Thursday, March 27, 2014

Two Big News Stories from Africa University

There have been two big news stories from Africa University in the last week.  The first came last Wednesday, when Africa University announced the election of a new vice chancellor, Dr. Munashe Furusa.  Since the Chancellor is a ceremonial title held by the United Methodist Bishop of Central Congo, David Yembe, the Vice Chancellor is the chief executive office for the school, responsible for its day-to-day functioning.  Dr. Furusa will be the forth person to hold that position in the school's 22-year history when he begins his new role on July 1st. Moreover, this announcement came during a first-ever joint meeting between the Africa University Board of Directors and the Board of Directors for the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education & Ministry (GBHEM), a week-long time of sharing, learning, and discussion.

Both of these events are good news for Africa University, but both stories are also notable for what they reveal about transnational cooperation in the current UMC.  Dr. Furusa is originally from Zimbabwe, the country in which Africa University is located.  But he has also spent time in the United States, teaching and serving as dean at California State University, Dominguez Hills.  In his time in the US, he has built a wide network of contacts, and he will now be entering a position that involves collaboration with people from across the continent of Africa.  Dr. Furusa has been and will continue to be a medium for reciprocal influences to travel among Zimbabwe, the rest of Africa, and the United States.

The GBHEM and Africa University boards are also such conduits.  The Africa University board includes members from across Africa and the USA.  The GBHEM board, while predominantly American, also include members from Zimbabwe, Congo, Puerto Rico, Russia, Germany, and the Philippines.  Moreover, their recent joint meeting has served as an additional means by which influence can travel both ways across the Atlantic.  The role of the United States in establishing Africa University is undeniable.  Yet some of the most exciting quotes to come from the joint meeting were from American GBHEM board members speaking about how much Americans can learn from Africa University, its programs, and its successes.

Africa University continues to have a bright future ahead of it.  And the future of the UMC - in Africa, in the United States, and around the world - will be brighter because of the good work of Africa University.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Recap on United Methodism in the Ukrainian Crisis

Many readers have doubtless been following the story of the unfolding crisis in the Ukraine over the last several months, from the clashes between police and protestors, to the ouster of the president, to the seizure of Crimea by Russia.  The story has been gripping, often tragic, and often unpredictable.

Yet how many readers know that The United Methodist Church maintains a mission presence in Ukraine?  There are actually 91 United Methodist churches and four other faith communities in Ukraine, along with 113 pastors and 4 missionaries, according to the GBGM webpage on Ukraine.  United Methodist work in Ukraine is part of the Russia/Eurasia Initiative and falls under the Eurasian episcopal area.  The Eurasian episcopal area and the Russia/Eurasia Initiative also include Russia, where the UMC also maintains churches and outreach.

Because of this United Methodist connection, there has been a steady stream of United Methodist news and views related to the Ukrainian crisis of the last several months.  In case you've missed it, here's a recap:

First, there are a couple of articles giving United Methodists perspectives on the political crisis, one from early in the crisis, and one more recently:
From January, by missionary John Calhoun
From March 14, by GBGM
From March 26, by John Calhoun

Next, there are a number of articles about prayers for Ukraine throughout the crisis.  Melissa Hinnen of UMConnections wrote an initial appeal for prayers on February 19.  As Kay De Moss of the Western Michigan Annual Conference, United Methodists in Michigan responded quickly to those prayer requests on Feb. 23.  United Methodists in Ukraine itself have been praying deeply, as Melissa Hinnen wrote on March 18.  Bishop Eduard Khegay of the Eurasia episcopal area also released a public prayer on March 20.

United Methodists will continue to follow the events in Ukraine in prayer and through news and Twitter feeds.  Follow @globalumc for more updates as we receive them.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

21st Century Mission and Forming Mutual Partnerships: George Howard on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: Global

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by George Howard, Deputy General Secretary for Mission and Evangelism at the General Board of Global Ministries.  Mr. Howard is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Post-Modern or 21st Century Mission invites Christians to impact the world and be impacted by it out of a stance of humility and partnership. God is at work in all corners of the globe, and as Christians we seek to join in what God is already doing.

