Thursday, June 1, 2023

News Roundup - June 1, 2023

Below is a run-down of significant (United) Methodist stories from the past month.

Council of Bishops Recommended 2026 General Conference: At their May meeting, the Council of Bishops recommended the UMC hold a five-day General Conference in 2026. That session would count as a regular General Conference and also be focused on making significant changes to the denomination: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/bishops-call-for-general-conference-in-2026.

Much Lower UMC Budget Proposed: GCFA and the Connectional Table agreed to send a much lower denominational budget proposal to General Conference: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/as-church-exits-rise-proposed-budget-drops.

United Methodist Africa Forum Organizes: The United Methodist Africa Forum held its first meeting in Johannesburg in April, where it organized itself, elected leaders, and adopted policy positions, including support for greater regionalization in the church: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/new-caucus-supports-african-bishops-regionalization.

Global Ministries and East Africa Episcopal Area Announce End to Embargo: Global Ministries and the East Africa Episcopal Area announced the end to a decade-long embargo of funds from Global Ministries to East Africa. The embargo arose out of disputes over audit issues, which have been resolved: https://umcmission.org/may-2023/joint-announcement-the-general-board-of-global-ministries-and-east-africa-episcopal-area-restore-relationship/.

UMC Council of Bishops Meets: The United Methodist Council of Bishops met for its first in-person meeting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The council sought to set a forward-looking tone amid church conflict and disaffiliations: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/amid-rupture-bishops-called-to-renew-church.

Connectional Table Reconsiders Restructuring: The Connectional Table voted at an April 27th meeting to reconsider an earlier proposal for restructuring itself and reducing the number of members of the body: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/leadership-body-reconsiders-restructuring-plan.

Global Ministries Africa Consultation Promotes Mission Partnership: Global Ministries’ African Mission Partners Consultation, held in April, brought together African UMC leaders and Global Ministries board members and staff to strengthen mission partnerships in Africa: https://umcmission.org/may-2023/consultation-charts-way-for-missional-church/ and https://umcmission.org/may-2023/partnership-in-mission-with-mutual-respect-and-accountability/.

BMCR Forges Connections with Africa: Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the Black caucus in the US UMC, worked to develop closer ties with Africa during its annual meeting, inviting Dr. Peter Mageto of Africa University to address the group: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/black-caucus-draws-closer-to-african-partners.

Irish Methodists and Polish United Methodists Continue Partnership: Polish United Methodist leaders visited Ireland to continue a partnership with the Methodist church there: https://irishmethodist.org/world-mission-news/visit-from-world-church-family.

North African United Methodists Affirm Connection: United Methodist pastors and a church leader from UMC congregations in Algeria and Tunisia met with UMC Bishops Patrick Streiff and Stefan Z├╝rcher to reaffirm the role of those congregations in the future of the church: https://www.umc-cse.org/en/liste_552612-1028104/when-uncertainty-gives-way-to-new-courage-of-faith.html.

Korean-American UMCs Support Mongolia Amid Divisions: The Mongolia Mission held a recent summit for its Korean-American supporters. Despite the decision of some supporting churches to disaffiliate, the event stressed unity in mission: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/korean-churches-hope-to-continue-shared-mission-work-in-mongolia.

Czech United Methodists Vote to Become Autonomous: At the annual conference of the Czech UMC, participants voted to leave the denomination to become autonomous. They will follow the autonomy process laid out in the Book of Discipline, which requires General Conference approval: https://www.umc-cse.org/en/liste_552612-1030316/setting-the-course-in-czechia.html.

United Methodists Prepare for Changes to Migrant Ministries in the United States: After the end of the Title 42 migrant regulations, United Methodists involved in ministry with migrants have been preparing for possible increases or changes to the flow of migrants to the United States: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/amid-policy-changes-church-keeps-faith-with-migrants.

Chilean Methodists Support Migrants: With help from Connexio develop, the Swiss United Methodist development agency, Chilean Methodists have been working to support migrants to Chile: https://connexio.ch/index.php/2023/05/17/als-kirche-fuer-migrantinnen-da-srf-1-zeigt-reportage-aus-chile/.

Global Ministries Celebrates Historic Ministry of Asian and Pacific Islander Immigrants: In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Global Ministries has been shared stories of Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants who have contributed to United Methodist mission: https://umcmission.org/asian-american-and-pacific-islander-contributions-within-methodist-mission/.

Philippines UMC Promotes Conversations about Religion, Race, Gender, and Ability: The National United Methodist Youth Fellowship in the Philippines, the Philippines Board of Women's Work, and the General Commission on Religion and Race are launching an initiative called #CloseTheGap to promote conversations about religion, race, gender, and (dis)ability: https://www.gcorr.org/news/closethegap-initiative-launches-in-the-philippines.

