Monday, November 21, 2022

Recommended Reading: Give Love Missionary Reflections

Global Ministries is once again sharing reflections from its missionaries as part of an end-of-year giving campaign, Give Love. The reflections are located at the bottom of the Give Love page but are well worth reading in their own right, independent of the campaign.

They are written by missionaries from around the world serving in various settings - a young adult from Honduras serving the poor in Uruguay, a husband and wife from Zimbabwe serving as a doctor and professor in Sierra Leone, a Filipino pastor leading the church in Mongolia, and missionaries from the United States serving nonprofits there, just to mention a few. These stories both share details about some of the work of Global Ministries missionaries and share spiritual reflections from that work.

As United Methodists in the United States gather for Thanksgiving and as United Methodists from around the world begin to prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, take a minute to read some of these reflections and give thanks for the ways in which God is using United Methodist missionaries to prepare for the coming of Christ's kingdom.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Recommended Reading: Central and Southern Europe Episcopal Election

The Central and Southern Europe Central Conference has been meeting the past several days to elect a successor to Bishop Patrick Streiff, along with other business, including discussions about the future of the central conference. After 4 rounds of balloting, delegates to the conference elected Rev. Stefan Zürcher as the new bishop for the central conference. Rev. Zürcher is the District Superintendent for the Northwest Switzerland District and a member of the UMC Connectional Table. Rev. Zürcher was the leading candidate in the first ballot and throughout, though 11 candidates received votes initially, and Rev. Andrea Brunner-Wyss received strong support into the final ballot as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Regionalization and Connectionalism: Healthy Regionalism amid Waning Globalization

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the fifth in a five-part series based on a presentation by Dr. Scott to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Having looked at how dynamics related to local relevance and trans-local connection have played out across history, I want to conclude this series of posts by sharing some of what I see going on around the world today in terms of local focus and identity vs. broader connections, both in the secular and religious realms, beginning with the secular context.

Looking at news stories from around the world over the past decade, it appears that we are living in a time of increasing nationalism, authoritarianism, and violence. Appeals to national identity have proliferated, and they are often cast in terms of rather narrowly defined national identity, with boundaries drawn along lines of culture, ethnicity, and religion. In this way, nationalism focuses on local identities and often decries connections to broader groups.

Tapping into and amplifying this trend toward nationalism has been the rise of an increasing number of leaders with authoritarian tendencies, whether that has been in the Philippines, the United States, Italy, Hungary, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, or China.

This increased authoritarianism has also led to increased violence, whether that is in the form of more frequent coups in West Africa, increased religious violence in Nigeria, wars in Ethiopia and Ukraine, or civil unrest in many countries around the world.

Also part of the mix is anti-immigrant agitation, both in the form of anti-immigrant protests, which have spanned from Cape Town to Chemnitz, and questions about the treatment of migrants, which have arisen from Texas to Taiwan.

There is, of course, much we can and should critique in this mix of nationalism, authoritarianism, violence, and anti-immigrant rhetoric. We could raise ethical and moral questions about the oppression of the marginalized, including immigrants, who are targets of authoritarian regimes. We could raise theological protests against the use of violence as a way to assert power or resolve conflict. We could call out the exercise of dominance and control over others in a way that eliminates their voices and their input into society.

We can also point to the inadequacy of this sort of nationalism to adequately address continued and growing global international crises, such as mounting environmental catastrophe; the spread of Ebola, COVID, and other diseases; and even the migration flows that are such a point of ire for these nationalists.

We should and must engage in such critique. But we should also recognize that the rise of this form of destructive nationalism also points to the failures of globalization.

Economic globalization promised that a rising tide would lift all boats, improving the standard of living for everyone. We must acknowledge that was a false promise. Instead, economic globalization served to dramatically increase the wealth of the very rich while neglecting and exploiting others around the globe, leaving them poor or making them poorer. This trend extends from economically neglected areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo to rural areas of developed countries experiencing economic abandonment.

Political globalization promised that more integration would lead to more efficient and effective collective action. That may be true in some ways, but for most people, their experience is one in which they have increasingly little control over the circumstances of their lives, with the really important decisions being made in distant government halls or corporate boardrooms where they have no voice.

Cultural globalization promised a new era of cosmopolitan exchange. But without the proper tools for better understanding culture and creating better intercultural interaction, we have experienced instead a McDonaldization of culture, in which the worst parts of American culture are exported to the rest of the world, and/or a backlash that takes the form of a rejection of global multiculturalism.

In all these ways, the globalization of the previous era has failed. Globalization, instead of creating a world of more justice, peace, prosperity, and equality, has instead proven to merely create new forms and degrees of injustice. The current nationalist trends are a consequence of these policy and moral failures of globalization.