As a worldwide church we are called to operate out of a comprehensive worldview with a holistic mission; we are required to think globally and act locally. John Wesley began class meetings and societies while he was visiting in the prisons and on college campuses. At the same time he established the Methodist headquarters at the Foundry where the movement addressed issues of usury fees, education and health. It was the “center of many philanthropic agencies, including the charity school, a dispensary, almshouse for nine poor widows, and a loan society.” (John Wesley The Methodist, Chapter VIII, “Revival Preaching,” Wesley Online, http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/john-wesley-the-methodist/chapter-viii-revival-preaching).  Wesley also wrote Primitive Physics which was used across England and America. As pioneers moved west they were as apt to have Wesley’s book on medicine in their saddle bag as a Bible. 

Paragraph 27 on Mission: Global states that “Christian population is growing most rapidly in Africa and Asia.” It is on these continents where the church most often embraces and practices a holistic approach to the gospel. Churches there are directly involved in evangelism, health, economic development, and education as importance components of the Gospel message. It is from these places where the global church has much to learn in order that the Methodist movement might thrive elsewhere.

Partnerships continue to emerge. They are built by leaders committed to long term relationships, asset based approaches, mutual respect and power sharing in decision-making. This is especially seen in Round Tables which are being held across the world. Organized by the General Board of Global Ministries, these gatherings convene local leaders along with outside partners to hear about priorities, projects and assets within the community or region.  Together they identify ways of collaboration that enable the local leadership to increase their capacity and to flourish. Outside partners often provide the catalyst for action which compliments the actions and assets available locally.

A Guide to Mission Round Tables states, “The central theological understanding for round tables as a methodology of mission engagement comes from a commitment to mutuality among all mission partners.  ‘Mutuality’ here means the pursuit of goal-oriented relationships, strategic in outlook, that share a vision of God’s Mission and God’s coming reign among all people and creation as a whole.”

It further states that, “In the New Testament, mutuality is affirmed by the principle of equality of work, and the equal value of all workers, as expressed in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Everyone’s voice is of equal value, and all partners have resources for use in God’s Mission. The practice of mutuality in mission captures Paul’s emphasis in 1 Corinthians 12 on the importance of all parts of the church as the body of Christ, all parts being essential to the whole, and needing to be treated with equality of engagement and care.”

Partnership is not a new concept, but there is a fundamental shift when leaders operate out of humility and vulnerability in order to truly be partners. Practiced over time this posture of service and leadership can lead to authentic relationships, as trust is established and long lasting results become possible.

The Soochow Hospital (now called First Affiliated Hospital of Soochow University) in China was established by Methodist missionaries in 1883.  As part of their 130th celebration it reached out to Global Ministries to reestablish a partnership with The United Methodist Church. The hospital is one of the country’s premier hospitals and desires to maintain that reputation. To do so, it is establishing a collaborative relationship with the Methodist Hospital in New York.

A micro-credit program is being established through partnerships in The Malawi Provisional Annual Conference. The pilot program involves church leaders in the US, a missionary from Germany, and pastors across Malawi to recruit villagers and provide training. It is the local pastors who are reaching out to people within the community to encouraging them to participate in the program as a way of fulfilling their own dreams. The partnership is increasing the capacity of families to do what they are already doing. 

 UM Church for All People in Columbus, Ohio, has a partnership with neighborhood groups, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, businessmen, and city officials to build or refurbish houses. They desire to strengthen a mixed income neighborhood by renting and selling safe affordable houses to people in the community.  The partnership built on local assets including the hopes and dreams of residents, the existing housing stock, and the determination of community leaders to organize and build a coalition of partners.

As Christians who yearn to be lifelong learners growing in our discipleship, and as a Church which longs to be a learning organization, we continue to glean insights from successes and failures.  The history of local and international Christian mission has much to teach us so that we change and continue to be relevant in today’s world. Books like When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, point to the savior complex of many who engage in mission.  Leaders like Bishop Hans Vaxby from Finland point to the dependency trap which has hindered the Methodist movement in Russia and other places around the globe.