Yambasu Agricultural Initiative Reinvests in Second Season: The various projects across Africa associated with Global Ministries’ Yambasu Agricultural Initiative are planning to reinvest profits from their first growing season into a second season: https://umcmission.org/may-2023/reinvestment-in-yambasu-initiative-projects-leads-to-growth/.

UMC Ministers to the HIV-Positive in Congo: The United Methodist Church in the Kivu Annual Conference, with support from Global Ministries, is supporting women living with HIV/AIDS as part of the Maternal and Child Health Program: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/church-gives-hope-to-people-living-with-hiv-in-congo.

United Methodists in Zimbabwe Combat Drug Abuse: At UMC-run high schools in Zimbabwe, church and school leaders have worked together to discourage drug abuse by students: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/united-methodists-join-fight-against-drug-abuse.

East Congo UMC and UMCOR Respond to Flooding: The Disaster Management Office of the East Congo Episcopal Area and UMCOR have begun responding to significant flooding in South Kivu, which killed several people: https://umcmission.org/may-2023/united-methodists-killed-in-congo-flooding/.

UMNS Supports Press Freedom: In an editorial published on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, Tim Tanton, Director of United Methodist News, explained what press freedom means to the church and why the church should support it: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/why-church-should-care-about-press-freedom.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

David W. Scott: Mission as Investment, Not Charity

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.

Mission and the associated financial and other forms of support that the Western church gives to the church elsewhere in the world are often framed as charity. But what if this exchange was framed differently, as an investment by the Western church in a joint partnership with the majority world church? How might that shift understandings of mission and international relationships in the church?

The Charity Framing

As I said, mission and financial and other support from the Western church to the majority world church is usually framed as an act of charity on behalf of the Western church to the majority world church. However, this framing of that support includes several latent and problematic assumptions:

  • It assumes a dynamic of inequality. Charity flows from those who have to those who have not, and those are two unequal groups. Those who have not need those who have, but those who have do not need those who have not.
  • It assumes clear roles of givers and receives. In charity, giving comes from one group, and what is given is received by a separate second group. Givers do not receive, and receivers do not give.
  • It assumes a focus on reducing deficits, not promoting growth. Charity is usually given to alleviate problems and return people to a minimal baseline. It is not given to help others grow to their fullest potential.
  • It tends to assume a short-term horizon for results. While some charity is given towards longer-term development work, and thus this short-term focus is not universal, the focus on reducing deficits rather than promoting growth tends towards a short-term time frame. One need not think about how people will grow long-term but rather about whether their basic material needs were met at the moment.

The Investment Framing

The practice of financial investment runs on very different assumptions than the practice of charity. Those assumptions include the following:

  • Inequalities may exist, but all partners are necessary. Not all partners in an investment scheme or business plan may have the same input, voice, or compensation, and thus inequalities do exist among business partners. Nevertheless, business investments only include people who contribute to the endeavor, since including non-contributors would reduce the benefits for everyone else. Therefore, if you're part of the business investment, it is because you are necessary to the success of that investment.
  • All partners contribute; all partners benefit. Building on the previous assumption, because all partners are necessary, all partners are seen as having skills or assets which they are expected to contribute. There is no free riding. At the same time, everyone who contributes expects to receive something in return. Investments are supposed to make money for those who invest; people do not invest just out of goodwill and altruism.
  • The focus is clearly on growth. Investments are not about losing less money or about meeting a minimum standard; they are about producing financial growth.
  • Long-term results may be more lucrative than short-term results. Again, this assumption varies. There are plenty of day traders and investors obsessed only with the next quarter. But there are incentives within investing to look to the long-term return: what the fruit of an investment will be in five, ten, twenty, or thirty years. Often, those who look to these long-term horizons will be more richly rewarded.

The Benefits of Reframing Church Relations

Because the assumptions behind investing contrast with those of charity at precisely some of the problematic points of the charity frame, reframing Western mission and support for majority world churches as investment rather than as charity can potentially help to correct some of those problematic assumptions. Framing Western money, goods, effort, and expertise sent to majority world churches as an investment in those churches, their people, and ultimately the reign of God reframes the relationship between Western and majority world churches in several ways.

First, such a reframing highlights the necessity of the assets that majority world churches brings to partnerships with the West. Western contributions are not sufficient to accomplish anything outside the West on their own. For the church in the majority world to successfully grow and benefit its context, it requires the assets of those in the majority world. They are not passive beneficiaries of someone else's charity; they are active partners making essential contributions to a joint undertaking.

