Thursday, October 31, 2013

Methodist Theological Education in Africa

Last month, leaders of African Methodist colleges and universities met in Kenya for a first-ever summit specifically for Methodist higher education in Africa, as reported by UMC Connections.  The meeting, termed the First International Conference for Educational Leadership of Methodist Universities and Institutions of Higher Education in Africa, included participants from 15 schools in 10 countries from both United Methodist and autonomous Methodist traditions.  Participants shared information and best practices, especially around the issue of fundraising.

This meeting proved to be well timed, coming as it did on the heels of the release of the Global Survey on Theological Education.  This survey of Christian theological education across traditions and around the world revealed some interesting facts about the state of theological education, including results specific to Africa.  While only a portion of the Methodist higher education provided in Africa is theological education, and while the survey included many more traditions than Methodism, it is nonetheless interesting to compare the survey's results with the conversations of the conference.

The survey found that, while there has been substantial growth in the availability of theological education in Africa, there is still an insufficient supply.  58% of African respondents to the survey indicated that there were either "not enough" or "far too few" schools for theological education.  The report projects a nearly 50% growth in the number of theological schools in Africa between 2010 and 2025.  Many African institutes of theological education are on shaky financial ground.  Just over 50% of African respondents indicated that theological education in Africa was "financially unstable," while an additional nearly 30% said it was in a state of "financial crisis."  Despite the financial woes, nearly two thirds of African respondents indicated that theological education in Africa was at least somewhat stable, showing a state of promise.

These findings for theological education across all denominations in Africa mirror well the discussions from the conference about higher education for Methodist denominations in Africa.  One of the highlights of the conference was a celebration of the growth of Methodist higher education in Africa since the founding of Africa University 21 years ago.  One may expect that growth trend to continue as the demand for higher education of all types continues to grow in Africa.  Despite the flourishing of the number of schools, these Methodist colleges and universities are conscious of the funding challenges and therefore are taking steps to ensure that they will be financially stable, as evidenced by the focus on fundraising at the conference.  The attention to fundraising can also be seen in such recent stories as the Upper New York Conference campaign to create eight endowed scholarships at Africa University, an initiative that reflect the promise of Methodist higher education in Africa.

Both the report on theological education and the recent conference for Methodist schools of higher education seem to reflect a similar moment for higher education in Africa: one with great potential and great opportunities for growth, constrained somewhat by the need to ensure adequate funding.  Despite the financial constraints, though, the next decade or two should be an exciting time for higher education in Africa, and it is exciting to know that United Methodists will be among those involved.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Card games, the Congo, and connectionalism

I get together occasionally with a group to play sheepshead, a traditional Wisconsin card game that is little known outside the state.  Last week, though, my sheepshead game proved that, through Methodism's connectional system, even such a piece of Wisconsin provincialism can become a gateway into experiencing the global nature of the UMC.

One of my fellow sheepshead players is Rev. Tony Fuller, pastor of congregational care at First UMC Neenah-Menasha.  Tony is also Conference Mission Secretary for the Wisconsin Conference and In Mission Together coordinator for the UMC's Senegal mission.  In that capacity, he was hosting David Makobo N'Shikala last week.  David is one of the recently commissioned missionaries of the GBGM, who were referenced in a recent post on this blog.  David, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, will be serving in Senegal.  David has been in Wisconsin raising support for the Senegal mission.  Because Tony was hosting David, David stopped by our card game, and I fell to talking with him.

David will be doing agricultural work in Senegal and holds degrees in agriculture from Africa University.  I mentioned to him that Horicon UMC where my wife is a local pastor supports missionaries working in the agricultural program at Africa University, though I initially forgot their names.  Another Methodist member of the card group asked if they were Larry and Jane Kies, whom his former church in Iowa supported.  They were, and David had taken agricultural instruction from Larry and English instruction from Jane.

Then I was asking David about the Senegal Mission.  David made reference to Bill Gibson, the current mission director of the Senegal mission.  Bill and his wife Gwen were among my favorite fellow congregants when I attended Emmanuel UMC in Appleton, WI (the former appointment for another member of the sheepshead group), and I told David he would be in good hands with them.

