Thursday, April 28, 2016

William Payne: Probing Reasons for Mainline Decline

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary. He writes in response to a piece by Dr. David William Scott from last week, "Coming to Terms with Numeric Decline in the American UMC."

At an earlier time in our recent history, mainline leaders focused the American church on social engagement, an engagement that was very sympathetic to the social upheavals of the time. At the same time, large numbers of traditional and progressive people began to abandon the mainline churches for a variety of reasons. Some fled to other denominations. Others curtailed their active participation in a local church. The mainline leaders blamed the drastic and prolonged numerical decline on negative contextual factors related to environmental constraints. Since the Mainliners could not control the contextual factors, the leadership was happy to ignore the decline as it celebrated the respect that it garnered with liberal America through its social engagement.

On the other hand, while the mainline churches declined, the "upstart" sects and evangelical churches enjoyed membership surges. In particular, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists grew rapidly. These traditions had social strength and shared a common set of core values related to the mission of the church. All were strongly committed to evangelistic outreach. At the same time, the mainline traditions were gripped by an institutional conflict in which internal constituencies battled with each other about social positioning.

If the negative contextual factors drove the decline in the mainline churches, the same determinative factors did not cause other churches to decline. Clearly, the evangelical surge happened at the very time when the mainline denominations plunged.

In fact, negative contextual factors greatly influence the growth and decline of a denomination in a given social milieu. However, how the denomination responds to negative contextual factors will determine the long term consequences of the external environment.

Institutional factors also influence growth and decline. As the mainline tradition prioritized a particular type of social engagement, it de-emphasized other types of social engagement. As many have noted, denominations that do not do evangelism do not grow or maintain their memberships. Additionally, a shifting emphasis from the local congregation to the denomination, the adoption of a progressive theological agenda, and the socializing of pastoral candidates into the ideals of academia all pointed to changing institutional priorities.

In the end, the UMC did not decline because of negative contextual factors. It declined because its institution adjusted to the changing social milieu in specific ways that mitigated long term numerical strength with its core constituency or numerical growth with unchurched populations.

There is a hidden story in the data. The mainline churches declined most in traditional America where the values, theology, social commitments, and seminary educated pastors from the mainline seminaries no longer reflected the prevailing ethos of the majority population. At the same time, younger people from traditional America who were more sympathetic to the mainline emphases began to abandon rural churches as they moved to the urban centers. This reduced the vitality of the rural church and did not grow the church in urban America.

Curiously, why didn’t the new urbanites from rural America populate the urban churches? In fact, the urban churches also declined even as the urban centers swelled with a variety of new populations. Even today, urban America is less churched than traditional America or suburbia.

The sociological literature offers an insight into this question. It suggests that the local church is not as important to the new urbanites as it is to those in rural America. That is, it does not offer them something that they want and can’t get from other sources. For example, it is not an indispensable dispenser of eternal life. According to survey data, over 80 percent believe that all are saved, that religious tolerance entails accepting other faiths as authentic encounters with God, and that a dogmatic commitment to an evangelical faith may fuel social animosity. Additionally, in light of evangelical political entanglements and the negative responses to it in the media and the Democratic Party, progressive urbanites further pulled back from church as they embraced other voluntary organizations that were more focused on the things that mattered most to them, (e.g., arts and entertainment, progressive politics, the environment, race, economic justice, peace, and homosexual rights).

When seen in this light, the current debate in the UMC becomes a little clearer. The progressive elements of the UMC share the values of liberal America and want to make the church more relevant to the prevailing ethos of liberal society by lowering its tension with secularism and by adopting its premises. In so doing, they hope that the unchurched, progressive demographic will align with their churches.

Unfortunately, liberal America is not joining progressive or traditional churches en masse. Furthermore, because the UMC is a global connectional system, the process of aligning (contextualizing) with liberal America will change all of United Methodism in ways that are fully unacceptable to large portions of the membership who seek to grow the membership of the UMC with different demographics (e.g., rural America and Africa) by remaining strongly bibliocentric, morally conservative, fully Christocentric, and potently evangelistic with an emphasis on a personal religious experience. It should be noted that both African and traditional United Methodism have engaged in dynamic social witness within their particular contexts without reneging on the above core commitments.  