Second, such a reframing emphasizes that, just as the church in the West and in the majority world are both givers, they are both receivers. The church in the West invests in the church in the majority world because that investment will lead to something that the church in the West values: the transformation of individual lives, the growth of the church universal, and the building up of the reign of God. This is a spiritual benefit for the church in the West, and not the only one they may receive from the investment partnership. And those benefits reaped by the church in the West are possible only because of the contributions of the church in the majority world.

Third, such a reframing shifts away from problems and towards growth. Certainly, there are many and serious problems in the various contexts of the majority world, just as there are many and serious problems in the West. The church is called to address these problems. But not in a way that is limited to trying to have less bad in the world. The church is called to proclaim good news: a vision of human flourishing that is just as much about naming positive things that should grow (love, peace, justice, etc.) as it is about naming negative things that should decrease (suffering, hate, alienation, etc.).

Fourth, such a reframing promotes long-term thinking. The question becomes not just whether someone has fish and will eat for that day but rather how they will have fish to eat tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that. The focus shifts from accomplishing projects for their own sake to asking what the impact of such projects will be on churches, communities, and the world decades down the road.

Theologians are rightly cautious about relying too much on metaphors from capitalism, which can include some problematic assumptions. The framing of the Western church investing in the majority world church certainly has its limits. Yet, assumptions from other metaphors can be problematic as well, as the assumptions about charity highlighted above are. Therefore, having other metaphors to understand what is going on when Western churches send financial and other support to majority world churches is important to developing more robust understandings of mission.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

David W. Scott: On the Post-Pandemic Church

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.

The COVID-19 pandemic is over. That is to say, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States government, and other authorities, the COVID-19 virus no longer constitutes a public health emergency. It is, instead, “an established and ongoing health issue,” as the WHO put it.

On a practical level, the most visible signs of the pandemic – widespread lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, extensive public masking, frequent testing, etc. – have been over for several months or a couple of years, depending on what measures and where in the world you are talking about.

As part of this end to preventative measures, churches around the world have returned to in-person worship. Churches everywhere ceased meeting in person in 2020, and most of them instead sought electronic ways to stay in touch with members, whether livestreaming, Facebook, WhatsApp, or other means. In most places, though, churches have been meeting in person again for a year or two. The WHO announcement merely recognizes what has already happened.

Yet, in almost no places has the church gone back to what it was before the pandemic. For some churches, that means continuing to provide electronic forms of connection that were adopted during the pandemic. For others, it means continuing the changes in routine regarding handwashing, communion, or fellowship food that were adopted during the pandemic.

And for many churches, it means reduced numbers of people showing up to church.

The decrease in church attendance in the United States in the wake of COVID has been well documented for some time. The Pew Research Center conducted a meta-analysis of five such studies earlier this year and found complicated but consistent findings that the COVID-19 pandemic correlated with a drop in worship attendance by any means.

This finding seems plausible, since it coincides with a long-term trend in the United States away from worship attendance and affiliation with organized religion. Again, the reporting on that topic has been extensive and consistent for over a decade. An NPR story earlier this week discussing the decline of religion in America (and citing the COVID pandemic) seemed less like news and more like a reminder.

What has been surprising for me, however, is learning that this phenomenon of reduced attendance and connection to church is not just a U.S. phenomenon or even a Western phenomenon.

Over the past year, as I have traveled to visit mission sites and had conversations with mission partners, I have consistently heard people talk about how the pandemic has set the church back. Churches around the world have lost attendance and momentum due to the pandemic. This is true in many different contexts – Korea, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, various African countries, Europe, and Latin America.

What’s more is that in several of these contexts, Christianity was doing well prior to the pandemic. Churches were strong and growing. That hasn’t completely ceased, as there is wide variation across congregations and denominations, and many churches that were strong prior to the pandemic are likely to rebound from pandemic setbacks.

Nevertheless, for churches that had been on an upward trajectory prior to COVID, the pandemic represents not the continuation of a long-term trend towards decline, as in the United States, but the interruption of a long-term trend towards growth. In other words, the pandemic didn’t just accelerate trends already underway; it also created new trends, at least in some locations.

It is too early to say what the long-term effects on churches will be from the pandemic, and certainly these will vary widely by contexts, Christianity tradition, individual congregation, and other factors. Some churches saw opportunity and increased connection during the pandemic, even if by different (and usually electronic) means. So, I do not wish to suggest that the pandemic is a universally negative force that will continue to weigh down the church everywhere.

Yet, as we mark and even celebrate the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must think about what it really means to be a “post-pandemic” church.

There was an English professor at my college who was fond of critiquing the term “post-modern.” “How can it be separate from modernism?” he would say. “The word ‘modern’ is part of the term “post-modern.’ How can it be beyond something that’s in its very name?”

