Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mission and the instability of ecclesial structure

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

As was announced last month, the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) is requesting next General Conference to approve the creation of a new ecclesial entity within The United Methodist Church: an Asia Provisional Central Conference. This step would allow for the creation of provisional annual conferences in Vietnam, Laos, and Mongolia, all current sites of developing Methodist mission work, and presumably in other potential future mission territories in Asia.

This request will come before a General Conference that is sure to review many proposals for global restructuring of the denomination. These restructuring plans, by and large, operate with a four-fold division of United Methodist geography: the United States, Africa, the Philippines, and Europe. While I don't expect the proposed Asia Provisional Central Conference to play a significant role in these discussions, it should nonetheless give us pause or at least provide perspective as we envision new global ecclesiastical realignments, for an "Asia" Provisional Central Conference does not neatly fit into the commonly presumed United Methodist four-fold geographic division described above.

Of course, it would be easy to combine this proposed Asia Provisional Central Conference with the Philippine Central Conference into a larger Asia-Pacific Central Conference, or something to that effect, but there's a larger point here. That point is that mission inherently destabilizes whatever geographic, administrative, ecclesial structures the church creates for itself. Those structures are predicated on boundaries, and mission is an inherently boundary-crossing endeavor.

This tension between mission and ecclesial structure in an important one for the UMC in particular, a denominational body that has always been significantly engaged in mission in many forms and has always done much of its self-reflection through the creation of church structure, not through theology. Nevertheless, if properly cognized, this tension has the potential to be a productive one, with mission feeding into the process of on-going self-reflection through self-restructuring.

Thus, as long as the UMC continues to be a church in mission (and we should pray that's as long as we are a church), we will need to remain open to our ecclesial structures being periodically reshaped and our ecclesial boundaries being periodically redrawn because of the the fruits of that mission, in Asia and all around the globe.

1 comment:

  1. David, a question. Why is it important that a geographic area has its own leadership and structure separate from the rest? Why not have it be owned and operated by other regions who have been more established (and perhaps more successful numerically?). What's the missional reason for contextual processes?

    (Since you know me, you know the questions above are not my own, but I'm seeking parallels to current discussions about other regions in United Methodism).

    Thanks for considering. ~Jeremy