Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Knut Refsdal: Consensus-based processes in the church

Today's post is by Rev. Knut Refsdal, District Superintendent for The United Methodist Church in Norway. Rev. Refsdal here explains the consensus-decision making model used at this year's Norway Annual Conference meeting.

Given the situation the church finds itself in after the specially called session of the General Conference earlier this year, there was a great deal of excitement before our Annual Conference in Norway in June. It was therefore of great importance how the various cases were handled.

From the Cabinet's point of view, we decided early on that we would try to facilitate consensus-based processes. This is a process where we search for a common opinion without using formal voting and where we engage in a genuine and respectful dialogue. This is important for a church. As a church, we are called to work against all forms of divisions so that God's reconciled fellowship can become visible. We do this also in the way decisions are made.

Consensus doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone agrees. We also say that we have reached consensus when one of the following happens: Either that all those who have the right to make decisions agree on a result or most agree and that those who disagree accept that they have been heard and that they can live with the result. Thus, agreement on a result is not limited to confirming the wording of a proposal. It may also be that a consensus has been reached on another result, such as agreeing to reject a proposal, referring a case to further processing or confirming that one can take different positions in relation to the case in question.

Consensus is a willingness to explore and develop alternative ways of decision-making than what are often called "parliamentary methods." The latter aims to structure debates and proposals in such a way that they can lead to majority decisions. We know these methods very well in the church These are not methods that emphasize a goal of unity, nor are they methods that necessarily foster collaboration and broad participation and inclusion. I would say the contrary, these often promote factions with the result that one easily ends up with winners and losers in a process, which can be detrimental to internal relationships and make decisions more difficult to implement.

The goals for consensus processes are therefore: Better decisions, better implementation of decisions and better group relationships.

The following are some key principles that underpin consensus as a form of decision:

Inclusive and participatory: In a consensus process, everyone affected by a decision is included and encouraged to participate and contribute towards a final decision. Likewise, the goal is to address the needs of everyone involved in the process. Consensus is therefore a search for common opinion, understanding and will without the use of formal voting and where one strives for more voices to be heard.

Consensus seeking: Consensus is a process that seeks to reach as much consensus as possible on a decision. There is therefore a great deal of room for dialogue, consultation, exploration, questions, reflection and cooperation that increases respect and understanding.

Process-oriented: Consensus emphasizes the process towards a decision, not just the result. Therefore, all participants' views and perspectives are respected and appreciated. This means that one invests a lot also in the way a decision is made, not just in the decision itself.

Collaborative oriented: Consensus is dependent on the willingness to co-operate. All participants are encouraged to help shape matters in such a way that it can lead to a result that safeguards everyone's concerns. This is based on the belief that, by listening to everyone's perspectives, the community is better able to make decisions that most people can agree on. Consensus therefore presupposes that everyone listens with openness and humility in order to also seek the insight of others, and this implies an attitude of respectful expectation since everyone is working towards a common goal. In the concept of consensus, there is therefore an expectation of a willingness to put the interests of the whole above one’s own preferences. In locked situations, therefore, all parties must be encouraged to work together to find solutions that everyone can live with.

Relationship-building: Consensus seeks to build good group relationships through decision-making. This is intended both to create a foundation for future decisions and to improve the implementation of decisions.

At our Annual Conference, there were three proposals on the table regarding the decisions at the specially called session of the General Conference: One proposal supported the Traditional Plan. Another proposal included a statement for full inclusion. A third proposal called for more theological studies. Many voiced their opinion in the dialogue and two more proposals were presented.

It was clear, during the exploring period, which often is the starting point in a consensus-based decision-making process, that there was a solid majority for full inclusion. But there were no ordinary votes on the proposals. Instead a consensus process was used to guide the conference to a broadest possible consensus on the matter. Every delegate was given orange and blue colored papers to indicate agreement or disagreement. The minority was given time to voice their concerns and the proposals were adjusted accordingly.

The people behind the different proposals were asked to work on a joint proposal, weighted by the consensus indications given. They came back with a single proposal that included:

  •  an agreement that the large majority wants full inclusion.
  •  a willingness to respect the view of the minority that wants to uphold the discipline.
  •  a strong determination to keep TUMC in Norway together.
  •  to establish a broad commission to seek a way to fully include LGBTQ+ persons and map consequences for the discipline, finances, organization and international connections.
  •  to deliver a report to the Annual Conference 2020 for deliberations and actions.

