Thursday, December 28, 2017

Recommended reading: Mission Year in Review

As 2017 draws to a close, this is in the season for year-in-reviews. UM & Global will have our own retrospective of 2017 and look forward to 2018 next week. In the meantime, I recommend you check out Rev. Scott Parrish's "Mission Year in Review." Parrish makes a passionate plea for churches to try new things and engage with their surrounding culture. This plea makes it a very forward-looking year-in-review.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Recommended Reading: Kyle Tau on Unity, Ecumenism, and Ecclesiology

Rev. Dr. Kyle Tau,  Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Development for the Council of Bishops of The UMC, has recently published an article in Methodist Review that connects well to many of the reflections on ecclesiology and unity UM & Global has been publishing this year.

The abstract for the article reads: "This essay explores the current conditions for church unity derived from the political and organizational culture of modernity and questions whether a new definition and form of unity is needed as modernity itself undergoes a major transformation.  It asks whether the centralizing legal and bureaucratic structures that now animate conversations around church unity ought to be retought in light of postmodern trends.  It proposes a more multi-textured form of unity as koinonia or communion made up of an overlapping network of relationships characterized by the mutual recognition of members, ministries, and sacraments.  Drawing upon the metaphor of a web or ecosystem this essay affirms the ecumenical shift to pursuing bilateral full communion agreements over large multilateral attempts at merger, and proposes that intra-Methodist unity be conceptualized as a communion of distinct connectional structures."

Articles from Methodist Review are available for free, with registration required.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Conferencing, relationships, and denominational unity

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.

Here is an interesting comparison for United Methodists: The Church of the Nazarene had their quadrennial General Assembly this past summer. Opening worship for the event, which brought together Nazarenes from around the world, emphasized “unity in diversity,” a theme participants enthusiastically affirmed, talking about how much they valued relationships across cultural and national differences in the church. Organizers and participants referred to General Assembly as a “global family reunion.” At GA2017, one of the big debates was whether to have future General Assemblies every four years or every five years. Delegates voted to keep future General Assemblies every four years because they so enjoyed meeting together.

Such a description is nigh-unthinkable for a General Conference of The United Methodist Church. If General Conference were to promote a theme of “unity in diversity,” it would be cynical dismissed by many participants as a top-down attempt to paper over divisions and preserve the institution. Participants often speak of the global nature of the church as a challenge rather than a blessing. Nobody thinks of General Conference as a family reunion. And no majority would vote to keep the meeting every four years for the fun of it. GC might be kept every four years, but the reason would be to address all of the important business facing it.

The Church of the Nazarene’s General Assembly and The United Methodist Church’s General Conference are both expressions of the Wesleyan practice of conferencing. But they seemingly could not be more different. How can we account for this difference, and what can it tell us about The United Methodist Church can effectively foster the sorts of familial Christian relationships necessary to undergird denominational unity?

In his book, The Methodist Conference in America: A History, Russ Richey argues that the practice of conferencing in American Methodism, at all levels from charge conferences to General Conferences, originally served three functions: polity, fraternity, and revival. Polity refers to official decision-making, fraternity refers to relationship-building, and revival refers to spirituality-building. One of Richey’s main arguments in the book is that, over time, the polity function has edged out the other two, especially at less local levels of the church. There’s certainly much to bemoan about the loss of the revival function, but for now my focus is on the loss of the fraternity function.

As Richey demonstrates, the reasons for the eclipse of fraternity by polity are many and long-term. The complexity of Methodist polity has increased. The number of Methodists has increased since the 18th century. The diversity of Methodists has increased. The culture around us has changed. And Richey barely touches on the global nature of The United Methodist Church. There is no simple one thing for us to reverse to go back to a better time in the history of United Methodism.

Yet, with the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and the called General Conference in February of 2019, we do have the opportunity to fashion new ways of going forward, new ways of being for the future, even if we cannot simply go back to the past.

One thing United Methodists can learn from our ancestors and from our Nazarene cousins is the importance of making time and space for relationships in our conferences. If we want our denomination to foster relationships, then we need to allot sufficient time in our gatherings to create genuine relationships.

Instead, United Methodists, following the logic of American culture and under the pressures of a slowly diminishing American base, have prized efficiency and impact in how we structure our conferences. We have prioritized making as many decisions on as many topics as possible. These priorities have left us with little time for relationship, which has not been a priority.

