Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Global United Methodist Views on Online Communion

Churches around the world are shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and these closures will, in most places, last for at least another several weeks, past the first Sunday of April, through Holy Week, and past Easter. These are all times when United Methodists frequently celebrate communion together.

With many churches offering online worship instead of meeting in-person, this has let to what Discipleship Ministries has referred to as "the online communion dilemma." The UMC's official theology of communion, This Holy Mystery, and the Council of Bishops have both officially discouraged offering online forms of communion.

But can exceptions be made for the extenuating circumstances of the coronavirus shutdown? Cynthia Astle of United Methodist Insight has referred to this as "THE question" at the present moment. Many US bishops, theologians, pastors, and others have weighed in on this issue, some summarized in the two articles linked above.

Yet, given the extent of church closures in Europe, the Philippines, and Africa, this is an issue that affects more than just US churches. Here are some responses to this question by United Methodists from outside the United States:

Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area Bishop Christian Alsted has issued guidance regarding online communion. He states, "Until we again are able to worship in our churches, I give permission for pastors to offer communion online." He connects this provision to the UMC's theology of communion which stipulates, "The Communion elements are consecrated and consumed in the context of the gathered congregation. The Table may be extended, in a timely manner, to include those unable to attend because of age, illness, or similar conditions."

He also sets the following requirements for online communion:

 • "Communion should only be offered during live streamed worship services, where people participate in real-time.

 • "If recordings of such live streamed worship services are made available for persons to view at a later time, you should note that communion should only be taken when participating in real-time.

 • "In the announcement of the worship service, you should ask participants, who wish to take part in Holy Communion to have a piece of bread and a glass with juice available.

The Finno-Finnish Annual Conference, among others, has offered online communion following Bishop Alsted's guidance.

Note that Bishop Alsted's permission is limited to the present situation and requires real-time participation.

Norwegian District Superintendent Knut Refsdal offered instructions for a March 22nd online service led by himself and Rev. Ingull Grefslie that also fall in line with Bishop Alsted's guidance:

“The service includes communion. Those who wish to take part in the communion are asked to have bread and juice available.

“Such communion celebrations are only possible as part of a live online service, where people participate in real-time. If recordings of such online services are made available at a later time, listeners / viewers should be made aware that communion is only possible when attending in real-time.”

The Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche im Schweiz (UMC in Switzerland) notes that "there are some justified reservations about online sacrament celebrations," but nonetheless notes that in these "extraordinary times" it can make sense "to celebrate communion at home - and yet together - knowing and hoping that in a few weeks or months we will be able to celebrate together again in public service." The EmK has provided two possible liturgies ([1] and [2], both in German) for use under the following conditions:

"Pastors set the date and time. Church members that want to participate inform the pastor. The pastor connects 4-6 houses with each other so that the celebrants pray for each other by name during the celebration or pass on a blessing in a telephone chain."

It is worth noting that the above conditions can be met through other forms of connection than online livestreaming, but as in Northern Europe, synchronicity is a prerequisite.

The Manila Episcopal Area has acknowledged that it has received multiple questions about online communion, but has referred pastors and church members to pre-existing church guidance discouraging online communion.

While some African branches of The United Methodist Church have provided opportunities for online worship, there have been no official announcements about online communion there.

Monday, March 30, 2020

A Primer on UMC Assets: Concluding Thoughts

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. Dr. Scott is neither a lawyer nor an accountant, and thus the following should not be interpreted as legal advice.

Over the past three months, I have examined the assets of The United Methodist Church in a series of posts. I have tried to explain what those assets are, who owns them, what restrictions apply to these assets, and what might happen to them under a variety of scenarios for the future of the denomination.

Having done all this investigation, I would like to offer some concluding thoughts about United Methodist assets and how those intersect with the nature of the church.

1. UMC assets are part of a complex system that is strongly tied together and difficult to undo.
This complex system has its roots both in Western law and in Wesleyan tradition. Under Western law, property can only be owned by legal entities. Organizations can be legal entities, but as stipulated in the Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church itself is not a legal entity. Thus, UMC assets are actually owned by thousands upon thousands of separate legal entities – local churches, annual conferences, jurisdictions, central conferences, church-related institutions, and general boards and agencies. This creates a complex system of property ownership in the UMC.

That complexity is further compounded when one considers the various forms of assets – money, property, intellectual property, etc. – and the various legal restrictions that the Western legal system places or allows individuals and groups to place on the use of these different forms of assets. These restrictions include endowments and donor-designated gifts.

