Monday, December 30, 2019

2019 in Review

As the United Methodist News Service has concluded, and pretty much anyone else observing The United Methodist Church in 2019 has agreed, the top story in United Methodism from this past year is the on-going fight over the place of LGBTQ persons in the church, especially as it played out at General Conference 2019 and the aftermath of that event.

The centrality of that conflict for United Methodists around the world has certainly made an impact on the sorts of content this blog has presented over the past year. Yet, rather than comment on the political mobilizations or talking points that often reinforce the views of one side or another, UM & Global has tried to provide unique perspectives on that conflict, such as the following:

  * Dana Robert's excellent piece on the impact of a potential church split on women

  * Articles on how central conference perspectives on this conflict differ from US perspectives and need to be taken seriously, including special attention to Filipino perspectives

  * Coverage of how this conflict is playing out in European United Methodism and its search for a way forward as annual conferences and central conferences

  * Research on the international financial arrangements of the church and how these would be impacted by a church split

  * Reflections on what we as United Methodists can learn from our autonomous affiliated sisters and brothers about how to be the church across denominational lines

Yet 2019 was not just about the conflict over the treatment of LGBTQ persons. Mission continues, no matter what is happening with church structures, and this blog examined several important threads related to mission as well, including the following:

  * The bicentennial of mission in the United Methodist tradition

  * The practice of UMVIM and other short-term mission trips

  * African women's perspectives on mission

  * The definition of mission

  * Multiculturalism and cross-cultural interactions as a central part of mission

While it's certain that 2020 will bring a certain amount of stories related to General Conference 2020 and the conflict over sexuality, UM & Global will remain committed to providing unique perspectives on that conflict (look for a series on the legal and financial implications of the trust clause starting soon!) and will remain committed to telling other important stories about mission and the global nature of the church.

Thanks for your readership, and see you next year!
Dr. David W. Scott, blogmaster

Monday, December 23, 2019

Recommended Listening: David Scott on the Happy Hippie Jesus Show

Recently, UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott was interviewed by Revs. Bill Sardin and Jeremy Pressgrove for their podcast, The Happy Hippie Jesus Show. In the interview, Scott discusses this blog, his recent book Crossing Boundaries, and mission generally. The podcast is about 37 minutes long and is available from the Happy Hippie Jesus Show website, from Apple Podcasts, and from Google Play.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Recommended Reading: Central Conference United Methodists on GC2020

Two initiatives by United Methodists in the central conferences to influence the proceedings of General Conference 2020 have recently been announced.

First, two presentations by Rev. Lloyd T. Nyarota on behalf of a new lobbying group, the Forum of Concerned Central Conferences United Methodists, were recently published on United Methodist Insight. This group includes an unnamed list of United Methodists from central conferences across Africa, in the Philippines, and in northern Europe. About half of the members live abroad, either in the United States or Canada. The group has been formed to advocate in advance of General Conference 2020.

The two presentations - one to the central conference bishops and one in the Philippines - lay out the group's basic premises: the proposals heading to GC2020 were written without substantial central conference input; it is time for United Methodists in the central conferences to lead; United Methodists in the central conferences want unity; and the Philippines Plan is the best way to achieve that desired unity.

Two observations are worth making about these presentations: 1. In much of what they are saying, this group is intentionally echoing and affirming the statements by the African and Filipino bishops; thus, these ideas have some currency beyond just this group. 2. Their support of the Philippines plan indicates that while US United Methodists have mainly been focused on the four US-drafted plans, the Philippines plan deserves to be considered as a fifth option, as there are people advocating for it. Indeed, as this blog has previously argued, Filipinos may play a unique role in resolving the current conflict in the church, making their plan and their concerns around unity worthy of study.

Second, a group of leaders from the central conferences has released a "Christmas Covenant" calling for continued unity in the denomination. (See also the associated UMNS story.) The covenant draws on theological principles of all as children of God, ubuntu, and bayanihan. That two of these three principles are drawn from cultures outside of the US is itself significant. Using these principles, the covenant opposed the separation of the church and division of its assets; supports the formation of a US regional conference; and supports legislative equality across regions of the church. Thus, the main goal of the Covenant - continued unity with greater regional autonomy - is similar to the goals laid out in Rev. Nyarota's presentations.

The signers of the Christmas Covenant include General Conference delegates and reserve delegates, district superintendents, seminary leaders, and other leaders from across the central conferences. While the signers of the Christmas Covenant include more people than those mentioned by Rev. Nyarota in his presentation, it is the same group behind both, according to Rev. Hilde Marie Movafagh, a group member and Covenant signer.

General Conference 2019 changed how many think about the church and motivated many to be more proactive in shaping the future of the denomination. US United Methodists would do well to recognize that United Methodists from the central conferences are among those so motivated.

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that the Forum of Concerned Central Conferences United Methodists was an overlapping but separate group from the signers of the Christmas Covenant. Thanks to Rev. Hilde Marie Movafagh for setting the record straight.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Recommended Reading: Matt Lacey on "Should We Stop Taking Mission Trips?"

Throughout this fall, UM & Global has hosted a series of posts looking at short-term mission generally and UMVIM trips as a specific form of short-term mission.

Related to that topic, Rev. Matt Lacey, the executive director for UMVIM Southeastern Jurisdiction, has posted a piece on his organization's page, "Should We Stop Taking Mission Trips?" Despite the provocative title, Rev. Lacey's real concern in the piece is how we understand our travels in mission. His ultimate conclusion is "it is time to stop making mission 'trips' and start seeing them as a part of a journey God has for our lives." Rev. Lacey's comments are constructive and add especially to the conversation on this blog about the relationship between United Methodists' participation in UMVIM and their lives of faith.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Laceye Warner on "Sent in Love"

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Laceye Warner. Dr. Warner is Royce and Jane Reynolds Associate Professor of the Practice of Evangelism and Methodist Studies; Associate Dean for Wesleyan Engagement at Duke Divinity School. This post is part of a series on the UMC's new ecclesiology document, Sent in Love: A United Methodist Understanding of the Church, which will be presented to General Conference 2020 for review and adoption.

Methodist ecclesiology can seem elusive.  United Methodist ecclesiology exhibits tensions between a mixed heritage from Catholic and Pietist roots.  The document, “Sent in Love,” draws on United Methodism’s roots in the Wesleyan renewal movement within the eighteenth-century Church of England, contemporary doctrinal materials, and Scripture to frame an ecclesiology.  “Sent in Love” responds to a long and intentional conversation regarding United Methodist ecclesiology.

Albert Outler provocatively asked the potentially unanswerable question, “Do Methodists have a doctrine of the Church [or ecclesiology]?” In Outler’s essay of that name, he argued for Methodism’s character as an “evangelical order” pursuing renewal in a larger catholic context, finding itself “detraditioned” as a movement turned church (Outler 1991: 211-26).

Despite United Methodism’s lack of ecclesiology per se, it does not lack an awareness of the primary means through which Christians make sense of faith and discipleship, namely by holy living into God’s reign and gift of salvation. According to Albert Outler, “Every denomination in a divided and broken Christendom is an ecclesiola in via [church in pilgrimage], but Methodists have a peculiar heritage that might make the transitive character of our ecclesiastical existence not only tolerable but positively proleptic” (Wainwright 1983: 220-21).

Outler, in his concluding statement went on to claim, “what we really have to contribute to any emergent Christian community is not our apparatus but our mission.” Outler, highlighting Methodism’s missional purpose and vocation as the primary characteristic of its identity, emphasizes, “this business of ‘being a church’ is really our chief business!” (Outler 1991: 226).