Creating time and space for relationships is not easy. It requires effort. It is expensive. It often means letting go of other things one could be doing with that time and space. Creating time and space for relationships requires prioritizing relationships over other functions.

The Nazarenes have some insight here in how they structure General Assembly: Minimize the decisions you need to make. Nazarenes have a strong practice of subsidiarity: more local organizations have a lot of the decision-making power, freeing up more time in General Assembly. In addition, while General Assembly does speak to important issues in the church and world, it does not try to be comprehensive in its proclamations, freeing up more time. Less is more: the fewer decisions that General Assembly needs to make, the more time for relationships.

Such principles could apply to United Methodism as well, and not just at General Conference. Where can more decision-making be entrusted to locals? What can we afford not to address at our conferences? How can we then open up more space for relationships?

In my post last week, I suggested denominations can’t get more relationship by doing more of what they’re already doing. Here I am suggesting something even stronger: to foster more relationship, we may even need to do less of what we’re already doing. The surprising insight is that in order to have a more unified denomination, we may need to let go rather than grab tight. In order to get more relationship and thus more unity, we must be willing to give up our own power and accept our limitations.

We may find comfort than in so doing, we will be following the way of Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippines 2:6-8). Jesus gave up his own power and accepted limitations, even the limitation of death, all for the sake of relationship, for the sake of love. May we have the courage to do likewise.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Kwok Pui Lan: Feminist Theology from the Global South and the Church’s Mission

Today's post is by Dr. Kwok Pui Lan. Dr. Kwok is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Theology at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a past president of the American Academy of Religion.

Since the 1980s, feminist theology from the Global South has been developed through various women’s networks. In 1988, the Asian Women’s Centre for Culture and Theology was formed and began publishing the journal In God’s Image. In 1989, the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians was established as a forum for promoting theological works by African women. Latin American feminist theologians also began to include gender into their theological analyses, and the Con-spirando Collective was formed in Santiago, Chile, in 1991 to promote ecofeminist awareness.

The first intercontinental gathering of feminist theologians from the Global South took place in Oxatepec, Mexico, in 1986. The papers presented at that gathering were published in the book With Passion and Compassion: Third World Women Doing Theology (1988). Since then, I edited a sequel entitled Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology (2010).

Feminist theologians from the Global South have spoken against the negative impact of globalization and the neo-liberal market economy on women. In some cases, women are absorbed into the global labor market, but many of them still work in precarious working conditions. In other cases, women’s subsistence economy and livelihood are threatened by transnational companies. In Southeast Asia, women’s sexual labor has been exploited in order to bolster the economy. Feminist theologians have pointed out that the free-market economy is gendered and biased against women. They remind us of the Biblical mandate to care for the poor and the marginalized among us.

Cultural criticism is another concern for these feminist theologians. Some African and Asian male theologians have argued for the indigenization or inculturation of theology in their specific cultural contexts, but African and Asian feminist theologians argue that some of the indigenous cultural elements are deeply patriarchal and harmful. Kenyan theologian Musimbi Kanyoro used the term “cultural hermeneutics” to describe the analysis of cultural ideologies regarding gender roles and power, and of cultural violence against women.

Gendered violence and sexual assault are critical issues facing women in the Global South. The kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria in 2014 was a blatant example. War, violence, and religious and ethnic conflicts often lead to rape, sexual abuse, and gender-specific violence. Feminist theologians in Africa and elsewhere have challenged the Church to speak out against gendered violence and to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which affects many African countries.

But women in the Third World are not just victims. They have provided food for the family, cared for the sick, taught the young, and resisted violence and oppression. Indigenous women have protected the environment and fought against the exploitation of their lands and waters. Indigenous feminist theologians speak of a spirituality of resilience and resistance. Many Christian women in the Global South have looked to women in the Bible for inspiration, and have created songs and liturgies to sustain their work for justice.

If the Church’s mission is to proclaim God’s kingdom and to work for justice and peace, the Church must stand in solidarity with women in the Global South. In the past, Christian mission has been criticized for its assumptions of cultural superiority and participation in colonization. Today, Christian mission must be understood as partnership and accompaniment. Properly understood, mission is a two-way process, and each partner will learn in, and be enriched by, the collaboration. Christian women in the Global South and indigenous women have much to teach the Church about resilience, hospitality, and care for God’s creation.