Thus, as scholars of Christianity in various contexts around the world reflect on the “post-pandemic” church, they will do well to heed both parts of that name: The ways in which the church is “post-“ and has moved beyond the pandemic, and the ways in which the pandemic continues to shape the church and people’s engagement with it.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

David W. Scott: Differing trajectories of separation

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. This piece originally appeared as a commentary on the United Methodist News Service site and is republished here with permission.

In a recent commentary, I noted that connectionalism has organizational, relational and theological dimensions. I pointed out that the current wave of separations from The United Methodist Church raises questions about the possibilities of ongoing connectionalism among the congregations and conferences that have historically made up the denomination.

In this commentary, I will emphasize that the question of future connectionalism depends not only on the type of connectionalism — organizational, relational or theological — but also on how that process of separation looks.

Separation plays out in different ways, and differing trajectories have big implications for future connectionalism. Recent examples from Europe and the United States help illustrate.

Europe
In mid-March, the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference held a special session. One purpose was to act on proposals by the Eurasia Episcopal Area and the Estonia District of the Estonia Annual Conference to separate from The United Methodist Church. However, the two separations are playing out differently from each other, as are the separations of Bulgaria and the Slovak Republic of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference.

Last year, branches of The United Methodist Church in Bulgaria and the Slovak Republic decided unilaterally to exit the church immediately and to join the Global Methodist Church. (Romania voted with the rest of the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference to leave The United Methodist Church but has not yet done so.) Bishop Patrick Streiff ruled that in so doing, the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference violated church law, a view shared by some Judicial Council members.

Regardless of the legality under church law, the separations occurred, and the church in both countries joined the Global Methodist Church. This has, at least for now, completely ended formal, organizational connectionalism between The United Methodist Church and Methodists in Bulgaria and the Slovak Republic and effectively terminated most relational connections as well.

Last summer, Estonia also voted to withdraw from The United Methodist Church. Estonian Methodists, however, opted not to leave immediately but, rather, to give themselves a year to negotiate with Bishop Christian Alsted and the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference to create a departure process. Moreover, they intend to become autonomous rather than to join the Global Methodist Church.

The result of that year of negotiation was a formal motion adopted by the central conference to approve Estonian separation. The motion requires the Estonian church and The United Methodist Church to work together on various transitional aspects and includes an “agreement of mutual respectful relationships for the future.”

Thus, the agreement seeks to preserve some degree of relational connectionalism, even as organizational connectionalism shifts. It is unclear if any organizational connectionalism will continue after the short-term cooperation around the separation process, especially since the path Estonia is taking is not formally recognized by worldwide United Methodist polity.

The annual conferences of the Eurasia Episcopal Area voted last December to seek to become an autonomous church by following Paragraph 572 of the Book of Discipline, the official pathway laid out for church branches outside the United States to depart from the denomination.

While Bulgaria and the Slovak Republic’s decision was immediate, the Eurasian process will be slow. Paragraph 572 requires signoff by the annual conferences involved, the central conference, the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters and the General Conference. The Eurasian Episcopal Area’s decision to select this more onerous process may, ultimately, have more to do with features of Russian law than with church politics.

Nevertheless, this path leaves more options open for future connections. The Eurasian request currently seeks autonomy but not future affiliation with The United Methodist Church (“autonomous” and “autonomous affiliated” being separate categories in United Methodist polity). Moreover, in their resolutions for autonomy, two of the four Russian annual conferences mention “possible affiliation with a new Methodist denomination,” presumably the Global Methodist Church. If the Eurasia Episcopal Area joins the GMC, that step would probably foreclose any future connectionalism with The United Methodist Church. If they remain autonomous, however, going through a by-the-rules separation process would facilitate ongoing relational connections with those who remain in the denomination.

Thus, three different paths to separation in Europe have created three different trajectories in terms of future connectionalism (relational and organizational) with The United Methodist Church.

United States
In the United States as well, different trajectories toward separation from the denomination produce different implications for the future of connections between churches, whether leaving or staying. While separations or disaffiliations have been governed in the United States by Paragraph 2553, approaches by annual conferences and churches leaving the denomination have ranged between cooperative and antagonistic. In some instances, the conflict has escalated to lawsuits by churches seeking to leave. In other instances, charges and countercharges of misrepresentation and manipulation have resulted.

Such acrimony makes a Michigan congregation’s recent decision to separate all the more interesting. Cornerstone United Methodist Church, the church with the largest attendance in the Michigan Annual Conference, recently voted to disaffiliate and become nondenominational.

