Thursday, June 30, 2016

Talking about Church Closures

I was struck by a couple of paragraphs in a blog post on UM Insight by Darryl Stephens I'd read recently. Here they are:

There are over 32,000 United Methodist congregations in the United States, almost one in every county of every state. We have more local missional outposts than the US Post Office. We also have more local congregations worldwide than McDonald’s has franchises. There are nearly 40,000 United Methodist churches worldwide.

This means that every time we engage excitedly in conversation about new church starts, there is another half to that conversation that is not nearly so motivational: old church closures.

The truth is, the UMC has too many congregations in the United States. We have so many congregations we don’t know how to manage them all or what to do with them. And, our leadership does not have the courage or the moral will to close them. So, every time we focus on new church starts without also discussing the hard work of old church closures, we are contributing to the delusion that ministry is only about birth and growth and not also about sustained presence, a good life, and, eventually, death.

Rev. Stephens' words reminded me of a story my dad tells about the time, 20 years ago, when he worked as communication director for the Iowa Conference. My dad came to this position from the world of journalism, not the church.

While he was working there, the conference decided to close two small, rural churches. My dad, following his journalistic instincts, thought that it would be an interesting story to write about these churches and what their congregants were experiencing as they prepared for their churches' closure. He was told, however, that in no way could he write a story about churches closing. It was not the message the denomination wanted to send - closures could too easily be interpreted as failures.

Yet if we are unwilling to talk about church closures, yea, even church failures, then we as a denomination are failing to send a very important message: that Christ Jesus triumphs even over death. Unless we recognize death, we cannot recognize resurrection.

Moreover, in order to really understand the dynamics of denominational decline and possible revitalization in the US branch of the UMC, we need to talk about church closures (and those churches that don't close but perhaps should), not just about aggregate membership numbers for the whole country. One of the central tenets of successful mission work is to pay attention to context. Just so, the dynamics of church decline and growth are shaped by contextual and institutional factors, and two of those factors are congregational size and congregational closures.

If we're not willing to talk about church closures, then we fail to witness to our belief in the resurrecting power of Jesus Christ and we fail to do an adequate missiological analysis of the American mission field.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Recommended Reading: Reimagining Global Ministries

Many readers will doubtlessly already be familiar with the changes going on at Global Ministries (aka GBGM), which include moving from New York City to Atlanta, opening regional offices around the world, and restructuring the agency. Those who are not yet will certainly want to read this article, which highlights the changes. These changes at The United Methodist Church's official mission agency, especially the opening of regional offices and associated re-configuring of structure, have potentially broader implications for the rest of the denomination, as they will represent one example of what it can look like for the church to be in mission and cooperation together across the US, Central Conferences, autonomous affiliated Methodist churches, and beyond.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Recommended Reading: Westbury UMC's apartment ministry to refugees

While this article about the journey undertaken by Westbury UMC in Houston, TX, in launching an apartment ministry to refugees in the area is a long one, I highly recommend you add it to your summer reading list. The article is a good description of the long and at times difficult and ambiguous process by which Westbury has transformed itself from a large but declining and adrift church to one focused on a particular set of ministries to its community and therefore growing.

Part of what makes this article a good one, though, is that it is not a simple celebration of "five easy steps to turnaround" that this church applied and all others should, too. The article acknowledges the difficulties, complexities, time, effort, and money involved in cross-cultural missional engagement as well as the potential benefits. It is not a simple success story, and not all churches will be able to replicate what Westbury did, nor should they. This article can, however, help all churches to reflect on what it means to do ministry with others in their contexts.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Jacob Dharmaraj: Thinking Beyond the “Issue-Boxes”: A Reflection on General Conference 2016

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.

I love General Conference! It is indeed a joyous place to be. One can witness firsthand the worldwide United Methodist Church doing business.

General Conference is the United Methodist’s quadrennial kumbaya. It is the denomination’s legislative amphitheater, its missional market place, its doctrinal battleground, its connectional system’s fiscal auditorium, and its fisted hand budgetary arena.

General Conference is the public dome where the miraculous and the monstrous are equally part of daily deliberations. It is a place where the boundaries between reality and dreams are blurred; lofty vision and imagined future are carved out through the prism of memory, nostalgia, and high ambition for the denomination’s worldwide church.