The church is the primary location in which one lives out one’s faith as a participant in a community of faith and member of the body of Christ.  Richard Heitzenrater responds to Outler’s question by describing the church in Wesleyan and Methodist tradition as a means of grace in an effort to align the being of the church, or what it “is,” and the practices of the church, or what it “does” (Heitzenrater, 2007: 119-28). The church is the place where through worship, prayer and the sacraments—all considered means of grace by John Wesley—one’s understanding of Christian doctrine and its embodiment is formed and challenged (Jones 2003: 151). The church at its best functions as a, though not the only, means of God’s grace (Jones 2003: 151). 

The United Methodist Church’s character as a means of grace includes much, if not all, of its organization and polity alongside worship, sacraments, and ordination.  For example, the structure of annual conferences, the episcopacy, and the itineracy may be understood as prudential means of grace (Jones 2002: 255).  While these may falter in specific circumstances, throughout its history the formation of the movement’s structure has kept its missional purpose at the center. 

The document “Sent in Love,” maps the ecclesiological heritage of Wesleyan, Methodists, and Evangelical United Brethren including a shared missional imperative. The Wesleyan and Methodist tradition emerged from a missional imperative (Logan 1994: 16). This is distinctive, since other denominational traditions often trace their roots to disagreements regarding confessional or doctrinal matters. John Wesley summarized his understanding of Methodism’s purpose: “What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists? A. To reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (Davies 1984 v 10: 845).

This means Methodism, and the Wesleyan tradition more broadly, affirms basic traditional Christian commitments proceeding from the Church of England of Wesley’s day, rather than pursuing a doctrinal distinctiveness from other Christian traditions. In addition to the importance of basic Christian doctrine, this commitment to foundational Christian beliefs deeply informed the practices of the early Methodist movement leading to its impact of renewal.

For United Methodists, there are a number of doctrinal materials that lend texture and depth to our understanding of the United Methodist Church.  Among the United Methodist Church’s doctrinal standards are two historic documents in which the nature of the church is described—“The Articles of Religion” and “The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren”.  These documents are among United Methodism’s constitutionally protected doctrinal standards. Drawing from these materials, Scripture, and a shared understanding of the Triune God, readers receive a deep and textured understanding of The United Methodist Church’s mission to participate in God’s reign and make disciples of Jesus Christ. 

“Sent in Love” provides a map from which to navigate, explore, and embody our ecclesiological heritage in the midst of the ecumenical relationships and the world.  One of the most important and helpful strengths of the document is its grounding in the New Testament and Nicene Creed marks of the church—one, holy, catholic, apostolic—which also appear in “The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren” mentioned above.  The document unpacks each of these marks in relationship to Scriptural themes and the nature of God centering our identity as church. 

Another important theme for our contemporary understanding and practices of church featured in “Sent in Love” is the role of the Holy Spirit.  In the midst of the conflict and ambiguity within and beyond the United Methodist Church at this time, “Sent in Love” offers a frame for ecclesiological understanding and ecclesial practices drawn from our shared Christian and Wesleyan heritage.   It is my hope that a prayerful and critically constructive reflection from these materials can facilitate United Methodism’s response to the Holy Spirit as we are sent in ministry by God with Jesus Christ to the world.  

Friday, December 13, 2019

Recommended Reading: The Swiss UMC Announces an "Innovation Prize"

The Evangelisch-metodistische Kirke (EmK) im Schweiz (United Methodist Church in Switzerland) has recently announced an "innovation prize" for those with ideas about how the church can connect to people who have no previous connection to Christianity, as is true for an increasing number of people in Swiss society. Successful proposals will receive coaching to refine the ideas and financing for ideas that will be implemented. More information (in German) can be found on the page for the "Methodist Prix innovation" and this PDF overview of the process.

This innovation prize is another example of how a body of the church that is committed to furthering evangelism by developing new forms of church can go about that process by structurally supporting such innovation. The EmK in Switzerland has already experimented with such structural support for innovation by forming a Fresh Expressions district. Other annual conferences and districts interested in how they can promote evangelism and new forms of church for the unchurched may be interested in following the Swiss examples.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Lisa Beth White: UMVIM and Theological Reflection, Part 2

Today's post is by Rev. Lisa Beth White. Rev. White is founder of Sister of Hope Ministries and a United Methodist clergyperson serving in Western North Carolina. This post is part of an on-going UM & Global series on UMVIM and short-term mission.
What is it about short-term mission trips that so many people go on them over and over again? Are they fulfilling their own individual desires for a spiritual pilgrimage, or is there more to it? Robert Haynes suggests that there has been a shift within UMVIM trips away from mission and toward pilgrimage experience, but I argue that the phenomenon of short-term mission in the UMC is a practice of the faith for lay people that reveals their theological work.

Short Term Mission as Christian Practice
By “practice of the faith” I mean what people do in living out their faith. Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass state that “Christian practices are things people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world.”[1]

Short-term mission is one way that United Methodist lay people seek to address human needs together in response to God’s presence in their own lives and in the lives of others in the world. The decision to participate in the practice of short-term mission is their way of responding to God’s gracious activity in their own lives and one way in which they can embody God’s grace and love for others. In my research with UMVIM participants, the foundation for their decision to go and serve in mission was their conviction that they needed to find a way to show God’s grace to others, whether this work was in their own community or in a community several hours away.

Four Components of Practices
Theologians Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass describe four key components of Christian practices that are helpful in understanding the short-term mission movement. First, practices resist the separation of thinking from acting. This component helps us to understand one reason why it is difficult for lay people to articulate their theological foundations for short-term mission. Short-term mission is often described as love in action. Unless people are asked to discuss their experience in short-term mission and allowed time to engage their own questions, they tend to not separate out the action of being in mission from their thinking about mission.

A second component of Christian practices is that they are social and belong to groups of people across generations. Short-term mission in in the UMC is a group activity. When asked how they first became involved in the practice of short-term mission, people in my research most often say that they had a conversation with a family member or friend. Several people reported that they talked with their teenaged or college student children who invited them to join the next mission trip. Others reported including their grandchildren on mission trips.

A third component of Christian practices is that they are rooted in the past but continually adapting to changing circumstances. This is particularly evident in the case of the practice of short-term mission. The rise of the practice of UMVIM coincides with the rise of increased access to affordable air travel and new ways of communication. Lay people have the ability to be in contact with Christians in other places in the world in ways that were not possible a few decades ago, and they can with ease step outside the traditional guidance of mission boards and agencies. The practice of being in mission has adapted to changed circumstances, but in the case of the UMC the means of providing mission education has not yet adapted to new realities.

A final component of Christian practices is that they “articulate wisdom that is in the keeping of practitioners who do not think of themselves as theologians.” This point became abundantly clear in my research interviews, when nearly every person interviewed dismissed the idea that they had anything to contribute to a theology of mission. The overriding view was that theology was something done at seminaries by trained professionals, and yet according to the United Methodist statement on “Our Theological Task”, the work of theological reflection “requires the participation of all who are in our Church, lay and ordained, because the mission of the Church is to be carried out by everyone who is called to discipleship.”[2]

Practice and Theological Reflection
UMVIM is an important way to discover the wisdom and mission theology of lay people in the UMC. Rather than a pilgrimage experience in which a person seeks a religious experience outside of the home, those practicing short-term mission are seeking to live out their faith and to reflect theologically on God’s work both at home and around the world. Our Theological Task states that United Methodists are to “incorporate the promises and demands of the gospel into their daily lives”, and it is through the experience of a short-term mission trip that challenges and deepens discipleship that practitioners are made more aware of the demands of the gospel in their daily lives wherever they may go.[3]

Dr. Haynes is correct when he states that “theologies shape motivations and motivations shape actions,” and this is essential to understanding short-term mission as a practice of faith and a venue for theological reflection. Theologies inform the things we do as Christians, and the things we do as we live out our faith also inform our theologies. Beliefs shape practice, and practice provides space for deeper understanding of beliefs. Beliefs about how God reaches out in mission to the world shape how and why lay people practice short-term mission, and the experience of short-term mission further shapes how people understand God at work in the world and in their hearts. This is not a one-way path but a cycle of mutual influence.

