This is the 148th and final post on UM & Global for 2020, and it's time for the annual year in review. 2020 was quite a year for a number of reasons, and the themes that were prominent on this blog were prominent in many other media sources. There were three themes that received consistent attention in a variety of posts throughout the year:
1. The COVID-19 Pandemic
2020 will be remembered around the world as the year in which the COVID-19 pandemic struck at aspects of society from healthcare to the economy to family gatherings to church meetings. UM & Global examined several issues related to the pandemic. We shared information when United Methodist churches outside the US closed due to restrictions (, , , ), but also the new possibilities for connection made possible (, ). We talked a lot about how pandemic-related travel restrictions impacted mission and missionaries (, , , , , , , ) and gave rise to the phenomenon of virtual mission trips (, , , ). We shared videos discussing the impact of COVID-19 on the church around the world (, , , , , ). We explored how the pandemic impacted theology and ethical issues (, , , , ). We examined how the pandemic might still impact a rescheduled General Conference in 2021 (, , , ). We talked about whether the Payroll Protection Program eroded the separation of church and state in the United States (, ). We speculated about what might be different about mission after the pandemic's impact subsides (). The pandemic featured in a quarter of our posts from 2020, more than any other topic.
2. United Methodist Division
When the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation dropped on January 3rd, it was clear that a split in the church would be a major story of 2020. While that division has not yet formally occurred, that possibility has been a major focus for UM & Global, along with other United Methodist news sources and commentators. At UM & Global, we have explored the financial issues associated with division ([collection of posts here]), tracked European efforts to find their own ways forward (, , , , ), examined the Christmas Covenant (, , ), discussed the roots of division (, , ), followed the various political maneuverings in advance of such a division (, , ), and examined the how the COVID-19 pandemic (see above) might impact denominational division (, , , ). These posts included a fifth of the total published in 2020.
The #BlackLivesMatter protests that swept around the world starting in June focused attention on the ways in which racism is woven into US society and the global social order. UM & Global picked up this theme by looking at the global dimensions of this and other nonviolent protests (, ) by examining the intersections between race and mission (, , , , , ) and race and other aspects of the church (, ). Related to the topic of race and racial hierarchies, there have also been a number of posts over the year examining the relationship between religion and empire (, , , ) and how this connection may be driving the decline of Christianity in the United States (, ) in ways that intersect importantly with race.
Other topics that crossed multiple posts included evangelism, missionaries, theological education, ecumenism, women in mission, understanding cultural difference, and an evaluation of the ecclesiology document Sent in Love.
Wednesday, December 30, 2020
This is the 148th and final post on UM & Global for 2020, and it's time for the annual year in review. 2020 was quite a year for a number of reasons, and the themes that were prominent on this blog were prominent in many other media sources. There were three themes that received consistent attention in a variety of posts throughout the year:
Monday, December 28, 2020
Here at UM & Global, we're taking advantage of the slower news cycle around the holidays to make a few updates to the blog. In particular, we've updated our pages, which you can find underneath the banner. We've updated existing pages to ensure that links are still active, and we've added two new pages.
The first new page, "UM & Global Collections," includes a list of all of the UM & Global collections that we've released throughout the fall. These are PDF compilations of multiple posts on a single topic. I hope this list of resources all in one place will be useful for regular readers, scholars, and students.
The second new page, "The UMC Around the World," includes a list of the United Methodist web presence around the world. The page gives websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts (where these exist) for the UMC at the national level. In some instances, information is given for episcopal areas or annual conferences where it is lacking or sparse at the national level. No national web presence exists for the United States outside of the general denominational web presence that serves the entire denomination, and annual conference accounts in the US are not listed.
Many of the information that informs the writing on this blog or appears in "Recommended Readings" posts originates on these websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts from United Methodists around the world. Now, you can more easily access this information itself, whether its accessing the website of the UMC in Cote d'Ivoire, finding the Facebook page for the Baguio Episcopal Area, or following United Methodists in Bulgaria on Twitter!
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
In follow-up, the two latest collections continue to examine issues of ecclesiology, especially missional ecclesiology. A collection on missional ecclesiology with contributions by David W. Scott and Hendrik R. Pieterse looks at the relationship between mission and our theological understandings of the church. A second collection of essays by David W. Scott considers various sources for denominational unity, exploring in particular the connection between personal relationships and unity.
As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students.
Monday, December 21, 2020
Today's post is by Robert J. Harman. Rev. Harman is a mission executive retired from the General Board of Global Ministries.
Many in the churches have been watching the grueling efforts in the US Congress to reach a compromise on a second installment of a stimulus bill so very much needed by segments of the population still reeling from the impact of COVID-19. Those who benefitted from the large amounts of funding available to churches in the rollout of the CARES Act Payroll Protection Program may have a special interest in whether a similar provision will be available in any new funding package.
Analysts found that churches benefitted from over $5 billion in the first installment, of which participating United Methodists took in $500 million, much more than the quadrennial budget of the entire denomination. That bonanza occurred without any evidence of a formal consideration of the appropriateness of the legislation ignoring historic standards for honoring the doctrine of separation of church and state. (See my previous article on this topic here.)