I enjoy being at the margin and sidelines of the General Conference from where one could see the fringe events that take place which are equally important for the life of the denomination. After all, what is visible and broadcast are important for the record but what is ignored and marginalized are more important for the conscience of the church. The periphery of the General Conference has a status of its own that often draws a rally, a drama, a scene of media sensation, punctuated more by the reportorial, “The-Whole-World-Is-Watching-Us,” than the revelatory.

There is also an aura that surrounds  the General Conference, viewed as a latter day United Methodist Byzantium where a galaxy of sensitive, sophisticated human beings from all across United Methodism altruistically join forces to achieve spiritually elevating, ecclesially nourishing, missionally wholesome, and globally transformative programs. Consequently, the General Conference tends to become gouty and pompous.

Now that GC2016 has poured its last cup of tea, strapped its tarp and traveling gear to the trailer, and dispatched its last emissary to form a study commission on human sexuality, I will miss the high drama, its suspense and its myrmidon for another four years (maybe two years!)

Global North meeting Global South under Robert’s Rule or the Palavar Tree?
What fascinated me more than anything else at GC2016 was the large presence and active participation of the multiethnic delegates from the worldwide church. To many Christians in the global north, Christians in the Global South belong only to the domain of missions and not in the region of partnership or mutuality. Only recently it is best understood as an independent church and not as an appendage of Western missionary expansion, and they have an identity and selfhood of their own. Yes, indeed, the age of diversity is upon us.

We, as a denomination, are increasingly a community of communities and should treat that as strength. Despite their full participation in the Conference’s deliberations, more often than not, the comments and observations of the delegates from overseas were punctuated by questions about parliamentary procedures and an unfamiliar legislative process. I wonder if there was any count on how many times the delegates had mentioned that they were confused, lost and totally out of tune with the procedure, the process and the progression of the debate and voting policy of the General Conference.

While the proponents of Rule 44 tried to pitch their tents during the storm of parliamentary procedures and when the extensive debate over the Council of Bishops recommendation to table the petitions on human sexuality for another two years was dragged on, more and more delegates expressed their confusion and dismay over the process deeply rooted and firmly grounded in Robert’s Rules of Order, a North American parliamentary process. The cavernous cultural gap and the resonant parliamentary procedure that disjointed the overseas delegates with the US delegates became more evident while hot-button issues were discussed. While the metaphor of doing business under the palaver tree, an African consensus-building process, was floated around, this remained only as a beautiful metaphor.

Tell us in plain words
While I followed the skilled leadership style of the presiders from the podium and the nuanced arguments of the delegates from the floor, for some strange reason, one sentence from a classic literature kept ringing in my ears. It was from a character in James Joyce’s Ulysses in which Molly asks Bloom about Metempsychosis, a word from a book she had been reading. The response Bloom gave Molly was, “It’s Greek: from the Greek... That means the transmigration of souls.”

“O rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.” So goes Molly’s plea to her lover to explain Metempsychosis.

In my opinion, GC2016 was a weirdly pressurized and verbally jeopardized space due to high-stake petitions that were on the table, such as, Rule 44 and human sexuality. Most importantly, they were crisscrossed with potential divisions and schisms within the denomination. Dropping one’s guard during those tense moments would find oneself holding forth like a lost and somnolent passenger in an international airport terminal in a foreign land.

The vital question that most of us ask after a major event is, “What would history say of this event?” That goes for GC2016 as well. There are narratives we tell our families, the accounts we share with our friends, and most importantly, the versions we describe to our parishioners and ourselves in order to keep on living, serving and ministering. Through the act of narration, we empower others to see what we see. Galileo became famous not just because he saw how the stars move but because he insisted fellow humans see for themselves how the biosphere works. We need to share what we see and shape our society accordingly for the best.

The narratives GC2016 presents is this: Number matters. Persuasion reigns supreme. Status quo prevails. Table difficult issues. If you can’t win, try to cover the opponent with a slow-creeping fog, and mute the voices to ashes with whatever you have in your verbal arsenal.

