Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Networks and bridge-builders in the making of unity

This is the eighth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been talking about something I’ve called the aggregate model of unity: a model of unity that depends not upon some characteristic shared by all as the basis of unity, but rather sees unity as being built up through a bunch of overlapping social circles. Today, I want to talk about the role of networks and bridge-builders in this model of unity.

The diagram of this model I’ve presented before is below:

Here, the overlapping smaller circles are social groups (or other relevant, relational groups), and the heavy black circle is the organizational boundary of the overall group.

There’s another diagram which could be drawn, though. It would look something like this:

This diagram looks not like a bunch of circles but rather a network, a series of connected points. Each point is a different social group or relevant, relational group that makes up part of the overall group. Hence, the aggregate model of unity is also a networked model of unity. Not every point in the network is connected to every other point, but to be part of the network, each point must be connected to some other point, and preferably to several other points.

What are these connections? They’re the same thing as the overlaps in the circle diagram: people who are part of more than one group. These individuals, whom we might call go-betweens, cross-cultural agents, or simply bridge-builders, are what hold the various points of the network together. They are what provide the unity in this model.

To be a true bridge-builder, though, a person must do more than just have membership in two different groups. They must work to connect these groups to each other in some way, whether that be by elaborating shared values, projects, language, goals, or just some sense of affinity. Establishing such connections requires a variety of skills and characteristics on the part of the bridge-builder: trust from both groups, an aptitude for understanding each group, the ability to translate between groups, and a knack for building relationships.

Bridge-builders then are crucial to having unity within larger societal groups, be they The United Methodist Church, the United States of America, or some other group.

Unfortunately, they also seem to be in short supply nowadays. We hear more and more about the polarization of the church and American political society. In the church, liberal and evangelical groups have distinct and usually non-overlapping memberships. In American politics, the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican no longer overlap, as they used to do.

Without any overlap, without any bridge-builders, there is no sense of unity. We become a polarized people. We are left to fight about the money and power involved in the formal structures that hold us together, be that denominational structures or governmental structures, without any sense that this money and power could be used in ways which can benefit all.

If we want to be able to hold together and work together as a larger group, we desperately need people who can be bridge-builders, who can act as go-betweens between different groups. We need them in the church, and we need them in the broader society. Let us pray that there will be some who will answer this call.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

How united is African United Methodism?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

UMNS recently published a story indicating that the United Methodist African College of Bishops has recommended increasing the number of African central conferences from three to seven. This recommendation builds on previous recommendations and comes at a time when United Methodists are also increasing the number of bishops on the continent.

In all likelihood, this recommendation is a solid one that will improve the functioning of central conferences. As this blog has indicated before, the Africa Central Conference in particular is not a particularly coherent or functional unit currently. The goal for increasing the number of central conferences is greater contextualization, which is a worthy goal.

The news story, however, resonated with a question that has been brewing in my mind recently: How united is African United Methodism?

Currently, in addition to the African College of Bishops, which brings together all United Methodist bishops across the continent, African United Methodists mainly come together around issues of higher education, whether that's for meetings of the African Association of United Methodist Theological Institutes (AAUMTI) and African Association of Methodist Institutes of Higher Education (AAMIHE), or through networks centering around Africa University. The UMC Africa Initiative has also tried to link Africans across the continent. Central Conferences bring together Africans from portions, but not the entirety, of the continent.

All of the meetings mentioned above, however, are largely underwritten by American United Methodist dollars. Costs for the Africa College of Bishops come from the Episcopal Fund. AAUMTI and AAMIHE are sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The UMC Africa Initiative is funded by American donors. Africa University is also largely supported by American donors.

This financial situation has its pros and cons, but it is worth pointing out because the continued flow of US dollars to support pan-African initiatives is not guaranteed in the future, especially at current levels. The recommendations the Commission on a Way Forward makes and the subsequent actions of called General Conference in 2019 could significantly alter these economic flows.