Finally, all this complexity is tied together by the trust clause, which binds all these assets to the UMC. The trust clause, in combination with legal restrictions on how various assets can be disposed of, makes it very difficult to simply untangle the present system of UMC assets. This difficulty is in part exactly what Wesley wanted when he instituted the trust clause and in part a function of how institutions and financial systems developed over the course of the 20th century.

2. The chances for lawsuits abound in any attempt to undo the system of UMC assets.
Because the present system of UMC assets is difficult to undo, any attempts to undo it run the risk of being challenged in court. This danger reflects in part the role of Western law in holding together the system. But it also reflects two other factors:

First, different actors in the UMC have different incentives and goals when it comes to undoing the current financial system. Thus, there is no consensus about how to undo the system, leading different actors into conflict with one another.

Second, especially in the United States, the courts are where many financial conflicts are carried out. When US Americans cannot agree on something involving money, they sue each other. Thus, conflict among US American United Methodists about money is likely to lead to lawsuits.

Of course, while it may not be possible for all United Methodists to come to a consensus on issues regarding assets, well-crafted General Conference legislation that clarifies the financial rights and responsibilities of all parties and that is passed by a substantial majority of delegates can reduce the chances of lawsuits.

3. A variety of parties in the UMC can make legitimate ethical arguments about their claim to UMC assets. These ethical arguments usually overlap with self-interest.
Whether it is local congregations wanting to keep their building no matter what, annual conferences wanting to keep church buildings, United Methodists wanting to leave the denomination, or United Methodists wanting to stay in the denomination, most parties in debates about ownership and control of United Methodist assets are able to articulate ethical arguments that draw upon central moral rhetoric around fairness, equality, etc.

Yet these ethical arguments rarely reach the same conclusion, and the conclusions that different parties draw from their arguments tend to be ones that benefit themselves financially. Thus, ethical reasoning and financial self-interest usually go hand-in-hand in the positions that United Methodists take in these financial debates.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the arguments people make are solely about self-interest. People do use significant and long-standing moral and ethical concepts in their decision-making. It is impossible to reduce the arguments that people make about UMC assets to either pure ethics or pure self-interest.

Instead, we are left with what I hope this series as a whole has shown: the church is a mix of the human and the divine. We pursue heavenly ends, but we use and must use earthly ends to pursue them. Our experience of the church reflects both our deeply held religious convictions and spiritual experiences but also the contentious politics, the drudgery of everyday tasks, the difficulty of gray decisions, and the scrounging for resources that is part of being human.

Part of me wishes that it was otherwise: That the church was a perfect place that reflected only the best of people and was free of infighting and the need to pay the electric bill. Yet part of me recognizes that if the church is to be a place where we work out our sanctification, it must be a place not only of holiness but humanity. Unless we can face the fullness of humanity in our churches and still love our fellow humans as God does, how can we do so in the world? Yet, it is to this very task that God calls us. Let us trust God’s wisdom in arranging it so.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Recommended Readings: The Impact of Coronavirus on UMC Mission

Along with most other areas of life, the practice of United Methodist mission has also been disrupted due to the impact of the coronavirus. Here's a rundown of some of the fallout:

Both the Southeastern Jurisdiction UMVIM and the Northeastern Jurisdiction UMVIM issued recommendations two weeks ago (the 10th and 12th, respectively) that UMVIM teams follow CDC guidance, check with airlines about cancelations, check with insurance carriers about trip insurance, and practice proper hygiene. The NEJ UMVIM also canceled the NEJ Mission Academy, originally scheduled for next month.

Global Ministries reported on Mar. 17 that it had moved its spring board meeting online, is working with hospitals and other health partners to prepare health systems for the virus, and is seeking to ensure the well-being of its missionaries amid the pandemic. Global Ministries also closed the Sager Brown UMCOR depot in Louisiana to visitors. This week, Global Ministries has closed its offices in Atlanta, following the stay at home order issued by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. It announced on Mar. 27th that most mission and relief grants were put on hold because of the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Norwegian Metodistkirkens Misjonsselskap announced on the 20th that its employees were working from home and that it was working with partners on how best to respond to the pandemic. It also launched a special fundraising campaign for partners in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe, to support those partners' response to coronavirus.
In its March newsletter sent out on Mar. 20th, the Swiss Methodist mission agency Connexio noted that it was in close contact with its missionaries, at least one of whom was returning to Switzerland because of the pandemic.

The German WeltMission announced on the 25th that it was recalling all of its missionaries and volunteers, following guidance from the federal government. At the time of the announcement, WeltMission was still working with the German government to arrange the return of two missionaries stranded in Namibia, which had canceled all flights to Germany.