In light of those historic standards, is it reasonable to assume that United Methodist church leaders might yet be nudged into a new stance discouraging the acceptance of new government funds? Might United Methodists come out in support of the constitutional separation that assures citizen taxpayers that government funds will not be used to support religion? I hope so, because the silence and accommodation of the churches is having a devastating effect upon the performance of the Supreme Court on church and state cases.
In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, legal columnist Linda Greenhouse ponders the direction of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, even before its hold on the court was cemented by the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Greenhouse suggests the court is catering to religious liberty voices within a growing constituency, which she identifies as grievance conservatives. Their influence upon the court has risen by claiming to be an overlooked, silent majority that has been treated unfairly in a system that is rigged against them. When religious liberty cases cite the cause of their grievances as “overreach of liberal government policies,” a partisan political agenda is advanced.
Their legal philosophy argues that the historic doctrine of separation of church and state actually discriminates against the right of religious-based organizations to participate equally in the benefits of government resources and programs, and its strict observance denies recognition of legal protection to individual religionists in practicing their faith.
At the outset, the founders saw the protection of free exercise of religion as a guarantee of freedom from the oppressive state-controlled churches and religious life from which so many citizens had fled to settle in America. Government would not interfere with individual or communal acts of devotion associated with the doctrines or traditions of faith communities. Further, because they were products of the Enlightenment, the founders believed their experiment in democratic rule required designing a secular state. Thus, Thomas Jefferson could declare in a letter to a Baptist association that his first amendment non-establishment clause would be a “wall of separation between church and state.”
Recent religious liberty decisions of the high court have been fraught with unsavory implications that the founders sought to avoid by enshrining the non-establishment clause. In her NYT opinion piece, Greenhouse illustrates how several cases infringing upon the separation principle produced collateral damage to other well-established rights.
In a case challenging a state subsidy for private-school tuition, the court ruled that funding must include parochial schools in the program. It ruled that religious organizations may exclude a substantial category of employees from the protections of federal civil rights laws under a “ministerial exception” that goes well beyond members of the ministry. It found that employers with religious or even vague “moral” objections to contraception can opt out of the federal requirement to include birth control in their employee health plan coverage. These cases found their precedence in more publicized Supreme Court cases such as Hobby Lobby, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri—all cases in which persons / organizations with religious claims were all granted anti-discrimination protections.
The court’s decisions are celebrated by religious liberty activists but are questioned as discriminatory by advocates of church-state separation, organized labor, women’s health, public education, civil rights, and LGBTQ rights, who are all concerned that religious exemptions will deprive their constituents of constitutional rights and equal access to vital services.
Only a firm endorsement of the separation doctrine will place all matters that have potential for endorsement of religion beyond the purview of the court. Jefferson’s promise should offer a foundational legal principle for churches today, as conservative advocates focusing their grievance arguments on alleged violations of the free exercise clause find sympathetic jurists willing to define what is and what is not authentic religious belief and practice. Can judges accurately read the heart of a plaintive to ascertain the true foundation of faith s/he represents in a legal claim? Or can a judicial body arrive at an appropriate remedy for alleged social damages in a case-by-case review of alleged infractions of individuals’ freedom of religion?
Churches should be found among the more active court watchers and legal advocates with standing in cases that exploit religious liberty for individual / corporate advantage or political gain. While grievance conservatives can find safe harbor in well-financed conservative legal societies/lobbies like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, they must no longer take comfort in silence from ecumenical and mainline churches. The free exercise and non-establishment clauses deserve the defense of communities of faith that understand these principles to be part and parcel of the common good and defend justice for all.
Unfortunately, the current silence of the churches may have been bought and paid for by the billions of dollars they received through participation in the PPP funding.
The conservative legal argument that established the victories for the religious right cited above prevailed in the legislation enabling churches to apply for loans/grants during the hardship experienced in the initial phase of the COVID pandemic. If receipt of these funds leads to ecumenical and mainline silence on issues of separation of church and state, conservatives will have won a double victory.
Churches must re-assert the separation principle that provision of taxpayer funds for direct support of those in preparation for, or engaged in, the teaching and preaching of religious doctrine is an arbitrary violation of the non-establishment clause.
This complacency of churches is especially egregious because it is happening at a critical moment in history. The rise in the United States of nationalist behavior behind the America First political theme is being hailed by autocratic leaders worldwide and undermining trust in democracy at home. Must we recall the tragic history of how populism begets authoritarian rule when conspiring with representatives of state-sanctioned religion?
The religious right’s successful embrace of religious liberty causes and its growing favoritism among conservatives in the judiciary must be countered before it assumes by default the mantle of establishment. It is late, but hopefully not too late for an urgent correction.
Friday, December 18, 2020
The four episodes are as follows:
Ben Lasley, a former Global Missions Fellow from the United States serving at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Lily Maijama'a, a Global Missions Fellow from Nigeria serving the West Africa Initiative of Liberia
Temba Nkomozepi, a missionary from Zimbabwe serving at the Mujila Falls Agriculture Center in Kanyama, Zambia
Mark and Deirdre Zimmerman, missionaries from the United States serving at Patan Hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal
Wednesday, December 16, 2020
Last week, I suggested that it is possible to interpret American Christianity as an imperial religion, that is, a religion whose symbols have served and continue to serve to affirm the ways in which the United States as an empire has sought to order the world and the power structures that have allowed the United States to do so. Moreover, I suggested that interpreting American Christianity in this way offers an account for the current decline of Christian adherence in the United States--it is a function of the declining imperial power of the United States.