If there is less American money available for pan-African initiatives post-2019, the question then will become what value such initiatives have in the eyes of Africans themselves. Will Africans still be willing to pay for some or all of these initiatives, especially in the light of limited resources, overwhelming needs, and the high cost of travel among African countries? Or will Sierra Leonean, Congolese, Zimbabwean, Angolan, and other African United Methodist groups go their own ways and dispense with the fiction of pan-African United Methodism?

If individual groups do decide to go their own ways, that will not necessarily be a bad thing. First, it's their decision, and they have the right to make that decision. Second, Africa is not a country. It's a lot of different countries with numerous different contexts between and within those countries. A more local focus could pay dividends with regards to developing successful ministries. Formerly British-affiliated but now separate and autonomous Methodist Churches in Africa do not seek to collaborate in the same ways the UMC does, and they may actually be growing faster.

If different groups go their own way and dispense with the notion of pan-African United Methodism, it will demonstrate one thing, though. It will demonstrate just how colonial The United Methodist Church is. A colonial system is dependent on the imperial center to connect the various parts of the periphery. The only reason there were connections between India and Guyana or Fiji, for instance, is because they were both part of the British Empire. If it turns out that the US was keeping pan-African United Methodism together, we will better understand the US's role as imperial center in our own peculiar religious empire.

And African United Methodists may yet affirm the value they see in connecting with one another. There are some real and significant bonds of fellowship and support between African United Methodists across the continent. I do not mean to disparage these. Ultimately, though, the question will be for Africans to decide for themselves the value they see in such connections.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Relationships and unity

This is the seventh in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

Last week, in my on-going exploration of unity in The United Methodist Church, I introduced a model of unity based not on some single shared characteristic that applied to all in a group, but rather a bunch of overlapping characteristics. I called this model unity through relationship and networks, though it might also be called the aggregate model of unity.

This week, I want to say a little bit more about the role of relationships is promoting and sustaining unity. While this role holds true for unity in general, it will set up what I want to talk about next week, which is the role of networks in the aggregate model of unity, a topic which depends on recognizing the relational nature of all unity.

The picture I showed last week for how the aggregate model of unity works looked like this:

As I talked about them last week, the smaller circles represented shared characteristics. Yet it is perhaps more appropriate to think of them as social circles or social groups. Such groups may be (and often are) defined by shared characteristics. Yet merely having a characteristic in common with someone else is not always enough to foster some sense of togetherness or unity. For instance, “innie” and “outie” bellybuttons can be shared characteristics, but do not usually form the basis for social unity (though I realize that somewhere out there, probably on the Internet, there may be an “Innie Bellybutton Club” that is based around just this thing). While this is a somewhat flippant example, the point remains that unity is not merely a function of having some shared characteristic.

That’s because unity is a relational quality. United describes the nature of people’s relationships with each other, and it is ultimately relationships that form the basis of unity, not shared characteristics. People are thrown together by sharing some characteristic (whether it’s rooting for the same sports team, attending the same church or school, working at the same job, living in the same neighborhood, or something else), and that shared aspect of their lives may be enough for them to develop some sort of relationship (classmate, coworker, neighbor, etc.) Nevertheless, one can have a relationship with someone without it being particularly characterized by unity. How many people work at or live in places where they feel little attachment to those around them or, worse, find themselves at odds with those around them?

Hence, shared characteristics can serve as the basis of unity only in so far as they can create substantive similarities that lead people to really relate with one another in a positive way. These relationships then add up to community. Thus, shared characteristics can create communities, but they are (as all communities are) imagined or constructed, not given by the mere fact of sameness. It’s the relationships that ultimately make the community, not the common characteristics.

Fortunately, finding communities or social groups united through relationships by some characteristic they consider salient isn’t hard to do. Such groups are all over in the church and the world. In The United Methodist Church, there are congregations, conferences, and caucuses. In the world, there are clubs and organizations, friend groups, fan clubs, neighborhoods, etc. Not all may give each of these groups the same degree of salience, but usually there are some groups people feel an affinity toward. Yet all of these groups, to the extent that they are salient, are so because those who are members of them have taken a shared characteristic and turned it into the basis for real, positive relationships, which are the context for unity.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Plan Now: Global Migration Sunday

Migration is one of the most significant social forces shaping the world, and The United Methodist Church seeks to be in ministry with migrants around the world. To highlight these efforts, the UMC is calling on its congregations and members around the world to celebration December 3, 2017, as Global Migration Sunday. United Methodists are asked to be in prayer for migrants and to contribute to a special offering which will be used for ministries with migrants.