Those in ministry with the poor ranging from the United States to Cambodia, to Russia, to Zimbabwe, know that partnership means accompaniment. Accompaniment does not mean fixing another’s problems, but, rather, walking alongside one another as we draw closer in respect and mutuality. Accompaniment leads to a long term partnership which increases the capacity of all involved as together we address underlying faith and social challenges.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a holistic gospel and when we partner in mission with others across the community and around the world we strengthen our own discipleship, that of our partners, and the witness as seen by those who do not yet have a personal relationship with God.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

World Water Day this upcoming Saturday

Water is one of the most basic symbols of the Christian faith.  It is through the waters of baptism that we are initiated into Christ's holy church.  The ritual of baptism included in the United Methodist Hymnal lists a variety of other times when water is an important biblical symbol: Noah, the crossing of the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan, etc.  Yet many Christians in the United States don't give water much thought.  Sure, we will notice if it's raining, and if there's a flood or a drought, we'll notice.  But we don't give much thought to the water we use in our daily lives.  We turn on the tap, and clean, drinkable water is there.  We don't need to give it a second thought.  We have so much drinkable water, we even bathe in it.

That's not true for many in the world.  This simple fluid which is so important spiritually and so overlooked daily for American Christians is a real item of concern for vast populations.  Globally, 780 million people lack access to clean water, and 3.4 million per year die from water-related diseases (Source: http://water.org/water-crisis/water-facts/water/).

That's why the United Nations declared March 22nd World Water Day.  The event has been going on since 1993, though it has yet to gain the popularity in the US that Earth Day or even Arbor Day has, perhaps because water is seen as a problem "over there," while trees and the rest of the ecosystem are "here" as well.  Nevertheless, World Water Day has worked to increase awareness of the lack of access to water and the need to conserve water and use it wisely.

The UMC is playing its part in this global social issue as well.  In advance of World Water Day, UMCOR released a list of recommendations of "Five Ways to Make Water Last," and UMCOR has an Advance number dedicated to water and sanitation projectsThe projects supported by this Advance number include wells, education, and sanitation initiatives.  Consider what you will do this Saturday to be part of this form of service to the world and the world's poor.

A Response from the Intersection of Theory and Praxis: Tom Barlow on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: Global

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Rev. Thomas Barlow, adjunct faculty in Methodist studies at the Iliff School of Theology, teaching in the areas of History, Doctrine, and Mission & Evangelism. From 2011-2013, Rev. Barlow served as a researcher for the General Board of Discipleship’s Toward Vitality Research Project.  Rev. Barlow is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

This section begins with a bold statement: “Our founders understood mission as essential to the being of the church” (emphasis mine). This reality, which echoes throughout Grace Upon Grace, provides a key to understanding the ways in which the being of the church is to be lived out – to be enacted, if you will, or, perhaps, incarnated. Just a few paragraphs prior to this one, we are told that “Grace creates mission; grace corrects mission” (paragraph 17). Indeed, the Wesley brothers understood divine grace as active rather than passive – an ongoing, and profoundly transformative, work of the Holy Spirit both within us and around us. Further, we are called to serve as agents (individually and corporately) of the grace that we receive (addressed later, in paragraph 29). Correctly understood, then, grace should propel us into lives of mission – again, both individually and corporately.

Grace Upon Grace notes the particular role of women in responding to the missional call of grace, shaping the outreach of the church in remarkable ways (paragraph 25). Today, this reality continues to be lived out in and through a specific organization within the United Methodist Church, United Methodist Women. In many local churches, the UMW continues to be a primary locus for missional outreach; in other congregations, UMW has become a shadow of its former self, with missional work either falling by the wayside, or being coordinated by another group within the church. Both of these situations may offer us a sense of caution, as well as an opportunity to think in new and different ways.

In recent conversations with thriving UM churches across the nation, it became clear that many of these churches – regardless of where their mission efforts were organized internally – understood mission in ‘new’ ways which provided space to re-enact the rich heritage of Methodism. These churches conceptualized the task of mission as, truly, both local and global. What did this mean for them? To begin with, it meant that they stopped viewing mission as something that is done ‘way over there’ (most often in another country, although sometimes in another region of the United States), and started understanding mission as something that is lived out ‘here and there,’ intentionally fostering opportunities for encounters with the world in ways that are truly global – operating locally, regionally, and nationally, as well as internationally.