In my analysis, I highlighted a conundrum for American Christianity: If American Christianity remains an imperial religion, it will continue to decline as American imperial power continues to wane. However, merely critiquing the imperial meanings behind the symbols of American Christianity will not transform it into a non-imperial religion. Instead, it will leave those symbols meaningless, leading to further decline.
For those interesting in the vitality of American Christianity as a religious tradition, the path forward must involve adding new, non-imperial meanings to the symbols of American Christianity. In this post, I would like to suggest three important ways in which that can happen: through contextual theology, cross-cultural theology, and constructive theology.
First, though, two important caveats:
1) American Christianity is an amazingly diverse religious tradition with many different symbols and adherents of many different social backgrounds. This short blog post cannot adequately account for all of the ways in which this diversity intersects with the project of constructing a non-imperial American Christianity.
2) While a full accounting of the diversity of American Christianity is beyond the scope of this post, race must be recognized as a critical factor. For white American Christians, as Robert P. Jones has shown, American Christianity has functioned not only as an imperial religion, but as a religion of white supremacy. The two phenomena are closely connected. This makes the challenge of creating a non-imperial religion that much harder for white American Christians.
On the other hand, because the Christian traditions of other racial/ethnic groups in the United States contain elements that are opposed to or distinct from the ordering of the world to which white Americans have aspired, those elements constitute resources for the construction of non-imperial religion, as evidenced by higher resilience in Christian adherence among many non-white groups.
These non-imperial resources within what have traditionally been labeled "contextual theologies" (at least by dominant white theologians) represent the first path forward for constructing a non-imperial theology. These symbols that either directly resist imperial orderings or direct the attention of believers to aspects of the world outside the imperial order are important sources of meaning that are not tied to the continued success of the empire. They are meanings that can and should take on more importance within a non-imperial American Christianity.
(Though anti-imperial meanings are in some way still dependent upon the empire for their significance. Thus, a religion that is merely a protest against empire may face challenges similar to an imperial religion upon the decline of that empire--loss of meaning stemming from loss of its central referrant point. That is why pointing beyond empire is in some ways even more important than resisting empire.)
Another resource for elaborating new, non-imperial meanings within American Christianity is cross-cultural theology. Theologies from outside the direct reach of American imperial power are especially valuable resources for creating a non-imperial Christianity because they are already relatively separated from the imperial power structures of the United States. Not all of these religious meanings will be able to be easily imported into American Christianity, but they represent an essential trove of theological riches that should be eagerly examined by those interested in the future of American Christianity.
The need to import and thus adapt religious meanings from other cultures leads to the third important way in which a non-imperial American Christianity can be fashioned: through constructive theology. This constructive theology, ideally using the resources of contextual and cross-cultural theologies, must rebuild American Christianity on bases of meaning not dependent upon secular imperial power. This project of constructive theology should thus engage seriously with themes neglected by imperial theologies focused on the power and success of empire. Thus, theological topics like suffering, pain, loss, death, weakness, and trauma will probably take on increased importance within this type of constructive theology.
Because of the diversity of American Christianity and because of the way in which transitions between paradigms happen, it is likely that what will be necessary, at least in the short term, is a proliferation of various attempts to construct new non-imperial meanings within American Christianity. Some of these attempts will ultimately prove to be more successful than others.
There are several open questions with regard to this approach. First, there is the large question of whether those at the imperial center, even if they recognize on some level that they and their religious system are in trouble, will have the humility to open themselves to learning from those at the imperial margins. Empire does not cultivate that sort of humility, so it goes against the conditioning of those at the center to be willing to learn in this way.
It is also an open question whether any of these new meanings or even all of these new meanings together will be enough to reverse decades of decline within Christian adherence in the United States. The 60+% of Americans that were members of Christian churches in the early 1960s may stand as an all-time high water mark. Nevertheless, such contextual, cross-cultural, and constructive theologies remain the best hope for an alternative to the hastening obsolescence of imperial American Christianity.
Moreover, whatever happens to American Christianity, the good news is that Christianity as a world-wide religious traditions is sufficiently diverse and well-distributed that it will keep going, with or without a robust American Christianity. What I am suggesting is not about how American Christians can save the world; it is about how they can save their own souls. And giving up the notion that God will save the world through you and instead admitting that you need God to save you through the world is the first step towards God's grace as it breaks in to imperial decline.
Monday, December 14, 2020
As part of their Faith Talks series, UMW hosted a podcast in which Jennifer R. Farmer interviewed UMW regional missionaries Finda Quiwa of Sierra Leone and Dr. Catherine Akale of Cameroon about "International Women in Mission." The conversation focused especially on women's work in empowering other women, especially empowering younger women through education. The podcast episode runs about 48 minutes.
As part of its Global Conversations on Discipleship series, Discipleship Ministries hosted a podcast in which Mighty Rasing interviewed Rev. Betty Kazadi Musau of the North Katanga Episcopal Area in the Democratic Republic of Congo about "Women Empowerment and Discipleship in the DR Congo." This conversation also touched on women's work in empowering other women, including through education, and it explored women's work in reconciliation between Bantu and Twa/Pygmy peoples. The podcast episode runs about 24 minutes.