Based on past performance, if the progressive wing drives the UM train after General Conference, it will not grow the church with liberal America and it will cause the UMC to suffer rapid decline with other receptive populations who are being reached. (At this point, we should consider regional contextual and institutional factors.) In response to this, the progressive caucus will argue that it is not about numerical growth. Rather, it is about prophetic witness and social justice. The fact that they argue this point shows the wide division and points to why liberal portions of the UMC have suffered sustained numerical decline. Sadly, an ardent emphasis on American style social justice has not attracted new members or maintained the membership base of liberal leaning conferences. Additionally, it has alienated many because it identifies the church with a particular political branding.

From this perspective, it is clear that the LGBT debate is embedded within a larger dispute, a dispute that has polarized political America and the UMC. The UMC will not be able to address the LGBT issues decisively until it works through the larger affinity issue that continues to bifurcate the UMC membership. Furthermore, the LGBT debate will never go away until the UMC gains a shared vision that embraces and motivates all of its constituencies to common action related to shared core convictions. Unfortunately, for that to happen, it may be necessary for the UMC to acknowledge that it is a hung jury and allow progressives and traditionalists to go separate ways.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

E. Julu Swen: General Conference 2016 - The Gathering That May Divide or Unite The United Methodist Church

Today's piece is written by E. Julu Swen. Mr. Swen is a United Methodist layman and blogs at

In two weeks, the United Methodist Church’s top legislative body will be meeting at the Oregon Convention Center, the largest convention center in the Pacific Northwest, from May 10 to 20, 2016. The top policymaking body of The United Methodist Church, which meets once every four years and is dubbed the General Conference, makes and revises church laws as well as adopting resolutions on moral, social, economic and all other public policy-related issues that impact the lives of United Methodists and humanity. Among many things, the General Conference also approves plans and budgets for church-wide programs. This time around, the General Conference 2016 is faced with several challenges, starting with the long-standing issue on human sexuality.

Talk to any African delegate to the General Conference 2016 and one of the first things he/she will do is express a strong opinion on the issue of human sexuality. Yet these delegates will find millions of excuses to justify other “immoral conduct” that permeate the fabric of the church in Africa. And to some extent, compounding the issue, they will find a way to blame it on their western partners. For example, in Liberia the issue of divorce raised to the level of immorality was debated for several years until it was upheld as a legislative action and used by the church in the nomination process of its candidates for the bishopric. The “divorce legislation,” according to proponents, dates back to 1968, much older than the human sexuality debate which has been part of every General Conference since 1972.

For the first time in the history of the General Conference, African delegates to the General Conference 2016 have been touring the globe in preparation for the Oregon gathering. Three sites in all—two in Africa and one in the Middle East hosted these gatherings. By all indications, the African delegation will be in the United States of America one week prior to the date of UMCGC 2016. In addition to the pre-General Conference gathering in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, which was sponsored by the organizers of the General Conference 2016, selected members of the African delegation have participated in two separate continental meetings, one in Africa and one in the Middle East. Technically, the Abidjan meeting was official, but the other two were about church politics. Until these meetings, the one and only meeting of such nature was in 2012 when the news about “Plan B” reached the African delegates and a “Prayer Summit” was organized in Monrovia, Liberia, for the formation of a united voice among African delegates to Tampa, Florida. The objective of the Monrovia meeting was to vote against “Plan B,” or any decision that would threaten the unity of the church.

At the moment, several legislative proposals, ranging from “agency budget cuts to reduction in the episcopal tenure or possible episcopal reelection,” are on their way to the General Conference 2016. Easily endorsed by African delegates will be the “reduction in episcopal tenure,” while they will serve as followers on the “agencies budget cuts” because of their (UMC Africa) limitation in contributing to the general church-wide budget. As we say in Liberia, “you put your mouth where your money is.”

Similarly, other legislations such as Rule 44, otherwise referred to as “Christian Conferencing,” and the “Boycott Diverts Sanctions on Israel,” also referred to as “BDS,” stand as hurdles for the General Conference 2016. The legislative positions have stirred serious debates between proponents and opponents. Each group will be relying on the African delegates in making sure specific, individual legislation go through. However, if shuttling around the world under sponsorship is all to it, then those who financed all those trips for the African delegates are sure of enough votes, except on the issue of human sexuality. For them, discussing human sexuality is like making room for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning persons,” abbreviated as LGBTQ in the life of the church. All other considerations aside, the African delegates and some other delegates to the General Conference 2016 are judging human sexuality from the perspectives of morality and immorality.