The mission of the Church must include the denunciation of an unjust economic system that benefits a transnational capitalist class at the expense of the poor—the majority of whom are women and children. Through its global networks, the Church can facilitate the sharing of information and resources and build relationships. By working with grassroots groups, the Church can help train women leaders and provide support in their fight for justice.

As a reaction to the forces of globalization, religious fundamentalism and extremism of all kinds have emerged and intensified. Religious fundamentalisms tend to treat women as subordinate to men, and often prescribe strict female codes of conduct. The Church needs to challenge these fundamentalist claims and to promote interreligious dialogue and learning in order to foster mutual respect and understanding. Religious leaders can—and must—work together to address gendered violence in their communities and protect the vulnerable in society.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How can denominations foster relationships?

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.

I have made the argument on this blog that Christian unity is best understood as a relational quality, like the relations of a family, and that in the United Methodist tradition, connectionalism speaks to the importance of relationships as the basis of the church.

I have also indicated that the four main official functions of a modern denomination are to set theological affirmations, to establish lines of authority and decision-making, to credential ministers and pair them with congregations, and to engage in collaborative ministry. Note that “establish relationships” is not on this list.

Of course, relationships may still be connected to some of these four points. Authority is always a relational attribute. At its best, itinerancy means United Methodists know pastors or parishioners in places other than their current congregations. And certainly, engaging in shared ministry can produce relationships as well.

Yet none of these official functions is geared directly toward producing relationships. Moreover, each of these functions may be affected by or even cause relational stress. If relationships are poor, authority becomes contested, and impositions of authority often hurt relationships. If pastors or congregations don’t trust the conference, they are not likely to trust the appointive process, either. That distrust can be created through previous bad experiences with appointments. People are naturally more interested in collaborating in ministry with those with whom they have pre-existing relationships. When ministry is indirect, it fails to produce relationship. Two people both sending in checks to relief work does not create relationship, as important as it may be.

The opposite is also true, though. When relationships are strong, they can facilitate easier and better decision-making, more effective recruitment, credentialing, and assignment of pastors, more collaborative ministry, and greater depth of theological discussion and insight. Just as Peter Senge wrote about systems thinking as a “fifth discipline” that unites and magnifies the other four functions of a learning organization, Christian relationships serve as a “fifth function” that unites and magnifies the other four functions of a denomination.

Thus, if relationships are important to unity and unity is important to denominations, then fostering relationships should be important to denominations. However, the official functions of denominations are poorly set up to foster relationships. Herein lies a problem.

Fortunately, organizations can and do fulfill functions other than their explicit functions all the time. This insight applies to churches as well. Churches serve to help people find spouse, increase voting participation, establish business networks, and increase people’s longevity. None of these are directly related to theology, authority, ministers, or ministry.

Of course, nurturing the relationships of a Christian family is directly related to the purpose of a church than are any of the personal or civic byproducts of churches mentioned above. Therefore, this goal is more important, so churches should be more intentional about nurturing Christian relationships.

Yet churches should be careful about how they go about this goal of nurturing Christian relationships for two reasons.

First, as stated above, relationship is not a direct by-product of any of the official functions of a denomination. Therefore, denominations can’t produce more relationship by simply doing more of what they’re already doing. They can’t produce more relationship by calling for greater deference to authority, by calling for more shared ministry, by pushing for a particular theological position to be made official, or by advocating higher standards for ordination. Yet, because these are the things a denomination is set up to do, these are often the first impulses.

Second, there is a tricky relationship between structure and relationship, whether that is relationship among people or between people and God. Structures are important and can facilitate relationship. Yet, relationship is a fluid quality that cannot be reduced to structures. Moreover, the structures that facilitate relationship in one place and time will not be the structures that facilitate relationship in other places and/or times.

Structures can easily become rigid such that they fail to support relationship in the same way and, at worst, harm the relationships they were created to support. Relationship must always take priority to particular structural supports, but because of the dynamics of institutions, there is a tendency for structures to take on a life of their own and then to fight for their continued existence, even if they are disconnected from or antagonistic toward their original purpose.

Thus, I have no specific structural recommendations for how The United Methodist Church can improve its function of building Christian relationships. Nevertheless, I think there is a structural practice in the United Methodist tradition that can play an important role in fostering relationships: conferencing. I will explore more about conferencing as a means to relationships in my next piece.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Recommended Reading: African higher education meetings

In September, the African Association of United Methodist Theological Institutions (AAUMTI) and African Association of Methodist Institutes of Higher Education (AAMIHE) held their annual meetings, including a joint meeting in Cote d'Ivoire. There are both a UMNS story and a GBHEM story about these meetings.