The UMC has set up a special website with resources to help United Methodists celebrate this Sunday: https://umcmigration.org/

In addition, the following UMNS news articles give a history of plans for the special Sunday:
An initial request by the bishops
Affirmation of the idea by the Connectional Table
Current plans for Global Migration Sunday

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Unity without sameness

This is the sixth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

In my past several blog posts, I’ve been examining various possible sources of unity for The United Methodist Church. One assumption behind these posts so far has been that it may be possible to find something(s) that ties together all United Methodists and that unity in the denomination depends upon finding such thing(s). I’ve certainly suggested that there may be more than one thing which unites everybody (e.g., polity, worship, and mission), but the quest so far has been for something that everybody can agree upon.

That makes sense. United almost always has the connotation of sameness is some way. My next suggestion for source of denominational unity, however, calls that idea of united by sameness into question. It’s a major departure, so I’m going to spend two or three posts exploring it. It’s also an idea I think can have much wider application than The United Methodist Church, so there will be a lot fewer Methodist-specific references.

The idea of unity I would like to explore can be thought of not as unity through sameness, but unity through relationships and networks. This model of unity actually presupposes that there is nothing that’s going to apply to everyone, but instead looks for overlapping things that, when added together, include everyone.

To make myself clearer, let’s look at a couple of diagrams. The first diagram is a diagram of the unity through sameness model. It’s pretty simple:

It’s just a circle. The outline of those who are united and the outline of those who share a certain characteristic coincide. The diagram for the unity through relationship or network is a bit more complicated, though. It looks something like this:

Here the heavy black line is the group of people who are united in a certain organization. The thinner black lines are groups of people who share certain characteristics. None of these circles coincide with the heavy black circle. None cover the entirety of that circle. All of the thin circles overlap with some other circle(s), but there are pairs of circles which don’t overlap with each other. Nevertheless, by adding all of the thin circles together, all of the area inside the heavy circle is covered. Note, though, that the thin circles include not just area in the heavy black circle, but area outside of it as well.

I think this is a truer-to-life model of how unity works. There is some functional way in which the heavy black circle is drawn (polity, perhaps), but most of the uniting factors that hold us together are like the thin circles – they’re things we have in common with a subset of the group as a whole as well as some others outside of the group.

There’s nothing that we have in common with the group as a whole (except the polity which defines the heavy black circle). Only by adding up a series of uniting factors are we able to include the group as a whole.

Yet the unity we as the group experiences comes not from the boundaries of the heavy black circle, but from the series of relationships that connect the thin circles. We are united by a network of relationships built upon a series of shared characteristics.

Thus, this model depends crucially upon relationships and networks, and it’s to that aspect of the model I will turn next week.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Understading the status of theology at Africa University

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The African College of United Methodist Bishops, meeting at Africa University Sept. 3-9, has asked Africa University to reconsider a 2016 restructure that merged the Faculty of Theology with Faculties in education, humanities, and the social sciences to create a new College of Humanities. The faculties of theology and education were two of the three founding faculties, or schools, within the university, along with agriculture.

This request by the bishops continues a controversy about this restructuring plan and what it says about the status and role of theology at Africa University (AU), The United Methodist Church's premier church-affiliated school in Africa. The reorganization has been criticized since it was announced. Graduates of the program, faculty, and students have expressed concern that the reorganization de-emphasizes theology, which they see as a critically important subject area for a church-related institution. The reorganization has coincided with a drop in theology enrollment and a significant decline in the number of theology faculty at AU.

Africa University was created by action of General Conference in 1992. Thus, it recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a celebration that drew United Methodists from around the world. The university was conceived to help education United Methodists (and others) throughout the continent, and United Methodists have indeed been a key part of the university's student and faculty bodies.

