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.
For years now, if not for decades, politics in The United Methodist Church have reflected politics in the United States: they have been dominated by a conflict between traditional and progressive blocs over social issues. In the UMC, the most contentious such issues have been gay marriage and gay ordination.
Things, however, are changing. Under the impact of a variety of forces, a new set of issues will dominate The United Methodist Church in the next few years, bringing with them new coalitions of players. This post will examine the new issues and the forces leading to their prominence, while a subsequent post will examine the new array of parties within the church as defined by these new issues.
The Forces Reshaping the UMC
There are three main forces that have pushed the church into a new era of internal politics. The first of these is the breakdown of existing denominational structures’ ability to manage the conflict over sexuality.
As much as this conflict has characterized the church for forty years, for much of this time, the denominational system gave players on both sides enough hope that their position could prevail that they were motivated to stay involved, and the rest of the work of the denomination could continue despite the conflict.
Increasingly over the last decade, but especially since the called General Conference in February 2019, the denominational system has no longer been up to this task. Various players are no longer willing to stay engaged in the fight within the denomination, and the conflict has derailed much of the rest of the work of the denomination. This has happened despite the best efforts of the bishops and the General Conference to find solutions.
The second significant force reshaping the denomination is the increasing voice of non-US United Methodists in denominational affairs. While people around the world have views on issues of sexuality, the conflict over sexuality in the UMC has been a predominantly US-driven issue. Non-US United Methodists are now pushing agendas that they have defined, rather than just responding to issues originating in the United States.
The increased power of voices from outside the United States is the result both of demographic trends in the denomination (decline in US membership and growth in members in the Congo and elsewhere) and a consequence of denominational breakdown. As US church leadership and existing structures have proven unable to manage the denomination’s conflicts, it has emboldened leadership from outside the United States to set forward their own agendas for the church.
The third force is the financial realities brought about by US membership decline. Even independently of the fallout of GC 2019 or the coronavirus pandemic, the UMC would have reached peak apportionments within the last quadrennium, the point at which a rise in the wealth of the US membership (which is the source of 99% of denominational funds) could no longer make up for a decline in that membership. The exodus of members and congregations after GC 2019 and the financial fallout of the pandemic have, however, made the financial situation worse.
The New Issues
Shaped by these three forces, The United Methodist Church must now struggle with a variety of issues that include but go beyond its previous preoccupation with debates over gay marriage and gay ordination. These include gay marriage and ordination, denominational separation, regionalization, and denominational institutions.
Gay marriage and gay ordination, to be sure, do remain significant issues within the church. The United Methodist Church continues to include both people that are committed to ensure that the UMC minister with and through LGBTQ+ persons and people that are committed to ensuring that current prohibitions remain. Many of these people will remain within the denomination, regardless of what happens, and thus will continue to advocate around this issue one way or another. Still, it is worth noting that most major legislation coming before the next General Conference does not directly address the denomination’s stance on this issue.
Some with strong positions on gay marriage and gay ordination, though, have decided that they want to leave the denomination, either to ensure that they may fully include LGBTQ+ persons or to ensure that traditional understandings of sexuality are upheld. For these people, the primary question is no longer what the official position of the UMC will be, but what the terms will be under which they can exit the denomination. On the opposing side, there are those, especially from the central conferences, who feel it is very important to preserve denominational unity and are opposed to formal separation of the denomination. The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is a major legislative proposal related to this issue, but the issue of separation is not limited to passage or rejection of the Protocol, and trickles down to annual conference politics as well.
Another issue on which United Methodists from the Central Conferences have been making their voices heard is the need for greater regionalization, contextualization, and equality across branches of the church. United Methodists from the central conferences have been interested in this issue for some time, and the current disfunction within the US UMC has given new impetus to press for changes to the denomination’s organization that would preserve connection but separate out predominantly US matters from denomination-wide discussions and give other areas of the world greater equality with the US branch of the church.
Since this sort of restructuring can only happen through act of the General Conference, this issue is particularly General Conference-focused. The major piece of legislation here is the Christmas Covenant, which was put forward by a coalition of United Methodists from outside the United States. These United Methodists will resist the framing of regionalization as a progressive/Traditionalist issue, a framing that contributed to the failure of previous attempts at regionalization, such as proposed 2008 amendments to the church’s constitution.