Where, then, does this leave the church? The church, too, is moving away from the global and towards the regional or even national. To some degree, this reflects the larger secular context of receding globalization, and to some degree, this is driven by internal dynamics within The United Methodist Church unleashed by conflicts within the church over sexuality, theology, and US dominance.

Unlike the current secular nationalism, I think there is much to be affirmed in the church’s move towards regionalism. Nevertheless, we must also think carefully about this trend toward regionalism: How do we model a healthy regionalism that is an example to the secular world? How do we engage in regional contexts without being subsumed by regional polarizations? How can we remain the body of Christ that extends beyond all the diversity of nations and languages and influences?

This secular context challenges us: How will we speak authentically to our local contexts that cry out for Christian witness? While trends towards nationalism, authoritarianism, and violence cut across secular contexts, these dynamics play out differently in each context and call out for local witness by churches fully engaged in their contexts.

But how do we each engage in our contexts in a way that does not let go of our international connections and devolve into an unhealthy nationalism, such as is all around us? How do we continue to collaborate across contexts on big issues such as climate change, and how we do continue to affirm the ecumenicity, the intercultural, supra-nationality of the church as the body of Christ, which is not limited to any tribe, ethnic group, race, country, or region?

Ultimately, the question that faces The United Methodist Church is not whether we will have more regionalization or more connectionalism, more autonomy or more worldwide structure. The question is how do we have both regionalization and connectionalism?

Moreover, how do we do so in a way that does not merely hold the two in tension with one another but comes to see the interplay between the two, how our understanding of one deepens our understanding of the other? How can creating more regional autonomy make us more united in our connectionalism? How can a stronger practice of connectionalism lead to greater regional autonomy for the components of that connection?

I want to pause here for a moment of epistemic humility. This framing of the question is one I could not have reached on my own. In my initial reflecting on this question, I was caught up in an American cultural way of thinking which emphasizes dualism and conflict. My tendency was to try to put these two values—regionalism and connectionalism, autonomy and unity—into competition with one another. I needed the writings of Argentinian and Filipino Methodists to help me understand another perspective on the issue, to reframe my thinking away from seeing these two values as either/or and instead see them as both/and.

The new situation in the world and in the church, “the changes taking place in those areas” as the Book of Discipline says, calls for a rethinking of how we deploy our means of connection—itinerants, writing, money, bishops, and councils (or as we Methodists would call it, conferencing)—to ensure continued connection and continued relevance to the “conditions that exist in various areas of the world,” as the Book of Discipline charges.

Part of this necessary re-thinking must involve work on our structures, but we must remember the relational component of this work as well. We must plan for the relationships we want to have with one another, not merely the frameworks that we can all agree to.

There are no easy answers in this process, but there is great excitement in this work as well. This is the work to which God calls us as part of our invitation to join in the mission of God. This is how God calls us to be God’s faithful church at this moment as we seek to be a church that is both relevant to the wide array of local and regional contexts in which we are located and at the same time united together in the shared connectionalism of our Methodist faith. May God’s Spirit be with us as we take up this task.

Monday, November 14, 2022

An update on General Conference visas

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

General Conference will next meet in Charlotte, NC, from April 23 to May 3, 2024, just under 18 months from now. Several details about that meeting have yet to be announced, most notably whether it will be a continuation of the delayed 2020 General Conference, the regularly scheduled 2024 General Conference, or some combination of both, and hence whether existing delegations will attend or whether new delegations will need to be elected.

Although General Conference is still some ways off, since visa availability was a major issue in the further postponement of General Conference from 2022 to 2024, an update on General Conference visas seems worthwhile.

The good news is that, in almost all cases, wait times for visa applications have decreased since the start of the year, in some cases quite significantly. For instance, wait times in Manila have fallen from 639 days at the beginning of February to 120 days as of the beginning of November. Wait times in Kinshasa, DRC, have gone from 441 days to 105 days. Other countries also show significant, if less dramatic, decreases. These decreases are a sign of the US visa system returning to more normal functioning after the disruption of and backlog caused by the pandemic.

If delegates were to apply for visas today, only three countries would see issues with wait times or general availability: Nigeria, where wait times remain 728 days; Russia, where only emergency visas are being issued (in large part because of the Russia-Ukraine war); and Ukraine, where the U.S. embassy is closed because of the war.

Those countries combined send 32 delegates to General Conference, a not insignificant amount, but less than 4% of all delegates, as opposed to the up to 1/3 of delegates who could have had issues at the beginning of this year. Some Nigerian, Russian, and Ukrainian delegates may have pre-existing visas and still be able to attend General Conference (if Russians are able to travel at all). Furthermore, it is important to think about how to adequately represent countries who may have difficulties attending General Conference, regardless of absolute numbers.

