Tuesday, May 31, 2016

General Conference roundup: Global structures and leaders

This is the first of several posts presenting a roundup of General Conference actions related to the foci of this blog. This first post looks at the General Conference actions related to global structures and leaders in The United Methodist Church.

General Conference approved continued work on a global Book of Discipline and global Social Principles. Proposals for a US central conference died in committee.

General Conference approved five more bishops for Africa starting in 2020, going with the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters' recommendation rather than a motion to add two new bishops immediately to Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

General Conference approved a provisional central conference for Southeast Asia and Mongolia, allowing missions there to go forward with the process of forming Annual Conferences and thereby beginning to determine their own pastoral leadership. It also approved a provisional Rwanda Annual Conference and deferred the creation of a Uganda Annual Conference to the West Africa Central Conference.

During General Conference, the Judicial Council elected N. Oswald Tweh, Sr., a Liberian, as the head of the Council, the first from outside the US to hold that position.

Responding to a request for a declaratory decision from the General Conference, the Judicial Council ruled that a Central Conference as a body, not its bishops, has the authority to set the time and place of its meetings, addressing questions regarding the 2016 meeting of the Congo Central Conference.

The next roundup, which will be posted next week, will look at actions related to mission work.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: A Small Victory for Missions at General Conference

Among all the polemics and fireworks discussing human sexuality at General Conference over 10 days, this small petition of $30,000 for mission opportunities in Latin American and the Caribbean almost fell through the cracks. Fortunately this petition (No. 60874) "Holistic Strategy on Latin American and the Caribbean" passed by an overwhelming margin. This demonstrates to me that in spite of our differences the United Methodist Church is still a missional and generous people. I have attached below the link to the original petition describing the missional opportunities and the conditions of poverty in the 20 countries in the region of 502 million people.

While I'm pleased that this passed, it makes me wonder what we could do if we spent less money on debating other issues and having large world-wide gatherings. This General Conference cost $10,532,800 and 32% of this was spent on delegate travel with the bulk of this being international airfare for the 350 Central Conference delegates.

I know that the United Methodist Church is not synonymous with the U.S., but my question is why do we have United Methodists so far away in Europe, Africa and the Philippines, when right here in Latin America—with so much need—we don’t have a United Methodist Church? None of the 350 international voting delegates were from Latin America. I know that there are great needs around the world and the UMC does wonderful ministries everywhere it is present, I'm just asking if this money couldn't do more good for more people closer to home?

The United States also has much more in common with Latin America historically, economically and geographically. Even culturally the U.S. now consumes more salsa than ketchup and it’s hard to find a town in the U.S. without a Latin American restaurant. Words such as tortilla, jalapeño and hurricane originate in Latin America and the Caribbean are are now part of our vocabulary. Also, the Hispanic population in the U.S. is currently 55 million (17.3%) and increasing, which represents a huge mission opportunity in our midst. The U.S. Census predicts that this demographic will be 31% of the U.S. population by the year 2060. By contrast, there were only about 20 Hispanic delegates at the 2016 General Conference to help lift and interpret this opportunity to the body.

The UMC does have historic relationships with Methodist Churches in Latin America and the Caribbean that were established by missionaries in the late 19th century, however most of these churches were encouraged to become autonomous in the late 1960s.[1] These autonomous affiliated churches retain fraternal ties through comity agreements, but do not have nearly as much financial support as the Central Conference churches.

Greater mission involvement of the United Methodist Church with partnerships in Latin America & the Caribbean could make more disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Volunteer in Mission movement began when the Western North Carolina Conference began sending mission teams to Costa Rica in the late 1950s. Since then, thousands of United Methodists have served in short-term mission trips in the Americas. Of course, there are mission trips to Africa and Asia, but because of the cost and the distance, these are much less common. These mission trips function best (for the senders and the receivers) when there are long-term partnerships carried out in a spirit of mutuality and respect.

Greater UMC involvement in Latin America could support churches and ministries that would improve the quality of life in the region. There was a wonderful video presentation at GC on Wednesday (5/18) highlighting the ministry of Acción Medica Cristiana where GBGM missionary Belinda Forbes is assigned. This ministry promotes health and development in rural Nicaragua.

I believe that the UMC has done a wonderful thing in founding and building Africa University. This institution is training bright young people from several African nations who will be part of solving regional problems well into the future. At the same time, the oldest Spanish-speaking seminary founded by the Methodist Church in South America, ISIDET in Buenos Aires closed its doors last year because of lack of funding, thus creating a void for Spanish speaking theological education in South America.