Finally, there are a set of issues related to the denominational institutions of the church that have taken on significance in light of the denomination’s financial situation and forecasted future. These include the questions of how much in apportionments to ask of (US) churches, how to respond to a shortfall in episcopal funding (including how many bishops to elect), how to carry forward the work of the boards and agencies with reduced funding, and how to respond to reduced budgets at the local and regional levels (including reductions in annual conference budgets and possible redrawing of annual conference lines). In essence, these questions can be boiled down to one: How much of the current denominational institutions can and should be preserved, given current financial realities?
While General Conference 2012’s Plan UMC debate is a predecessor to the current debates, today’s debates go beyond a focus on the general boards and agencies. These financial and structural concerns are in some ways more pressing in the United States, since they effect all levels of church budgets in the United States and since the boards and agencies are all based in the United States. Nevertheless, they have implications around the world, given how significant US funding is for the church globally.
These financial issues are unique in that the questions are not necessarily either/or (as in allow/disallow gay ordination, leave/stay in the denomination, and regionalize/continue current the structure). While there may be either/or elements to these questions (restructure agencies or not, for example), there are also questions of quantity (how many bishops to elect?) and quality (how much support of ministries should agencies provide?).
An Era of New Issues
Each of these four issues has implications for the others, but none of them can simply be reduced to a function of another. And in the same way, the positions that United Methodists are taking around these issues cannot be reduced to a simple progressive/traditionalist division. As I will detail in an upcoming post, there are now a host of parties within the UMC based on which issue is most important and positions on that issue.
Given the amount of change afoot, United Methodist politics are entering a period of fluidity and unpredictability, as old patterns are disrupted. Within that setting, those who continue to understand United Methodist politics primarily in the dualistic terms that have sufficed in recent years will fundamentally misunderstand what is happening in the denomination now.
Monday, March 1, 2021
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.
Friday, February 26, 2021
Major emphases of the statement include a call for continued unity, combined with a call for the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ individuals in the church and a call for reform of neo-colonialist structures within The United Methodist Church. In its call for continued unity with greater regionalization, it shares something with the Christmas Covenant's recent press release or the Statement of Church Unity from the Africa Voice of Unity, though both of these statements do not call for full inclusion. (The Africa Voice of Unity statement is explicit about this point.) In this regard, the European bishops' "Our Commitment" statement, which was released yesterday, is perhaps closer in spirit, though the Out of Chaos: Creation statement is stronger on the point of LGBTQIA+ inclusion.
Like the Africa Voices of Unity statement, the Out of Choas: Creation statement explicitly condemns racism. The Out of Chaos: Creation statement is also concerned with ecclesiology and how members of the church relate to each other, including through the process of Christian conferencing. These foci also distinguish the Out of Chaos: Creation statement from other recent statements in the church.
For further information about the statement, see this UMNS article and this EmK article.
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Last week, I wrote a piece arguing that, at least in some cases, it is fair to see immigrant pastors serving in the United States as missionaries. An astute reader pointed out to me that this argument also applies in much of Europe. Furthermore, seeing immigrant pastors in this way adds something to the conversation about those pastors that is not captured in the cross-racial, cross-cultural appointment conversation, and it adds an element to the discussion about the relationships between the UMC in the United States (and Europe) and Methodism elsewhere.
There is another side to the phenomenon of migrant clergy, one that is also critical to better understanding relationships among national branches of (United) Methodism. In their host countries, immigrant clergy might be missionaries, but we must look at the impact on their home countries as well. Do migrant clergy represent a form of brain drain for the countries they leave?
Behind this question of whether migratory clergy represent a brain drain for their home countries is the vast differences in clergy per laity across The United Methodist Church, and presumably other Methodist bodies as well. As I demonstrated last month, the clergy-to-laity ratio in United Methodist annual conferences varies from 1:16 to 1:5500. Yet in some cases, it is annual conferences with higher clergy-to-laity ratios, such as those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that export clergy to countries with lower clergy-to-laity ratios, such as the United States. Is this then not a case of the church in the United States using its power and wealth to attract clergy to serve its own needs, even at the expense of the church elsewhere?
As with the question of whether immigrant clergy count as missionaries, though, there are a number of complexities in answering this question, given the variety of experiences of migratory clergy.