The Swiss UMC also reported on Mar. 26 on the impacts of the coronavirus on local mission effects in Eastern Europe. Some institutions have been forced to shut down, but others are continuing valiantly to serve others amidst great difficulties and shortages of resources.

In the United States as well, many local mission and ministry organizations have been facing both increased demand for their services and increased challenges in providing those services, as in this Mar. 26th report about the Urban Mission in Steubenville, OH.

These certainly will not be the last impacts the coronavirus has on mission, but nonetheless, they demonstrate the impact of the virus on not just church services, but also the mission of the church.

Updated 2:00pm CDT, Mar. 27th.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Lisa Beth White: Short-term Mission in a Time of Coronavirus

Today's post is by Rev. Lisa Beth White, founder of Sister of Hope Ministries, an organization that exists to equip and support short-term mission teams, churches and non-profit organizations with training, resources and evaluation tools with the aim of enabling the faithful practice of Christian mission. This piece is reposted with permission from the author's personal site.

John Wesley established three general rules for the earliest Methodist societies. The modern phrasing of his rules is: Do no harm, do all the good you can, and stay in love with God. The societies were small groups of people who sought spiritual renewal through gathering in small groups to pray, study scripture together, and to go out into their daily lives to intentionally help others. These groups were in addition to usual Sunday worship, and many United Methodists today still gather in small groups to pray, to study, and to be in mission together. But now we are told that to protect the most vulnerable among us we are to NOT meet in groups, we are not to gather together for worship, and we most certainly should not travel. We should practice social distancing. A hard thing to do for faithful people who desire to show love for God and neighbor by being present with one another. How do we do no harm and still do all the good we had planned to do?

One of the underlying assumptions about short-term mission work is that we have the freedom to travel and be with people in their time of need. This is why Early Response Teams have trailers packed with equipment and tools to go at a moment’s notice to an area affected by an earthquake or tornado. This is why teams of volunteers keep their passports up to date and stay in communication with their denominational partners in other countries. Yet in this moment in which a virus has spread across the globe, we are told that we must not travel, we must restrict our freedom so that others will be safe. We must practice social distancing to reduce the curve of infection spread so that hospitals and doctors’ offices can cope with the numbers of those who fall critically ill, and hopefully to keep those who are most at risk safe.

In the last week, there are many United Methodists who are coming to terms with the news that our next General Conference, in which we were to take up legislation that might result in our denomination splitting, is to be postponed. Many of my United Methodist friends have shared their initial reactions on social media. But there are other stories that aren’t making headlines or being shared widely on social media - particularly, conversations being held in churches about whether or how to proceed with their planned short-term mission trips. Is it safe for our team and our hosts if we go? How can we help if we don’t go? How can we show the love of God and neighbor if we don’t go?

Now is a good time for people to reflect on the deeper meaning of mission.  We can still gather via phone calls or video conferencing. We can still pray together and study together. This is a good time to pause for a deep dive into scripture and mission theology, to equip ourselves for when we return to showing God’s love through our sweat and labor. This is a moment of holy opportunity.

Recently I visited Haw Creek Commons in Asheville, North Carolina. They have a small labyrinth painted on the floor of the coworking space. The nearby elementary school had just let out and a few children came into the room on their way to piano lessons, others to take a break from the playground outside. They were drawn to the labyrinth, and all of them ran around the path. Run to the center, laugh, turn around and run back out again. They were enthusiastic and joyful!

Short-term mission work can draw us in like those joyful children on the labyrinth. Our enthusiasm and joy in the work of helping our neighbors are shown in how quickly we respond to needs and how eagerly we set aside our usual routine for hammers and nails, saws and paintbrushes. Our time is used up in planning meetings, traveling, dividing up into work teams, working hard to finish tasks for our new friends, and then traveling home to wash laundry and get back to our regular routines. Like school children running the labyrinth, we rush in and out, not resting in the center.

This is a moment in which we can stop and rest in the center, to prayerfully consider how it is that Christ is calling us to be the church in mission. It can be a time to reflect together on your mission engagment - with members of your church, with your mission partners, and with outside facilitators like Sister of Hope Ministries. Be prayerful and patient, friends. God is with us, now and always, dispersed or together, and we are the sheep of God’s pasture.

Monday, March 23, 2020

A Primer on UMC Assets: Challenges in Dividing Assets

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. Dr. Scott is neither a lawyer nor an accountant, and thus the following should not be interpreted as legal advice.