Equipping Practitioners
What has been needed for many years is a sustained focus on mission education for all age groups in the United Methodist church. Although Global Ministries and UMW have published many fine statements and texts on theology of mission, these are not reaching the majority of practitioners of short-term mission in the denomination. It is time for curriculum and teaching methods to adapt so that UMVIM practitioners can access materials and tools for reflection on their experience in mission.

Once we understand the theological foundations of lay practitioners of mission as a source of wisdom within the church, it becomes clear that their experience and theological contributions are important for the church. UMVIM practitioners are people of compassion who seek to show the love of God for a hurting world. At a time when headlines about the United Methodist Church are about deep divisions, UMVIM practitioners quietly go about the work of mission, helping their neighbors near and far.

If they were equipped to speak with confidence about their experiences and their understanding of God at work in the world, they would be a broad witness for the church. Their conversations with friends at home would inspire others to look for the needs in their communities, to find ways to bridge the gaps, and to talk about God’s grace with each other. Here are people who are already witnessing to the love and grace of Christ. Equipping and encouraging this group could provide opportunities for renewal and revitalization.

The church must be in mission. Lay people are finding ways to be in mission because of their faith. It is time to adapt and equip them to continue to be the church, participating in God’s mission in, to, and for the world.

[1] (Dykstra and Bass 2002, 18)
[2] (Church 2016, 81)
[3] (Church 2016, 82)

Monday, December 9, 2019

Nkemba Ndjungu on "Sent in Love," Part 2

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Nkemba Ndjungu. Rev. Nkemba is a missionary with Global Ministries. He formerly served as the Mission Superintendent of the Cameroon Mission and currently serves in Belize. This post is part of a series on the UMC's new ecclesiology document, Sent in Love: A United Methodist Understanding of the Church, which will be presented to General Conference 2020 for review and adoption. It is the second of two posts by Rev. Nkemba.

The United Methodist Church is called to be one
“It is through others that we experience the love of God; it is with others that the pattern of new life that God gives is both learned and lived out” (Sent in Love, p.28). This is our commitment to unity.

Unity is the backbone of the Christian testimony. His relationship with the Father is what Jesus gives us as example of unity. In his Priestly Prayer, Jesus says that if disciples are one, then the world will believe in him (John 17: 21). Christian unity should be understood in the light of the unity that exists between Jesus and his Father. This is not about physical oneness; rather it is a spiritual oneness. Jesus and the Father are two different hypostases, but they are one in the spirit. Likewise, Christian unity is mostly a spiritual reality. In order to build unity and avoid disunity, we need to focus on things that unite us and ignore those that divide us.

Structurally, churches cannot be one but unity is possible in the spirit. Individuals have different opinions and churches have different doctrines. Some of those opinions and doctrines are of very opposing views and beliefs. We may never be able to agree with one another on them. But we can respect each other’s views and beliefs, knowing that we all have the same Master, Jesus Christ.

To be united in Christ means to be one in the spirit through him who sanctifies us. Often, some Christians feel superior to others. There is misunderstanding, resentment, pride and hurt among church members. Some groups of persons sometimes act as if they were in competition with others. Within congregations there are sometimes factions and divisions that have lasted for years; issues that have been unresolved for a long time. Oneness and unity is what Jesus wants for his Church.

Unity in Christ Jesus means that those who were near God and those who were far away from God have been brought together through Christ and are now equally gifted by God. In its unity, the Church should embody the reconciliation made possible in Christ who has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

However, we must say that unity is not equal to uniformity. The mystery of God that is revealed in Christ and results in our reconciliation does not wipe out our differences of opinions, traditions and cultures. Instead, what is made known through the church is the wisdom of God in its rich variety. To live out Christian unity, we must learn to be tolerant or to bear with one another (Ephesians 4:2). Our distinctions will never cease, but even with the persistence of differences, the Church may advance toward its maturity in the fullness of Christ.

When we come together out of various traditions and cultures, we must make an effort to get rid of our previous prejudices and peculiarities. We should not confine our fellowship to former friends and companies. We must seek to clear away the barriers that have separated us in the past. We must also cultivate friendship and fellowship with those who have come from different traditions and cultures. There is always more profit in considering words and ways which differ from our own than in rehearsing what we have been taught. So, it is very important to make an earnest effort to realize the absolute unity of all, in Christ. If we call upon the Lord out of a pure heart, in spite of our different beliefs, we can accomplish fellowship.

One of the greatest advantages is that unity fosters reconciliation. Unity of the Church is a reflection of God's gift of reconciliation in Christ. Ephesians 4:1 indicates that the argument here is built upon the previous chapters. In Ephesians chapters 1-3, the author has elaborated upon the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles that God has brought about in Christ. In light of that, the repetition of the word “one” highlights the understanding that the church is a new humanity that is “one” in Christ Jesus. Through the one body of Jesus, God has brought together two groups under one plan of salvation: Jews who were near God and Gentiles who were far away from God. Christ has joined the two groups together and drawn them nearer to God. The church’s task is to reflect this unity. And this task is a process that leads to perfection.

Preserving unity makes the Church stronger. The Church is equipped with gifts (Ephesians 4.7, 11); and those gifts will help the Church to reach maturity. No one individual can have all the gifts alone. The text says: “And he personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and some teachers” (Ephesians 4: 11). The reason why the Lord has distributed these gifts to different individuals is so that church maturity can be obtained when there is unity.  When spiritual unity is a reality in a church, we can put our gifts together, and spiritual maturity can be attained.

I believe that God provided a diversity of gifts for many reasons. One of those reasons is that God wants his people to build a strong community of believers by depending on one another. If every Christian received all the gifts, competition and rivalry would have taken hold of the Church.

The other reason is that the diversity of gifts to different people allows believers to acknowledge their limitation and learn humility. Humility is the feeling that I don’t possess everything; so I need the intervention of other people. In church, even if you are the leader, you will need help sometimes.

Even still, the other reason why God provided a diversity of gifts is to be a living testimony of his presence in the world. When spiritual gifts are exercised properly, signs and wonders are effective among God’s people. And that makes people outside to affirm that the working power of God abides among believers. Jesus told his disciples that if they didn’t believe what he was saying to them, they should at least believe on account of the works (John 14: 11).

One thing all of us can do to bring about harmony in the Church of Christ is to facilitate dialogue whenever possible. Dialogue refers to a type of communication between two or more people. It is different from a discussion or debate. It refers to a mode of conversation that necessarily involves reason, discernment, accuracy and wisdom, as well as an interpenetration of convergent and convincing arguments, as dialogue unfolds among the interlocutors. Given that there are always issues among believers, dialogue must be constant to clear misunderstandings and conflicts.

The Church is God’s mission to the world. The Triune God sends His Church to be His ambassador in the world. For this purpose, He sends His Church in love. On its part, the Church responds to this sending and understands its mission as being fourfold: 1) Called to be apostolic: commitment to mission; 2) Called to be catholic: commitment to universality, diversity and ecumenism; 3) called to be holy: commitment to spiritual and social transformation; 4) Called to be one: commitment to unity.

Mission, universality, transformation and unity are the four meanings of our calling. In order to carry out efficiently its mission, the United Methodist Church must consider issues that arise inside her and find adequate solutions. History teaches us that the Methodist Church, our predecessor, had already suffered division in the past. Due to a conflict borne by the questions of owning slaves and the power of bishops in the 19th century, the Methodist Church in the USA split into three factions: 1) the Methodist Episcopal Church North; 2) the Methodist Episcopal Church South; and 3) the Protestant Methodist Church in the center. With God’s help, these three branches came back together in 1939 to form the Methodist Church. In 1968 the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form what we now call The United Methodist Church.