Moreover, United Methodists have been critical financial supporters throughout the university's history. AU is supported by one of seven church-wide service funds underwritten by apportionment dollars. Additional church support continues today with the Campaign for Africa University, a four-year initiative launched in 2016 to raise $50 million for the institution's endowment. Yet the church is not the university's only financial source, and non-church support has been on the rise.

With that context in mind, there are at least three different ways of reading this reorganization and the resulting conflict at Africa University.

First, there is the view of the bishops and the critics of the reorganization, who see it as a church-birthed and church-sponsored institution backing down on a key commitment to the church - to provide theological education. Such a perspective could even detect in this reorganization the beginning of the secularization of AU, a path many Methodist-founded colleges in the United States went down historically.

Second, there is the view of the AU administration, which has presented the reorganization as a financial and logistical necessity. AU is the size of a small liberal arts college in the US. Prior to the reorganization, it had seven academic deans, one for each college, which is a top-heavy structure for that size of school. Enrollment in the theology faculty had declined; hence, according to the administration, the move was economically justified.

There is, however, a third way of reading these events not put forward by either side, which is to see it as a reflection of the changing dynamics of United Methodist higher education in Africa. While there are important distinctions between baccalaureate and master's level degrees provided, the number of United Methodist schools other than AU offering theological education in Africa has grown substantially since AU was founded. General Conference has recognized this development and approved money since 2008 to support the growth of such schools. The question, though, is whether these schools' success comes at the expense of AU, or whether a growing number of United Methodists on the continent and growing demand for theological education can increase the pool of resources and students such that all can prosper. Accordingly, the fates of AU and the other schools raise important questions about contextualization, centralization, and the nature of collaboration.

Whichever of these three interpretations one takes, this story line will be one to continue to watch, since it is directly tied to how both Africans and Americans see United Methodism in Africa.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mission as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the fifth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

One of John Wesley’s famous lines is “I look on all the world as my parish.” A lot of Methodists like this phrase, but does it contain a potential source of United Methodist unity? I’d like to argue that it does. I think a attitude of mission has the potential to conceptually unite a lot of currently disparate United Methodist energies. Such an approach is not without its dangers and depends importantly on a robust commitment to holism, but has, I think, potential.

Having a focus on mission denotes a certain understanding of the church and its relationship to the world that I think is characteristic of Methodism (and many other denominations as well). It denotes an understanding that the purpose of the church is not just to care for its own members but also to reach out beyond itself to engage with the world, to be in mission to the world.

Currently in American Christendom, there are two understandings of how the church reaches out to be in mission to the world. One is a conversionary understanding in which the church’s job is to try to convert individuals out of the world and into the church. The other is a social justice understanding in which the church’s job is to try to combat the unjust structures of the world.

All too often, there is a bifurcation of the two, and they are seen as mutually exclusive and competing understandings of how to minister to the world. Such a view is often present within United Methodism itself and reflects yet another dimension of the conflict between conservative and religious voices in the denomination.

Yet such a breach between these two forms of ministry to the world has not always existed. Indeed, it’s really only a product of the last 100-125 years. Before that, Methodism had a long history of trying to reform both individuals and society. John Wesley was certainly no slouch in preaching individual conversion, but also tackled systematic injustices like poverty and the slave trade. He wasn’t Marx in his analysis, but he did have an awareness of and concern for systemic problems with human society. Such a combination of a drive for individual and societal reform continued through Methodist history until the fundamentalist/modernist debates of the turn of the 20th century began to drive these two options apart.

Nevertheless, I think it is possible to reclaim such a unity in the concept of mission to the world which is our parish, and thus to reclaim some unity in our denomination. To do so, however, depends upon a robust understanding of the holism of the church’s mission.

What is holism? It’s thinking about things as wholes, not as a collection of divisible parts. If we seek to undertake holistic ministry to the world our parish, we will seek to present a whole gospel to whole people in the whole creation.

This means that seeking religious and moral transformation is important. To say it’s not and that economic and political injustice is all that matters is to practice a materialist reduction that goes against the spirit of religion, which emphasizes that matters of the spirit matter.

Yet we can’t stop at seeking individual religious and moral transformation, for that would also ignore the wholeness of people, who are also economic, political, sexual, and physical beings with associated needs and concerns in these areas. Our ministry to the world must therefore address these areas as well.