Friday, December 11, 2020
The latest collection looks at the issue of ecclesiology through the lens of two documents developed by the Committee on Faith and Order to help define the UMC's theology of church: "Wonder, Love and Praise" and "Sent in Love." "Wonder, Love and Praise" was a draft ecclesiology document released in 2016. It was revised and rewritten into "Sent in Love," which is pending for adoption by General Conference the next time that body meets.
The collection includes twenty-nine essays by a range of authors: Benjamin L. Hartley, Knut Refsdal, Daniel Shin, Robert A. Hunt, Jacob Dharmaraj, Stefan Zürcher, Norma Dollaga, David N. Field, Joon-Sik Park, Steven J. Ybarrola, Ole Birch, James Z. Labala, Global Ministries staff, Nkemba Ndjungu, Laceye Warner, Meeli Tankler, and Lizette Tapia-Raquel. Women are under-represented in the analysis of "Wonder, Love and Praise." Yet the collection includes ecclesiological reflections by United Methodists from a wide range of cultural backgrounds.
As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students.
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
Last week, I offered a definition of imperial religions and suggested why and how they decline along with the imperial power structures that support them. This week, I would like to extend that analysis by looking at American Christianity as an imperial religion and drawing out some of the consequences for American Christian numerical decline from this analysis. Next week, I will examine some thoughts about what this analysis means for alternative futures of American Christianity.
I suggested that an imperial religion is "one whose symbols serve to affirm the reality of the imperial ordering of the world within its orbit. Put another way, imperial religions are those which accept and promote the power structures of empire." Thus, to say that American Christianity is an imperial religion is to suggest that American Christianity does serve and has served to affirm the ways in which the United States has sought to order the world and the power structures that have allowed it to do so.
Some may object to the premise of this analysis by asserting that the United States has never been an empire in the sense of holding vast territories. Yet, there are two problems with this analysis: First, Filipinos, Cubans, and others can quickly point out that the United States has indeed held territory outside its imperial center. Second, most analyses of empire examine it as about the exercise of power rather than direct control of territory. The British did not formally control Indian territory until 1857, but India was under the influence of the British Empire long before.
If American Christianity has functioned as an imperial religion, then there should be similarities in the trajectories of American Christianity and American foreign power. Indeed, that is exactly what one sees looking historically. Overall religious membership was low in the American colonies and early decades of the United States. US church membership began to increase significantly at the end of the 19th century, just as the United States became more influential internationally through expanded economic and political power. That upward trajectory continued through the 1950s, as the United States won two world wars and created an international political and economic system structured around its interests.
Decline in religious membership began at about the same time that the United States was proving unable to assert its international interests through the Vietnam War. While anti-Communist evangelical Protestantism and conservative Catholicism saw continued growth in the midst of the context of the end of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, decline for all religious groups has accelerated in recent years, as the United States has again experienced vulnerability and setbacks in its foreign policy objectives, especially through, though not limited to, the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror.
The decline of Christianity has been most marked among white liberals, who are also most likely to be critical of neoconservative ideas about America's place in the world. It is more resilient among white conservatives, who are more likely to hold an "America first" attitude about the United State's place in the world. It is highest among racial and ethnic minorities where religion serves as a marker of those group identities in addition to its function as a religion of American empire.
Of course, this may all be correlation rather than causation. Still, the fit seems close enough to warrant indulging further in this line of thinking.
At this point, it seems that, while the United States will continue to be an influential player in international politics and economics, the American century of unquestioned American predominance has ended. China is effectively challenging US economic predominance. Increased nationalism at home and abroad undercuts US cultural soft power. The mid-20th century post-war order built on a system of international alliances and institutions is looking increasingly rickety.
Along with this diminution of American imperial power, American Christian membership is continuing to decline significantly and shows no signs of reversing any time soon. Younger generations are increasingly secular, and almost all population groups within the United States are moving away from Christian affiliation. This trend thus continues the correlation between imperial power and religious strength, at least as measured by membership, though now in a downward fashion.
Thus, it makes sense to presume that, given anticipated decline in US imperial power, American Christianity will continue to decline in terms of members, as well as less easily-measured aspects such as practice and belief. Denominational reorganizations, changes in or affirmations of sexual teaching, trendy new styles of worship, and other revitalization strategies may make some difference for individual congregations or Christian groups, but these are all paddling against the current and unlikely to reverse the overall trend.
One might presume that if American Christianity is to avoid further decline as US international influence wanes, it must transform into a non-imperial religion. Yet that is much easier said than done. It is extremely difficult to de-couple an imperial religious tradition from empire.
Imperial underpinnings are not just about one or two doctrines that can be easily rejected or amended. They are woven into the practices, symbols, assumptions, and meanings of a religious system, often in ways so subtle that they are difficult to detect by those at the imperial center. Empire is the lens through which those at the imperial center see the world, including their religion. It is not easy to see the world from another perspective, let alone to see oneself and one's assumptions from another perspective. To create a post-imperial future depends on much more than loudly proclaiming that one will now be "de-colonial" in one's approach to the world. American Christians of all theopolitical stripes have proclaimed how they (unlike their opponents) are not colonial, all the while behaving in ways that continue to presume their preeminence as people from the imperial center.
