A group of United Methodist denominational leaders recently made a trip to the East Congo Episcopal Area. The trip, organized by the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) and the Mission Engagement leadership team of the Council of Bishops, took them on a tour through the episcopal area, the newest in the UMC connection. Participating in the trip were Thomas Kemper, general secretary of GBGM; Barbara Boigegrain, general secretary of the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (GBOPHB); Erin Hawkins, general secretary of the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR); Yvette Richards, president of the United Methodist Women (UMW) in the United States; Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Philadelphia Area; Bishop William McAlilly of the Nashville Area; and Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda of the North Katanga Area. This was the first such trip organized by GBGM and the Council of Bishops, and more are planned in future years.
The participants in the trip were invited to see some of the exciting work that's going on in the East Congo Episcopal Area. While that is good work blessed by the Spirit, the real story is about the trip itself. The trip represents a significant step in helping denomination-level leaders in the UMC understand through experiences what is going on in the connection outside of their own country. While Bishop Ntanda may have had some sense of what was going on in East Congo already, the trip was especially important for the American church leaders. In the United States, it's fairly easy to get word about what's going on in other conference in the US. Traditional and social media, personal connections, and a series of conferences and other events facilitate a fast flow of information. What's significantly harder for American United Methodists is getting good and regular information about other areas of the connection. (I know, since I have to do that on a regular basis for this blog.) Personal exposure to the work of the church elsewhere provides information and knowledge in a way nothing else can.
It is, I believe, particularly significant that the general secretaries of GBOPHB and GCORR were part of this trip. One of the challenges of and questions in rethinking the UMC as a global denomination is the relation of the general boards and agencies to annual conferences outside the United States. GBGM and UMW have long, long histories of connections to all parts of the denomination around the world. GBOPHB and GCORR, however, were developed in the United States to address issues specific to the American context. While GBOPHB has been doing good work over the past decade or so with the Central Conference Pension Initiative, there is more than can be done to make it a resource for all areas of the church around the world. GCORR currently does not do any work outside the United States (to my knowledge), but its skills in intercultural competency make it a natural resource for helping the church come to terms with itself as a global, culturally diverse entity. I hope this trip will spark new ideas and new initiatives by GCORR and GBOPHB on a global scale.