What would it look like to build a Latin American University similar to Africa University? Could such a university help to train young people who could help solve problems in Latin American societies? Could future Christian-grounded leaders educated at such an institution promote more stable democracies in the region, Christian ethical values, businesses with more job opportunities, more equal distribution of resources, and creative solutions for environmental and societal issues that affect the Western hemisphere? More just societies in Latin America and the Caribbean with stable democracies would make emigration to the north less desirable.

Methodist Pastors from Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Puerto Rico 
Course of Study at Perkins School of Theology

Since there already exists autonomous Methodist Churches throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, I am not actually advocating starting United Methodist Churches; however, I am encouraging the UMC to re-evaluate its global structure and see where its resources can do the most good. I recommend consulting with our historical partners before beginning any new initiatives to ask how we can be of assistance to support what God is already doing. This petition is a good model of mutuality in mission as this request was made in consultation with the Council of Methodist Churches in Latin America and the Caribbean (CIEMAL), which is the corresponding representative body. My only question is whether or not $30,000 is enough and whether the current global structure is in the best interest of the U.S. based UMC?

In an ideal world with unlimited resources we could have UMC ministries in every country, however we are forced with difficult stewardship questions. I know that there are needs everywhere and we’d like to help everyone, but this time of numerical and budget decline could be used as an opportunity to reflect on the best way to organize the UMC and be wise stewards of God's resources. In conclusion, I’m pleased that Petition #60874 passed and that Latin America and the Caribbean will receive $30,000 for missional opportunities, it just seems like such a small amount compared to the $10 million that we just spent to host 864 delegates for a 10-day meeting and the ongoing commitments that we sustain as a global church.

Here is the link to the original Petition #60874:

[1] With the exception of the Methodist Churches in Brazil and Mexico that gained its autonomy in 1930, and the United Methodist Mission in Honduras that started in the early 1990s.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Recommended Reading: Darryl Stephens on Worldwide Guideposts for the UMC

While much has been written about the recently-concluded General Conference, I particularly recommend this piece by Rev. Dr. Darryl Stephens, which puts the bishops' "A Way Forward" proposal regarding the sexuality debate within larger organizational and historical contexts. Dr. Stephens connects this debate to larger issues of the global ambitions but US-centric structures of the denomination and links those debates to the 2008 merger of The United Methodist Church and the Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d'Ivoire. He then follows up by identifying several areas of work for the denomination if it is to live up to its global ambitions.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Recommended readings: Bishops at GC2016

While the story of the UMC's General Conference 2016 is being told as a story about debates over sexuality (which it is), looked at another way, this General Conference has been all about bishops and their role in leading the church, as the following recommended readings indicate.

The bishops have been at the center of the drama of the debate over sexuality. After rumors surfaced of a possible denominational schism, they issued a call for unity Tuesday morning, though they recognized that they were not of one mind themselves. The conference responded by calling on the Council of Bishops to present a plan for moving forward in light of intractable disagreements over sexuality. The bishops answered by recommending the formation of a study committee, tabling all sexuality-related legislation for this General Conference, and possibly calling a special General Conference to discuss the committee's recommendations. After contentious debate, General Conference narrowly approved the bishops' plan.

While this drama has taken up most of the attention, it has not been the only episcopal development at this General Conference. Also related primarily to the issue of sexuality, but occurring before the events described above, the Council of Bishops affirmed "A Covenant of Accountability."

This General Conference has seen debate over episcopal term limits as well, which were ultimately voted down.

Moreover, General Conference approved five new bishops for Africa, all starting in 2020, deciding against an amendment to add two immediately.

Bishops have also been trying to lead the conference and the denomination in prayer.

While much has been and will be written in the coming days about what this week's decisions mean for the denomination's stance on sexuality, the denomination would also do well to reflect on what this conference's events mean for our ecclesiology of the episcopacy, and how our historical ecclesiological understandings of the episcopacy can help us think through how to continue to faithfully work together to build the future of The United Methodist Church.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Recommended readings: Denominational work on global social issues at General Conference

On a day when the General Conference news cycle is dominated by rumors of schism and episcopal affirmations of unity, I thought it would be edifying to wrap up some of the good work done by a united UMC that has been celebrated at General Conference. GC2016 has seen actions, celebrations, and rallies related to its work on the global issues of health, environmental stewardship, migration, education, and indigenous rights.