In his commentary on the Liberia Annual Conference's “divorce legislation,” Darryl W. Stephens thinks the divorce legislation should be part of the many legislative proposals that are coming to the General Conference 2016. Stephens noted that the action of the Liberia Annual Conference on divorce bordered on cultural issues that cut across the connection, especially among clergy. He strengthened his discussion by reminding all of us in the connection of the now-outdated rules that protected the moral standing of the church in the society. He also noted that as recent as the 1968 Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church declared, “The Church does not sanction or condone divorce except on the ground of adultery.”

If Stephens is right at all, then the laws of the United States of America are about to do yet further damage to the rules of the United Methodist Church just like they did when they introduced the “no-fault divorce laws” which helped the Methodist prohibitions against divorce disappear from the General Discipline. Already, conferences, churches, and individuals especially in the United States of America are now challenging the long-standing rule of the church which restricts self-avowing “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning persons” members from active ministerial roles. For example, the New York Conference’s board of ordained ministry announced on March 1, 2016 that it would not consider sexual orientation in evaluating a clergy candidate, even if that individual has a spouse of the same gender.

Before the Supreme Court decision approving “same-sex” marriage in the USA, the administrative arm of the United Methodist Church, the Connectional Table, in a vote of 26 to 10 with one abstention, approved legislation that would remove prohibitive language from the Book of Discipline—language that makes it a chargeable offense under church law for clergy to be “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” or to officiate at same-sex weddings. Although the legislation is pending actions by the General Conference 2016, the Connectional Table and the Supreme Court decisions do not resonate well with many Africans, especially United Methodists, some of whom may now be on their way to Oregon.

The United Methodist Church is teetering on the brink of a split because most of the United Methodist Churches in Africa, along with some in the USA and elsewhere, will not buy into the “Christian Conferencing” concept of their western partners if the only outcome is to make room for LGBTQ in pastoral ministry. Bishop Christian Alsted was right when he indicated that “any preconceived concept must be put aside if it prevents delegates from listening to each other.” In Oregon, several concepts will actually prevent delegates from listening to each other. For most Africans, it will be human sexuality; for some in the USA and the Middle East it may be budget cuts for those heading agencies and the issue of Israeli/Palestinian peacemaking. Surely, listening to each other will be critical in Portland, Oregon.

We are all aware of many attempts throughout the history of the church to close doors. There have always been ways that the church doors have been closed, but we hope that the African church does not close door of the church to LGBTQ people. Divorce doesn't bar someone from being involved with the life and ministry of a local church, nor from a relationship with the loving and forgiving Jesus. In Liberia, it only bars one from episcopal election. That's all. Divorced people are welcome at the table of grace set by Jesus. We in Africa could do better to make sure that the table is a welcoming table to all of God's children. We should recognize that in the US at one time we from Africa were not welcome inside the doors of Methodist Churches. This has changed as society came to the recognition that all people are children of God, though there are many churches today in the US that would not accept a pastor from Liberia or other African countries in its pulpit. While we may disagree on human sexuality, we should always agree wholeheartedly and together that the table set by Jesus is one open to all.

Whatever challenges await the General Conference 2016 in Oregon, heeding the warning of Bishop Alsted of the Nordic and Baltic Area will make us leave The United Methodist Church whole or a fragmented church. As he puts it, “Discerning God’s way for our denomination must be a shared desire and shared responsibility. We must keep an open mind and listen for God’s guidance.” Whether we hear God differently, keeping the unity of The United Methodist Church should reign supreme among conference delegates.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Coming to terms with numeric decline in the American UMC

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 I wrote about last week, the latest iteration of Vital Congregations data were released last month. They show growth in some faithful practices among American United Methodists, but declines in the production of new members. Combined with the death and other losses of existing members, this struggle with producing new members contributes to a pattern of numeric decline among American United Methodism that continues a decades-long trend in place since the formation of the denomination through merger in 1968.