Moreover, even if one were somehow successful in removing the imperial meanings from an imperial religion, that would leave the religion empty of meaning (and thus devoid of followers) unless something else is added back in. Because imperial conceptions give meaning to the symbols of an imperial religion, taking away those imperial meanings leaves nothing behind without new meanings taking their place.
If this analysis of American Christianity as an imperial religion holds, then the future continuation of American Christianity depends just as much if not more so upon American Christians' ability to add new, non-imperial meanings to the religion than it is upon their ability to sufficiently critique and root out imperial meanings within the religion. I will say more about that possibility next week.
Monday, December 7, 2020
The online conference included a set of presentations on "global perspectives" featuring the following speakers:
- Rev. Knut Refsdal of Norway talking about LGBTQ+ inclusion and the state of the church in Europe
- Augustine Bahati of Rwanda talking about the church's work in Africa with marginalized people
- Bishop Rudolfo A. Juan talking about the Christmas Covenant
- David W. Scott of UM & Global talking about the importance of understanding people from other contexts on their own terms and recognizing that Black African lives matter
- Rev. Jasper Peters talking about racial and other inclusion in the Mountain Sky Annual Conference
A UM News Service summary of the conference, including some of Dr. Scott's remarks, can be found here. Other videos from the conference can be found on the UMARC homepage.
Friday, December 4, 2020
Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Back in June, I wrote two pieces ( and ) that suggested the reason why religious adherence in the West has declined in recent decades was because Christianity has functioned as an imperial religion for the West and the decline in the West's imperial fortunes in the past eighty years has led to a decline in affiliation with, belief in, and practice of Christianity as an imperial religion.
I think this argument is worth revisiting, and in this post I'd like to do so by trying to define more precisely what counts as an "imperial religion" and what that definition can suggest about why imperial religions decline along with their empires.
To do so, I'll draw on Clifford Geertz's definition of religion. In his essay, "Religion as a Cultural System," Geertz said that a religion is "(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."
Two pieces of this definition are especially relevant: that religion is connected to conceptions of order, and that religion makes those conceptions seem factual or realistic. It is also important to note the broad sense of "symbol" with which Geertz worked. For Geertz, symbols included not only visual symbols (such as a cross or star and crescent), but also language, rituals, stories, pictures, etc.--anything that served to embody and convey meaning.
Empire is critically about a political, social, and economic order, and while empires exercise force to maintain their orders, for the most part, empires operate because people accept that ordering of the world as fact, whether or not they like the ordering. Force is used to keep people in line, but empires do not run on force alone; they are ultimately commonly accepted ideas.
Thus, one might define an imperial religion as one whose symbols serve to affirm the reality of the imperial ordering of the world within its orbit. Put another way, imperial religions are those which accept and promote the power structures of empire. Under this definition, part of the meaning of the symbols of an imperial religion is derived from conceptions of the empire. That may not be the entirety of the meaning of those religious symbols, which may also convey other meanings divine and human, but it is nonetheless an important part.
It is this connection between the conceptions of an empire and the meanings of the symbols of an imperial religion that explains why that religion declines as a result of imperial decline.
When an empire goes into decline, the conceptions associated with it become less commonly accepted. People stop believing in the empire and in the way in which it has ordered the world. Again, military defeats, political infighting, economic troubles, cultural change, and the like are important factors in the decline of an empire, but ultimately empires fall because the idea of the empire becomes implausible.
When the idea of an empire becomes implausible, that drains meaning from the symbols of an imperial religion. Because the symbols of that religion derive part of their meaning from ideas about the empire, when those ideas are rejected, those religious symbols lose meaning. And when those symbols lose meaning, then people stop using that religious language, stop participating in those religious rituals, stop telling those stories, etc. In other words, practice, belief, and adherence to the imperial religion declines.
It is possible that an imperial religion may survive the collapse of its empire, but only if the religion contains (or can adopt) enough meaning beyond that which it derived from the imperial order. If there are enough other sources of meaning within a religious tradition, then some people will continue that tradition because of the meaning they find in it independent of empire, even if others lose faith because of the loss of meaning derived from empire.
Religions are likely to contain more forms of meaning if they have been adopted by multiple groups of people with varying relationships to the empire. When new groups of people adopt a religion, they always infuse it with new meanings. Thus, cross-cultural religious traditions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have continued despite the fall of many empires (even if certain sects or sub-traditions have died out), because they are large enough traditions to contain a variety of meanings appreciated by a variety of groups of people.
Other traditions, such as post-exilic Judaism or post-Persian Zoroastrianism, have been reworked sufficiently after an imperial collapse so that their meaning was no longer centered on a particular socio-political order and could thus continue independent of whatever socio-political order reigned.
This post has looked in very broad terms at imperial religion. Next week, I will look more closely at what this discussion of imperial religion means for 21st century Christianity.
Monday, November 30, 2020
As the mission sending agency of The United Methodist Church, Global Ministries connects the church in mission. General Conference tasks the agency to do four specific things:
1) Send missionaries
2) Join in efforts to alleviate human suffering
3) Seek justice, freedom and peace
4) Strengthen, develop and renew Christian congregations and communities.