It also meant that mission work became something more than a task which was done by a core group of mission-minded people within the church, and came to be understood as a task that was – very intentionally – shared by everyone in the church. Often, there was still a small group which had a particular passion for some specific international mission need; overall, though, the church itself re-cast its own self-understanding as a church which was propelled into the world in multiple directions, and at multiple levels. Individuals within the church rediscovered the reality that their call to mission could not be abdicated to others, but needed to be part of their own lived experience within the Body.

Finally, in most cases, it meant that, although the local church still collected funds for specific mission projects, the emphasis moved from financial support to the more deeply personal, individually transformational work of face-to-face encounters. Often, this also involved the realization that serving others in a missional sense should not be done with the expectation that they become like us; instead, the goal was to serve them in ways which honor their unique cultures, traditions, and identities.

In Grace Upon Grace, we read of the need to “see the world as one, to live in the world as the Body of Christ, to be bearers of grace,” and we are told that these are not only part of our heritage as well as the “privileges of every Christian community,” but that “they are also a part of our ultimate hope” (paragraph 26). Indeed, churches which encounter the world with the sort of active, incarnational, grace-driven ways which I have described discover a new sense of hope and vibrancy. They move from a fear- and scarcity-based understanding of ministry to one of optimism and abundance. These movements and discoveries impact individuals as well as congregations and provide space new understandings of what transformation looks like – and the realizations that, most often, those who are transformed the most are those who are sent to serve.

Paragraph 27 speaks to the fundamental shifts that are occurring in the world church: “Christians on every continent will be receiving as well as sending missionaries and will be renewed by the strength of partnership and mutuality.” I am not sure that many of us have witnessed this as yet, but I am hopeful that we will. To be sent into mission – to encounter others directly, to serve humbly, and to do so as an active and intentional response to divine grace – is to discover mutual transformation. What might Christianity look like if this constantly occurred in a grace-focused way, comprised of mutual sending-and-receiving and giving-and-accepting? What might the world look like? What might the individual Christian look like?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The UMC and the Confusion of International Ecclesiology

Recently, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) published an article about HiRyo Park's work in organizing a Methodist Women Leadership Conference for women in Latin America and the Caribbean.  This successful endeavor is another instance in a long history of Methodists recognizing the important work that women do in forwarding the church and promoting God's kingdom.

Yet this article also made me think about the varied types of relationships that The United Methodist Church has to its former missions and other Methodist bodies throughout the world.  On the one hand, there are Methodist churches in some countries that were started by the UMC and its predecessors which have continued as Annual Conferences or Provisional Annual Conferences.  These churches have representation in General Conference and are governed by the Book of Discipline, the same as other United Methodists.  They have access to the resources of some of the denominational boards and agencies, though for reasons of history, proximity, and funding, many of the boards and agencies remain primarily US-focused.

On the other hand, there are Methodist churches in some countries (including most of those in Latin America and the Caribbean) that have become autonomous from the UMC or its predecessors, but maintain a status as "affiliated churches."  Often the UMC helps provide missionaries, training, and other resources to these churches, as exemplified in the recent GBHEM article, in which HiRyo Park was working with affiliated churches in Latin America and the Caribbean.  These churches, however, are not voting members of General Conference and are governed by their own internal principles.

Then there are a few Methodist churches in countries that were started by the UMC and its predecessors which have become completely independent.  Or, going the other way, Methodist churches in some countries that were started by British Methodists but have become affiliated with the US-based UMC as Annual Conferences.  Finally, there are some Methodist churches that were started by British or other Methodists, have never been affiliated with the UMC, and continue to be unaffiliated.  Sometimes there may be multiple Methodist churches in a single country reflecting a diversity of historical and current relationships to the American UMC.

All of this makes for a rather confusing array of possible relationships between the UMC in the US, the UMC in other countries, and non-UMC Methodist bodies in other countries.  Fortunately, the intricacies of our human-made church structures do not always stand in the way of collaborative ministry partnerships between these various groups, as the GBHEM article shows.  Nevertheless, it makes more sense why it is difficult for the UMC to develop a coherent, theologically-grounded international ecclesiology when its polity is a hodge-podge of historical and administrative relationships.  How do we think ecclesiologically about the internal relations of different national branches within the UMC or think ecclesiologically about ecumenical relations to other denominations when the lines between part of the UMC and separate from the UMC are not entirely clear?  The UMC desperately needs more ecclesiological reflection as it comes into its own as a global denomination, but such reflection will not be an easy task.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Where are the most United Methodist missionaries?

