Thursday, May 28, 2015

A more global Connectional Table?

At its recent meeting, the Connectional Table (CT) submitted legislation to General Conference to restructure itself to achieve greater representation on the CT from United Methodists from outside the United States. Currently, seven out of the 47 members are from outside the US, a far smaller percentage than the number of United Methodists from outside the US.

Thomas Kemper has posted a concept paper laying out one model for a way in which the CT could be revised to be more globally representative. I do not know how similar the CT's own plan is, but Kemper's proposal is worth reading for the sake of discussion.


While the CT's proposal on global representation was overshadowed by the news of another CT proposal to General Conference on homosexuality, the proposed restructuring is, arguably, more significant for the future of the denomination. Although some American United Methodists have threatened schism over the issue of homosexuality, polls show that it is a vocal minority at either end of the American United Methodist spectrum that is interested in such a schism. Better representation of Africans, Filipinos, and Europeans and conversations about what it means for the denomination to be a international body probably affect more United Methodists.

The issue of global representation in the denomination, whether through the CT or other means, takes on even greater significance given another recent proposal to GC2016. The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) has submitted legislation that would allow it to, for the first time, set apportionment giving goals for Annual Conferences outside of the United States. This would significantly increase the amount of money collected from Africa and the Philippines that goes toward support of bishops' salaries and the operation of general agencies. (The proposal does not increase the amount collected from Europe and actually provides for a reduction, though European church leaders have said they intend to increase their giving instead.) If the denomination is expecting more in terms of financial contributions from its members around the world, it is only fair to give increased voice to members around the world.

Economist Don House recently made dire predictions about the collapse of the denomination's structures because of inability of Americans to continue to pay for those structures given projected continued decreases in American membership in the UMC. He calls for turn-around plans in the US. The UMC should certainly continue to evangelize and develop members in the US, but a shift toward more global funding and decision-making also means that the future of the denomination would not rest so firmly on American funding.  Thus, greater funding from and representation of United Methodists from outside the US may be a necessity from an institutional standpoint. It is also an opportunity for the denomination to continue to open itself to the moving of the Spirit.

Of course, to allow this to happen, American United Methodists must be willing to relinquish some of their control over the denomination, its money, its programs, and its foci for discussion. That will certainly not be an easy process for a group that has long dominated the institution. Nevertheless, we pray that through the leading of the Spirit, American United Methodists may model the humility necessary to open themselves up to new work of the Spirit, whether that is through a revised CT, a new model of apportionments, and/or other changes to our global structure.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Lisa Beth White: Reading the complexity of short term mission in Together Towards Life

Today's post is by regular contributor Rev. Lisa Beth White, doctoral student at Boston University School of Theology.

In a previous post here on UM & Global, the question was raised about U.S. Christians helping to solve problems they have helped to cause.  This is a question that deserves some thought and consideration.  Although the article mentions the work of UMCOR, I believe the question also points to the complexity of short term mission.

United Methodist short term mission participants are often deeply committed to living out their faith and to showing the love of neighbor in tangible ways.  Revealing that the ways in which our U.S. culture and habits of consumption contribute to the very problems our short term mission work seeks to solve is difficult for short term mission participants.  Volunteers who spend their vacation time and money in service have very little training in the complexities of cross-cultural encounters or in critical theological reflection.  Critiques such as “solving problems you have helped to cause” can sound personal and far harsher than intended.

The critique points to structural sin, in which we as individuals benefit from economic, political or social systems in which others are trapped in cycles of poverty.  The Social Creed found in the United Methodist Book of Discipline (2012) can be used as a starting point for revealing the ways in which our individual actions function in structural sin and systems of oppression, but this statement alone is nearly 40 pages long and quite complex.  Short term mission team training often does not include the time needed for engaging such a lengthy document with critical theological reflection on one’s own practice of mission.

The World Council of Churches document Together Towards Life begins to articulate another complexity found in short term mission as well.  In paragraph 76 it states that “increasingly popular short-term ‘mission trips’ can help to build partnerships between churches in different parts of the world but in some cases place an intolerable burden on poor local churches or disregard the existing churches altogether”.  Short term mission has the potential to build relationships between Christians across borders in ways that were not possible before the availability of air travel, the internet and smart phones.

However, as indicated above, short term mission practiced without engaging structures of sin and oppression carry the potential of simply reinforcing boundaries between Christians.  When short term mission is conducted in ways that diminish the agency of host churches – or at worst, disregards the local churches where short term mission teams travel – then the practice of short term mission serves to benefit those who travel rather those who receive.  In this way, the purpose of short term mission is subverted, and can no longer be considered mission.