This post further explores the topic of dividing general church assets in the event of a division within The United Methodist Church. As indicated in my previous post, there are a variety of ways to define general church assets, and these different definitions are not just actuarial but reflect differing political and policy objectives. Moreover, there is an important distinction between General Conference designating future revenue to go to groups departing the denomination and General Conference asking the agencies to part with money that they already own as legal entities and have a fiduciary obligation to protect.

Within these big-picture questions about what “division of assets” actually means are a variety of equally significant procedural questions: Who negotiates the division of assets? What constitutes a fair share? And what claim do the central conferences have on general church assets?

In answering these questions, I will draw examples from the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, the New Expressions Worldwide (NEW) Plan, the Next Generation UMC Plan, a proposal by the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), and legislation from the Liberia Annual Conference. While those promoting the Next Generation UMC Plan and the WCA legislation have pledged to support the Protocol instead, those plans are still useful for illustrating some of the issues involved.

Let’s begin with the question of who negotiates. In the case of the Protocol, that question has already been answered – a team of 16 people, including bishops from around the world and representatives from most major advocacy groups in the US. Much of the debate over the Protocol has been about who was and was not part of that group of 16 people. I have read commentaries from people from a variety of theo-political and social settings arguing that the group negotiating the Protocol left out representatives of important groups – liberationists, Africans, US racial and ethnic minorities, young people, laypeople, etc. Those involved in the Protocol process have responded, in part, by pointing out that it is difficult to have successful negotiations with a group size much over a dozen.

This debate over the Protocol highlights a fundamental challenge to answering the question of who negotiates – how do you have a group that is sufficiently representative while also being small enough to yield successful negotiations?

A related challenge is shown in the NEW Plan, which calls for “equitable distribution of common assets,” overseen by a Transitional Council composed of 21 people. These 21 people include the President of the Council of Bishops and five representatives from each of four successor denominations – traditionalist, centrist, progressive, and liberationist. Yet these denominations are not likely to be the same size. It is quite possible that, under this plan, 200,000 Americans could have more representation than 3.5 million Congolese, if the former were a small liberationist denomination and the latter were part of a larger centrist or traditionalist denomination, along with others.

Thus, the challenge of determining who negotiates is compounded: How do you balance having a group of negotiators that is broadly representative of all parties with the desire to make sure all parties are proportionally represented?

The issue of membership leads to the question of what constitutes a fair share of assets. The Next Generation UMC plan calls for “Grants for New Denominational Expressions of Methodism” that would be based on the number of churches, the membership, and the amount paid in apportionments for groups departing the UMC. The WCA plan provides for the division of assets based solely on membership of the successor denominations. Both past contributions and membership could be seen as “fair” criteria, but they are likely to give different results.

Moreover, one challenge for any system of division based on membership is that it gives participants an incentive to report as high membership numbers as possible. Membership figures are notoriously tricky, even in the absence of such financial motivations. US pastors already have reason to report high membership to reflect well on themselves on dashboards. There are noted differences in understanding formal membership, both internationally and within the United States. Tying large amounts of money to membership increases the chance that numbers may not reflect on-the-ground reality and therefore may be less “fair.”

Interestingly, those involved with the Protocol have said that the $25 million for departing Traditionalists and $2 million for others did not reflect some magical “fair share” calculation but rather just a number they could all agree upon.

Finally, if the UMC splits into multiple bodies, some of which do not include US Americans, what legal and ethical claims do non-Americans have on the common assets of the UMC? Regardless of where assets originally came from, are current United Methodists from outside the US entitled to some financial support if they decide to seek autonomy?

Certainly, US Americans have paid in the overwhelming majority to the apportionment system and given the most in additional gifts to the boards and agencies. Thus, most of the assets being divided were originally American assets. Yet, the trust clause does not say that the assets of the UMC are held in trust for its American members. It says that they are held in trust for the denomination as a whole, which also includes non-Americans, who are equal members of the denomination.

The Liberian Annual Conference’s legislation clearly indicates that United Methodists outside the US are entitled to some share of the denomination’s resources if there is a split. It calls for the $120 million in unrestricted general church assets (from agencies and apportionment funds) to be split evenly among the jurisdictions and central conferences. Each of these regional entities would receive about $10 million under this proposal.

Under the WCA asset division plan, the only assets that central conferences are eligible to receive if they become autonomous and unconnected to the American church are those assets associated with Africa University. Otherwise, any central conferences becoming autonomous would receive no general church assets. Yet, if the central conferences remain connected to a US successor denomination, they make a significant impact on how much assets that successor denomination receives – as much as $150 million.

