Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Money, ministry, and the global UMC

Two weeks ago, a story broke within the UMC about questions arising over the use of $100,000 for theological education given by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) to the West Angola Annual Conference.  This money was part of the African Theological Education Initiative.  The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) has asked West Angola bishop Gaspar João Domingos for a fuller accounting of how the money was spent.  They are not alleging that it has been misspent, just asking for confirmation and greater clarification.  An update last week indicated that progress is being made between West Angola and GCFA on providing the required documentation.  More updates should be available by the end of the month.

I mention this story not only as an important but perhaps overlooked piece of news from around the global connection, but because I think it is also an example of a potential trend as the membership and ministries of the UMC continue to shift outside the United States but monetary control still resides in the US.  Indeed, this story is not the only one in the last couple of years about disputes between a US portion of the church and an African portion of the church about the handling of money.  As previously mentioned on this blog, Western Pennsylvania and East Africa Annual Conferences had a long-standing dispute over the use of American money for African ministries.

There are several important issues at play here.  One is a difference between American and African concepts of accounting and accountability.  I am NOT saying here that African annual conferences are unreliable or try to avoid accountability.  I am saying that itemized expense reports filled out in triplicate are a Western innovation and easier to produce when you have a more developed bureaucracy and greater resources to carry out such tasks.  Moreoever, differences in the culture of leadership between America, which tends to be distrustful of authority, and Africa, which tends to take a more affirmative stance towards its leaders, can in some cases exacerbate these dissimilarities in bureaucratic procedures.  Such differences are likely to continue to lead conflicts between American United Methodists and African United Methodists over the handling of money, as in these stories about the West Angola and East Africa annual conferences.

At a deeper level, the pattern of American funding for African (or other global) ministries raises a more fundamental question: Whose ministry ideas are funded in the first place?  Are they the ideas of the Africans doing and benefiting from the ministry or the ideas of the Americans funding the ministry?  Despite the increasing popularity of resources such as Corbett, Fikkert, and Platt's book When Helping Hurts within UMC circles, economic inequalities between American and African annual conferences open the door for international ministry partnerships that fund destructive ministries, undermine African self-sufficiency, or in other ways create unintended negative consequences.  I am not saying that American United Methodists should not give money to United Methodist ministries elsewhere around the world.  I am saying that we need to recognize the complexity of the relationships thus created, acknowledge that money does not equal right, and think carefully and mutually through the issues raised.

There are many ecclesiological, missiological, and cultural issues to be worked out in coming to a fuller, more reciprocal concept of the UMC as a global denomination.  While we are answering these other questions, we must be sure to keep money and its connection to ministry in mind.

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