One might assume that opting to become nondenominational means rejecting connectionalism, but the Rev. Ken Nash, Cornerstone’s pastor, said, “We like being networked and connected. We love the idea of connectionalism.” While this statement might seem surprising, Nash continued, “We want to have connection in the future. It just doesn’t have to be as formalized.”

In other words, Cornerstone wants connectionalism that is more relational and less organizational. Cornerstone’s hope to maintain such connectionalism with The United Methodist Church is further evidenced by their intention to work with the annual conference to help provide for members who wish to remain United Methodist and their intention to continue supporting La Nueva Esperanza United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids. But this move would also allow them to “be in relationship with other denominations,” as the Michigan Conference article announcing the change said.

Cornerstone United Methodist Church is certainly an exceptional case among disaffiliating U.S. churches because of the degree to which they seem intentional about maintaining a connection to The United Methodist Church. And it matters that they are becoming nondenominational rather than joining the Global Methodist Church.

Across the United States, disaffiliating churches are opting for a variety of post-UMC futures by joining the Global Methodist Church or other denominations such as the Free Methodist Church or by becoming independent and experimenting with other new denominational or connectional forms.

Therefore, as with different national branches of Methodism in Europe, congregations in the United States have approached the process of separation and the anticipated denominational status of separating church in various ways. These different approaches set up different trajectories toward varying levels and forms of ongoing connectionalism (or not).

The question, “In what way, if any, will those departing The United Methodist Church and those staying be in connection?” does not have an answer. It is a question with dozens, even thousands, of answers as different congregations, groups of congregations and United Methodist conferences around the world decide how separation will occur and what will follow it.

The denomination’s future in the United States is not yet entirely clear and cannot yet be fully anticipated. While it is easy for Americans to point to the reunification of the Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal South and Methodist Protestant churches, we can find only one example of separated churches reuniting.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Implications of Online Education for the Future of the Church, Part 3

Today's piece is the second in a three-part series by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Professor of Missiology, World Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary.

Part Three: The Impact of a Fully Online MDiv for Theological Schools

On February 9, 2023, the University Senate of the UMC announced that they have approved a fully online MDiv degree to meet the educational criteria for ordination orders. https://www.gbhem.org/news/university-senate-approves-policy-change-to-offer-fully-online-master-of-divinity-degree/ This is a monumental change from the previous policy that required at least one-third of the degree to be completed in-person.

This is the final part of a 3-part blog on the implications of this policy change. The first part explored implications for students and future pastors, part 2 examined the impact for the UMC, and this final segment analyzes what this change will mean for theological schools and propose a mediated alternative between the two extremes of the costly traditional residential model and 100% online delivery.

Theological education, just as all of higher education, has been in crisis in recent years due to rising costs and a decline in enrollment. For decades, the MDiv has been the bread and butter for seminaries, and this has meant a consistent tuition revenue, but fewer students are enrolling in the MDiv. According to a 2018 report by Chris Meinzer using data from 240 member institutions of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), enrollment in MDiv programs declined from 43% to 40% of total students, while enrollment in academic MA degrees increased from 12% to 17% of degree-seeking  students.  While 40% is still the largest of the seminary programs, it is significant that less than half of students are preparing for parish ministry. This trend has accelerated since 2018.

Historically, the UMC has subsidized the 13 official United Methodist seminaries through the Ministerial Education Fund (MEF). A formula divides the designated funds based partially on the number of United Methodist ordination candidates who graduate from a seminary. The number of seminarians pursuing ordination has declined, and so the school won’t be credited for these students.

Many students are instead enrolled in other degree programs, such as the Master of Theological Studies (MTS) or the Master in the Arts in Theology (MA) and feel led to work in non-for-profits, chaplaincy or some para-ecclesial ministry. MA in Religion programs require fewer credit hours and can be completed in two years, as opposed to three to five years for the MDiv. As a result, seminaries will be hit by a double-whammy of both a lower MEF allotment and also less tuition revenue. Seminaries are feeling this economic pressure.

Many schools also receive revenue through room and board in their residential facilities. The University Senate’s decision will likely lead to less demand for physical facilities for seminaries as future students will not reside on campus, eat in the dining hall, sit in class, or do research in a brick-and-mortar library.

These added financial pressures will accelerate the trend of seminaries merging, embedding in larger universities, and closing campuses. For example, in the last two years Lancaster and Moravian Seminaries in Pennsylvania combined, General Theological Seminary in New York came under the umbrella of Virginia Theological Seminary, and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary became embedded in Lenoir Rhyne University. In March of this year, Claremont School of Theology announced that they will relocate from their historic campus in Claremont to Westwood UMC in Los Angeles. Saint Paul School of Theology was ahead of the curve when it sold its historic campus in 2012 to have a smaller physical footprint renting space from the Church of the Resurrection and a second campus at Oklahoma City University.