It's probably not often that a Congolese man on his way to Senegal ends up at a sheepshead game in Wisconsin.  Even were that to happen elsewhere, chances are he and the sheepshead players would have little in common.  Yet the beauty of the connectional system of Methodism is that David and I not only had mutual interests but overlapping personal connections.  There are many things that make the UMC a global church, some more effectively than others.  I think that ultimately this is one of the most important: that a Congolese missionary and a Wisconsin sheepshead player can meet for the first time and already be bound together by multiple personal connections.  The connectional system means that sort of remarkable experience of global church fellowship may not be so remarkable in the UMC after all.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

General Conference delegates and the Global UMC

The Commission on the 2016 UMC General Conference just voted to set the number of delegates for 2016 General Conference at approximately 850, a reduction from the nearly 1,000 delegates at GC2012.  I'm sure that decision will generate a lot of discussion within the American branch of the UMC about what it means for the relative strength of varying American factions within the church and favored legislation of each of them.  What is really significant about this decision, though, is not about the United States.  The important aspects of this decision have to do instead with the global nature of The United Methodist Church.  There are two ways in which this decision is wrapped up in the discussion of the global UMC.

The first and most significant connection is that part of the explicit reason for this reduction in the number of delegates is to prepare the way for General Conference to be held outside of the United States, something that has never happened before.  Heather Hahn reports in the article linked above:
"More significantly, the reduction in delegates begins to smooth the way for The United Methodist Church to hold its first General Conference outside the United States, said the Rev. L. Fitzgerald Reist II, the General Conference secretary. That move could happen as early as 2024.
"“At the present time, there is no one willing to host us because of what is involved in moving General Conference outside the United States,” he told the commission. “One of the changes that will probably need to be made is in the size of the delegation. I think it would be a mistake to move outside the United States and reduce the size of the delegation at the same time.”"
Holding General Conference outside the United States would send a clear signal that the UMC is serious about regarding all branches of the church as equal members of the body, rather than viewing everything other than the United States as a less-important hinterland.  Obviously, there would be financial and logistical challenges involved in holding the conference elsewhere and transporting US delegates to the conference, but as a sign of commitment to the global nature of the church, nothing else could be clearer.

The other way in which this decision is significant for the global nature of the UMC is that it tends to increase the relative significance of delegates from the central conferences.  Hahn writes, "Reist did note that a reduction in delegation size would increase the proportionate representation of smaller annual conferences as well as the central conferences — church areas in Africa, Asia and Europe."  All annual conferences are allocated at least one clergy and one lay delegate to General Conference.  All additional delegates beyond that total are divided up between the annual conferences proportionately according to membership size.  Since many annual conferences outside the US are small, especially in Europe, they do not receive any additional delegate through this process.  Therefore, their guaranteed two delegates become a larger percentage of a smaller total.  Wherever General Conference is, fewer delegates mean a greater proportional voice for those who are from outside the United States.  While American delegates will still be a majority, more voices from those around the world mean the church is more likely to tackle issues of global relevance rather than focusing only on the issues of the church in the United States.

This one change doesn't suddenly make the UMC a "global church," but in terms of further including non-US branches of the church in the decision-making and focus of the denomination, it's a step in the right direction.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Grannie and the Global Church


Today's blog post is written by Dr. Dana L. Robert.  Dr. Robert is the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Missions and Director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at the Boston University School of Theology.

My Grannie died last year at 102. She was a lifelong Methodist. Born into the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, she spent her adulthood in the Methodist Church, and she died a United Methodist.  As a child in a Louisiana logging town, she attended camp meeting every year, and received perfect attendance pins for never missing Sunday School.  In 1932, as a young bride and mother, she signed my mother into the Cradle Roll and joined a ladies’ Sunday School class at First Methodist Church in Lake Charles.  The “Triple L Class”--Life, Love, and Loyalty--began as a group of young mothers and stayed together for 75 years.

Widowed herself in her early fifties, Grannie became a home care companion and baby sitter in order to survive financially.  Into her mid-eighties, she worked as a “helper” in the First Methodist day care.  She held toddlers when they cried. She taught pre-schoolers to tie their shoes, and set out the juice and cookies at snack time.  Even when babysitting fees were her sole income, she gave her widow’s mite to the church. When at age 98 she could no longer live alone, she moved into a nursing home on Medicaid.  The women at First United Methodist visited her until the day she died.  Triple L only ended after 2005 when Hurricane Rita destroyed the local infrastructure for the elderly.  The last few elderly widows lost their ability to live independently, and the Triple L Class died out.

What would someone like my grandmother think about 21st century Methodism  as a “global church”?  Even though Grannie never left the United States, she carried a vision of the church as a worldwide community.  She attended the summer schools of mission sponsored by the United Methodist Women.  She gave her dollar dues to Church Women United.  She sewed bean bags and “yo yo” dolls to raise money for outreach. She befriended a retired woman missionary, “Miss Julia,” who returned to Lake Charles after years of missionary work in pre-Castro Cuba.  In Grannie’s lifetime, she saw the steady expansion of her church from a regional to a national entity.  She knew herself to be part of a worldwide network, particularly of women and children, who followed Jesus.