It seems to me that history is about to repeat itself. The issue of human sexuality is about to reenact the scenario of the 19th century. I believe that no matter what happens at the General Conference in 2020, our church will not be the same. We all hoped that the Special General Conference of February 2019 in Saint Louis would resolve the problem once and for all, but it did not. Three plans have been submitted for the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis: 1) The Traditional Plan; 2) The Indianapolis Plan; 3) The Next Generation UMC Plan. Another conversation has started under the leadership of Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone to propose a new legislation for 2020 or modify proposals that have already been submitted. Unfortunately, because of the big and apparently irreconcilable differences in views and beliefs of our members, people are going to leave the church no matter the plan that will be adopted because behind every plan there are people pulling strings.

As I personally meditate on this issue, I find wisdom in the First Book of Kings, chapter twelve. After the death of King Salomon, his son Rehoboam became king in his place. But because of his harshness in words and rudeness of his actions, Jeroboam and all the tribes in the North rebelled against him. Rehoboam wanted to wage war with them and bring them back to unity. But God sent Prophet Shemaiah to tell Rehoboam to leave the tribes of the North alone, because that division was willed by God himself. So, Israel was separated from Judah from that day. The lesson we learn here is that not every separation is diabolic. Perhaps, the best thing that can happen to the United Methodist Church concerning human sexuality at this point is amicable separation.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Recommended Reading: The UMC in Ghana

Recently, E. Julu Swen reported for UMNS on the Buduburam United Methodist Church in Buduburam, Ghana. The Buduburam UMC was formed by Liberian refugees who fled to Ghana during the Liberian Civil War. It is the only United Methodist congregation in Ghana.

The Buduburam UMC has always existed in a unique and liminal ecclesial status. It is neither fully part of the UMC in Liberia, its parent organization, nor has it integrated into the autonomous Methodist Church of Ghana, the main Methodist denomination in the country.

As Swen reports, the church is currently facing questions about its future, as most Liberians have returned from Ghana to their home countries after the conclusion of the civil war, leaving the church to struggle.

Yet in those questions about this congregation's future lie larger questions about the relationships between denominations, nations, and people groups that extend far beyond this one congregation. What is the value of a specifically United Methodist presence vs. other Methodist/Wesleyan bodies? How can and should denominations provide for the spiritual care of refugees and other migrants? What are the roles of host denominations and home denominations? What is the role of migrants themselves in shaping their denominational structures?

The Buduburam UMC makes a nice case study to highlight these questions (and more), in part because of its migratory origins, its clear focus on that migratory group, its relationships with both home and host denominations, and its well-documented history.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Lisa Beth White: UMVIM and Theological Reflection, Part 1

Today's post is by Rev. Lisa Beth White. Rev. White is founder of Sister of Hope Ministries and a United Methodist clergyperson serving in Western North Carolina. This post is part of an on-going UM & Global series on UMVIM and short-term mission.

The recent series on short-term mission in the United Methodist Church (UMVIM) brought to light a long-neglected educational opportunity in the denomination. Four of our jurisdictional UMVIM coordinators shared from their experiences in short-term mission, and Robert Haynes provided his critique of short-term mission, in particular, the lack of theological discourse on the practice of mission.

Tammy Kuntz wrote in the first post for this series on short-term mission in the UMC that the first organizing efforts for short-term mission began in 1972, flowing from the growing movement of lay volunteers in the Southeast Jurisdiction. That year the General Conference of the UMC adopted a new statement to be included in our Book of Discipline in the section on our doctrines.

That statement was titled Our Theological Task, and it described a connection between our Wesleyan understanding of grace and our action in the world. Our Theological Task stated that our General Rules remind us that inward assurance of God’s grace “is bound to show itself outwardly in good works. By joining heart and hand, United Methodists have stressed that personal salvation leads always to involvement in Christian mission in the world.” Most importantly for the practice of short-term mission, Our Theological Task asserted that “personal religion, evangelical witness, and Christian social action are reciprocal and mutually reinforcing.”[1]

Locating Weaknesses
United Methodist short-term mission has, from the very beginning, been a practice in which lay people have let their personal salvation lead them into involvement in Christian mission. UMVIM is one way in which United Methodists join their hearts and hands, putting their faith into action for others. There are weaknesses within the practice of short-term mission in the UMC, but these weaknesses lie in the failures of the clergy and denomination to provide resources and encouragement for the reciprocal relationship between personal religion, evangelical witness and Christian social action.

After the initial organization of volunteer mission efforts in 1972, eight years passed until General Conference affirmed “the concept of volunteers in mission as an authentic form of personal missionary involvement” and eight more years until annual conferences were encouraged to have UMVIM coordinators on staff. It took another eight years for the program to officially become part of the work of the GBGM, and yet another four years before financial support for jurisdictional staff was provided.

Is it any wonder that when we ask lay people to talk about their short-term mission experience, they struggle to put their experience into words? Is it any wonder that many United Methodist churches do not utilize denominational connections when the denomination was so slow to recognize and support their work?

The hesitation of lay volunteers in mission to cite scripture or explicitly state their theological motivations does not mean that there is no theological foundation, as Dr. Haynes suggests. United Methodists who participate in short-term mission experiences are instead, living out Our Theological Task. Their work is a practice of their Christian faith, grounded in their theological convictions. The act of being in mission and the experience of personal faith are reciprocal; they inform and reinforce each other. This mutual reinforcement is the space where the United Methodists Church can improve both its mission education efforts and the practice of short-term mission.

Needed Resources
Lay people have taken Our Theological Task seriously. Moved by the suffering of people in their neighborhoods and in other countries, they have put their faith into tangible action. Our Theological Task argues for a robust faith that is active. It is “contextual and incarnational.” Faith is meant to be lived out in the world, in our neighborhoods and with others. The experience of a short-term mission trip can help people to participate in God’s mission in, to and for the world. According to Our Theological Task, our “theological reflection is energized by our incarnational involvement in the daily life of the Church and the world, as we participate in God’s liberating and saving action.”[2]

Short-term mission is a practice of lay persons that offers an opportunity to energize their theological reflection – however, even as Volunteers in Mission seek to live out their theological task, the church has not equipped them to trust in their own ability to be theological thinkers. This is a failure of resources, not a failure of theological foundations. The United Methodist Church has the potential to build on the practice of short-term mission by acknowledging the deep faith of the practitioners and equipping them with the tools for theological reflection.

My research interviews with VIM team members revealed a reluctance to claim their knowledge of scripture, and yet interviewees often quoted three or four scriptures in a single sentence to describe why they go on mission trips. They go to love their neighbors wherever they may be found in this globalized world. They go to share the love of Christ. They go to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. They go because they see someone in need and know they cannot walk by on the other side, ignoring a person who is suffering. There was no lack of scripture informing their participation in short-term mission; there was, rather, a lack of assurance of their own ability to name those scripture references.

Further, the post written by Tom Lank reveals that lay persons who participate in VIM do reflect theologically on the practice of short-term mission in the UMC. He states that through four decades of practice “UMVIM has tried to learn from its own mistakes”, which is the work of critical theological reflection on the practice of short-term mission. The first core value he articulates indicates the theological nature of this learning: that mission belongs to God, not to the church. Team leaders are given training that emphasizes another core value, the need of practitioners to “do the hard work with [their] team before, during, and after [their] mission experience to critically examine [their] own biases, stereotypes, and prejudices”.

Both of these core values require that short-term mission practitioners develop a deep sense of humility. The practice of mission provides a space in which people can examine themselves and grow in their discipleship in a way that moves them beyond themselves.