As noted last week, in some cases, clergy are sent by Methodist bodies in their home countries to minister to fellow migrants in the host country. While this is uncommon in the UMC in the United States, it happens more frequently in Europe. That pattern may still count as a form of brain drain, in that those migrant clergy are not using their talents in their home countries, but it is hard to argue against the self-determination of those home Methodist bodies to deploy their clergy as they see fit.
In other cases, people become clergy in the United States (or other Western countries) because they would not have had the opportunity to do so in their home country, or the route to doing so would have been much harder and the sorts of ministries in which they could have engaged would have been much more limited. In these instances, these migrants may still represent a loss of talent for their home country, but their home churches would not have made use of those talents had they stayed.
Yet despite these counter-examples, it is clear that in some instances, migrant clergy do represent a loss of talents for their home churches that those home churches could have used. This is true both of clergy serving in churches and especially of clergy with advanced education would could use that education to teach in colleges, universities, and seminaries back home and thereby train additional clergy.
Churches in developing countries are sometimes justifiably nervous about sending their clergy members for advanced study in the United States, knowing that those clergy members may choose to stay in the United States, and their home church would thus lose the spiritual and financial investments they have made in that person. Given this danger, it is fair for churches sending their clergy abroad to study to try to craft rules or incentives for those clergy to return.
But it is not the role of the church in the United States to unilaterally try to prohibit clergy from other countries from remaining in the United States. For United Methodists in the United States to make such a move unilaterally would be to go against the reciprocity and mutually that should characterize the body of Christ.
Instead, what is needed is more conversation between United Methodists in the United States and (United) Methodists in other countries where clergy are coming from, conversation about how to collaborate in developing sufficient clergy for the church as a whole and deploying those clergy where they may best use the talents God has given them. Seeing migrant clergy as both potential missionaries and potential sources of brain drain can help the conversation partners be honest about their own needs as parts of the body of Christ while trying to figure out together how they may support the other parts of the body in their needs as well.
Monday, February 22, 2021
John Wesley famously stated that he was homo unius libri (a man of one book). Following that lead, United Methodism affirms that Holy Writ is the primary authority for issues related to right faith and right practice. Considering this, how should Bible-affirming people make sense of the New Testament’s mixed messages about female Christ-followers?
In Titus 2:2-4, Paul says that the old women should behave themselves with reverence and not gossip or drink too much. They should give a good example, teach the young women to love their husbands and their children, remain judiciously pure, be keepers of the home, remain full of kindness and be subject to their husbands.
On the surface, this sounds very sexist and out of step with our modern world. After all, American society values gender equality. I also value gender equality because the spirit and teaching of the New Testament establishes this ideal.
In the church, the cultural categories that diminish women should be reconsidered in the light of the gospel message that emphasizes equality in Christ (Gal 3:28). As such, I do not believe that American women need to follow Paul's exhortation as if it were a universal law to be mimicked.
Why do I say this? Verse 5 makes the point. Do all of this so that "no one will be able to speak badly against the gospel message."
In other words, the culture of the people to which Paul was writing had normative expectations regarding the proper way for a woman to behave in public and in the home. If Christian women acted contrary to the cultural norm, they would bring discredit on the Gospel and would cause the unbelieving public to think that Christianity was a bad religion that should be shunned.
First Peter 2-3 makes a similar point when writing to slaves, to women who are married to harsh unbelievers, and to Christians who live under an evil government. In this light, one should not read 1 Peter 2:18ff as if it were establishing slavery.
The larger teaching of the New Testament points to an in-breaking kingdom of God that transforms human societies that are under the tutelage of the gospel. Ultimately, God will abolish all forms of injustice and sin to include slavery.
As such, 1 Peter does not endorse slavery. Rather, it assumes the unjust reality of slavery in the Roman Empire. It was a social fact for the people of its time. In the context of slavery and other forms of unjust systems, 1 Peter tells Christian slaves how they should live so they can influence others for Christ. In other words, Peter tells his audience that those who abuse you will be drawn to you and the Christ in you because of your exemplary behavior. As such, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15b).
First-century slaves did not have the freedom to preach or to protest against social injustice. However, they could lay a foundation for witnessing by living a life that was beyond reproach. When we approach 1 Peter and other similar verses from the perspective of social justice, we miss this point.