But other aspects of global Methodism I don’t think she would have understood.  Grannie would not have appreciated the violent disagreements and cultural polarization at General Conferences.  She would think it wrong to tithe her widow’s mite so that bishops could attend ever-increasing numbers of international meetings.  If church leaders had asked her opinion, which of course they never did, she would have affirmed that feeding needy children was far more important than spending time arguing over clerical privileges, and launching global study commissions.

I am sure that were she alive today, my beloved grandmother would support the vision of United Methodism as a global community.  But she would see it through the lenses of mission, friendship, and fellowship in Jesus Christ.  Power politics, big expenditures for corporate-style meetings, and the accoutrements of status and privilege would be foreign to Grannie.  Life, love, and loyalty. . . the church as family. . . this is what it meant for her to be a “global” United Methodist.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

O For a Thousand Languages to Sing

I love the United Methodist Hymnal.  The music contained therein has always been an important part of my spirituality.  Nor am I alone in my appreciation of the hymnal.  It's been one of the, if not the single, most successful hymnals ever published, having gone through multiple printings and millions of copies since it was first released in 1989.  It's not even just United Methodists who have used the hymnal.  I've seen copies of it in churches in the independent Methodist Church in Malaysia and have heard stories of it turning up in the pew racks of other denominations in the United States.

Despite my great zeal for the UMH, I realize it's still a product of a particular time and place and far from a universal document.  That's why I was excited to read this article about the creation of a bilingual English/French hymnal for use by the United Methodist Church in Cameroon.  The hymnal is the result of a lot of work by Cameroonian, denominational, and individual partners and should be a great aid in worship in United Methodist churches in Cameroon.

To me, this hymnal represents a great example of the blending of universal United Methodist elements with local cultures.  United Methodists have long been "a singing people," but so have many of the peoples of West Africa, Cameroonians included.  Music therefore seems a perfect bridge between Methodist and Cameroonian traditions.  Moreover, the hymnal includes a mix of Cameroonian songs and songs from elsewhere around the United Methodist (and broader Christian) world.

The title of the hymnal is O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing: Hymns and Praise of the United Methodist Mission in Cameroon, making reference to the classic Charles Wesley hymn that has graced the beginning of so many American Methodist hymnals.  When Charles Wesley wrote the hymn, I suspect he meant tongues as in the body part, but this hymnal suggests that tongues could also be interpreted as languages.  United Methodists may not quite be to the point of having a thousand languages in which to sing God's praise, but we're headed in that direction.  In addition to the UMH and the Cameroonian hymnal, the denomination also has official hymnals in Spanish and Korean.  While the addition of languages may challenge our desire for mutual intelligibility, we should remember that it also reflects the eschatological vision of universal praise that motivated the Wesleys and so many Methodists after them.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Learning about faith from Mexican immigrants


Today's post is by guest blogger William P. Payne, the Harlan and Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions at Ashland Theological Seminary.

A recent UMCMission.org article entitled “Low-WageWorkers Seek Moral, Livable Wages,” explores the plight of immigrant workers who are abused by an economic system that exploits their labor and does not pay them a fair salary with benefits.The article is written from the perspective of an Anglo US-2 working with Interfaith Worker Justice. The article grows awareness as it argues for a significant increase in the federal minimum wage and immigration reform.

For my part, I have enjoyed close relationships with marginal peoples from various Spanish speaking nations, including working for a local Spanish newspaper while in high school, pastoring a Cuban refugee camp in Panama in 1994 through 1995 (see “Religious Community in a Cuban Refugee Camp: Bringing Order out of Chaos,” in Missiology 25, no 2 [1997]:141-154), and organizing a flourishing ministry with Mexican immigrants while serving a church in the Florida Conference from 1998 through 2001 (see American Methodism, Past and Future Growth. Emeth Press 2013, p. ix-xiv). That ministry included nightly services, Sunday school, evening meals, an evangelism team, and community based ministries. It did not include social advocacy.

I wanted to advocate for my Mexican parishioners. In fact, I shared this concern with a lawyer who worked with our Hispanic Ministry Team. However, when she spoke to the leaders of the Mexican ministry, they told her that they did not want or need our help. I was appalled. Of course they needed our help. I pushed the social justice issue with righteous indignation. After all, most worked in low paying jobs related to agriculture, construction, landscaping, or the service industry. Clearly, they were the victims of an unjust economic system. 