Sending missionaries is the response we have to God’s call to mission. I find the other three goals all intersect in the presence and spark of a community who has invited a missionary or Global Ministries in; they are the result of healthy relationships of mutuality. The Holy Spirit, as it did in Acts, is calling us all to catch up to God's vision of the beloved kin-dom! Therefore, I want us all to consider how God is calling us to be in mission and whether God might be calling us to serve as a missionary.
Most often the image of call is left to ministers—ordained clergy or licensed local pastors—but I am here to tell you God’s call is bigger than needing preachers. As important as preaching can be, God's church has places for everyone the other 160 hours of the week.
And as in Acts, we are all called into many places, cultures, governments, and many ministries by our baptism into the family of God. Some of us are called into other cultures, not to dominate like Rome, but to transform through the mystery of God with us in our relationships of compassion, care, empowerment, and in the sharing of our lives.
In the United Methodist church, missionaries go out on behalf of the millions of us who sit in the pews or on Zoom. They share all our lives of faithful witness to Christ’s listening love, healing power, and bountiful grace. Christ offers all the world this opportunity of relationship, as there is nowhere God is not already present. The unique call of missionaries is seeking to witness to the Holy Spirit's movement in the world in local communities. Mission happens locally in seemingly ordinary time and tasks.
As the loftiest goal, the objective of a missionary is to work with the community of assignment with the intention of working ourselves out of a job, which means we support, empower, cross boundaries that have chained up people’s potential, and equip communities to unlock the God-given spirit within themselves. We do not build dependance or hierarchy, but instead we see to address complex social, economic, and political situations, which requires time, deep listening, and compassion. In my first placement, God was able through our long-term work (they had a missionary for about seventeen years, including eight years in which I had served there) to build up local leaders who continue God's work today without a missionary.
All UMC commissioned missionaries serve in full-time project placements that range from children’s ministries, legal services, health clinics, airplane ministries, community gardens, education, feeding ministries, farming and animal husbandry, ending human trafficking, surfing ministries, church growth/development, and mental health services. The list of talented people and vibrant ministries God calls the church into is endless. Every church, from the hollers of West Virginia to the echoing halls of The Church of the Resurrection, makes it possible to be in mission in over 70 countries (including the United States) because we take seriously Acts 2:45; we can do more together.
Don't get any ideas that missionaries wake up in the morning, polish their halos, and get about the work of God. When it was ten minutes until a board meeting where they were changing my title to executive director, I was elbow deep in an overflowing toilet. That is mission: no power, but service, truth telling, facing the pain of truth and humility for the one who calls us.
I am the daughter of two UMC Elders who met when one of them was serving as a Town and Country missionary. I myself was three-quarters of the way through my master’s of divinity and serving as an intern in a local church in suburban New Jersey when I heard about United Methodist missionaries who service in the United States. That is when I discerned my call to mission service. Today I have served eleven years as a missionary, and it still makes my heart leap for joy in the wholeness of knowing God's call is truth. Despite the ups and downs of life, being in mission is the delight of my life.
Now, as I serve as Mission Advocate in the Northeastern Jurisdiction, one of the things that called me to say yes to this placement is this very opportunity to share with others as they discern and re-evaluate their call, to let them know that our church responds when we are called. Whether we are called to the communion table, the construction table, or the kitchen table, each of us are called, and God has a place at the table for all.
The path to commissioned missionary status mirrors that of ordination, though the length of time is likely much shorter. The missionary application itself is a wonderful discernment tool; it helps guide you through your theology, your calling, and vision of service. There is an interview process that involves active missionaries, Global Ministries staff, and your local conference missions committee. Once approved, missionaries are given psychological evaluation, health screening, and begin training when they have been matched with a project where the community has invited the missionary to serve. Global Ministries trained twenty-one new missionaries in Spring 2020, and training and sending missionaries continues.
Global Ministries is currently accepting applications for its Global Mission Fellow program, and applications to serve as Global Missionaries, Church and Community Workers, and Mission Volunteers are on-going.
* The subtitle of this post is taken from lyrics to “For Everyone Born,” by Shirley Erena Murray in For Everyone Born: Global Songs for an Emerging Church, ed. by Jorge Lockwood and Christopher Heckert (New York: The General Board of Global Ministries, GBGMusik, 2008), 4.
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
"Ole-Einar Andersen was the original proponent of an apology for the treatment LGBT+ people have been subjected to in the Methodist Church and the damage individuals have suffered. There was a long debate where many took the floor. Everyone agreed on the need to apologize where injustice has been done to individuals, but a minority did not want to apologize for the church's traditional teachings.
"In an amendment proposal from Kirsti Dahl Johansen, Andersen's intention was supported, but the actual formulation of the text will be left to the [annual conference] Executive Board and the cabinet. The conference wanted to give the Executive Board and the Cabinet time to formulate the apology for the treatment LGBT+ people have been subjected to and to weigh the text for the process [the annual conference is] in.
"A sentence in Andersen's original proposal was cited by many as a good starting point: 'We acknowledge that through condemnatory attitudes and actions we have inflicted great harm, pain, sorrow and suffering on fellow human beings, contrary to the gospel of God's unconditional grace and love for all.