On the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) page about United Methodist missionaries, there is an interactive map.  Move your mouse over the map, and it will show the different regions of the world where United Methodist missionaries are at work.  The map is divided into six sections: Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Pacific, Europe/Eurasian, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America.  If you click on these regions, a box appear that shows how many missionaries are serving in each region.  Can you guess which region of the world has the most United Methodist missionaries working in it?

You may be surprised to learn that it's North America.  In fact, North America has the largest number of UMC missionaries by far: more than 115.  The other regions of the world, in order, are Africa - more than 70, Latin America and the Caribbean - more than 65, Asia and Pacific - more than 50, Europe/Eurasia - more than 35, and the Middle East - 5.  The United States as the hot spot of missionary activity may not reflect how we've traditionally thought about missions, but it represents the culmination of two related trends.

First is the shift in which countries send missions and which countries receive missions.  A hundred years ago, in the era of modern or colonial missions, most missionaries came from the United States, Canada, or European countries, and they went to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  The United States, Canada, and Europe still send missionaries abroad today, but so do countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  And all of those missionaries don't just go to Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  Nowadays they come to North America and Europe as well.  Some of the more than 115 missionaries serving in North America through the UMC come from other parts of the globe.  As the GBGM page on missionaries proclaims, mission has become "From Everywhere to Everywhere."

Second is a new way of thinking about missionaries.  United Methodists, like other Christians, have come to realize that missionaries aren't just foreign missionaries.  Indeed, many of the more than 115 missionaries in North America are serving with long-established domestic mission programs such as the US-2 program and the mission intern program.  Indeed, if we expand the scope of missionary to include anyone working for the church to extend its ministries beyond their current bounds, it's likely that North America has always had the largest number of United Methodist missionaries.  While the term "home missions" has dropped out of style, the former home mission societies in the UMC and its predecessor bodies recognized that mission can and does happen by people in their home country.  We've recently recovered that understanding, and it's reminded us that the United States is just as much a mission field as anywhere else.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The United Methodist Church is still the church of education globally

One of the important factors in the growth of Methodism both in the United States and abroad was its involvement in providing education to the masses.  Starting in the 1820s, Methodist colleges and prep schools spread across the land in the United States, and education was a hallmark of the Methodist foreign mission endeavors that began around the same time.  The chance to learn, to grow as people through that learning, and to improve one's lot in life through learning attracted many to Methodism in all places around the globe.

Moreover, education is one of the aspects of Methodism that has continued strong to this day.  As a quick clink on "education" in the label cloud to the right will show, this blog has reported on a number of stories of contemporary Methodist educational endeavors.  I'd like to share a few more today that show the continued commitment to and passion for education in the global UMC.

The first story is about the Central Conference Theological Education Grants, an initiative approved by General Conference 2012.  Applications for those grants have been submitted, and 74 applications were submitted!  Moreover, the applications were not all top-down initiatives, but rather came from a variety of places within the Central Conferences, including "theological institutions, Boards of Ordained Ministry, Bible colleges and pastors' schools."  That United Methodists from the Central Conferences should have 74 (or more) ideas about how to improve and increase theological education may seem like an impressive number, but it should not surprise us, given the historic connection between United Methodism and education.  It's unfortunate that GBHEM will not have enough money to fund all of these projects (funding decisions were made over a week ago but have not yet been announced), but it does give us a glimpse of the sorts of new ventures that are possible.  Perhaps some of those new ways of delivering theological education can be used in the United States as well as Americans rethink theological education for a new generation and changed circumstances.

The second story involves a form of learning that's become common in the United States making it to other countries.  Students at the Methodist University of Cote d'Ivoire are beginning to incorporate online and distance learning into their education.  This new program involves not only collaborations between the Methodist University of Cote d'Ivoire and GBHEM, but between it and the Methodist University of Katanga.  Online learning is another example that not all international partnerships in the UMC need involve the US.  Moreover, one of the applications for the Central Conference Theological Education Grants mentioned above was to create distance learning programs for pastors in the Philippines, so the idea of Methodist online education is beginning to spread widely.

It will be exciting to see where these new educational initiatives will go and how they will keep the Methodist commitment to education alive into the future!