One day, the lay leader for the Mexican ministry met with me to explain how the Mexican immigrants in our church saw it. First, in Mexico, they were really poor. They lived on a few dollars a day and barely eked out a living. Second, a working couple in America could earn $50 a day. From their perspective, that was a lot of money. With that money, they provided for themselves and sent money home to family members. Third, the church family became an extended family. They shared vehicles, lived close to each other, parented each other’s children, networked for jobs, pooled food, took one another to medical appointments, and watched over one another’s soul. Finally, my friend observed that the English speaking families in the church lived in isolation and were so intent on getting and maintaining things that they neglected each other and had little time for church. In his opinion, they completely lacked meaningful community.

At first, my friend’s words shocked me. I wanted to protest and defend my culture. However, as I pondered his observations I realized that he and the people in the Mexican ministry lived closer to the biblical ideal than I.  In my desire to impose my values on the Mexican congregants, I had failed to see the situation through their eyes. In this state of heightened conviction, I realized that I and much of the American church were guilty as charged. The conviction produced a renewed desire to more closely follow the example of the New Testament church by living a simple life while striving for more intentional community.

Much has changed in the Spanish speaking immigrant communities since 2001. They have become more Americanized and they are keenly aware of issues related to economic justice. Many are no longer content with $50 a day. In fact, most would not resonate with the convictions of the above mentioned Mexican lay leader. Yet, I wonder, has the UMC considered the unintentional social and spiritual consequences of climbing the American economic latter? John Wesley and Francis Asbury both lauded simplicity and strongly condemned the acquisition of wealth. Wesley’s famous maxim states, “It is a mere miracle for a Methodist to increase in wealth and not decrease in grace.” Early Methodism maintained a constant battle against “prosperous” religion.

I have additional questions. How much money is enough money? Americans are notorious for wanting more. Greed is a public value and crass materialism is a prime export. Also, by what biblical standard should the UMC measure a fair, living wage? Does a fair wage mean becoming a middle class American with all the accompanying vices and temptations? Furthermore, to what extent does our concern for economic justice reflect an unconscious ethnocentrism that values things over community? Most importantly, what can the immigrant Christians in our midst teach American United Methodism about spirituality, community, and faith?

Many New Testament scriptures point to a “preferential option for the poor.” Truly, God calls the church to join with them in their sufferings and their struggles. Yet, many are so busy trying to fix their condition that we fail to learn from them, be changed by them, or enter into their world. Yes, the admonition of my former Mexican lay leader still rings in my ear.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Rethinking who a missionary is in the UMC

The General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church (GBGM) is going to be commissioning fifteen new missionaries this Friday.  That in itself is not particularly remarkable.  The UMC and its predecessor bodies have been sending out missionaries for nearly two hundred years now.  What is notable is that six out of the fifteen missionaries are not from the United States.  That's 40% of the total, a just slightly higher percentage than the 36% of United Methodists as a whole who are not from the United States.

As the geographic nature of the UMC changes, those UMC members in the United States must expect that the face of UMC missions will change too.  For missiologists, this is old news.  Those who study missions from an academic standpoint declared a while ago that the old model of missionaries who travel from the United States or Europe to Africa, Asia, or Latin America is now dead.  Instead, missiologists talk about mission going "from everywhere to everywhere."

I don't know, however, if that concept of mission has filtered its way to the pews (or even the pulpits) of the United States yet.  I suspect that when many American UMC members hear the term "missionary," they think of the couple that their church supports who may have originally come from their Annual Conference or the one next door and is now teaching at Africa University, perhaps.  I suspect they do not think about the Congolese man doing community development work in the Philippines, or the Bangladeshi woman who runs a ministry for street children in Cambodia.  I strongly suspect they do not think of the Mexican woman leading ministries in the United States.  Yet all of these are UMC missionaries.  UMC missionaries come from many countries, not just the United States, and they serve in many countries, including the United States.  UMC mission is from all UMC countries (and then some) and to all UMC countries (and then some).

I think that part of what will allow the UMC to be a global church, if indeed it can do that, will be the ability of its members to imagine the work of the church around the world.  I encourage you then, especially if you are a UMC lay member or pastor from the United States, to spend some time looking at the backgrounds and work of the missionaries sent out by the UMC.  I hope that reading some of their stories will help you rethink who a UMC missionary is and where they serve.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The importance of United Methodist identity in a global church

Today's post is by guest blogger Arun W. Jones, Dan and Lillian Hankey Associate Professor of World Evangelism at Candler School of Theology.

There are two things I would like to say about the importance of United Methodist identity in a global church.  Both of them are pretty obvious, I think, but still worth saying.  And perhaps some people will disagree with me, which would make for a great conversation!