I also indicated that this year's numbers have also perpetuated another long-term trend among American United Methodists: the attempt to interpret and make sense of the numeric data. Some of these interpretations anxiously see this trend as a crisis in the denomination. Anxiety might be counter-productive, but even those interpretations that identify an impending crisis contain a belief that is common to most United Methodist interpretations of our American decline: the belief that there is something we can do to reverse it.

The solutions of what we should do to reverse American United Methodist numeric decline vary. Perhaps it is using metrics to focus on vitality. Perhaps it is reorganizing budgets, boards, and agencies. Perhaps it is continuing to emphasize a biblical rejection of homosexuality. Perhaps it is ending the oppression and exclusion of the LGBT community. All of these solutions to American United Methodist decline, varied as they may be, share the belief that American United Methodists can reverse their fate.

That may not, however, be true, at least in the foreseeable future.

If United Methodism was declining while most other churches prospered, that would be an indicator that we suffered from some peculiar dysfunction that, theoretically, could be remedied to produce turnaround.

Yet that's not the case. Mainline Christianity has been in numeric decline for the last half century, and within the last decade, American Christianity as a whole, including evangelical Christianity and Catholicism, has been in numeric decline. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but the general trend is clear, especially for all of the largest denominations in the country. Moreover, because of the generational dynamics of religious change in the United States, that trend will probably continue and even accelerate in the next couple of decades.

It's always possible that the general trend could reverse itself. Following the upward membership trend of the 1950s, few mainline churches in 1960 expected the sort of membership decline that would set in by the end of the decade. As they say in the stock market, past trends do not always determine future results. We might be surprised by a turnaround, and I pray we are.

Moreover, even if we agree that further numeric decline over the next couple of decades is inevitable for the American UMC, that doesn't excuse us from living out our denominational mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We are still called to share our faith through evangelism, to support each other in pursing lives of holiness, and to pass on our faith to future generations. It's possible, too, that carrying out these tasks well will affect the rate at which the UMC experiences membership decline in the US, perhaps significantly decreasing it.

Still, it seems a reasonable conjecture to predict that, no matter how faithful we are, the number of American United Methodists will continue to drop for the foreseeable future. That will strike many as bad news, though it needn't be seen a sign of lack of faithfulness on our part or on God's. While I, too, mourn the loss of faithful United Methodists, I also think such a situation can be a time for prayerful learning as a denomination. It should prompt us to ask two very important questions about our collective life:

1. How do we become a more global denomination in the face of shrinking demographics and (eventually) resources in the historic American base of the denomination?

2. How do we preserve the ethos and values of our current model of structures and programs even when we are no longer able to preserve all of those individual structures and programs?

These questions are what leadership expert Ronald Heifetz would call "adaptive challenges," which means there aren't easy answers. Yet if we're willing to engage them, we may just find that even numeric decline can be a profound time of learning about and communion with God for American United Methodists.

A parallel with the physical declines that precede the death of individuals may be reassuring. While American have a hard time confronting death, God still loves the dying, and the dying process can be a time of deep meaning for those going through it. It used to be a mark of a good Methodist to die well, strong in their faith. As John Wesley said on his own deathbed, "Best of all, God is with us."

Part of what enabled those faithful deaths was a strong assurance in that central Christian truth: Death is not the end. God promises life after death. May we believe that for ourselves, and may we believe that for our church.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Recommended reading: Women by the Numbers

A month ago, we ran a piece by Glory Dharmaraj on "Gender and General Conference." Given the interest in that piece, I want to refer readers to three additional pieces from the General Commission on the States and Role of Women (GCSRW) that elaborate on some of the data and themes from Dr. Dharmaraj's piece. GCSRW published a three-part series:

"Women by the Numbers: Who is At the Decision-Making Table?" provides an overview of women's representation at General Conference

"Women by the Numbers: Who from the Central Conferences Is at the Decision-Making Table?" provides the data for Central Conferences delegates

"Women by the Numbers: Who from the Jurisdictions Is at the Decision-Making Table?" provides the data for delegates from the US Jurisdictions

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The hermeneutical burden of understanding Vital Congregations data

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.

A few weeks ago, the 2014 data report for The United Methodist Church's Vital Congregations metrics was released. The report, which summarizes data on five "markers of vitality" for UMC congregations in the US only, contained mixed results. There was an increase in participation in small groups, mission, and mission giving by church members, but declines in new faith professions and membership growth. In other words, American United Methodists were fewer but more faithful.