"A proposal to postpone consideration of the proposal was rejected.
"The amendment received 70 votes in favor, 32 voted against and 6 abstained. Two proposals to temporarily lift restrictions on marriage and ordination of LGBT+ people in the Methodist Church, and reject restrictions adopted in the worldwide [Traditional] Plan, were postponed earlier today to the first annual conference after the next general conference.
"It was the annual conference in 2019 that took an important path in a consensus decision where it was stated that the Methodist Church in Norway is on its way to full inclusion of LGBT + people."
Translated from the Norwegian by Google Translate and David W. Scott
Monday, November 23, 2020
As this blog has previously shared ( and ), German United Methodists have been working on a solution that would preserve the unity of the denomination in the country while allowing for differences in understandings of human sexuality, including the practice of gay marriage and gay ordination by some. This process has been led by a roundtable group appointed by Bishop Rückert.
As this recent article (in German) by Klaus Ulrich Ruof indicates, this roundtable process has now come to an end, and the roundtable has submitted its proposal to the central conference's Executive Committee. The proposal calls for removal of passages of the German version of the Book of Discipline that prohibit gay marriage and gay ordination and the formation of an association of traditionalist individual and congregations within Germany to facilitate mutual support among those holding traditionalist views. This proposal came with a high degree of support across the theological spectrum.
As further reported by Ruof (again in German), this past weekend, the proposal was considered by the central conference's Executive Committee. The Executive Committee decided to implement this solution provisionally until it can be formally approved at the next meeting of the Germany Central Conference, currently scheduled for fall of 2021.
Friday, November 20, 2020
There are also increasing instances of health, education, and other development institutions from the global South engaging in international South-to-South mission. Mary Johnston Hospital in the Philippines has previously trained doctors from Africa in C-section techniques. And just recently, another example of South-to-South international mission within The United Methodist Church has been reported: The UMC in Cote d'Ivoire, which maintains an excellent school system, has entered into an agreement with the government of the Central African Republic (CAR) to build a system of schools in that country.
These trends are likely to only increase in the future as United Methodists in the global South continue to assert their agency in mission.
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Countries where the government and/or the local unit of The United Methodist Church have suspended in-person worship, at least in significant portions of the country, include Switzerland, France, Austria, Slovenia, and Norway. In some other countries, such suspensions have gone into place but have not (yet) been announced via the annual conference's public internet presence. Moreover, even in European countries where in-person worship continues, it often does so with size limits, and online worship continues to be an important option offered by local churches and/or the annual conference.
Most European countries had strict limitations on public gatherings, including worship services, in the spring that were relaxed over the summer, when the number of COVID-19 cases in most European countries was quite low. This new wave of restrictions, however, seems less comprehensive and less wide-spread that the restrictions in the spring. The restrictions are, in general, also more temporary, with expiration dates within a few weeks or a month, as opposed to the spring restrictions, which in some cases were indefinite when announced.
Whether the different nature of these fall worship restrictions is a feature of having learned about the virus since the spring or just a sign of growing tired of the pandemic, this fall lock down will not be quite the same experience for United Methodists as the spring lock down was. Still, COVID-19 continues to disrupt church life for many United Methodists around the globe.
Monday, November 16, 2020
The latest collection continues that theme by looking at culture, context, and the global church. These pieces examine the impact of culture on what it means to be a global United Methodist church, the challenges of communicating and doing theology across cultural differences, the definition of contextualization, issues of contextualization in Europe and the United States, and ministry practices for multicultural congregations.
The collection includes twenty-four essays, many of them by Robert A. Hunt. Additional essays are by David W. Scott, William Payne, Darrell Whiteman, Barry Bryant, Michael Nausner, David Field, Hendrik R. Pieterse, Heinrich Bolleter, and David Markay. As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students.
Friday, November 13, 2020
As part of the "Get Your Spirit in Shape" video podcast series, Joe Iovino recently interviewed Rev. Jenny Phillips, Senior Technical Advisor for Environmental Sustainability at United Methodist Global Ministries, for an episode entitled "Technology and Mission." The half-hour long conversation includes a discussion of solar power generation solutions and other green technology being deployed in current United Methodist mission, the theological underpinnings of creation care as a United Methodist mission activity, and the variety of benefits of adopting such technology. The link to the podcast also includes a transcript for the podcast for those interested in the subject but looking to more quickly familiarize themselves with the material.
Wednesday, November 11, 2020
Since this blog raised the question of what happens if General Conference does not meet in 2021 (see Part 1 and Part 2), that possibility has been much discussed in a variety of contexts, including a UMNS article and a Connectional Table interview of Bishop Thomas Bickerton. The Commission on General Conference has named a "Technology Study Team" (see press release, UMNS story) to explore online participation in the next General Conference.
Much of the discussion about possibilities for General Conference 2021 is whether the event could become "virtual." However, I would like to suggest that most Americans' understanding of a "virtual" event do not fit with what a technology-assisted GC2021 would actually look like. A much better way of thinking about that possibility is to talk about a "distributed" GC2021.
For those in the United States, the term "virtual" connotes Zoom meetings or other online events where each individual participates from their own home, office, or home office. Virtual schooling, virtual church, virtual work have all operated on this model of individual participation in technology-mediated online meetings, where each person has an internet device and is in a separate location from others.