The church in Norway is not of one mind in this matter, but the will of the majority is clear and the majority is willing to make concessions to include as many as possible. This achieved a consensus and a broad platform for our upcoming work for the next year.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Recommended Reading/Listening: Renee Bach and the White Savior Complex

Recently, NPR ran a thorough story about Renee Bach, an American woman who ran a critical care center in Uganda for undernourished children. Bach ran her care center as a Christian mission endeavor, directly motivated by her faith and relying on US church support.

Despite lacking any medical training, education beyond a high school diploma, or appropriate licensure, Bach was involved in providing medical care for severely undernourishing children, over a hundred of whom died in her care. She is now being sued in Ugandan civil court on behalf of the mothers of two of the children that died.

As a missiologist, Bach's story struck me as an extreme and horrific example of some of the negative aspects of American mission abroad, in particular the "White Savior Complex" - the notion that middle-class or well-to-do white Americans working in impoverished contexts can transform those contexts just becuase of the privileges associated with their background, regardless of any skills, expertise, or knowledge they may possess.

For those looking to learn more about the White Savior Complex, the Failed Missionary website ran a three-part podcast about this topic. Each podcast is about 70 minutes long and is hosted by Corey Pigg of Failed Missionary and Emily Worrall of Barbie Savior.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Recommended Viewing: Hilde Marie Movafagh on the Divide over LGBTQ Issues in the UMC in Europe

Rev. Hilde Marie Movafagh, the rector of the United Methodist Seminary in Oslo, made a presentation at the Post-Way-Forward Gathering of UM Scholars last week in Dallas entitled, "The Iron Curtain is Back: The United Methodist Church in Europe in the aftermath of GC2019." The presentation provides an overview of the differences in thinking on the place of LGBTQ persons in the church between Western and Eastern Europe and the resultant tensions within the UMC in Europe. The 15 minute-long presentation is an excellent overview for anyone wanting to better understand how the fallout of GC2019 is affecting United Methodism in Europe.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Europeans Give More to Central Conferences Than the WCA

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology 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.

Over the past two months, I have done a series of posts on the amount of US financial support for central conferences, central conference internal giving, and the impact of American money on the future of The United Methodist Church as a global denomination. It has been my main intention to provide facts and context for the difficult conversations that are taking place about the future of the UMC as an international body.

One area I did not explore in that series was the money that European United Methodists – primarily those from Germany, Switzerland, and Norway – give to mission and other ministries in other central conferences. Yet those figures are relatively easy to gather, so this post will do that, along with suggesting some comparisons between various funding figures and what these funding relationships mean for discussions of the future of the denomination.

First, to the amount given by Europeans. I’ll look at each of the three European mission boards, starting with Connexio, the mission board of Swiss United Methodists. Connexio has a useful annual report which details how much it spends in various geographic areas. In 2018, that amounted to 921,156 Swiss Francs in Eastern Europe and 407,756 CHF in Africa, mostly in the DRC. The total is thus 1,328,912 CHF, which converts to about $1,360,000 USD in 2018 to the central conferences. It should be noted that Connexio also gives to the UMC’s Cambodia mission and mission work in other countries not part of the UMC central conferences.

Germany’s EmK Weltmission has a project list for each of the countries in which it works, with 2019 commitments of support for each project. It is not entirely clear whether these figures represent firm commitments or fundraising goals; nevertheless, they provide an indicator of support in lieu of an easily-procured financial statement. For work in Eastern Europe, Weltmission has committed 58,000 Euros in 2019. For work in Africa, it has committed €603,900. Thus, the total to UMC central conferences is €661,900, or about $740,000 USD. As with Connexio, Weltmission supports additional mission work in countries other than the UMC central conferences.

Norway’s Misjonsselskap has work in four countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, and Lithuania. According to the yearly audit submitted to this year’s Annual Conference, Misjonsselskapet spent 10,852,086 Norwegian Kroner on projects in 2018, about 80% of which was underwritten by government support. That works out to about $1,220,000 USD. The report does not make clear the division between Lithuania and the three African countries, but it is clear from Misjonsskelskapet’s website that the vast majority of the support goes to Africa.

Adding the three totals together, one gets about $3,320,000 USD yearly in support for the central conferences from the three European United Methodist mission societies. As both the Germany and Norwegian mission agency sites make clear, individuals and congregations give additional funds directly to partners in the central conferences, but this $3.3 million is the total through the mission boards.

On the one hand, this $3 .3 million is less than a tenth of the approximately $40 million that flows from the US-dominated boards, agencies, and apportionment funds.

On the other hand, this $3.3 million yearly is over ten times as much as the WCA fund for “threatened global ministries” in the central conferences.