With fewer residential students and more distance learners, aging campuses that require maintenance become more of a burden than an asset. This, of course, will depend upon the enrollment, budget, and ethos of each school. However, this announcement from University Senate will impact all the schools, as they will need to take into account the increased competition, as ministry candidates do a cost-benefit analysis and weigh their options.

In light of the University Senate’s announcement, the decline in MDiv enrollment, the cost of maintaining a physical plant, and the challenges with online pedagogy, I would like to propose a via media—a middle way. I propose a path the has the best of residential pedagogy and the accessibility and cost-effectiveness of online education.

Contextualized theological education is not new to ministerial training. Even before the latest technological advances, Methodism has a long tradition of training pastors by extension. John Wesley created the Christian Library, an anthology of classical theological writings that he deemed essential for new preachers to read. Aspiring circuit riders on the American frontier were assigned reading, and they were partnered with experienced pastors, called “yokefellows,” for apprenticeship.

Eventually, a more formalized 4-year reading list was published by the Methodist Book Concern, which led to the Course of Study for local pastors. As transportation improved, the Course of Study moved from correspondence courses to a residential model. Even still, this training method was contextual because pastors were under appointment and their courses only required 2-4 weeks of residence each year—usually in the summer.

Institutions of higher learning, particularly Ivy League schools on the East Coast, were the forerunners in professional theological education. Yale University, for example, graduated its first Bachelor of Theology (BT) class in 1869. The emergence of graduate theological education and the MDiv as the gold standard for ministerial training didn’t become common place until the mid-1950s. Yale changed its BT to an MDiv in 1971.

So, the University Senate decision to allow a fully online MDiv degree for ministerial candidates is not entirely new or without precedence, and, in fact, is actually closer to the early training model for American Methodism.

Contextual theological education has several advantages. I have taught in the Course of Study for 25 years, and local pastors bring their pastoral experience into the classroom. They engage course readings with a pastoral lens as to what is useful and what is hyperbole. They practice the advice of Paul, who wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:21: “test everything; hold fast to what is good.”

In other words, local pastors want a practical theological education they can use in their ministry settings. One student under appointment reported: “Since I was a student pastor, therefore it was an excellent experience because I was applying the knowledge as the seminary shaped my theological and ministry understanding.” I’ve received reports from Course of Study students who study a concept during the week and then preach on it on Sunday.

This is very different from young MDiv students who are straight out of college often studying theory to be applied later in their field education site or their first appointment. Thus, online-only degrees will push seminaries to reevaluate their pedagogy.

On the flipside, as discussed in Parts I and II of this blog, students who remain in their home contexts and aren’t exposed to a wide variety of experiences in residential theological education often complete seminary without major changes in their worldview or theological perspectives. This also creates pedagogical challenges.

I propose a hybrid pathway where students are allowed to remain in their communities and maintain their current family and work commitments and travel to the seminary campus for intensive face-to-face immersions with their professors and their classmates. These intensive immersion classes can be week-long or for just a weekend.

This model retains the best of both extremes while still creating spaces to embrace diversity, to sit in class, in chapel, or across the table from someone from a different life experience than one’s own. It will force students to get out from behind a computer screen and open the door for deeper relationships and cognitive dissonance. Students will build community, and this will improve morale and retention. Students who are more connected with their professors and classmates in a cohort model are more likely to complete the degree.

A hybrid delivery method also justifies the use of seminary residential and dining facilities. Students can rent a room and eat meals in the dining hall, giving the schools some additional revenue.

This model isn’t completely new, as it has a great deal of similarity to the summer Course of Study, where students serve as local pastors throughout the year and travel to a seminary campus for 2-4 weeks every summer. This hybrid pathway will create a cohort where ministerial candidates can build community as they journey through the MDiv program together, seeing their classmates for a few intensive encounters every year.

In conclusion, the announcement earlier this year from the University Senate will have major repercussions for theological education in The United Methodist Church. Candidates for ordination no longer have a residential requirement and can now complete 100% of their MDiv online. This allows students who are tethered to their local communities to study while remaining in place. This pedagogical model is a throw-back to earlier models of contextualized theological education where students completed their training while under appointment, such as the Course of Study. To mediate the 100% online vs. traditional theological education debate, I propose a hybrid pathway that involves courses taught online with intermittent intensive immersion encounters placed in the middle of the semester. This will allow students and professors to have the advantages of both delivery methods. 

Monday, May 1, 2023

News Roundup - May 1, 2023

Below is a run-down of significant (United) Methodist stories from the past month. Notable this month are the many stories from the continent of Africa.