GC 2016 creates new focus on global health from UM Reporter

Environmental Stewardship
Prayers, paper lanterns at climate vigil from UMNS
Hearing the plea: Safe water for all from UMNS
UMW day: Water and witness from UMNS

Immigration rally calls for end to deportations from UMNS
Multimedia: Immigration Rally from UM Reporter
GC Shorts - To Welcome the Stranger from UM Reporter

GC 2016 Celebrates Africa University from UMNS

Indigenous Rights
Indigenous Filipinos brings pleas for justice from UMNS
Injustice in the Philippines: The plight of the Lumads from United Methodist Videos

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Recommended readings on opening worship

General Conference's opening worship stressed the racial and cultural diversity within the UMC as a global denomination. These three articles all emphasize some aspect of that:

Youngsook Kang for UMNS
Christy Thomas for The United Methodist Reporter
Barbara Dunlap-Berg for UMNS

You can see photos of the opening worship here.
If you have an hour and a half, you can watch the whole worship service here.

Opening worship demonstrated not only the denomination's global nature but its struggles with debates about sexuality, as this article about Rev. Vicki Flippin's (non-)participation highlights.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Recommend readings on African and Filipino issues at General Conference

The UMC General Conference, which begins today, will consider 1043 petitions. Religion News Service posted this list of the top six issues to be discussed at General Conference.
While the list includes international issues like religious freedom and the church's response to refugees, most of the issues are ones that have originated in the US.
What, then, are the top issues for Central Conference delegates to General Conference? African delegates have indicated an interest in the sexuality debates that are #1 on the RNS list, and German and other European delegates care greatly about immigration.
But there are other issues not on the RNS list, and as this UMNS story indicates, African delegates in particular are coming with an intention to advance their own agendas and not just respond to American agendas. As this article notes, an important item on those agendas is the timing of additional bishops for Africa.
For Filipino delegates, an important point of the conference will be a presentation by Lumads, a persecuted indigenous group in the Philippines that the church has supported even at its own risk.
Certainly, this is not a comprehensive list of the many topics for which the large and diverse group of Central Conference delegates will be advocating, but it's a good place to start watching.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Recommended readings on a possible US Central Conference

As we enter the last few days before General Conference, I want to share a couple of readings with you related to one of the issues up for discussion there:

This UMNS news story details several proposals for changing the way that conferences in the US (and possibly beyond) are organized, including a proposal for a US Central Conference and a proposal for continent-wide conferences, including one in North America.

Second, Rev. Dr. Tim Bruster, one of the authors of the "A Place of Reason" proposal for creating a US Central Conference, has written this opinion piece on why he supports such an idea. While Dr. Bruster has his own proposal in mind, several of his points no doubt also apply to the Northeast Jurisdiction's proposal for continent-wide conferences.

These links do not constitute endorsement by this blog of any of these proposals. It's just us carrying out our motto of "fostering conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church."

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Latest Developments in UMC Episcopal Accountability

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.

This blog recently addressed issues around episcopal accountability that are pending for General Conference. It has also previously reported on financial accusations against East Africa Bishop Daniel Wandabula. Those accusations have become part of a long, on-going struggle between Wandabula, other African bishops, various general agencies, American annual conferences, and elders in the annual conferences Wandabula oversees.

The latest development in this story relates to three Ugandan United Methodists who claim Wandabula has legally persecuted them for bringing to light financial misdeeds. Wandabula, on the other hand, has accused the three of blackmail. The three (Rev. John Kiviiri, Joseph Kanyike, and Joshua Buule) are now calling on General Conference to adopt new legislation on episcopal accountability to deal with cases such as Wandabula's, as reported in this recent UMNS story.

As this blog has previously argued, the Wandabula case represents a surprising point of convergence between American United Methodists' concerns about episcopal accountability related to gay marriage and gay ordination and Africans' concerns about accountability related to finances. (African bishops have made it clear that they firmly oppose gay marriage, so there are no concerns about holding African bishops accountable to the Discipline in this regard.)

United Methodists from different parts of the world might agree that accountability is a good thing (for bishops and perhaps for others as well) without agreeing what accountability means. Different understandings or different applications of accountability are not necessarily problematic, but they can produce problems or unintended consequences in application if multiple parties agree to principles with different understandings of what they mean. This is a classic problem in public policy.

There are several solutions to such a problem: Consult a range of people when devising policies. Communicate and listen to ensure all parties are on the same page (this is harder across languages and cultures). Be specific in policies. Don't devise broad procedures to solve particular issues. There are always temptations to ignore these guidelines in a democratic system such as the UMC's General Conference because it's easier to get majority buy-in to vague or broadly-worded policies. Such strategies, though, are myopic and likely to lead to long-term implementation problems.

Ultimately, it's important for America United Methodists to remember that episcopal accountability can have more than one meaning. It's important to think beyond just the debate over homosexuality and consider broader implications of any new episcopal policies adopted.