Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Will the Future of the UMC Look Like CIEMAL?

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.

While General Conference 2019 was a divisive experience and the legislative results hotly contested, the one thing that everyone seems to agree on in its aftermath is that The United Methodist Church cannot continue in the same form it has. Our present ecclesiological system is unable to respond adequately to the challenges of our life together, and it is necessary to find new ways of being Methodist together, or quite likely, apart from one another.

It is entirely possible that if the UMC splits, the remaining parts would have no relation to one another. Yet there are many who do not want to give up on our global connections even while there is some form of separation. How then can these connections continue?

Robert Hunt, in a recent blog post, asserts that "true unity is found only in the world-wide mission of the apostolic church," but sees such an understanding of unity as compatible with "a global Methodist Church made up of autonomous annual conferences."

What would such a global Methodist Church look like? One possibility is that it would look a good deal like CIEMAL, El Consejo de Iglesias Evangélicas Metodistas de América Latina y el Caribe (the Council of Methodist Churches of Latin America and the Caribbean).

CIEMAL is an organization that brings together fifteen autonomous Methodist churches. It "acts as a convener, guide and director of the service and the testimony of Latin American Methodism."

The member denominations of CIEMAL are entirely autonomous. They are responsible for their own doctrinal standards, worship guidance, clergy credentialing, and structures of authority and accountability. They also each have internal structures for joint mission and ministry and for shared fellowship among their members.

Yet the denominations of CIEMAL recognize that they have something to gain through the joint mission, joint ministry, and mutual fellowship provided by the wider body. CIEMAL does such things as promoting coordination between member bodies, facilitating fraternal exchange among member denominations, mutually training cross-cultural missionaries, recognizing and supporting newly-forming Methodist churches in the area (such as Columbia and Venezuela), resolving conflicts between Methodist bodies (as in Venezuela), and engaging other Methodist bodies around the world (such as the Methodist Church in Britain). All this happens through a Program Commission, a Council of Bishops, a four-person Executive Committee, and an occasional General Assembly.

CIEMAL was formed in the late 1960s when United Methodist Church annual conferences in Latin America were becoming autonomous but wanted to avoid becoming insular and instead maintain some connection to one another and The United Methodist Church, which participates in CIEMAL through Global Ministries.

If The United Methodist Church breaks up into two or more autonomous bodies, there could still be a role for some organization to play in facilitating conversations between members of these bodies, coordinating mutual mission and ministry work, training and sending missionaries, and supporting the creation of new Methodist churches in areas around the world. Such an arrangement could provide current United Methodists with enough space from each other through autonomy without surrendering the global sense of mutual compassion and fellowship that at best characterizes our international body as it is.


  1. It might be noted that the creation of CIEMAL, as a regional consortium of Latin American and Caribbean autonomous Methodist churches, was created at their initiative when the UM General Conference of 1968 failed to set in motion the creation of regional bodies as a significant component of a COSMOS proposed global Methodist structure to accommodate newly autonomous churches. It was a missed opportunity to establish a global church empowered by mutually interdependent regional expressions of Methodism. Instead a colonial system of mission dependence was permitted to continue through the Central Conference structure.

    In its early years CIEMAL played a unified representational role for its member bodies in navigating their post-autonomy funding and program relationships to the UM mission board. But it also provided important contextual analyses for their North American UM mission partners to respond to desperate conditions of economic oppression and political repression supported by controversial US foreign policies. Gradually CIEMAL cultivated fraternal relationships with British Methodists, European UM mission boards and the United Church in Canada with whom they also share personnel and program resources. While resourcing member churches in the region with assistance in church development, leadership training and other program matters are significant functions for CIEMAL, handling external protocol responsibilities remains a principal duty.

    Should the UMC breakup into autonomous bodies, a second chance at establishing regional autonomy awaits. A construct similar to CIEMAL in each region is certainly viable, but only after reconsidering the stewardship question. It would require a repurposing of the functions and redistribution of considerable resources of the current denominational agencies. And it would take a manifestation of a vital interest in unity that our Latin American colleagues demonstrate, but is regrettably lacking in our current UM experience.
    Robert Harman

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    1. With Cynthia, I thank you Robert for your insightful comments on the paths taken and not taken to help explain our current crisis. Let me venture a lament stimulated by your comment. For all our current talk about "mission," "unity," "contextual freedom," and the like, we seem to pay remarkably little attention to the study of world Christianity--a conversation that has been going on among missiologists for decades. This movement reconfiguring the face of the Christian faith today offers rich resources and perspectives--both theological and historical--that United Methodists desperately need right now.

  2. Dr. Harman, your comments on the history of CIEMAL are so valuable to our collective institutional memory that I'm going to republish them along with David Scott's post on United Methodist Insight,