However, the short term mission participants that I have encountered in my research would be surprised and mortified to learn that their mission work contributed to a problem rather than solving it.  I see in this complex problem of short term mission the possibility of living more fully into the Together Towards Life call to “live out the faith and hope of the community of God’s people” (paragraph 78).  U.S. short term mission participants express their desire to be faithful to Christ in their short term mission work.  Many use the terminology of being the “hands and feet of Christ” to people who need help.

Together Towards Life states that “[t]hrough service the church participates in God’s mission, following the way of its Servant Lord” (paragraph 78).  The challenge is to help short term mission participants learn how to manifest “the power of service over the power of domination” through learning their own participation in those structures of domination.  Short term mission trips have the potential for education and transformation of U.S. Christians, but only if time and attention are given to thoughtful and careful revelation of the ways in which we contribute to the problems we seek to solve.

International short term mission has potential for both the power of service and the power of domination.  I believe that U.S. short term mission participants desire to live into the potential of building relationships and partnerships.  They have the capacity to critically reflect on their participation in God’s mission.

Church leadership can walk with short term mission participants through the hard work of revealing structures and systems of oppression, reflecting theologically on their mission work, and examining whether they are truly working with host churches to build partnerships.  In this way, short term mission can address the critique of “solving problems they helped to cause” and at the same time meet the challenge to “find ways of exercising spiritual gifts which build up the whole church in every part” (Together Towards Life, paragraph 76).

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Kemper, Friday reflect on Together Towards LIfe

This blog has attempted to provide specifically United Methodist reflections on Together Towards Life, the new mission document adopted by the World Council of Churches. I am pleased to share links to two more of these with you.

First, GBGM General Secretary Thomas Kemper, writing back in March, briefly introduces the document and suggests three questions for further study of it:
  • How do you celebrate the awareness that the gospel of Jesus Christ is “good news for all” in the contemporary, always changing, social and political landscape?
  • In what areas might ecumenical mission collaboration be most productive: church planting, disaster relief and/or health ministries?
  • How does mission awareness keep your church alive and on the move? How broad is your mission movement?

Second, Rev. Patrick Friday, director of the In Mission Together program for GBGM, also writing back in March, reflects on the theme of mission from the margin, which is an important emphasis of Together Towards Life. He holds up the 50/50 Partnerships promoted by the In Mission Together team as an example of the ways in which United Methodists can be in mission with, not in mission to, those on the margins.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mission and the instability of ecclesial structure

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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Michael Nausner: Methodism’s Migratory DNA as Resource for a Global Theology

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. Michael Nausner, Professor of Theology, Prorektor, and Dean of International Affairs at the Reutlingen School of Theology.

As my colleagues David N. Field and Hendrik R. Pieterse have reminded us in previous blogs: To be sensitive to our context is not a tedious additional task of Christian faith and theology, but it is the flip side of the same coin. Our task is not only to do theology contextually, but – as H. Pieterse highlighted – to read context theologically. Yes, it is necessary if we want to be true to the old Methodist emphasis on prevenient grace. It belongs to our Methodist DNA to read our context theologically. Grace is for all and active ahead of us wherever we go. One of the most poignant formulations of an original contextual theology in the Wesleyan spirit can be found in John Wesley’s own musings on the presence of God in the world. He was convinced that for those “pure in heart” God is discernable in all that God has created and made. They see God “filling all in all”. (cf. Sermon 23,6) From the perspective of a Wesleyan theology of grace there can be no doubt: context can and needs to teach us theology.

My suggestion here is to reconsider the context of global migration as a theological chance par excellence to get focussed on our calling as United Methodists. We do not have to travel to realize that our everyday context is a global one, or rather a glocal one, meaning that global conditions permeate our various local contexts. In Europe in general and in Germany in particular, migration is one of the main examples of our glocal co-existence. The discourses about migration, however, most often depict it as a threat from the outside: The others come to take our privileges, rights, and resources away…

It is meaningful therefore to remember the Biblical and historical roots of our own migratory DNA as Methodists and as Christians in general, because such memory can become an effective remedy against the poison of a polarizing view that pitches insiders against outsiders, citizens against aliens, one ethnicity against the other. Too often in public discourse and in the media we hear a polarizing discourse. The church and the Methodist connexion as a worldwide network need to actively resist such categorizing and stereotyping forces in public discourse. Seyla Benhabib reminds us: There is a deep and troubling human rights issue emerging in the midst of our so called civilized and enlightened world, because continuously universal human rights are getting into conflict with citizens’ rights. (cf. Benhabib, The Rights of Others) The gap between the rights of those who are supposed to be protected by Fortress Europe and those who are perceived as a threat to Europe remains a troubling one. The thousands who die in the Mediterranean symbolize in a deeply tragic way our unwillingness to be part of a truly global world community. They are a sign, as Pope Francis has put it so poignantly, of a globalization of indifference.