The comparison with the WCA fund is particularly informative. Certainly, the official WCA fund does not represent all giving by WCA-affiliated individuals and congregations, which is undoubtedly much larger. Neither do the European figures, as noted. Even if we attribute 5% of US direct congregational and individual giving to the central conferences to WCA-related individuals (who make up about 1-2% of membership, so this is a very generous estimate), total WCA giving (which might then be $2.3 million) would still likely be less than half of what is given by European United Methodists by mission societies, individuals, and congregations (which might be as high as $6 million, assuming individual and congregational giving equals non-government supported mission society giving, as in the US).

My point here is not that Europeans should get more influence in the denomination than the WCA because they give more to the central conferences. I think it is dangerous to directly equate money with voice in shaping the church. Such an approach privileges the rich at the expense of the poor, and thus this principle would serve African United Methodists poorly, although they certainly have voices worth listening to.

The conclusion I would like to draw instead is the difficulty in re-creating or simply patching the existing on-going financial relationships that currently exist through The United Methodist Church. The WCA’s offer to save endangered central conference ministries may sound great, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money funneled through official channels, certainly from the US, but even from Europe. Moreover, there is no indication that the WCA’s fund will include $300,000 every year. All descriptions thus far have made this fund seem like a one-time collection.

It is clear that financial relationships in The United Methodist Church will need to change both as a result of the internal tensions that will reshape the entire church and as a result of changing membership demographics. But to do so in a way that avoids harm as much as possible, we as a denomination must be willing to discuss those changes in a clear-eyed way based upon realistic assessment of the size of the financial commitments that are at risk. To do anything else would be dishonest and a disservice to the poorest and most vulnerable with whom we are in mission.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Evangelism in a Flat Earth

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology 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.

Last year, Netflix released a documentary called "Behind the Curve" about US Americans who believe that the earth is flat. The documentary generated some discussion at the time it came out, much of it about what the documentary and its subjects say about the state of science, especially in a culture where many disbelieve in human-caused climate change, despite overwhelming scientific consensus on this point.

As I watched the movie, though, I was struck not by the parallels with science, but with the parallels with religion.

This started during a section of the movie that discusses factions within the group of people who believe the earth is flat. It turns out that there are different interpretations of what is at the edge of the earth (and whether there even is an edge). However, these are not just differences of theory, but different communities that have formed around the theories and their leading proponents, who hurl anathemas at one another.

The documentary suggests that these divisions are similar to sects within a religion, and the suggestion seemed a plausible one to me, based not just on Christian comparisons, but also what I know about Islam, Buddhism, and other religions.

What really drove home for me the sense that what I was watching was more akin to a religious community than a scientific community, though, was the convention that is documented near the film's end. Participants spoke of how much they appreciated the experience of community at the convention, and how the community and the enthusiasm evident at the convention affirmed their commitment to flat earthism, not just as a belief system, but as a movement, an identity, and a way of orienting oneself to the world.

The convention wasn't about knowledge as the secular Western scientific structure would define it. It was about the relationships and emotions that support shared identity, beliefs, practices, and motivations, which is the realm of religion.

Thus, following the movie, my question was not, "How can we get people to believe in science when this is the alternative?" It was, "How can we get people to believe in Christianity when this is the alternative?"

What does evangelism look like when the alternatives to Christianity are not just other religions and secularism, but a whole host of quasi-religious interest groups that arise through and are nourished by the Internet? Flat Earthers are not the only such group. Many other interest groups have generated a set of orienting beliefs and/or mythos, a sense of distinct identity, and a sense of group belonging, in large part through the skillful use of technology. These groups might be fandoms. They might be devotees of a particular health regimen. They might be conspiracy theorists.

To be clear, I am talking about interests that go beyond mere hobbies for those deeply involved to instead provide an orienting way of being in the world. These are interests and associated communities that provide the "system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men [sic] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic" that Clifford Geertz defined as religion.

One of the challenges of the pluralistic, individualistic, postmodern world of the West is not that people no longer have a yearning for the type of good news that Christianity provides. It's that there so many plausible alternatives to "fill the God-shaped hole in their hearts," and people can choose the one that most caters to their particular interests, personality, and proclivities. The West isn't irreligious. It's abounding in simulacra of religion.

It seems that two responses on the part of Christian evangelism are in order.

First, Christianity has to be willing to critique a system of individualism and consumer capitalist thinking. If one adopts a framework of the individual as the supreme arbiter of good and consumer capitalism as the paramount methodology by which to achieve that good, it is difficult to critique the notion that people should be able to choose whatever religious or quasi-religious group and devotion seem to best suit them.