United Methodist mission organized in Madagascar: Bishop Joaquina Nhanala of Mozambique traveled to Madagascar to officially inaugurate a United Methodist congregation in the capital city of Antananarivo. UMNews covered the occasion with a story and photo essay: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/bishop-makes-historic-visit-to-madagascar and https://express.adobe.com/page/X8DUHKwa4rkkx/

United Methodist mission organized in the Republic of Congo: Bishop Daniel Lunge and other leaders of the Central Congo Episcopal Area traveled to the Republic of Congo (across the river from the Democratic Republic of Congo) to organize United Methodist mission efforts there: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/the-united-methodist-church-moves-across-congo-river

Global Ministries holds series of meetings in Africa: Global Ministries held a series of meetings in Maputo, Mozambique, including an Africa Mission Partners Consultation on April 17-19, a board of directors meeting on April 20-22, and two missionary-related events. Global Ministries and UMNews both covered the events: https://umcmission.org/news-statements/global-ministries-to-hold-series-of-meetings-in-maputo-mozambique-focusing-on-mission/, https://www.umnews.org/en/news/global-ministries-meetings-focus-on-mission-in-africa, and https://umcmission.org/news-statements/a-global-community-of-love-and-good-deeds-is-mission-goal/.

Africa Forum holds inaugural meeting: The United Methodist Africa Forum meet April 21-22 in South Africa to organize the new group and set out a vision for the UMC in Africa: https://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/united-methodist-africa-forum-sets-priorities-names-leaders/.

United Methodists seek to grow agriculture in Africa: Global Ministries shared positive outcomes around Africa from a series of trainings for African United Methodists at the Songhai Center in Benin: https://umcmission.org/april-2023/songhai-training-ignites-new-drive-in-yambasu-agriculture-initiative-farmers/. The organization also approved additional funding for the Yambasu Agricultural Initiative: https://umcmission.org/april-2023/yai-transforms-lives-and-gives-hope-to-farming-communities-in-africa/. And Bishop Quire of Liberia talked about the hope for agriculture in his country: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLsyUda1x2M.

Liberia plans and partnerships for Gbason Town university campus and mission station: The United Methodist University of Liberia announced plans for new academic programs including in agriculture at its Gbason Town campus, the site of the from Gbason Town Mission Station: https://www.westafricanwriters.org/umu-president-dr-yar-donlah-gonway-gono-visits-umu-gbason-town-campus/. The Liberia and Norway Annual Conferences also renewed a partnership with roots in Norwegian missionary service in at the Gbason Town Mission Station: https://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/liberia-and-norway-united-methodists/.

UMC health boards combat malaria in Africa: World Malaria Day was in April. Health boards of UMC episcopal areas in Africa are dedicated to fighting malaria, working in cooperation with Global Ministries: https://umcmission.org/april-2023/zero-malaria-theme-of-world-malaria-day-is-the-goal-for-umc-health-work/.

Bishop Paul Boafo elected president of the Africa Methodist Council: Bishop Paul Boafo, presiding bishop of the independent Methodist Church of Ghana, has been elected president of the Africa Methodist Council, a regional pan-Methodist body affiliated with the World Methodist Council: https://irishmethodist.org/world-mission-news/new-president-of-the-africa-methodist-council.

Romania decides to stay in the UMC: United Methodists in Romania have decided to remain in the denomination, a reversal from their joint decision with Bulgarian Methodists last year to leave. The UMC churches in Romania will now be linked to those in Hungary: https://www.emk.de/meldung/hoffnungsvolle-signale.

European United Methodists continue to respond to the war in Ukraine: United Methodists in various European countries continue to assist refugees and others impacted by the on-going war in Ukraine. The Central and Southern Europe Central Conference provides an update: https://www.umnews.org/-/media/umc-media/2023/04/26/21/58/united-methodist-church-europe-ukraine-refugees-4-25-2023.

Swiss Methodists host ecumenical conference on online church content: Swiss United Methodists organized and hosted the first-ever Swiss conference for Christian internet content creators. The conference garnered strong ecumenical participation across Protestant and Catholic groups: https://emk-schweiz.ch/2023/04/12/erstes-schweizer-netzwerktreffen-fuer-digital-content-creators/.

Rev. Izzy Alvaran discusses inclusion from a global perspective: Rev. Izzy Alvaran of the Philippines Central Conference and Reconciling Ministries Network discussed the intersectional nature of justice, the current state of the Philippines UMC, and the promise of regionalization on an episode of the Bar of the Conference podcast: https://open.spotify.com/episode/4ttmYLOGcAzp7CzBUMtdlg.

