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.


  1. David,
    Your thoughtful piece on unity within the Africa Central Conferences deserves a comment with a historical perspective. The first effort at a denominational strategy for focusing United Methodist support on the Africa wide mission effort was the Africa Church Growth and Development Program. It was approved by the 1980 General Conference as a Special Program with a quadrennial goal of $7million in Advance funding. It was born out of the recognition that the unparalleled church membership growth experienced by all African conferences could not be sustained without additional resources. Its pattern of administration aimed at addressing the overt influence that North American financing usually exercises in a mission/donor recipient dynamic, the point you make so eloquently. It placed all decision making authority in a committee consisting of a majority of representatives from African UM conferences. It also challenged African UM's to be full participants in the promotion and fund raising efforts by setting quadrennial financial goals for each conference. Dr. Nathan Goto, a Zimbabwe UM layman and retired school administrator, was chosen by his peers to be the full time Executive Secretary. He traveled extensively across the African continent visiting conferences to interpret ACG&D policies and invite participation. His perspective was critical in helping the executive committee prioritize project proposals for funding. When it came time to funding capital intensive church construction projects, insufficient funds often required conferences to yield their own funding priorities to support those of a sister annual conference demonstrating greater need or potential. The same was true for deciding among many worthy scholarship applicants and community outreach and evangelism proposals as well. Unity is costly when viewed from an individual member perspective, but it is rewarding when the quality of the experience can be celebrated as fulfilling the purpose of the whole body. Unity among the UM's in Africa must struggle against the history of fiscal dependency abroad, but also strong differences in cultural, tribal, colonial histories and contemporary political realities that surface inconveniently in decision making processes like the current debate over new Episcopal Areas, Central Conference boundaries and the commitment to a theological faculty priority at the continent wide Africa University. They would ultimately resurface in the ACG&D program, but it was the ascendency of the popular Africa University project, first conceived around the ACG&D table, that led to its demise. It functioned for five quadrennia devoted to creating a sustainable alternative to the competitive conference by conference approach to resource sharing among UM's in Africa. AFCG&D might well be one design to re-consider for building a future life together among UM's in Africa.
    Robert J. Harman
    Retired Mission Executive

    1. Robert - Thank you for this helpful background information about ACG&D. I wasn't familiar with their work, but it sounds like a useful model to consider.