5: 2-3

Biblical scriptures guiding pastors are many. There are directions regarding what a church leader should not do – don’t over indulge in alcohol, for example. And there are directions for what that leader, the pastor, should be and do – like teach, feed “the sheep” and heal the sick.

In Uganda, pastors and the people they serve take this role to heart and practice.

“Pastors here are expected to do about everything,” said Rt. Rev. Dr. Joel Samson Obetia of the (Anglican) Church of Uganda. “African pastors in general are multi-task persons.”

On an August morning and from his office on the Uganda Christian University (UCU) campus in Mukono, the retired bishop from Madi and West Nile Diocese shared stories and his thoughts on a Ugandan pastor’s role. One example involved g-nuts, also known as ground-nuts.

G(ground)-nuts – popular Ugandan snack
G(ground)-nuts – popular Ugandan snack

G-nuts, a staple legume crop grown in East African soil, is a relatively inexpensive source of protein, magnesium, iron and fiber. Ugandan adults and children eat them as a snack or as part of a paste over rice, potatoes and a starchy banana called matooke. The tiny nut covered in a thin, reddish, edible skin is meant for the mouth – not the ear.

But it was a g-nut in a boy’s ear that had a Ugandan pastor up in the middle of the night and driving a mother and her child to a hospital, Bishop Obetia recalled. Another recollection involved a 14-year-old who fell gathering mangos, suffered a ruptured liver and died.  It was a bishop who helped with the three-hour transport to bury the body.

“Pastors here preach, teach, and reach out to about every part of the community,” he said. “They administer the sacraments, but they also do school scholarship fundraising, engage in political matters, give advice about sickness and finance and sacrifice from their own family time and budgets to give to the larger body of the church.”

Even today and wearing the title “retired,” Bishop Obetia’s work is tireless. He counsels from his office and his home on the campus and serves as a practicum placement coordinator for theology students. If a pastor’s family is to survive, the wife and children must understand that many times the needs of others in God’s flock come first.

Bishop Obetia recalled growing up with a father who was a church lay pastor preaching at 14 churches and supervising four parish teachers. When Obetia became a pastor, it was understood by his five children that as visitors came, they would be displaced from their sleeping rooms. When elevated to Bishop, the responsibility still exists.

“When you accept a leadership role in the church, your own family – your wife and children – pay the price of sharing you,” he said. “The presence of a pastor is valued at most gatherings, whether these are directly affiliated with the church or not.”

Of Uganda’s 44.4 million people, roughly 4 of 5 are Christian.  One-third of Ugandans are affiliated with the Church of Uganda, which has 37 dioceses headed by a bishop. The number of individuals with the title “pastor” and the exact number of churches are more difficult to pin down.

“Many of our churches are still under trees,” Bishop Obetia said. “Our churches are like broadcasting stations . ..”

Whether under trees or in a mud-and-wattle hut or stately brick building, the church is the hub of community activity. In addition to sermons, churches are the location for marriage introduction ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and for settling disputes. Beyond the pastor’s opening and closing prayers, he or she is often the mediator for political arguments and the moderator of social and economic concerns.

“Sundays, especially, can get very long,” the Bishop said.

A downfall of the title “pastor” in Uganda is the number practicing without credentials, training and a full understanding of the Bible. While some “overnight” pastors who get a calling without formal preparation are properly sharing the Word, others are not. Preaching false doctrines perpetuates misinterpretation of God’s message and Jesus’ teaching.

In its 21st year, UCU attempts to combat this problem by providing a quality spiritual and academic education. The mission is to “equip students for productive, holistic lives of Christian faith and service.” The historic Bishop Tucker Theological College, which trained clergy and educators during its 84-year history from 1913 until it evolved into UCU in 1997, upholds that mission. What is now known as Bishop Tucker School of Theology and Divinity  ( is Uganda’s oldest theological School affiliated to the Church of Uganda. The main disciplines are Theology, Divinity and Child Ministry.

“Here, we train in character…that our lives speak louder than our words,” Bishop Obetia said. “We reinforce that academic excellence and character work together.”

Less-credential pastors, combined with tribal traditions, illiteracy, corruption and choices are a challenge for Uganda, according to the Bishop. The hope is always in Jesus Christ, which overcomes all else, he added.

“The Gospel has not been extinguished,” he said. “There is no culture that cannot be saved. In today’s world, we just need to work a little bit harder.”


Over the next week, UCU Partners will feature stories of theology graduates practicing as pastors in various regions of Uganda. Individuals desiring to contribute to theology scholarships at UCU can contact Mark Bartels, UCU Partners executive director, at for more information.

Also, visit UCU Partners on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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