Filipino UMC grows in Canada: The Greater Northwest Episcopal Area profiled a growing congregation of Filipino United Methodists in British Columbia, Canada. The congregation exists in partnership with the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, the United Church of Canada, and Global Ministries: https://greaternw.org/news/first-umc-canada-grows-through-filipino-leadership-immigrant-community-connections/.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Implications of Online Education for the Future of the Church, Part 2

Today's piece is the second in a three-part series by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Professor of Missiology, World Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary.

Part Two: The Impact of Fully Online Theological Education on the UMC

On February 9, 2023, the University Senate of the UMC announced that they have approved a fully online MDiv degree to meet the educational criteria for ordination orders. This is a monumental change from the previous policy that required at least one-third of the degree to be completed in-person.

This is the second of a three-part blog analyzing the impact of this policy on the student in preparation for ministry, on the UMC, and on theological schools. In this part, I will look at the impact on the UMC. The third and final part will propose a model that addresses some of the concerns and questions raised in the first and second parts.

In my opinion, this new policy will favor those annual conferences that do not have a seminary (either a UM seminary or a seminary that is approved by University Senate) within their geographical boundaries. There has historically been a “brain drain,” where rural areas lose talent when young people go off to study in urban areas and don’t return.

Similarly, when ministry candidates move from their homes to a major metropolitan area such as Atlanta, Chicago, or Washington DC, many do not return to their home conferences. Talented young people are enticed to divinity schools with full scholarships for three years where they are exposed to new opportunities and connections at seminary. Students participate in a very diverse community and are exposed to new ideas. Students are tempted by studying for a PhD. There is also an increasing number of seminary graduates who do not feel led to serve the church, whether ordained or not. Many enter into chaplaincy, non-for-profit organizations, or other career options.

This is not true of all students from rural areas; some candidates are far enough along in the ordination process, or they have significant community ties, so that they indeed do return to their home conferences, accept an appointment to a local church, and continue the ordination process once they have completed seminary.

The new University Senate policy permitting a 100% online MDiv degree will allow more ministry candidates to stay within their annual conference, which could lead to a higher percentage of young people who remain in the candidacy process and continue on through ordination. The Lewis Center of Wesley Theological Seminary began reporting on the decline in numbers of young clergy under the age of 35 in 2006. In 2005, the number of young elders declined to a historic low of 850 in the United States. For a few years, the denomination provided greater support and incentives for young clergy, and the number rose to 1003 in 2016. However, in recent years the decline in young clergy has continued. A 2022 report by Lovett Weems stated, “The number of young elders in 2021 hit a new historic low of 742. The trend of steep losses continues in 2022 with a loss of another 94 and thus another record low number of young elders at 648.”  

This University Senate policy change may help annual conferences retain young people, who can stay within their geographical boundaries while they complete their seminary training. Moreover, annual conferences can appoint ministry candidates to an appointment as a student pastor while they are completing their degree.

On the downside, I also foresee fewer opportunities for transformational learning experiences for students who stay put to attend seminary. When one does not have to be directly confronted with another person’s reality and life circumstances that are very different from one’s own, then there are fewer opportunities for cognitive dissonance. I fear that students who study for their seminary degree completely online will go through the curriculum without major challenges to their beliefs. This could lead to a lack of critical thinking skills. If an author, instructor, or classmate presents an idea that is mediated by technology, then one is safely behind a computer screen unchallenged.

Students will not have to live in residential student housing, eat in the dining halls, and attend chapel with other students from different walks of life. The richness of campus life is a seminary community of students who identify as rich and poor, gay and straight, rural and urban, as well as international students. You may encounter students different from you in an online class, but there won’t be spontaneous and perhaps uncomfortable conversations in the parking lot after class, late night theological discussions or weekend road-trips.

While online students can still access e-books and electronic resources, they will have fewer opportunities to peruse the reference materials or get lost in the stacks of a theological library. Online education can also rely on “cookie cutter” and “check the box” methodology that transmits knowledge but without liberatory pedagogy that teaches critical thinking.

These changes matter not just for students, but for the church at large. They could result in pastors who are not trained as public theologians to think on their feet and lead their congregations through the unchartered challenges ahead. The church will need skilled leaders and theologians in the years ahead. Online study could result in fewer MDiv graduates with the academic preparation to pursue a doctorate or to lead in innovative and inclusive ways.

In conclusion, a student who completes seminary in a fully online platform may produce pastors who are more deeply rooted locally with less exposure to the national and global church and the reality of those whose life experiences are different than themselves. I foresee that the long-term impact for the annual conference will be pastors who have a more local or regional worldview—largely unchanged from the time that a student enters seminary. Collectively for the annual conference, the clergy will become more like-minded without the national or international connections of those who have been exposed to a broader range of seminary experiences and relationships.