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.”
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.
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.”
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.