Furthermore, because whole people are part of a whole world, our efforts in these areas must not be solely individual but also systemic in nature. Moreover, because the whole world is not just human, but natural as well, our ministry to the world must also include ministry to the created, natural world, the essential context of all human life.

My guess is that right now there are a lot of people doing street evangelism who wouldn’t want to see their work as flowing from the same impetus as people protesting the School of Americas, and vice versa. Yet in order to stay together as a denomination, we must find ways in which we can think of these two aspects of the church’s mission in the world as part of the same understanding that the world is our parish. Since mission in and to the world is one of the central reasons for the church’s existence, we need something to unite the denomination in its mission, just as singing can unite us in our worship. I hope that agreeing that the world (in a wholistic sense) is our parish can be an important part of that uniting bond.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Recommended Viewing: Endow F-TECC Conversations

About a year ago, UMC Giving put out a series of video interviews with United Methodists from the central conferences about the value they have experienced in theological education. The eleven videos are about a minute long each. While the videos are part of a fundraising campaign for an endowment for the Fund for Theological Education in the Central Conferences, they are also worth viewing as glimpses into what United Methodism, pastoral training, and theological education look like around the world.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Worship as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the fourth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

This week’s possibility for source of unity of United Methodism is worship, especially singing in worship. Whereas I’ve pointed out problems with the three previous sources of unity I’ve examined (theology, history, and polity), I would like to suggest that worship is a potentially promising source of United Methodist unity (though not without its own problems as well).

Singing in worship is also more distinctively United Methodist than the other three areas I’ve looked at. Of course, I’m not saying that only United Methodists sing. Obviously, other denominations have fine traditions of singing, especially the Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ/Christian Churches, with their well-developed tradition of unaccompanied part singing. Nevertheless, while not uniquely Methodist, I would like to suggest that singing is distinctively Methodist.

Methodists have long been known as “a singing people”, and I believe that designation remains apt today. Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, was also one of the most prolific hymn writers ever. His brother John also composed and translated hymns. In America, hymn-singing was an important part of the tradition of camp meetings, religious worship and revival services common in the nineteenth century. The current United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) is the most successful hymnal ever published. While certainly not all Methodists can sing or like singing, the denomination was and is a tuneful one as a whole.

Of course, worship is not an entirely uncomplicated source of unity. Even if everyone agrees that Methodists should be singing together, there remains the question of what to sing, and here there have been and are some significant disagreements.

There are, of course, the famous worship wars of the past couple of decades between those who like the old, traditional hymns and those who prefer contemporary worship songs. There’s the question of the adequate inclusion of black gospel and spiritual songs in denominational hymnals, not to mention the issue of Spanish-language songs and songs from other ethnic groups and other countries around the world.

It’s also often the case, as the supervisory committee for the UMH found, that the list of best-loved hymns and the list of most-hated hymns have some overlap. People take issue with hymns for a variety of theological, musical, and personal-preference reasons. In addition, there’s the question of revisions to the words of hymns. Thus, while United Methodism may be united in agreement over the importance of singing our faith, there is disagreement over what exactly to sing.

The question then becomes whether we are able to overcome some of that disagreement on how to worship and what to sing and still sing together for the sake of having our voices in harmony. Can we still lift every voice and sing together, even when the owners of some of those voices dislike what’s being sung? Are we willing to sing a few songs we don’t like (or don’t know) along with some that we love, so that everyone can sing together and everyone can find something they like? Or will every song that’s not on our own personal list sound discordant to us? These are important questions for us to consider as a denomination.

I would like to believe that despite the potential for disagreement over particular songs, singing does still have to potential to unite us as a denomination. Not only is singing a shared value, but the act of singing embodies that unity toward which we should strive as a denomination.

Furthermore, singing together is a fundamental component of worship, which is one of the primary functions of the church. Thus, if we can sing together, we’ve gone a long way towards being able to worship together in unity and thus toward being the church. While none of us individually may have a thousand tongues, collectively we as a denomination have several million tongues to sing our great Redeemer’s praise. Let us strive to use them in chorus.