Under this plan, while United Methodists in the central conferences are largely shut out of receiving assets themselves, they are very powerful players in the contest for assets among US Americans. Certainly, being such a valuable prize would give United Methodists in the central conferences some leverage in negotiating a shared future with a branch of American Methodism. Yet this arrangement could be seen as treating them as second-class members of the denomination. They are valuable, but they cannot receive that value directly themselves by becoming autonomous, and if they remain tied to the US, their value will be realized by the US-based structures of whatever denomination they stay with.

These three questions – Who negotiates the division of assets? What constitutes a fair share? And what claim do the central conferences have on general church assets? – are all tricky questions without clear answers. Where one comes down on these three questions depends on personal judgment as well as personal interest.

This does not mean that, should there be a denominational split, United Methodists should not try to figure out how to divide denominational assets. It does mean that General Conference delegates and others should not be blasé about the difficulties involved in negotiating a plan to do so.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Go To Church in Europe This Weekend

As United Methodist churches around the world are suspending Sunday worship due to the coronavirus outbreak, many churches are experimenting with online worship as an alternative to meeting in person. Readers are certainly encouraged to engage with their home congregations to keep those connections strong despite social distancing guidelines. But a transition to online church attendance also holds an opportunity to explore worship in new forms.

Thus, United Methodists in the United States may want to consider joining their European sisters and brothers for worship this weekend. Several churches or annual conferences across Europe are conducting some sort of online worship. And while time zone differences may make it difficult to participate in realtime, a number of those services can be viewed later in the day.

Many of these options happen via Facebook and YouTube. Both Facebook Live and YouTube allow viewers to see streaming videoes later after the live broadcast has ended. Also, Facebook includes a built-in translate feature that can allow you to decipher posts in captions in languages you do not read. Google Translate is also useful for navigating the web in foreign languages.

Among the possible ways to worship cross-culturally this weekend are the following:

Estonia: The Estonia Annual Conference has this list of five churches that will be holding worship via streaming on Facebook.

Macedonia: The UMC in Macedonia has promised a half-hour live broadcast of a message at 10am and 6pm local time this coming Sunday on their YouTube channel.

Austria: Here are links to a variety of sermons and services (some in English!) from several Austrian congregations for last Sunday, Mar. 15th. It is also worth checking in on the Austrian UMC's blog to see if fresh links have been posted for the 22nd.

Switzerland: The Swiss UMC is collaborating with the TV station musig24 to live stream a worship service this Sunday from 10-11am local time. It has also put together a page of links to live streams and sermon recordings from 10 local churches.

Germany: Several United Methodist churches in Germany will be live streaming their worship services, as listed at the end of this article.

Denmark: The UMC in Denmark has been posting daily prayer and worship services on their Facebook page.

Norway: The UMC in Norway will have a live-streamed worship service on its Facebook page this Sunday. Those who tune in live are invited to participate in communion, although the consecration of home elements only applies to those who watch in realtime.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Recommended Readings: United Methodist Around the World Respond to Coronavirus

Cancelations and closures in response to coronavirus have been extensive among United Methodists in the United States, but the virus has been affecting United Methodists around the world. Here's a quick rundown of some of the responses.

The Philippines Central Conference has suspended all upcoming annual conference meetings - 17 of them. Other large gatherings, such as the United Methodist Young Adults Fellowship, have also been postponed, and local churches have been given permission to suspend worship and are being encouraged to have worship online.

United Methodists in several European countries have canceled church services and all other church meetings. These include the following, with links to the respective announcements:
 * Germany, including the North Germany Annual Conference meeting
 * Austria
 * Switzerland
 * Norway, including a recommendation that all small groups cease meeting as well
 * Denmark
 * Poland
 * Latvia
 * Estonia
 * Bulgaria
 * Hungary
 * Slovakia
 * Macedonia
As of last Friday, Swedish-speaking United Methodists in Finland had issued a set of recommendations that stopped short of canceling all church services.

In Cote d'Ivoire, Bishop Benjamin Boni has postponed annual conference, closed all local churches, and prohibited other church meetings, following advice from the national government.

In Liberia, the United Methodist University of Liberia (UMUL) has suspended classes for two weeks.

A review of Facebook pages from other branches of The United Methodist Church in Africa shows that several are sharing information about handwashing and other precautions, but there have not yet been major cancelations of church events. There have been fewer cases of COVID-19 in Africa thus far in the outbreak.

The information above may not be a comprehensive list of global United Methodist responses to coronavirus, and as has been seen in the past several weeks, the situation is rapidly changing. Thus, additional closures, cancelations, and postponements may be happening around the world.

* Updated 2:00pm CDT, 3/18/2020. *