For Paul and 1 Peter, the evangelistic mandate was more important than personal liberty. That is why Paul affirms that he compromises his personal liberty by becoming all things to all people in order to win some to Christ (1 Cor 9:19-23). Paul did not ask others to do something he was not willing to model in his own life.
In both Paul and 1 Peter, the evangelistic mandate requires that Christian act in ways that do not bring discredit to the gospel to the extent they can without compromising the gospel message. This is a critical point. To do this, we must identify what is essential and what is cultural. On points related to the essential, we cannot water down the faith or change the clear teaching of scripture.
In the context of today’s debates, I place sexual purity in this category because it is a moral imperative. However, I do not place social gender roles in this category. Different societies have different social structures. The Bible does not establish a normative social structure for every culture. An old professor used to say, “The gospel will offend. However, it should offend for the right reasons.”
Let me offer a simple example that shows why scripture must be interpreted in terms of meaning rather than form. Proverbs 23:13 opines, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Many people who fail to make a distinction between meaning and culture have used this proverb as a mandate for corporal punishment. However, this proverb is not mandating corporal punishment. Rather, it is mandating that parents correct and discipline their children in order for them to grow up well. Corporal punishment was the culturally appropriate way that people did that in the time of the proverb.
United Methodists have to affirm that scripture is sacred and that it is the word of God. We must place ourselves under the authority of God as it has been mediated to us through the divine witness of scripture and tradition. However, we must make cultural adjustments as we interpret it and apply it to any given social context. Scripture has to be interpreted before it is rightly applied!
Friday, February 19, 2021
A 2007 dissertation by Kyung Mo Koo entitled, "A study of the cross-cultural/racial ministry of a Korean immigrant pastor in the United Methodist Church." This dissertation includes an analysis of the mission of the church in globalization as part of the context for understanding such ministry.
A 2017 dissertation by Hyekyung Pauline Kang entitled, "Cross-racial and cross-cultural leadership experiences of Korean-American United Methodist clergywomen." The dissertation is particularly interested in Korean-American immigrant clergywomen, whom it describes as "bold and courageous missionaries."
The writings and presentations of AHyun Lee, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary in Indiana Wesleyan University. Rev. Dr. Lee's work falls more within the realm of pastoral care rather than missiology, but it is squarely focused on Korean immigrant clergywomen and clergy spouses.
As the church seeks to better understand the role of immigrant United Methodist pastors in the United States as a missionary role, this literature, along with writings on other immigrant groups, can help build that understanding.
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
As I asserted last week, a church that imports pastors is a mission field, and by this definition, many parts of The United Methodist Church in the United States are a mission field, since they do not produce enough clergy from among their own membership and must instead recruit clergy from elsewhere in the United States or from other countries, including Korea, the Philippines, and various Africa nations.
This week, I want to explore a possible corollary of my statement last week by asking, "Are immigrant pastors missionaries?" While one could ask this question about clergy from other areas of the United States, I think focusing on immigrant clergy both sharpens the question and highlights some possible implications for the relationship between the UMC in the United States and (United) Methodism elsewhere around the world.
To the extent that immigrant clergy are currently discussed in the US United Methodist Church, it is most commonly as part of the discourse about cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments, that is, clergy who serve churches with a racial and/or cultural background different from their own. This discourse has good merit to it, but it is rooted more in American race relations and theories of diversity than in mission per se, so making the assertion that immigrant clergy are missionaries would potentially add something new to the conversation. By specifying immigrant clergy, the question also makes a distinction often lost in the conversation about cross-racial, cross-cultural appointments, which as a term applies to clergy of any race, culture, or national background.
A missionary is one who is sent (missio) to engage in the work of God's mission, in and beyond the church. Foreign missionaries are those sent to another country to do so. Thus, the question of whether immigrant pastors are missionaries hinges on how one construes sending and its relationship to the process of migration. Who must be doing the sending, and how should that sending be related to other factors influencing the decision to migrate?
In relatively few situations are other branches of Methodism, especially other branches of The United Methodist Church, sending personnel to the United States for the sake of carrying out evangelistic, discipleship, charitable, or social justice ministries. To the extent that Methodist churches outside the United States do so, it is largely autonomous Methodist churches (Korea, Nigeria, Ghana, etc.) sending clergy to care for immigrant members of their own denominations and engage in broader outreach. These clergy are not serving United Methodist congregations.