While wait times right now are good, there are two additional reasons why visas may still be an issue for General Conference 2024:

1. Since it is not yet clear whether existing delegations will attend General Conference 2024 or whether annual conference will need to select new delegations, it is not yet clear who should be applying for visas. If Judicial Council calls for new delegates, then there is a bit more time pressure for annual conferences to elect new delegates and those delegates to apply for visas, since the annual conference election process will take some time.

2. While wait times in general are not currently a problem, individuals applying for visas may still suffering challenges, hurdles, and failures in their individual applications. This was the case for General Conference in 2019 and all previous General Conferences as well. The question remains whether there will be more difficulties for General Conference 2024 than for previous General Conferences. Indications from other sources are that US visas have become more difficult to obtain in recent years.

As always with visa applications, the rule stands: the earlier one applies, the better chance one has of getting a visa at the end of the process, whatever that process looks like. With more details about General Conference coming into clarity, it is hoped that delegates will be able to begin that process without too much more delay.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Recommended Viewing: Angola and Congo Mission Photos

The Mission Photograph Albums available electronically from the General Commission on Archives and History are a rich visual trove for anyone interested in the history of Methodist mission. Now there is an additional resource of photographic material related to Methodist mission in Angola and Congo. Dr. Paul Blake is a former missionary kid whose parents served in Angola and then with the Methodist Church's mission board and who himself medically treated Angola refugees in the Congo. Out of that legacy of personal and family involvement in mission, Dr. Blake has put together an online collection of photos of Methodist mission in Angola and Congo in the early decades of the 20th century and in Congo and Peru in the middle of the 20th century. The pictures are well worth a look.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Regionalization and Connectionalism: The Era of Globalization and World Christianity

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the fourth in a five-part series based on a presentation by Dr. Scott to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Questions of local relevance and trans-local connection and of connection and power within the church have played out for Methodists in three separate historical eras: the colonial mission era, the era of political independence and church autonomy, and the era of globalization and world Christianity.

The last national church to become autonomous as part of the second era indicated was the Methodist Church in India in 1980. One quadrennium later, the UMC would absorb formerly autonomous churches in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Burundi, symbolically ushering in the third era, that of globalization and world Christianity.

Secular globalization has its roots in the 1970s, further developed under the neoliberal policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and really came into its own as a concept and reality in the 1990s, promoting a wave of critique and backlash by the 2000s.

Definitions of globalization vary, but there is broad consensus that it reflects increasing connections in political, economic, technological, cultural, social, and religious matters. Globalization also entails increased movement of people, goods, money, and ideas around the world, movements that are made possible by new technologies.

Secular globalization has always had its critics, but promoters of globalization have seen it as ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity for all, based on spreading acceptance of free-market liberal democracy and human rights, made plausible by the collapse of Soviet communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Whatever its merits, the increased international connections that were part of globalization certainly ushered in a new awareness of the international sphere, an awareness that was reflected in the increased popularity of terms such as “global” and “multinational.” While globalization was a multinational phenomenon, the role of American power in shaping and promoting globalization must be acknowledged.

Within The United Methodist Church in the United States, this era saw an increased interest in the church outside the United States. The balance between autonomy and international structural connection swung back in the direction of structural connection. The UMC absorbed churches in not only Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Burundi, as mentioned, but also eventually Cote d’Ivoire. In the 1990s, United Methodists began new mission work in other countries for the first time in almost 70 years. That work included post-Soviet Russia and the Baltics, as well as Southeast Asia and other areas of the world.

Along with this renewed appetite for international expansion came growing numbers of members in African branches of the church that had long been part of the UMC. These two trends led to a new discussion of the “worldwide nature of the church” and what it meant to be a “global” denomination, a conversation launched at the 1992 General Conference.

Prior to this conversation, in the 1980s, some structural changes were made to allow for greater equality between US bishops and bishops in the central conferences and to allow the various agencies of the denomination to work internationally. GBHEM was the first additional agency granted authority by General Conference to work outside the United States, in 1984, a move which led to the founding of Africa University in 1992.

More sweeping changes, including the creation of some sort of regional structure for the United States, were put forward multiple times in the course of this work on the “global” or “worldwide” nature of the church. The 2008 General Conference, the same one that accepted Cote d’Ivoire into the UMC, adopted a series of amendments that would have accomplished such a restructuring, but the amendments were voted down at the annual conference level. Conservatives stoked fears that such a restructuring would allow for recognition of gay clergy in the United States, and such fears doomed the amendments.