My teacher and mentor, Andrew Walls, used to say that all of us speak one or more languages, but none of us speaks language in general.  We speak particular languages – Hindustani, Luganda, Portuguese, English.  It seems to me that his observation can be used to think of the term “Christian.”  For those of us who take our Christian identity with some degree of seriousness, we are not Christian in general.  Rather, we have been shaped and formed by one or more Christian traditions.  We are even shaped by the traditions that we are trying to get away from by entering another one:  United Methodists who are former Southern Baptists, or former Roman Catholics, think about their faith in ways that are somewhat different than someone who is a “cradle to grave” United Methodist.  United Methodists have a past, present and future that shapes us, and it is important for us to know in what ways we are shaped.  Like the polyglot, we may have other Christian identities along with our United Methodist one, but it is important to know each one of them, if we are going to understand who we are.

But why is it important to understand our identity (even when we disagree with our denomination) in a global church?  It is because when we know our own identity well, we can interact with other Christians (with other identities) all around the world with greater love, charity and respect.  We can allow the other Christian to be the “other,” rather than assuming that she or he needs to be like me because, after all, we are both “Christian.”  I have very good friends who are Roman Catholic (and of course there are varieties of Catholics!).  I disagree with their tradition on any number of things.  Nevertheless, by keeping in mind that I have been shaped and formed by the Methodist tradition, I can interact with a Roman Catholic as a sister in Christ without expecting her to be just like me, or to be just like the people I go to church with Sunday after Sunday.  I can give her the space to be a Christian as she understands it, without necessarily agreeing with her on crucial issues, yet still dealing with her as someone who deserves my Christian concern and love.  This is the first thing I want to say about the importance of United Methodist (or any other) identity in a global church:  it helps us interact graciously with Christians of other traditions.

The second thing I want to say is that all of us have multiple identities that we carry around, or that we utilize.  I am a son, a husband, a brother, a father, a teacher, a junior colleague, a senior colleague, a fellow church member, a neighbor, a stranger – the list goes on and on and on.  In different contexts, different identities are prominent.  As I am passing through passport control at an airport overseas, the immigration officer does not care whether I’m a United Methodist or not.  All he cares about is whether my papers and documents are in order.  And I prefer things to be that way. 

My point is that while United Methodist identity is important in a global church, in certain contexts that might not be the most important or relevant identity.  Sometimes the fact that I am a Christian – of whatever tradition – is more important than the particular tradition itself.  Growing up in North India, where Christians form maybe 2% of the population, in almost all public contexts our particular type of Christianity did not matter – what mattered was that we were fellow believers of a small, minority religious group.  If Christians were attacked, we did not care what kind of Christians they were – all that concerned us was that someone in our religious community was facing danger.  It was only when Christians gathered together by ourselves that we talked about our particular traditions.  Then, indeed, we recognized the differences between Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and mainline Protestant traditions.  This did not break the unity of our fellowship – it simply qualified and informed that unity.

Our identity as United Methodists is important in a global church, but there are times when it is not the most important identity for us.  Perhaps the story of Mary and Martha in Luke chapter 10 can help us in this respect.  Martha was caught up in her identity as hostess – which of course was very important.  But in this instance, it was not the most important.  In this particular case, Mary had chosen “the better part,” her identity as a disciple of Jesus, who said to the poor flustered Martha, “it will not be taken from her.”

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

World Communion Sunday is this Sunday!

This coming Sunday is World Communion Sunday.  While this program is interdenominational in nature, United Methodists have long been active participants in this effort to promote the oneness of the body of Christ around the world.

There are many ways in which a congregation can celebrate World Communion Sunday.  One way is to incorporate some of the music and liturgy ideas included in this extensive list of worship resources for World Communion Sunday compiled by the General Board of Global Ministries and this list compiled by the General Board of Discipleship.  Worship using elements of traditions other than one's own can not only be a refreshing change of pace for a congregation, it can remind us of the breadth of cultures included in God's people.

Another important way in which congregations can participate in World Communion Sunday is to contribute toward the World Communion Sunday special offering.  This offering goes to support World Communion Scholarships, the Ethnic Scholarship Program and the Ethnic In-Service Training Program.  These important programs help develop leaders for congregations around the world, as can be seen in this story about one such leader in the United States and Mexico.

In keeping with the spirit of this blog, another possible way to celebrate World Communion Sunday is to reflect on or discuss as a group what it means to be in communion with others around the world, both other United Methodists and other Christians in general.  Look through the archives of this blog to get ideas or starting points for such discussions.  Such conversations can help us think about how to take the principles of unity we celebrate in worship and practice them in our common life together.