Yet, instead of critiquing such an approach to religion, Western Christians, and especially white American Christians, are often captive to such thinking, as Soong-Chan Rah and others have shown. Effective evangelism needs to raise questions about such assumptions, both among others and within the church, even though doing so is counter-cultural.

Second, Christianity has to recover the way in which it is not just about individual beliefs but about communities of practice. This is one of the things that the Flat Earthers intuitively understand and one of the keys to their success. Flat Earthism thrives not because its tenets are particularly compelling. It proceeds because the Internet has allowed people to create communities that support such beliefs, turning them from mere opinions to central components of identity, which seems to be the real sell for many involved.

Certainly, belief is important for Christianity. But when Christianity focuses solely on belief, it is easy for others to simply dismiss its conclusions, as Flat Earthers dismiss the truth claims of modern astronomy. Yet when truth claims are embedded within communities of belief and practice, they take on additional plausibility, even easily-disproved truth claims about the earth being flat.

For most of Christian history, this understanding of Christian belief as embedded within Christian community and strengthened by a sense of Christian identity was a given. That changed under the effects of the Enlightenment and modernity. Christians must therefore reclaim the communal sense to our religion, and to do so, they must be willing to push back on some of the individualism that so pervades Western culture.

In the end, the question is not really, "How can Christian evangelism defeat Flat Earthers?" The question should be, "What can we learn (or re-learn) from this growing social movement?" While the beliefs behind the Flat Earth movement may seem silly, the "Behind the Curve" documentary does raise important questions about how humans fill their basic needs for belief, identity, and community.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Recommended Viewing: Dana Robert on the Development of World Christianity

Dr. Dana L. Robert's keynote address at this year's conference of the Yale-Edinburgh Group on World Christianity and the History of Mission is available for viewing online. In her 44-minute address, Dr. Robert provides a learned and useful overview of the evolution of the discourse of "world Christianity." Dr. Robert also addresses the place of the Yale-Edinburgh Group in this discource and suggests some of the challenges for the discourse going forward. Though long, the video is well worth viewing for those interested in the churchly, academic, and institutional background to world Christianity as a contemporary field of study.

For more about the conference as a whole, read this article by Dr. Christopher Anderson.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

United Methodist Core Competencies for Mission Education in Theological Seminaries

These Core Competencies for Mission Education in Theological Seminaries were adopted by the United Methodist Professors of Mission in 2011.

“We are a people called by God to be a people for God in the world.  Recipients of grace, we become witnesses to grace.  As United Methodists, we envision lives changed by grace, a church formed by grace, and a world transformed by grace.”  -- Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990), 4. 

Missio Dei and the Biblical/Theological Basis for Mission
 •   The student will be able to define mission and explain how mission is biblically and theologically constitutive of the very nature of the Triune God and the church.

 •   The student will be able to critically evaluate the major trajectories of missiological reflection in Roman Catholic, conciliar Protestant, and evangelical traditions in light of Wesleyan theological commitments.

 •   The student will be able to evaluate the interrelationship of Christian mission and evangelism as indispensable to Christian witness to the Reign of God in the world.

 •   The student will be able to articulate an understanding of mission that is consistent with a Wesleyan connectional ecclesiology and the worldwide nature of the Christian church.

Context and Mission
 •   The student will be able to critically assess with the tools of anthropology the challenges of cross-cultural engagement in North American and global contexts.

 •   The student will be able to analyze the social context of mission, attending specifically to the religious, economic, political, and other dimensions of culture.

History and Theology of Mission
 •   The student will be able to evaluate the history of Christian mission as it relates to a number of historical and contemporary trends including colonialism and empire.

 •   The student will be able to summarize the different approaches Christians have taken in articulating a theology of religions and be able to describe his or her own position on a theology of religions.

Organizing and Spiritual Formation for Mission
 •   The student will be able to describe ways they might actively promote missionary vocations and integrate discipleship for mission as a constitutive aspect of their Wesleyan approach to ministry.

 •   The student will be able to articulate how actions to promote social justice, peace, reconciliation and the integrity of creation are key dimensions of God’s mission. 

 •   The student needs to understand and critically assess various ways of engaging in mission through the local congregation, the Annual Conference, and other avenues and be able to promote engagement in these ways.

 •   The student will be able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of short-term mission trips and understand how to make such trips both educationally effective and faithful to sound principles of anthropology.

 •   The student will be able to demonstrate how missional awareness can be integrated in services of worship in a congregation.

 •   The student will be able to describe the practical challenges and opportunities of partnership in mission for both local and global contexts.