Rage correlation only with issue boxes
General Conference 2016, I submit, suffered from a rage deficit. It refused to take seriously the persecuted sisters and brothers in Christ in other parts of the world, including the Palestinian Christians. Not just brotherhood but siblinghood matters in mission.

It failed to unleash its righteous anger and holy discontent about the refugees and immigrant crises around the world and by relegating the immigration rally as a freak show. A collective shriek would certainly have gained the attention of those in power around the world.

GC is not all about petitions and politics, but time and memory and love that stand at the heart of GC’s work. A positive, transformative vision statement is not meant just to inspire; it should create the cognitive space for assumptions to be challenged and new ideas to surface. It would help Christ’s holy church if everyone were to get out of their “issue” boxes.

We in the church need to be aware that we are standing on the shoulders of all those who came before us, ever vigilant to examine our role and close the gap between the problems we know and the solutions we propose. So long as the siren call of denial is met with the drone of policy making and petition submitting, the worldwide body of Christ is both being misled and misread.

By the time the study committee on human sexuality prepares its final report in two years, the worldwide church will have gathered in different parts of the world to revisit the 500th anniversary of Protestant Reformation, and studied its impact on human history. The findings and recommendations of the Study Commission will certainly have an impact on our denomination. I sincerely hope and pray that it will enable our beloved denomination to continue to produce spiritual leaders of texture and thoughtful forerunners of caring quality to steer the church through stormy seas. Will our church be comprised of a people divided by our politics, our religious views, and our backgrounds, or will we be a people of diversity and common commitment, with some common boundaries? I hope and believe we can be the latter.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

General Conference roundup: Global health

This is the third of several posts presenting a roundup of General Conference actions related to the foci of this blog. While the second post in this series looked at mission generally, this third post looks at the General Conference actions related specifically to global health in The United Methodist Church, a major focus for the work of the denomination.

General Conference reaffirmed its commitment to the Four Areas of Health, which include improving health globally.

GC also officially added global health to the work of Global Ministries.

The conference saw a great celebration of the completion of Imagine No Malaria, the denomination's global health-related campaign of the last eight years. The celebration included a song written especially for the occasion. These photos capture some of the celebratory dance that went with the performance of the song.

At the same time, it launched a new global health initiative: Abundant Health: Our Promise to Children, which is further described in this Global Ministries press release.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Robert Harman: Historical Context for Affiliated Autonomous Methodist Churches and their Standing in a Global United Methodist Church

Today's post is by Robert J. Harman. Rev. Harman is a mission executive retired from the General Board of Global Ministries.

In a previous post, Dr. Philip Wingeier raised significant issues underlying the claim of the UMC to its global status and some programmatic implications for affiliated autonomous partner churches, especially those in Latin America.  A rehearsal of the historical context of their origins underscores the intentionality of their independence and illumines what was lost and gained in the process for these partner churches and a "global" UMC.

At the 1968 General Conference that celebrated the union of the EUB Church and the Methodist Church, a process unfolded that eventuated in all of the churches (conferences) remaining in connection with the former Methodist Church in Latin America and Asia (The Philippines being the only exception) gaining their autonomy.  Former EUB Church relationships with mission bodies abroad (except Germany and Sierra Leone) were mostly independent united churches and planned to remain autonomous after the formation of the new United Methodist Church. So, the UMC was left with a much diminished global reach with no denominational presence in Latin America, minimal memberships in populous Asia and small conferences in Europe.

Dr. Wingeier (and others) have suggested that the Methodist churches in Latin America were "encouraged" or influenced by the denomination to choose structural independence from the emerging UMC, a position I fail to find documented in the proceedings I have researched.  Both Mexico and Brazil Methodist Churches achieved their autonomy by forcing the creation of a special commission of their parent bodies (Methodist Churches North and South) to successfully advocate devolution at their respective General Conferences in 1930.  At a consultation held in Green Lake Wisconsin in 1966, leaders from all churches in the world wide Methodist connection plus representatives of the EUB Mission board offered their thoughts about the future of the denominational structure and mission.  The revolutionary changes occurring in the post colonial period impacting governments and social institutions in affected countries were strongly impacting the churches.  Most presentations offered by church representatives themselves vigorously concluded that historical linkages suggesting any continuation of colonial patterns of dependency had to be jettisoned.  The Commission on the Status on Methodism Overseas (COSMOS), the consultation host, only then agreed to engage in a follow up process that permitted regional conversations resulting in proposals for autonomy to be submitted to the 1968 General Conference. 