As the number of missionaries declined and as funding shifted to prioritize the central conferences that continued in structural relationship with United Methodists in the United States, connections with autonomous churches atrophied. Autonomous churches were not absent from conversations about the worldwide nature of the church, but the focus of the conversation was clearly on the structural relationship between the church in the United States and the church in the central conferences.

As in previous eras, alongside these concerns for structural relationships, other means of connection fostered international relationships as well. As the boards became more international, they began to include United Methodists from more regions of the world in their membership.

Migration continued to be an important factor of connection and a key one in launching mission in Southeast Asia. The number of long-term missionaries declined, but the number of short-term mission participants from the United States skyrocketed, capitalizing on faster, cheaper, easier travel. Students from around the world continued to study in the United States, and new educational ventures such as Africa University and the Methodist e-Academy brought together students from across Africa and Europe, respectively.

American, and to a lesser extent, European money continued to create forms of connection and cooperation, and these connections were increasingly directly between annual conferences or churches rather than mediated through the boards and agencies. Writings drawing from the new academic field of world Christianity became a new way for United Methodists in the United States to understand their fellow United Methodists from elsewhere.

For all this increased interest in the worldwide nature of the church and these new initiatives in connecting the church, the church did not make significant advances towards connection without control. There was increasing talk of mutuality and decolonization, but there were little structural changes in how annual conferences (the basic units of the church) related to one another.

While United Methodists worked with other, autonomous Methodist churches to establish a new autonomous church in Cambodia, this did not prompt a larger conversation about the nature or value of autonomy in the church. As scholar Darryl Stephens has argued, although the number of members involved were similar, the joining of Cote d’Ivoire to The United Methodist Church did not provoke the same sort of rethinking of structure as the 1968 merger that created The United Methodist Church. The church in Cote d’Ivoire was absorbed into the UMC; it did not negotiate a merger.

The United States continued to set the parameters in terms of structure, funding, program, and focus for the denomination, with other areas adapting, often in an unofficial manner. Fears persisted in the church that adaptation might go too far and allow freedoms that were opposed by majorities at the General Conference, and thus the General Conference, with its US-dominated membership and its legislative and judicial processes based on US models, continued to be the central decision-making body for almost all major issues.

Yet, burdened by highly conflictual questions from the American context that had no other venue in which to be debated, General Conference itself struggled to function effectively as a decision-making body for an increasingly multicultural, multilingual, and international body.

Thus, the era of globalization and world Christianity saw the church struggle anew with questions about local relevance and trans-local connection, with questions about relationship and structure, but these questions were never satisfactorily resolved. In this regard, this era was similar to those that came before it. Even satisfactory answers to questions about local relevance and trans-local connection would need to be renegotiated anew in each new era.

For three subsequent eras, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have failed to really resolve such questions even within the context of that era. As we will talk more about in a few minutes, we are coming to a new era, and so the question remains: Will we do better in this new era than we have in the past?

Monday, November 7, 2022

Up Next: Episcopal Elections in Central and Southern Europe and the Philippines

For many United Methodists in the United States, attention was focused this past week on episcopal elections in the five US jurisdictions. Although those elections are now completed, that is not the end of United Methodist episcopal elections this year. Up next are elections in the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference and the Philippines Central Conference.

The Central and Southern Europe Central Conference will meet November 16-20 in Basel. The Central Conference will elect one bishop, with balloting to begin on Thursday, Nov. 17 and continue to Friday, Nov. 18 if necessary (full agenda here). Unlike in the United States, the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference does not provide information about publicly declared candidates prior to the election, a function of its smaller size with more personal connections and differing cultural understandings.

In addition to its episcopal election, the central conference will also discuss its round table process to address the future of the central conference in the light of varying views of sexuality and departures from the denomination (for more, see this article and this fact sheet, both in German).

Next, the Philippines Central Conference will meet November 24-26 to elect three bishops. All three episcopal seats in the Philippines are up for vote in every episcopal election. There are numerous declared candidates for the episcopacy in the Philippines, and the National Association of Filipino American United Methodists and the Philippines Central Conference College of Bishops organized candidates forums so that Filipino United Methodists can learn more about those candidates. Videos of full forums are available here: [1], [2], and [3], and excerpts from each of the candidates are available in this playlist

Note the role of the US-based National Association of Filipino American United Methodists in organizing a candidates' forum for the Philippines. This is a clear indication that many Filipino American United Methodists still have strong ties to their home country and the church there. Episcopal elections always have implications beyond the boundaries in which candidates are elected, and in some instances, this is especially so.