The major decision coming out of these meetings was to proceed with plans to create a Methodist University Senate for Africa, modelled on the United Methodist University Senate for the United States. Such an undertaking would be a significant development for Methodist higher education in Africa.

First, it would be a significant step as regards higher education. Such a body capable of developing standards and reviewing individual schools to determine how they are living up to those standards would be a major step forward in terms of higher education quality control, accountability, and inter-school networking.

Second, it would be a significant step as regards Methodism. As this blog has pointed out, the unity of African United Methodism is not given. Nevertheless, higher education and specifically the work of AAUMTI and AAMIHE is one of the most important forces bringing together United Methodists from across the continent.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Unity as friends or family?

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.

Last week, I posted that because denominations serve different functions, people will understand denominational unity in different ways. This week, I'd like to make a similar point about Christian relationships. There are different ways of understanding such relationships, and those different understandings lead to different understandings of Christian unity.

To demonstrate, let me ask a question: Are relationships with your fellow Christians more like your relationships with your friends or your relationships with your family?

Both metaphors have been used to describe relationships between fellow Christians, but there are important distinctions in the implications of these metaphors.

Friendships are based primarily on shared qualities, whether those are interests, aspects of personality, common experiences, or common pursuits. They are freely chosen and may be ended for a variety of reasons (hurt, diminishment of shared qualities, change in life circumstances, inconvenience, etc.). Certainly, there are various types of friendships (best friends, Facebook friends, friends of convenience, work friends, etc.), but these three qualities apply to all type of friends. The degree of closeness and the level of mutual obligation may vary or be understood differently in different cultures, but at the heart, friendship is a choice.

If we think of fellow Christians, or more to the point, fellow United Methodists, as spiritual friends, then these three characteristics will carry over: We will understand United Methodists as people with whom we have freely chosen to affiliate. We will expect them to have certain shared qualities with us (whatever that list may be). We will reserve the right to end our relationships with our fellow United Methodists for a variety of reasons, including hurt, diminishment of shared qualities, inconvenience, etc., since we will see our relations with fellow United Methodists as a choice.

Family relationships, at least with families of origin, are different. We do not choose them. They do not necessarily imply shared qualities, though often some shared history and shared genetic material are part of that. Thus, family relationships may make a clearer distinction between "like" and "love" than friendships. You may love your family members even when you don't like them. Moreover, we can choose to stop nurturing or participating in our family relationships, but we cannot end them. You cannot stop being a sister or brother to someone, even if you never see them. The degree of closeness and the level of mutual obligation may vary or be understood differently in different cultures, but at the heart, family is not a choice.

If we think of fellow United Methodists as sisters and brothers in Christ, we will expect these three qualities to carry over: We will understand our fellow United Methodists not as people with whom we have freely chosen to associate, but as people that God, descent, and/or chance have conspired to link to us. We may presume some shared history and some genetic similarities, but we will not necessarily expect our fellow United Methodists to share an extensive list of qualities with us. We may not always like our fellow United Methodists, but we will love them. We may choose to stop engaging in our relationships with fellow United Methodists or those relationships may become strained, but we will recognize that a connection will always exist, whether or not we act on it.

American culture tends to emphasize choice. Indeed, in the US, there is a whole discourse about choosing your family. This is a particularly contemporary, consumerist, and American approach to family that would be incomprehensible in much of the rest of the world.

Given the emphasis by Americans on choice, I think there is a tendency for Americans to think about church relationships as friendships, which as I said, are about choice. Unity then, is the unity of friends, which presumes similarity and which the parties may choose to end for a variety of reasons. It is important to note, though, that denominational unity as chosen friendships is not necessarily what makes most sense for non-Americans.

Interestingly, the more common metaphor for Christian relationships throughout history has been the family one. Paul writes to the "brothers" (and "sisters") in the early churches, and this language has stuck. Many denominations (including some of the UMC's predecessors) put the term "brethren" or "brotherhood" or "family" right in the name of the denomination. "Brother" and "sister" were common terms among early Methodists. This metaphor may also be the more important one for many United Methodists outside of the US.

How might it shift American United Methodists' thinking about the current state of the denomination to draw more extensively on the metaphor of family instead of the metaphor of friendship? How does contrasting these two understandings of what it means to be in relationship as United Methodists help all United Methodists more fully understanding the nature and quality of unity?