Mission Education Opportunity
The opportunity is there for the United Methodist Church to equip UMVIM participants with curricula and tools to use as they reflect on their experience in mission. It is our own internal conflict over human sexuality that has hobbled mission education. These conflicts have contributed to the rejection of documents written by our experienced missionaries and GBGM staff persons, which has further hobbled mission education efforts.

Another complicating factor was the resistance to “amateurs” in the practice of mission, which implicitly dismissed the ability of lay people to think theologically about mission. Yet, because United Methodists still go out on short-term mission trips, the opportunity still exists for the UMC to provide needed theology of mission curriculum for lay persons.

In my next post, I will discuss why short-term mission in the UMC should be viewed as a practice of faithful lay people who are capable of critical theological reflection on mission, and why this is important for mission education and for the future of the church.

[1] (Church, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 1972, 74)
[2] (Church, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016, 82)

Monday, December 2, 2019

Nkemba Ndjungu on "Sent in Love," Part 1

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Nkemba Ndjungu. Rev. Nkemba is a missionary with Global Ministries. He formerly served as the Mission Superintendent of the Cameroon Mission and currently serves in Belize. This post is part of a series on the UMC's new ecclesiology document, Sent in Love: A United Methodist Understanding of the Church, which will be presented to General Conference 2020 for review and adoption. It is the first of two posts by Rev. Nkemba.

I like the title of this document: Sent in Love. The church is God’s mission to the world. As members of the Universal Church in general, and the United Methodist Church in particular, we are God’s envoys. My comments will address the four Marks of The United Methodist Church, marks that we share with the Universal Church: 1) The United Methodist Church is called to be apostolic; 2) The United Methodist Church is called to be catholic; 3) The United Methodist Church is called to be holy; 4) The United Methodist Church is called to be one.

The United Methodist Church is called to be apostolic
This is our commitment for mission. The Church is God’s mission to the world. A Church without mission is dead. Three fourth of the works performed by our Lord Jesus Christ on earth were social. While helping people with their spiritual needs, the church must also care for their social needs. The Church does not exist for itself. It exists for others.

“The apostolic community exists not for its own sake, but as a means of grace for the whole world, an instrument of God’stransforming and redeeming love. Starting with the sent character of the church should guard against an inward-looking and self-protective stance for the church toward the world” (Sent in Love, p.18). As much as this statement is true, it is also right to say that the church should not embrace the practices of the world that compromise its faith. In his Priestly Prayer, the Lord Jesus made it clear that although the church is in the world, it is not of the world (John 17: 14-19). Making disciples of Jesus Christ is the ultimate mission of the Church.

To make disciples is the mission that Jesus entrusted to us: "Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I prescribed you. And behold, I am with you every day until the end of the world" (Matthew 28: 19-20).

To be able to make disciples of Jesus Christ, churchgoers must be true disciples themselves. For more than twenty centuries, it has been proven that one must be a disciple of Jesus Christ to make disciples of Jesus Christ. When this condition is not fulfilled, we may make disciples, but they are the disciples of a man, a movement or a sect. This is what we see in many churches today. People follow a man, and when that man falls, they are scandalized, and they fall with him.

The second part of the Great Commission, which is also our duty, is training. We make disciples by speaking, proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. When someone becomes a disciple of Jesus it is not the end of the story. He must produce another disciple. A new disciple is someone who must be trained.

The disciple's duty is to make other disciples through training. This is what Jesus meant when he said: “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Jesus expects new disciples to be trained so that they do not remain babies in the faith, but that they grow up in faith. They must learn to do what Jesus commanded; and most importantly, they must make other disciples.

The only reason why we are in this world without being of it, is because our lives must reflect Jesus Christ; and we must be the image of our Master among the people that we are called to serve. To make disciples of all nations is to work with Jesus Christ who works in us, with us and through us, to meet, welcome, teach those whom he places on our way.

The United Methodist Church is called to be catholic
“When we as United Methodists affirm that the church of God is “catholic” we mean to affirm that God’s saving love has a universal intention, and wherever this saving intention draws people together in Christian fellowship, there the fullness of the church is present” (Sent in Love, p. 21). This is our commitment to universality, diversity and ecumenism. We are compelled to see beyond our walls in order to embrace people of different nations and faiths. To work with people of different cultures, traditions and denominations poses many challenges. That is why love must be our leading principle.

God is love, and all life revolves around love. Since God is love, the most important thing He wants us to learn on this earth is love; especially the love of the members of our spiritual family (See 1 Peter 2: 17b, Galatians 6:10). It is in loving that we resemble him the most. Love is the foundation of all the commandments he has given us. Paraphrasing the Lord Jesus, the Apostle Paul said, "For all the law is fulfilled in one word, in this one, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Galatians 5:14). Many people who cause troubles in our societies are people who have not known the love of their parents. Love is the greatest testimony of our Christian life.

Therefore, because of the differences of views and opinions as we work with people different from us, we need to exercise “Universal Grace and a Catholic Spirit” (Sent in Love, p.21) by practicing two great principles: forgiveness and tolerance. Forgiveness is the act by which the Holy God decides not to hold human beings accountable for their sins. While the amnesty of men can be rigged, the forgiveness that God offers is sincere, true and irrevocable. That’s the kind of forgiveness believers must exercise.

Tolerance refers to the ability to accept what one disapproves of, that is, what one should normally refuse. In the moral sense, tolerance is the virtue of respecting what one would not accept spontaneously, for example when it goes against one's own convictions. It is also the virtue that leads to being vigilant both towards intolerance and towards the intolerable. Tolerance can allow unity to hold even in the midst of opposing views and beliefs.

The United Methodist Church is called to be holy
“Scriptural holiness has been understood to include the renewal of persons in the image of God, having the mind that was in Christ Jesus, and ultimately the perfect love of God and neighbor ruling in the heart” (Sent in Love, p.25). This is our call to spiritual and social transformation. God calls us all to be spiritually holy: “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11: 44). Because salvation has a double dimension, the “now and the yet to come,” as Karl Barth puts it, spiritual holiness will not be complete until we achieve social holiness. Through spiritual holiness, we are personally transformed to resemble the God who calls us; and through social holiness, we transform the world that we are called to serve. The means by which we transform the world is service, because we are “sent in love” to serve.

We have been saved and we are sent to serve. It is true that the service does not save, but it is the mirror of our spiritual life. Every Christian has been called to serve God. Vocation is not the privilege of pastors and lay preachers only. All ministries in a church have the same importance. Sometimes even the small hidden ministries make the biggest difference. Size does not matter really. For instance, the liver is smaller than the leg. If your leg is cut off, you can still live long; but if your liver stops, life stops immediately. The Church of God suffers because some people think that they are too “small” to do anything in the church.

Serving God by serving others is giving a part of ourselves; and we renew our own life when we give ourselves to others. We all know the difference between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The difference is that one receives water and gives it away, while the other receives without giving. The consequence is that there is life in the Sea of Galilee, but there is none in the Dead Sea.

At the end of our life, we will stand before God, and He will judge us according to the way we have served him by serving others on this earth. When our time arrives to stand before God, He will not ask us a question such as: How much money did you have in your bank account? Or what brand of car did you drive? No! Instead God will ask us this one fundamental question: How many people did you serve on my behalf? To live is to exercise a ministry.

Service is the path that leads to the true meaning of life. God wants to use each one of us to make a difference in this world. The most important thing is not the duration of our life, but its usefulness.