To each of the follow up regional consultations, COSMOS offered three options: continuation in Central Conferences, Autonomy as independent Methodist churches with affiliated relationships to the UMC, and Autonomy within newly created regional bodies that would also convene periodically as a world wide connectional body.  In my reading of the documentation from the Latin American churches, it was the third option that interested them.  The Asian churches favored Autonomy and some preferred exploring union with other Protestant churches to strengthen their witness nationally.  Within Asia only the Philippine conferences chose continuation in a Central Conference.  African leaders pleading greater self determination chose continuation in Central Conference structures.  European conferences also chose continuation in Central Conferences.

Latin American Methodist church leaders today rightly maintain that they did not leave the connection, but that the connection left them.  They chose the one option that would have created new and potentially vibrant linkages regionally and globally for a connectional Methodism, but that vision soon faded.  While the 1972 General Conference approved funding for a global consultation in Atlantic City in 1973 to pursue further discussion of this option and other scenarios for a new globally representative structure for UM originated world church bodies, participants were either tired or wary of the outcome from more energy and funding invested in this conversation.  They agreed only to strengthening their commitment to the World Methodist Council where an even larger representation of Methodists with various histories of origin meet periodically.

This explains how the UMC today inherited its reduced global nature and - to some extent - how the newly independent Methodist bodies in Latin America and Asia unfortunately became disconnected satellite entities.  It may also suggest why some affiliated autonomous church partners like those in Latin America often feel bereft of the fraternity a global fellowship like meetings of the UM General Conference should offer.  Membership has its privileges so a General Conference will always grant favors to its Central Conference members that its autonomous partners, invited as guests (voice without vote), don't experience.  But those partners share strong values and offer important venues for significant mission involvement that general agencies, conferences and church mission teams support through project funding and networking.  Many challenges remain to be addressed through greater cooperation and that can happen in Latin America because independent self-determining Methodist churches have created an effective regional structure (CIEMAL) for mutual support and advocacy within and beyond Latin America.  Like the larger UMC itself, individual Latin American and other autonomous Methodist churches also benefit from membership, representation and direct participation in the World Council of Churches. 

Today one cannot be too sanguine about the UMC's potential for reconsidering its compromised standing as a global church, but the best option remains a variation of that the Latin American churches hoped the winds of change in the 1960's would have delivered, I.e. locally/nationally autonomous (and accountable) church bodies where the focus and strength of a relevant cultural witness take precedence, but also united in regional organizations connected to a global structure offering a periodic reflection, outlook and vision for what churches of the Methodist tradition are called to realize in the contemporary world setting.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

General Conference roundup: Mission initiatives

This is the second of several posts presenting a roundup of General Conference actions related to the foci of this blog. This second post looks at the General Conference actions related to mission in The United Methodist Church.

General Conference celebrated the commissioning of 29 new missionaries and the consecration of 26 deaconesses and home missioners.

General Conference approved a name change for One Great Hour of Sharing to UMCOR Sunday to better reflect the purpose of the special offering.

General Conference recognized mission centers at Gulfside Assembly and the Lambuth Family Pearl River Church as Heritage Landmarks of the UMC.

General Conference approved a resolution calling for more ministries with migrants, along with several other mission-related resolutions.

While the General Conference rejected divestment from companies doing business in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, it did adopt a petition on behalf of Wadi Foquin, a Palestinian village threatened by encroaching settlements. Global Ministries supports mission work in Wadi Foquin.

Global health is a significant area of mission work for the church, but enough happened at General Conference related to global health that it deserves its own post. The next roundup, which will be posted later this week, will look at actions related to global health.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

William Payne: Historical perspectives on the United Methodist bishopric

What is a United Methodist bishop? The idea continues to evolve in United Methodism. In early American Methodism, the use of the term “bishop” caused great distress. Thomas Coke told the Christmas Conference that he and Asbury were de facto bishops because they functioned like bishops in their ministry.