The church, born in diversity (cf. Acts 2), has an important prophetic role to play in a Europe that very late and rather unwillingly acknowledged the values of diversity. Liberal nation states from the beginning granted democratic and citizens’ rights to those belonging to the nation, and only to them. The liberalism of the 19th century was not based on a principal recognition of diversity, but rather depended on the development of national unity and ethnic homogenization. Such reluctance to embrace diversity is a historic burden Europe still has to grapple with. It also explains why the rapidly increasing number of people of multiple belonging is seen as such a problem. In Europe still the billiard-ball-model of cultures seems to be embraced by the majority of people, as if cultures were best described with the metaphor of a container that needs to be protected. People with both-and-identities get into trouble in a world of such imaginations. Sadly oftentimes only the economic arguments have political force: Europe needs a steady non-European influx of workers and professionals to keep the economy growing. Many businesses take this seriously, but the criminalization of immigration and the rising surplus of businesses dealing with manual production go hand in hand. The concrete consequence is that migrants simultaneously are stripped of basic human rights and used to fuel the hunger of an exclusively surplus oriented globalized economy.

These troubling insights from our migratory context should remind Methodists of their own heritage. Methodism as a global movement is unthinkable without the continuous renewing effects of migration. Historically, ecclesiologically, and theologically Methodism is characterized by a certain basic mobility. Ever since John Wesley geographical mobility has been an emblem of the Methodist movement. Itinerant preachers became a visible sign for one of the earliest designs of the Methodist movement: to spread scriptural holiness across the land and eventually across the globe. But even here the context is important: the Methodist awakening was taking place amidst an emerging imperial order, and its spread was facilitated by the many migrating movements that are part and parcel of any colonizing empire.

David Hempton points out that the founding conference of 1784 did not send out missionaries “to export Methodism but to service and expand an existing constituency of migrants.” (D. Hempton, Empire of the Spirit, 151) Serving migrants, thus, was the raison d’etre of Methodism from the beginning. This remained true throughout the 19th century. But it was not only spiritual power that fueled the growth of Methodism. Among the contributing factors to its growth was the rise of domestic and international markets as well as the spread of the British Empire. Methodism was symbiotic with these factors. There is undoubtedly something ambiguous in Methodism’s mobility, something that is still seen in the setup of the global UMC today. Methodism was and is on the one hand instrumental in building egalitarian communities, but on the other hand it allowed itself to become a handmaid of the expansion of Western civilization. The Methodist global connection needs to be wary of any attempts to spread sedentary Western style Christianity lest it buys into the polarization of sedentary church communities that need to “take care” of migrating people. Instead it needs to recover key notions of its ecclesial identity, which is an identity that is migratory all the way down, both historically and theologically. A critical look back is needed, but also a continuous sensitivity for remaining colonial patterns and patterns of cultural dominance. After all the history of the Methodist movement as a migrating community and in service for migrating communities is an ambiguous one, and the way in which “the world is our parish” needs to be continuously re-evaluated.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Updates on African education and episcopal matters

I want to update readers on two stories from Africa that this blog has addressed in the past.

The first story is about African education, a topic that this blog has covered before. There continue to be positive developments in United Methodist-related systems of higher education in Africa. In March, the first ever joint meeting of the Africa Association of United Methodist Theological Institutions (AAUMTI) and the Africa Association of Methodist-related Institutions of Higher Education (AAMIHE) occured in Kenya. The AAMIHE was formed a year and a half ago after a meeting also held in Kenya. The AAUMTI dates back to a 2010 conference. The March 2015 meeting of the two groups is a sign that we can expect more collaboration and more accomplishments out of African United Methodist higher education.

The second of these news updates relates to the case of East Africa Bishop Daniel Wandabula.  As reported by UMNS, the Judicial Council, meeting last month, ruled that the General Council on Finance and Administration could not reduce Bishop Wandabula's salary as a penalty for failing to provide adequate accounting of funds, as the agency had planned to do. This blog has previously reported on the dispute over the use and reporting of denominational funds from which this case stems here and here. This ruling by Judicial Council does not end the dispute between GCFA and Bishop Wandabula about his use of funds, but it does mean that GCFA will have to seek other means to resolve its concerns.