Numbers, however, do not speak for themselves, contrary to the popular saying. Thus, there have been a variety of attempts to interpret the numbers and discern what they say about where the denomination is, where it is going, and how those realities compares to organizational and theological ideals. The 2014 Vitality Report begins with such an interpretive statement: "Highly vital congregations are focused on growing their vitality by making and maturing disciples, not achieving numbers." This statement is both descriptive and normative, encouraging churches to focus on faithfulness and not worry as much about the numbers.

Other have worried about the numbers, at least on the aggregate level for the American branch of denomination as a whole. Dr. Don House, a lay United Methodist economist, has extrapolated from recent numerical trends to predict "collapse" for the denomination by 2050, as reported in this Good News article. This statement, too, is meant to be not only descriptive but prescriptive. According to House, such collapse is not inevitable if appropriate steps are taken. The implication, then, is that the church must take such steps to avoid an unthinkable fate.

On the other hand, Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, executive secretary of the Connectional Table, in a recent commentary, seeks to de-emphasize the trend of American numerical decline by placing it in the context of varying world-wide membership trends in the UMC. This involves bringing in additional data beyond what is available through the US-centric Vital Congregations metrics. By taking this global perspective and by focusing on mission and ministry, Rev. Valdez Barker provides an implicit answer to a question she raises in the piece, "How do we inspire hope and possibility, rather than allow and contribute to the narrative of fear, crisis and despair?"

In the end, the numbers can be used to describe narratives of hope and narratives of crisis both. Neither is necessarily truer than the other. Numbers are useful, but they cannot, in themselves, answer questions about values and meaning, which can only be answers by people interpreting the numbers.

Moreover, we would do well to remember that there is a danger in relying too much on numbers in our plans. 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 both tell the story of King David arousing God's anger for taking a census of Israel. The prevailing interpretation is that by counting his people, David was placing trust in human rather than divine strength. Whatever we make of United Methodist numerical trends, let us avoid David's mistake and be sure that we are trusting God and not human plans to lead us forward into the future to which God calls us.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Episcopal Leadership and Episcopal Accountability in the UMC

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.

Last week, I wrote a piece looking at the paradoxical way in which United Methodist polity both sets up bishops as the de facto respondents on behalf of the denomination to pressing political and social issues while at the same time asserting that bishops are not officially speaking for the church in so doing. This week, I'd like to connect those observations to some current proposals in the denomination regarding United Methodist bishops.

The first of these is a proposed "covenant of accountability" that the Council of Bishops will consider adopting for themselves when they meet in May just before General Conference. While the issue of episcopal accountability has been precipitated by divisions over homosexuality, as this UMNS story notes, the questions of accountability can also be interpreted more broadly to include issues such as congregational vitality and the denominational decline we are seeing in many social locations.

The second proposal is a variety of legislative items that would implement term limits for United Methodist bishops in the United States. Part of the motive behind the legislation is that policies on episcopal term limits vary between the US and Central Conferences (though the legislation would still leave variety among the Central Conferences). As this UMNS story makes clear, though, the major motivation behind introducing such term limits is accountability for bishops.

These two proposals to increase episcopal accountability (to each other and to conferences) thus reflect another tension within United Methodist polity. On the one hand, we need bishops to exert leadership in the time between the occasional meetings of the Council of Bishops and between the even less frequent meetings of General Conference. As any business or church trend news article will tell you, the world is changing at an ever faster pace, which makes this sort of episcopal leadership in the interim periods even more important. On the other hand, the denomination is also seeking to make bishops more accountable to these occasionally-meeting bodies.

Hence, the UMC is asking for both more action and more accountability by its bishops. This isn't necessarily a contradiction, just a tension. Nor does this tension necessarily make the covenant of accountability or episcopal term limits a bad idea. I'm not trying to comment on the worth of those proposals. What I am suggesting is that the denomination would benefit from some deep theological and organizational reflection on the rights, responsibilities, and roles of bishops and how those relate to the rights, responsibilities, and roles of other loci of power in the denomination.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Recommended reading: Darryl Stephens on Democracy and the Politics of Grace

Last week, I recommend a piece by Rev. Darryl Stephens on who really has a say at General Conference. This week, I'd like to recommend a follow-up piece by Rev. Stephens that provides a theological assessment of how decisions are made at General Conference and more broadly within the denomination. He identifies a Methodist productive tension between democracy and grace, but argues that for Wesley grace was a more important aspect of conferencing than democracy. Rev. Stephens then calls for an approach to Methodist conferencing that emphasizes grace and the important role diversity has in helping us build each other up.