Monday, November 25, 2019

The UMC and Jared Diamond’s Upheaval, Part 5: Group Cohesion and Conclusion

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.
Having laid out an assessment of the crisis that the UMC is facing, and having laid out the framework that Jared Diamond used in his book Upheaval to assess nation’s abilities to effectively resolve national crisis, I will now examine those factors (adapted for denominations instead of nations) as they apply to The United Methodist Church. I will look at the factors in a different order that Diamond listed them, grouping them instead into four related categories. This post will look at the fourth category:

Denominational Factors Related to Group Cohesion
Finally are two factors related not to a crisis itself, but to the group experiencing it: How strong are the senses of denominational identity and a shared set of denominational core values? Diamond writes about national identity being a particularly important factor for nations resolving crises.

6. Denominational identity
Up until 2019, a sense of denominational identity was rather high in The United Methodist Church. For many leaders and active participants in the UMC, it was important not just that they were Christians or that they were in the Wesleyan/Methodist family, but that they were specifically United Methodist. This is shown, for instance, in attachment to the cross and flame logo or denominational touchstones like the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” or pride in UMCOR.

There was not necessarily strong agreement as to what constituted the core of that identity, and indeed that has been a matter of significant debate. Nevertheless, most parties did have a sense that a United Methodist identity, however defined, was important to them.

It is this sense of denominational identity that has kept the various parties within the UMC at the table. None were willing to walk away because each had a sense that there would be a real loss associated with no longer being part of this denominational identity.

That has changed for many US American United Methodists since General Conference 2019. Many US Americans have begun to question how important it is to them to be specifically United Methodist and to consider futures in which they are no longer part of the UMC.

This decrease in the perceived importance of denominational identity makes it less likely that the denomination will successfully resolve its crisis as an organizational whole. It increases the possibility that the crisis will be resolved by some leaving the denomination, singly or in groups.

11. Denominational core values
While, as noted above, certain touchstones of United Methodist identity are widely shared – the cross and flame, UMCOR, etc. – there is significant debate over the core of denominational identity. Nowhere is that more true than the area of denominational core values.

Debates over the status of LGBTQ persons in the church have highlighted the differences in what different groups of United Methodists perceive to be the core values of the denomination. Kendall Soulen and others have analyzed the debate between traditionalists and progressives as the consequence of different framings of the situation that emphasize either holiness and obedience or justice and liberation. Mission is a core value for many United Methodists, but that value is understood and practiced differently.

The issue of shared core values becomes even more complicated when one takes into account the international nature of the church. As I have shown for Filipino United Methodists, even when Filipinos share core values with American Traditionalists, Centrists, or Progressives, they way they understand those values and connect them to one another differs from the way US American United Methodists approach these core values.

Thus, shared core values for the denomination as an ideological and international whole may not exist.

This brings us to the end of the twelve factors identified by Jared Diamond as relevant to whether and how nations resolve crises. Assuming these factors have some validity for denominations as well as nations has allowed me to take stock of the UMC’s strengths and weaknesses as it attempts to resolve its current crisis of division over sexuality, declining US membership and giving, and difficult international decision-making.

Diamond does not intend his schema as mathematically predictive, and neither do I for my adaptation of his framework. It is impossible to say that if a nation or denomination has X number of factors in its favor or if it just has factors Y and Z, then it will certainly surmount its crisis. Thus, a review of the crisis-resolution factors in the UMC cannot lead to a definitive prediction of whether or nor the UMC will resolve its current crisis, let alone how.

Nonetheless, it is possible to briefly summarize some findings. While my survey of the twelve factors did identify some assets that the UMC has as it tries to resolve its crisis, the UMC also faces challenges in almost every one of these twelve factors. This should give us pause about the prospects of the UMC successfully resolving its current crisis.

In acknowledging that the UMC may not successfully resolve its current crisis, it is important to keep in mind what the opposite of resolving that crisis means. The opposite of resolving the crisis is not schism or the expulsion of one party. These scenarios resolve the crisis in one fashion or another.

No, the opposite of resolving the crisis is for the crisis to continue. That is the real danger for the UMC.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Recommended Readings: Opposition to "Red-Tagging" of National Council of Churches in the Philippines

The National Council of Churches in the Philippines is an ecumenical council of mostly mainline Protestant churches, including the Philippines Central Conference of The United Methodist Church. The Philippine government recently declared the NCCP a front for communist organizations, a move taken in response to the NCCP's criticism of the government's extrajudicial killings of mostly poor citizens in its drug war and its oppression of indigenous peoples in the Philippines. This move by the government increases the risk of government persecution of Christians, including United Methodists, who faithfull speak out on behalf of the poor.

This move has been widely condemned by faith groups around the world. Below is a rundown of responses:
The NCCP's own statement
World Council of Churches statement
National Council of Churches in Christ in the USA statement
Global Ministries statement
UMNS story on the situation

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Maclane Heward: The Foundations of UMVIM: Michael Watson, the Red Scare and the Social Gospel

Today's post is by Maclane Heward. Mr. Heward is a doctoral candidate in the History of Christianity and Religions of North America at Claremont Graduate University. It is part of an on-going UM & Global series on UMVIM and short-term mission.

Michael Watson stands prominently among the many individuals who brought about the formation and growth of the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) program. Surprisingly just a few years before Watson took his family on his first short-term mission experience, he himself considered leaving behind his childhood faith in search of something “more to [his] liking.” The purpose of this brief post will be to illuminate one particular experience that became formative for Michael Watson as he became perhaps the most significant figure in the establishment of UMVIM.

Watson, having been raised by a mother who had a heart for mission, began his medical practice after his discharge from the US Marine Corps and his completion of medical school in the small South Carolina town of Bamberg in the late 1950s.

Watson became fast friends with a like-minded young minister by the name of George Strait. Strait and Watson shared more than just their status as young enterprising Methodist bachelors, they were significantly missionary-minded and felt that the opportunities for Methodists to be involved with missions beyond simply financing them would allow the laity “more meaningful participation in the life of the church.”[1]

A “strange thing happened” in 1960 when Watson was elected the South Carolina Annual Conference’s Minimum Salary Commission which placed him on the Conference’s Board of Missions. With Strait already participating on the board as the District Mission Secretary, the two individuals now had a voice in sharing their ideas regarding lay involvement in missionary pursuits. Among other activities, they “decided to enlighten the General Board of Missions with [their] inspiration” to send the laity into mission service for short periods of time. The letter sent seemed to fall by the wayside as it was never responded to.

During the same period of time, the late 1950s and early 1960s, The National Council of Churches (NCC), had come under increased scrutiny due to its supposed involvement in Communism. As the church was a member of the NCC, suspicions arouse regarding its involvement in communism. One study conducted in 1954 found that the “Methodist church, a member of the National Council of Churches, was the least likely among Protestant groups to support Joseph McCarthy and his subcommittee.”[2] Thus, in the minds of some, it was the most likely to house communist infiltration.

It was at this time that Watson became so disconcerted with the possibility that the church was somehow involved with communism that he began looking for a new church home among other denominations. His fellow congregants in Bamberg shared his anxiety and appointed Watson the chairman of a special committee to research and report on the infiltration of the NCC by communists.

So while Watson was investigating the NCC, he was also looking into other denominations. Dissatisfied with each denomination he investigated, Watson began researching the beginnings of Methodism. He learned that Methodism began during the Industrial Revolution in England, a “time when man’s inhumanity to man was at its zenith.”

While originally concerned that if Methodism was not communistic, it certainly leaned socialistic, the process of learning about the church’s beginnings caused Watson to be “no longer… suspicious of [Methodism’s] Social Gospel, but … Proud of it and realized that this had been [his] position all the time!” Looking again at the critics of the NCC, Watson with his new paradigm was able to see the conflict over the NCC as a conflict between liberal and conservative theological ideologies, a conflict that he had not previously known existed. He came to see the accusations of communist infiltration as the attempts of the “Righteous Right.”[3] His report to the Board of Stewards in Bamberg concluded “there was just a difference of opinion and perspective that had been carried beyond the bounds of truthfulness by some of the critics.”