Wesley strongly argued against this innovation. He called them general superintendents. Even though Wesley argued that he was a “Scriptural Episcopus,” he never called himself a bishop. In fact, he rejected the term for himself and Methodism. Wesley writes, “How dare you suffer yourself to called bishop? I shudder, I start at the very thought! Men may call me a knave or a fool, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content; but they shall never by my consent call me Bishop! For my sake, for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake put a full end to this!”

How did we get bishops? Simply stated, Coke wanted to become a bishop. Under the influence of Coke, the American conference voted to form itself into an "episcopal" church.[1] In common parlance, the term "episcopal" implies "bishop." According to the Minutes, “Therefore, at this conference we formed ourselves into an Independent Church: and following the counsel of Mr. John Wesley, who recommended the Episcopal mode of government, we thought it best to become an Episcopal church, making the episcopal office elective, and the elected superintendent or bishop, amenable to the body of ministers and preachers.”

However, the above quote came as a result of a later redaction because the 1785 Discipline does not use the term bishop. In the founding documents that Wesley sent to America, he purposely substituted "superintendent" for the office of bishop and elder for the office of priest. The Christmas Conference followed Wesley's guidance at this point. Wesley’s letter calls Coke and Asbury joint superintendents over our brethren in North America. Coke arrogated the title bishop and Asbury consented to its use.

While revising the 1787 Discipline, Coke and Asbury changed the word “superintendent” to bishop in Section IV “On the Constituting of Bishops and their Duty.” According to Jesse Lee’s history, Asbury and Coke did not have approval to change the Discipline or to call themselves bishops. In fact, in terms of the Anglican and Roman Catholic use of the world, they were not bishops. Obviously, United Methodism does not claim “apostolic succession” in the same way as Anglicanism or Catholicism since it takes a bishop to make a bishop. Methodism is apostolic in terms of its doctrines and practices.

The issue of the identity and power of the episcopacy was most strongly argued in the South and southern frontier. The conversation paralleled a national debate that argued about the role of government and the power of rulers. It came to a head in the ill-fated Council in 1791, was a primary reason for James O’Kelly’s defection in 1792, contributed to the huge numerical decline in southern Methodism in the 1790’s, and became a cutting question that caused schisms and determined many future disputes.

Was the general superintendent a constitutional monarch or a president who ruled with the consent of the people? Asbury fought for a strong episcopacy. He believed that he walked in the stead of Wesley and needed episcopal authority to carry out the mission of the church. Asbury had a national vision for the MEC. The young church needed a strong leader to guide it and deploy its resources in an effective way so that it could evangelize the nation. In an attempt to do that, he personified the highest ideals of a Methodist circuit rider.

Those who argued against Asbury reflected an emphasis on personal choice and a localized vision for the church in which the authority was vested in the conference with lay representatives. They believed that the conference walked in the stead of Wesley. Issues related to the stationing of the preachers, the ownership of chapels, shared decision-making power in a general conference, and elected presiding elders were heralded by these people. After fighting a revolutionary war with a monarch who abused his powers, many American Methodists were cautious about yielding to an ecclesial autocratic. Their attitudes represented the southern mindset.

The issue continued to be debated by church reformers. With the exception of the African American churches, break away Methodist churches all rejected the term bishop. In fact, even in United Methodism, a bishop is an elder consecrated to a special ministry. Elder is the primary category. Bishops function as general superintendents. They are not ordained bishops. When they retire or cease to function in that capacity, they cease to be general overseers. As such, retired bishops should revert back to an annual conference and cease to have the power and authority of a bishop. In fact, this is the way that it is in Africa and in many of the autonomous conferences in Latin America.

Where should we go from here? The UMC needs to authorize a commission to study the episcopacy in United Methodism. What is it and what should it do? Recommendations should be forwarded to the General Conference.

[1] Coke thought that American Methodism would become a national Episcopal church and he would be its head bishop. When that did not work out, he tried to cut a deal with Bishop White of the newly formed Protestant Episcopal Church to unite the MEC to it so he could become a "real" bishop.