Today’s post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott. It is the fourth of a four-part series on money and relationships in the global church. Dr. Scott is Director of Mission Theology for the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent official positions of Global Ministries.
Over the past few weeks, I have been raising the question of how United Methodists can face the problem of vast economic inequality in the church in a way that preserves relationship between rich and poor without turning those relationships into ones of dependence solidifying inequalities of power. After looking at asset-based approaches to sharing resources and reducing the amount of structure poorer branches of the church need to pay for, this post will look at means by which poorer United Methodists can generate their own resources, thus reducing long-term dependency of the poor upon the rich.
As it turns out, United Methodists have one of the best exemplars of such an approach to church economics in our own history: Bishop William Taylor. You may never have heard of William Taylor. Yet he was one of the most influential architects of nineteenth century Methodist mission and the global nature of the church that is with us today.
Taylor came to prominence as a frontier preacher in California, global evangelist, and originator of Methodist mission in many countries around the world. He was also well-noted as a proponent of what he called self-supporting mission. Taylor thought that Westerners should not pay for missionaries or new churches around the world. They should be financed through local resources. Essentially, Taylor favored implementing the self-financing pillar of three-self mission theory from the very beginning, not when new churches had reached a certain level of development. Self-support for Taylor was about more than giving by congregations on the mission field, though. It also involved entrepreneurial approaches to church and church-run businesses, so-called tent-making.
Taylor based his theory of self-supporting mission both on the tent-making apostle Paul and on his own life experiences. Neither Taylor nor the dozens of missionaries he recruited and deployed ever practiced this theory in a pure form, but Taylor was the most significant proponent of this approach in his day. He and his missionaries influenced the development of Methodism in India, Southeast Asia, Angola, the Congo, and South America.
There are risks to this approach. The participation of the church in the economy may create moral hazards – opportunities for the church to end up on the wrong side of business ethics. Businesses can and do fail, and church-run businesses are no different. Successful church-run businesses require a good deal of expertise and effort that could go into other aspects of the church. Moreover, this approach requires the local economy to be sufficiently developed to provide sufficient resources and opportunities for successful tent-making businesses. Some of Taylor’s own missions failed for lack of sufficient tent-making business opportunities.
Yet this self-supporting approach undoubtedly gives churches that take it greater autonomy than would be offered by outside funding. The independence of Taylor and his missionaries often created headaches for the mission board, which wanted to exercise tighter control over its missions, but in a post-colonial world in which we seek greater equality between branches of the church, that independence and autonomy are positives. Autonomy need not be antithetical to accountability to the broader church, even as it is opposed to control by outsiders.
Taylor’s ideas and approach were largely marginalized and forgotten in Methodism after his death. They lived on in the approach to mission taken by faith missions. Faith missions, however, became increasingly associated with evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism. Current business-as-mission models, popular in many evangelical circles, are in part heirs of Taylor.
Yet West African United Methodists today are creating some projects that would undoubtedly make Taylor proud. Through church-run office buildings and agricultural projects, these churches are seeking to generate revenues for themselves and reduce their dependence on Western partners. And although such UMC countries as Liberia are poor by global standards, the economy in much of sub-Saharan Africa is growing quickly, meaning there are economic opportunities that the church could seize if it were able.
Where does this financial model leave wealthy Westerners who want to partner with their poorer fellow United Methodists? How can they support other’s efforts at self-support in ways that don’t undermine that very self-determination? Providing financing, including microcredit, and business consulting are certainly two important ways to do so. These must be done, however, in ways that leave the initiative, ownership, and control with locals and ways that respect locals’ own business skills and knowledge and don’t presume that Americans know business best.
Beyond direct support of tent-making endeavors, this approach also suggests the importance of supporting peace-building efforts and infrastructure development as an approach to mission partnerships, as these create the bases for sustained local economic growth. Again, locals must take the lead, but there are still opportunities for the rich who are willing to listen and be led by the poor.
Indeed, a willingness by the rich to listen to and be led by the poor must be at the heart of any attempt to deal with the problem of economic inequality in The United Methodist Church. Yet if the rich are willing to do so, they will find that the rewards include not just a more equitable global church but spiritual blessings for themselves as well.