His research and the increase outside criticism of the NCC led to the SEJ Conference leadership appointing him to give a report on the NCC at the UMC Conference. Watson’s report informed the conference on the NCC and concluded that “the NCC was in reality cooperative Protestant Christianity in America” and was part of a worldwide movement of “Christian cooperation.”[4]

Two significant outcomes took place as a result of Watson’s investigation into communism in the NCC.

First, Watson himself became aware of his deep connection and commitment to the Methodist church. As part of that commitment to Methodism, Watson learned that involvement in social issues and in humanitarian efforts was at the core of how Methodism began; the Social Gospel was not just a thing the church did—for Watson it was the core of what the church did.

Second, because of previous time constraints, Watson left immediately after his conference report was received by standing ovation. In his absence he was voted in as the official delegate to the NCC from the Methodist Church.

This appointment greatly expanded Watson’s interactions with decision makers in the Methodist church and other mainline denominations across America. During each of his interactions with executives from the Methodist church he would steer the conversation toward his “favorite subject—using volunteers in [the Methodist] mission program.”[5]

Though nothing came directly of these conversations—seemingly because of the aversion of Methodist executives to the use of volunteers in a work done by professionals—his associations led him to an appointment as a member of the Methodist Committee on Relief (MCOR, which would later become UMCOR after the merging of the Methodist church and the Evangelical United Brethren church in 1968).

Watson’s involvement in UMCOR played directly into lay participation in short-term mission (STM) experiences. Having learned of Watson’s commitment to using volunteers, James Thomas, a UMCOR staff member, called Watson just months after his appointment to UMCOR and informed him of a volunteer opportunity. Thomas, an official representative of the church, was essentially inviting Watson on the first UMVIM trip. Watson’s reaction: “After 14 years, we at last had a mission challenge. I could hardly wait to tell George [Strait].”[6]

[1] Michael Watson. “A Journey of Faith,” September 1, 2009, 2. See also Thomas L. Curtis. From the Grassroots: A History of United Methodist Volunteers In Mission. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000, 34.
[2] Thomas Aiello, “Constructing ‘Godless Communism’: Religion, Politics, and Popular Culture, 1954– 1960,” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 4, no. 1 (Spring 2005): See also Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason: Right Wing Extremism in America, 1790–1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 230.
[3] Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 4.
[4] Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 4.
[5] Watson details the dominos that fell in consequence of his presentation on communism in the NCC. “The acceptance of membership on the NCC General Board led to a series of events that included 12 years as a member of UMCOR, eight years as a member of the Board of Missions/Board of Global Ministries, membership in five Jurisdictional Conferences and three General Conferences and three years as a member of the Board of Directors of Church World Service. I also served as the U.S. delegate to the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas meeting in Nassau, The Bahamas, and to the British Methodist Conference meeting in Nottingham, England. I was elected to membership in the World Council of Churches meeting in Upsula, Sweden, and the World Methodist Council meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, but was unable to attend those meetings.” Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 5.
[6] Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 6.

Monday, November 18, 2019

The UMC and Jared Diamond’s Upheaval, Part 4: Ability to Learn from Crisis

Having laid out an assessment of the crisis that the UMC is facing, and having laid out the framework that Jared Diamond used in his book Upheaval to assess nation’s abilities to effectively resolve national crisis, I will now examine those factors (adapted for denominations instead of nations) as they apply to The United Methodist Church. I will look at the factors in a different order that Diamond listed them, grouping them instead into four related categories. This post will look at the third category:

Denominational Factors Related to Ability to Learn
As Peter Senge and other leadership and organizational theorists have shown, an organization’s ability to successfully adapt and respond to change depends upon its ability not only to act, but to learn from its actions, current and past. Organizations that can learn are better able to adapt and respond to change and thus more likely to survive. Three of the factors identified by Diamond have to do with organizational learning – from previous crises, from failures, and from other organizations.

8. Historical experience of previous denominational crises
This factor asks whether there are previous crises that The United Methodist Church (or its predecessor denominations) has successfully faced from which it can collectively learn lessons and develop a sense of resiliency. There are certainly previous crises in the predecessors of the UMC from which lessons might be learned or resiliency be obtained.

The previous crisis that is most frequently invoked in discussions of the UMC’s current crisis is the split between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1844 over the issue of slavery. Commentators draw a range of lessons from this division, and it is not clear that there is a consensus on what the lesson of that split was for our current situation. Moreover, that the two denominations did not merge again until 75 years later, and that there were problems with that merger related to underlying issues of race and regionalism indicate that this split is perhaps not the sort of model all hope applies to the current situation.

Changes in church teaching and practices on divorce or clergy smoking tobacco are also sometimes held up as historical examples that the church can successfully resolve dissent over practices related to sexuality, marriage, and ordination. That is true, and the denomination should take some consolation from that, though these issues did not become crises at the same level as our current crisis.

The church could also perhaps learn from the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, which strained most of American Protestantism, but affected Methodists less than other denominations. Some scholars have undertaken to do so, but those lessons are not ones widely discussed.

Other previous crises in the church – especially those leading to splits in the church, such as the variety of holiness departures from the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Association/United Evangelical Church split, or the United Brethren in Christ/United Brethren in Christ (Old Constitution) split – have faded significantly from collective memory and do not seem to be a source of lessons for the present.

It is worth noting that all the examples cited above are from the United States. These examples will not have the same resonance with United Methodists outside the US. Instead, local and regional experiences will lead to other lessons drawn about how to resolve crises, as I have shown for the recent Filipino schism. Knowledge of these crises and the lessons drawn from them are not likely to be shared beyond a particular region.

9. Dealing with denominational failure
According to Diamond, dealing with failure involves the patience to try possible ways to resolve a crisis and the ability to tolerate failure in the process. One could include in this factor the ability to learn from failure, both failures in resolving the present crisis and past collective failures.

However, in the present UMC, failure to resolve the current crisis has seemed to increase emotional tensions within the denomination. General Conference 2016, the Commission on a Way Forward, and General Conference 2019 all failed in their own ways to resolve the denomination’s current crisis, especially as it manifests in the debate about the status of LGBTQ persons in the church.

Rather than the church seeing these failures as teachable moments from which it could learn, the failures have left United Methodists, especially in the United States, with limited remaining patience to try additional solutions to the current crisis to see if they work. Many US United Methodists now want a resolution to the crisis in the next year or two, or else they intend to leave.

The denomination’s attitude towards its current failures can be seen as part of a larger pattern of ignoring or minimizing failures rather than learning from them. Failures are either recast as successes or are edited out of our collective history.

Most United Methodists do recognize the failures inherent in the way that the denomination and its predecessors treated women and people of color, especially in the creation of the segregated Central Jurisdiction. And United Methodists do draw lessons from the movements for ordination of women and the abolition of the Central Jurisdiction. Yet, the focus on these pieces of United Methodist history is often on successfully getting past these failures, e.g., by talking much more about the events that led up to the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction rather than those that led up to its creation.

Other failures that might be relevant to our current crisis have largely been edited out of our collective history. The financial and membership failures associated with the collapse of the $2 billion (in today’s money) fundraising campaign and the evangelistic campaign both associated with the Mission Centenary, and its long-lasting consequences for the world-wide nature of the church have been intentionally forgotten because the church was unwilling to grapple with this failure. The COSMOS (Commission on the Status of Methodism Overseas) process has also largely been forgotten (outside of this blog) after its failure to move the church to a new model of international decision-making.

5. Using other denominations as models of how to solve the problems
In some ways, The United Methodist Church is trying to do something no other denomination has done – resolve a debate on sexuality as an international denomination. In that regard, there is no model for the UMC. Yet, in looking at the components of the problem, there are models from which the church can draw.