One of the things I appreciate about about Rev. Stephens' writings along with such other stories about the upcoming General Conference as those noting debates about if and how to use holy conferencing, how to ensure African voices are heard, and the role of gender in General Conference is that they highlight that one of the biggest issues related to General Conference this year is not one of the major legislative pieces. How and by whom decisions are made at General Conference has emerged as an issue separate from the specific policies up for debate. This debate about decision-making reflects, I think, tensions within the church related to changes in membership trends, changes in wider society, and the denomination's continued efforts to live into its reality as a global or international denomination. Such tensions are inevitable given these set of factors. Their resolution, however, is not foregone. Therefore, let us heed Rev. Stephens' injunction to engage in the gracious work of building up each other as disciples of Jesus Christ as we seek to address these tensions.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Episcopal Leadership and the Complexities of Political Witness in an International Denomination

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.

I read a trio of articles this morning about United Methodists around the world reacting to issues regarding political rights and persecution. In the first, Rev. Kiboko I. Kiboko of the Iowa Annual Conference provided the latest update in the ongoing saga of his brother, Kano Kiboko, a United Methodist evangelist imprisoned in the Congo for criticizing the government. In the second, UMNS reported on United Methodist responses to violence against farmers in the Philippines protesting for food aid in the face of a severe drought. In the third, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany commented on the political situation regarding immigrants in Europe.

These three different stories, while united by some common underlying principles regarding human rights, represent three different sorts of political issues on which The United Methodist Church was called to speak. Yet herein lies some of the complexity of the UMC taking stands on political issues. Technically, General Conference is the only body capable of speaking on behalf of the UMC. Thus, the UMC as an institution has said nothing about imprisoned members in the Congo or persecuted minorities in the Philippines or migrants in Europe. Individual United Methodist leaders have.

In the absence of direct comment by the General Conference, one can point to the denomination's Social Principles as official pronouncements on political issues. Yet because they are revised only once every four years (by General Conference), the nature of the Social Principles is such that they speak in generalities rather than address specific situations. Moreover, the majority of the Social Principles were developed with US politics in mind, while none of the three incidents mentioned above occurred in the US. This is a major reason for the push to develop a set of Global Social Principles. Yet even these are likely to suffer from the same problems of broadness and infrequent revision.

The limitations of denomination-wide apparatuses for responding in a timely manner to important political issues of the day highlight the importance of episcopal leadership within The United Methodist Church. Bishops are not only called on to administer the church within their annual conferences, they are also called on to be the face of the church to the outside world within those conferences. That point is well-illustrated by all three stories. In Germany, it was Bishop Wenner speaking to the issue of immigration. In the Philippines, both Bishop Ciriaco Francisco and Bishop Rodolfo Juan were very involved in the UMC's response to the violence against protestors. Rev. Kiboko expressed frustration that United Methodist bishops in the Congo had not spoken out about his brother's plight. Agency executives are also an important witness (as Global Ministries' Thomas Kemper's statement on the Philippines situation shows), but episcopal leadership is crucial.

This arrangement has both advantages and disadvantages. Bishops know their contexts well and are often best equipped to understand and respond appropriately to political situations that arise. They already have established authority with the United Methodist flocks under their care and existing connections to the secular world when a crisis arises. Yet when it comes down to it, bishops can only express their opinions, not make pronouncements on behalf of the church. These opinions are influential ones, and the distinction is lost on many, so this may not be an issue in most cases. There may also be some instances in which the opinion of a bishop does not reflect that of the membership s/he leads or the opinion of other bishops, for better or worse.

Again, this arrangement is not necessarily problematic. Nevertheless, it is worth keeping in mind as General Conference discusses the possibility of developing a set of Global Social Principles that denominational polity determines how and through whom the UMC is able to respond to and serve as a witness regarding pressing political and social issues.