Another interpretation of immigrant clergy serving in the US UMC would focus on US annual conferences' need to recruit clergy. This take would thus frame the migration of clergy in terms of calling rather than sending. Clergy from outside the United States are encouraged to migrate because US churches work to bring them to the United States. Like the previous accounting, this account is institutionally focused.
Alternatively, one could look at individual clergypersons rather than church institutions (in either home or host country) as the locus of the decision to migrate. Such a focus would examine a range of incentives for each clergyperson to migrate, including family and other social networks in the host country, relative political and economic conditions between home and host country, educational opportunities in the host country, and so on. If the decision to migrate is seen as solely a result of a series of rational calculations of self-interest by the clergy person her- or himself, we are unlikely to see it as an act of mission, since we do not send ourselves into mission.
Yet exploring personal motivations for migration can also highlight the religious reasons that are behind clergypersons' decisions to migrate, and here we do come to a missional interpretation of clergy migration. Many clergy from other countries who choose to serve in the United States do so because of the ministry opportunities involved. For female clergy, this opportunity is often to serve in pastoral roles denied them in their home countries. For some clergy, this opportunity is to engage in a style of pastoral leadership or style of ministry that is out-of-step with their home countries but more prevalent in the United States. For some clergy, this opportunity is entwined with the opportunity to pursue higher education for the sake of equipping their ministry. And for some clergy, this opportunity is explicitly the opportunity to serve cross-culturally.
I believe we must honor these senses of divine calling or sending that go into clergypersons' decisions to migrate to serve congregations in the United States. And in so doing so, I think it makes sense to adopt a missional hermeneutic of these immigrant clergypersons' service. They serve congregations in the United States because they have responded to God's sending of them across national borders. And we should not reduce these decisions to merely social, economic, or political factors (though those may be present too), nor should we read those decisions entirely through institutional lenses.
Of course, there are many immigrant pastors serving in the UMC in the United States, each of which has a unique experience of migration and of pastoral service. It is impossible to say that all immigrant clergy have migrated in response to a divine sending to serve in the United States. So, not all immigrant clergy may be missionaries.
Nonetheless, that narrative of divine call and sending among immigrant clergy is common enough that we can say at least some immigrant clergy are missionaries. Therefore, it makes sense to use a missional lens to reflect upon and understand both the experiences of immigrant clergy and the service they render the UMC in the United States.
Monday, February 15, 2021
Methodist Mission at 200, a new book from United Methodist Global Ministries, seeks to inspire readers to engage in Christian mission today while learning from the challenges of the past. It also marks the bicentennial of the agency that traces its origins to 1819.
One emphasis is on the way effective mission crosses boundaries in friendship. This is a lesson from John Stewart, an African American Methodist preacher whose work with the Wyandotte people in Ohio is credited with inspiring the formation of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, forerunner to today’s General Board of Global Ministries.
Edited by Thomas Kemper, former general secretary, and Dr. David W. Scott, director of mission theology at Global Ministries and blogmaster for UM & Global, Methodist Mission at 200: Serving Faithfully Amid the Tensions is published by Abingdon Press and is now available for purchase in paperback or as an e-book.
“This is an opportune time to look back at our first 200 years and see how the Methodist mission community grew as a movement,” said Roland Fernandes, general secretary of United Methodist Global Ministries. “People committed to mission have faced serious challenges ranging from cultural shifts to mass migration to world wars to service in unchartered parts of the globe. While commemorating these first 200 years, the book also delves into the mission theology that guides our current work.”
“Methodist Mission at 200 informs but also uplifts and inspires, as together the church seeks to faithfully answer God’s call, encouraged by the stories of those who have come before us,” said Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, Global Ministries board president and leader of the Wisconsin Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church. “This analysis makes us conscious of the tensions that surround us, and dependent upon the relationships that connect us.”
Methodist Mission at 200: Serving Faithfully Amid the Tensions (ISBN: 9781791015985) delves into the origins of mission and service, shares lessons from 200 years of mission history, offers details about the celebration of the bicentennial of Methodist mission, describes how theology guides present mission practice and analyzes the enduring tensions in mission.