Notably, other mainline US denominations have gone through crises over the status of LGBTQ persons within them, and those crises have been resolved, in one way or another. United Methodists frequently cite the examples of the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and UCC. Less well known is the similar Moravian crisis. United Methodists seem to be committed to learning from these other models.

None of these other denominations are international, though the Episcopalians and Moravians are part of world-wide communions, and the international structures of these two traditions have intersected with how these two denominations resolved their crises over the status of LGBTQ persons in the church.

There are also models from other denominations of how to structure international decision-making within an international Methodist/Wesleyan denomination. The AME Church, AME Zion Church, The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, and the Church of the Nazarene have all adopted different models for international decision-making. None of these models were adopted in the midst of debates over sexuality, however. Furthermore, most United Methodists are not familiar with these models and are thus not actively trying to learn from them.

There are no real models for successfully solving one component of the UMC’s crisis – the decline in US membership and giving. No other major US denomination has turned around long-term membership decline.

There are, however, perhaps still some models that are worth examining, both in other denominations and within the UMC. The Fresh Expressions movement in England and elsewhere is a model that many United Methodists are exploring as a means to counteract membership decline.

Moreover, as I have previously argued, examining the practices of racial and ethnic minority UMC churches in the US may yield models, as the total membership of these churches has continued to grow, even while white American membership has declined. Little work has yet been done, though, in trying to identify such models, and the mere suggestion of learning from racial and ethnic minorities has prompted resistance by some in the church.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Where Are the Central Conferences in the WCA's New Denomination?

The Wesleyan Covenant Association last week released its draft Book of Doctrines and Disciplines, which provides the framework for a new denomination that the WCA expects will form out of the current turmoil in the UMC, either as a result of a split or as a way for individual departing congregations to regroup.

The WCA has stated that their preference is for a split along the lines of the Indianapolis Plan, which was endorsed by both the WCA leadership team and last weekend's Global Gathering. Under the terms of the Indianapolis Plan, the new denomination would include not only US Traditionalists, but also many from the central conferences, who become part of the new denomination by default.

The expectation that United Methodists from the central conferences will become part of this new denomination raises a fair question: What would the draft Book of Doctrines and Disciplines (D&D) mean for United Methodists in the central conferences?

First, a disclaimer: the D&D as released is a DRAFT. Significant sections, including one on conferences, are yet to be written. Existing sections may be significantly modified. Yet, despite this caveat, the draft D&D contains enough to have some sense of the implications for the central conferences.

Second, a note about authorship. The WCA stated that a 16-person team wrote the draft D&D, but they did not state who these 16 people were. 15% of the WCA Council is from the central conferences, and there have been people from the central conferences speaking at all WCA events. Yet, given the overwhelmingly American nature of both the Council and Global Gatherings, it is likely that the writing team for the D& was overwhelmingly American.

Moreover, the recent Global Gathering does not appear to have been streamed in any central conferences, so there appears to be limited involvement by the United Methodists from the central conferences in affirming the draft D&D.

However, if the central conferences except for Western Europe were to join the new denomination, along with, say, 25% of US membership, then Methodists from the central conferences would represent 75% of the membership of the new denomination.

Thus, there's already an issue in a (likely) largely US group making decisions that will impact a largely non-US group. That pattern is not confined to the WCA but is unfortunately all too common in the UMC as a whole.

Let's turn now to what the draft D&D says. I'll discuss four points:

1. Central conferences and episcopal areas, as they are now, cease to exist.
The draft D&D refers only to annual conferences and regional conferences. Regional conferences are primarily about overseeing shared ministry. They do not have the power to elect bishops or adapt the D&D, and thus are significantly different from central conferences, as they currently stand. Moreover, the draft D&D envisions bishops serving a single annual conference, not episcopal areas of more than one annual conference. This leads to my second observation:

2. Ending episcopal areas would force a massive reorganization of the central conferences.
Currently, in many places outside the US, bishops serve multiple annual conferences. Requiring each annual conference to have its own bishop would either result in many more bishops or many fewer annual conferences outside the US, or both. To cite just one instance, would the 2,000 United Methodists in Poland get their own bishop, or would they become a district of some transnational annual conference?

In whatever way such questions are answered, this new denomination would require a massive reorganization of current UMC central conference structures. Any such reorganization is likely to have significant economic, legal, and church political implications.

3. There is not currently any indication that people outside the US will be able to adapt the D&D.
When the section on Conferences is written, this power may be given to annual conferences outside the US, but currently the draft D&D makes no provision for adaptation by context.

This raises at very least some legal and logistical questions. The draft D&D includes extensive rules around trusteeship. Will these rules meet the legal requirements for all countries in which this new denomination would function? The draft D&D requires an online database of all pastors and open appointments. Will this apply to remote congregations in the DRC as well?

In general, the draft D&D seems to repeatedly presume a US context of formal organizational rules and procedures, easy printing enabling frequent use of forms and paperwork, and easy internet access. These conditions do not exist in many parts of the UMC around the world.

4. Bishops are significantly weakened in the new denomination.
Under the draft D&D, bishops are term-limited to twelve years. They also have curtailed powers, including a hybrid call/confirmation system for pairing clergy with congregations instead of the current appointment process.

Bishops, especially in Africa, are currently positions of great power and usually great respect. Bishops in Africa serve for life after winning 1-2 elections. They frequently have the power to appoint not just clergy, but leading laity as well.

Thus, the proposed reduction in the powers of the bishop would go over much differently in Africa than in the anti-institutional, anti-bureaucracy culture of the United States. Of course, views will differ among Africans, and Filipinos and Europeans will have still other views, but this change is not likely to be as welcome in the central conferences as in the US.

In short, the draft Book of Doctrines and Disciplines struck me as overwhelmingly US-centric and often unaware of the consequences its proposed changes would have for the central conferences.

This raises an open question: Does this proposal mark the end of the road for the coalition between US Traditionalists and United Methodists from the central conferences, especially Africa?

That coalition has been founded on mutual opposition to homosexuality. But we've seen with the African bishops' statement opposing a split and opposing plans written without central conference input, that the interests of US Traditionalists and Africans are sometimes opposed to one another.

US Traditionalists may find that joint opposition to homosexuality is not enough to incentivize most Africans and Filipinos to follow them into a new denomination that would make radical changes to the church in their lands, changes that they had, at most, a minor role in determining.

The African bishops' statement said, "We cannot allow a split to further reduce us to second-class citizens in a church that only needs us when they want our votes. As Africans, we have the right of self-determination and we have the right to speak for ourselves and determine who we want to be." Whatever the future of the UMC in the US, Africa, and elsewhere, we should take Africans at their word when they speak of self-determination.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Recommended Viewing: Mission Volunteer Videos

Today's post is part of an on-going UM & Global series on UMVIM and short-term mission.

Global Ministries' Mission Volunteers program has put out a series of ten videos related to various aspects of the program. Mission Volunteers is a program for what might be called "intermediate-term mission," with individuals or couples serving for between two months and two years. Thus, it's longer than the typical 1-2 week short-term mission trip but usually shorter than the placement for a long-term missionary. Like short-term missions, Global Ministries facilitates placements, but Mission Volunteers serve at their own initiative and expense, not as commissioned and supported Global Ministries missionaries.

The 2-3 minute videos cover theological, spiritual, and cultural considerations related to serving, as well as technical aspects of the program, such as the application process. Here is a complete list:

Expanding Cultural Awareness

Application Process

Theology of Mission

Spiritual and Emotional Health


Social Media

Accident and Health Insurance

Health, Safety and Travel

Financial Support and Budgeting

Culture Shock and Reentry