The problem with this model in many parts of the world is that individuals do not have reliable, high-bandwidth access to the Internet in their homes or even offices. Thus, a General Conference delegate from Mulungwishi, DR Congo is unlikely to be able to Zoom into General Conference while sitting on a couch in their living room, even if a delegate from Memphis, Tennessee could.
This does not, however, mean that the Internet is completely unavailable in DR Congo or other developing nations. In almost every country, the Internet is accessible somewhere, usually in urban areas and/or hotels and conference centers that cater to global business travelers and NGOs.
Thus, for delegates from such countries to participate in an online General Conference would probably mean gathering these delegates at a central point or central points, where they could then access the meeting through the reliable internet of whatever facility in which they were meeting. Several African commentators suggest such a possibility in the UMNS piece "Should General Conference go virtual?"
Thus, an online General Conference would not be virtual in the sense of each delegate accessing the event individually; it would be distributed in the sense of there being multiple sites at which General Conference delegates gather, with each site linked through technology, but not necessarily each delegate on an individual internet device.
Such a distributed model of General Conference would probably be necessary to ensure access for delegates from many countries in Africa and perhaps parts of the Philippines. It also probably makes some issues like translation a bit easier, or at least no harder. Nevertheless, it also raises some issues and challenges.
First, it is technologically more complicated to ensure participation if not every delegate has a personal device to access the internet. Would delegates at the distributed points each be provided with devices to access the online event? Would the event be live streamed on a single screen? If it is live streamed, how could individual delegates interact with the proceedings?
Second, there are logistical procedural challenges to having delegates from multiple different group locations participate in an online event. How would sessions be scheduled to accommodate different time zones? How would raising questions or making comments work? Could or how could committees function if their members are in multiple different locations without access to individual internet devices? How would votes be tabulated if not every delegate has their own internet device?
Third, there are issues of relationship building and trust. Many General Conference decisions are made not because of what happens in the plenary session but because of the conversations that happen on the margins of the meeting--over meals and in hallways. If delegates are still having such conversations, but only with others from their geographic area, how does that change the approach to decision-making? Especially in the light of possible voting irregularities in GC2019, how do distributed sites retain trust in what is happened at other sites when there is less central verification of processes, procedures, credentials, etc.?
Thus, while holding a distributed General Conference might be a logistical necessity to ensure equitable access to an online event, it is by no means an easy or simple solution, and it poses a variety of challenges. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the Technology Study Team or the Commission on General Conference itself might conclude that an online General Conference is simple not feasible and, despite the challenges associated with not having a General Conference, conclude that further delaying General Conference is still the best option.
Monday, November 9, 2020
In May 2020, the International Association of Universities (IAU) published its Global Survey Report concerning the impact of COVID-19 on higher education around the world. The IAU canvassed four hundred and twenty-four higher education institutions (HEIs), representing one hundred and nine different countries. Their report paints a startling picture of how deeply the pandemic has affected institutions and teachers alike. Fifty-nine percent of HEIs reported the total cessation of all campus activity.
As one might expect, this has had a devastating impact on the delivery of student education: an overwhelming majority of HEIs (ninety-eight percent) replied that their teaching and learning had been affected in some way. It is also clear that students in the Global South suffer disproportionately compared to those elsewhere. Whereas eighty percent of European students will be given the opportunity to complete their exams, only sixty-one percent of African students will enjoy the same. Indeed, although ninety-seven percent of American and European HEIs reply that they have adequate communication infrastructures in place to keep their students up to date, that number drops to sixty-six percent for African HEIs.
TheologyX is perfectly positioned to respond to the global tumult caused by COVID-19 and to remedy the deleterious effects it has had on higher education around the world. Based on Open edX (used by nine of the ten highest ranked universities), TheologyX provides an online learning platform specially designed for theological education. Indeed, it utilises certain tools and features which help to overcome those geographical, financial and social barriers to learning exacerbated by the pandemic, especially in the Global South. Developed in partnership with Cliff College (Derbyshire UK) and the Methodist Church of Great Britain, TheologyX makes it possible to access theological education at a time when it might otherwise be out of reach and many theology departments in the West are adjusting to the peculiar demands of online pedagogy.
TheologyX’s digitalised curriculum makes it unnecessary to travel long distances just to learn, and its inexpensive programme of delivery eliminates the prohibitively high cost of entry associated with traditional forms of education – boons which stand to benefit believers in the Global South disproportionately more than students based in the West. To send an African student to the U.K. to obtain a theology degree at Cliff College, for example, would cost around $75,000. For the same amount, TheologyX can train thirty-three African students for an MA degree.
Of course, TheologyX wouldn’t be possible without accessible and affordable technology, funded by Cliff College as well as others. Participating colleges receive web cameras with built-in microphones and books on Wesleyan theology from Cliff College. In addition, TheologyX provides these colleges with a ‘Theo’ box – an intranet device which creates a local digital learning environment for up to fifty students using an internal data / Wi-Fi connection. Each box hosts the entirety of TheologyX’s digital theological library, and all the tools necessary to facilitate teaching at all levels. It provides the opportunity for users around the world to access global theological materials, no matter the user’s location.
Its library boasts diverse curricula covering a variety of subjects, with lectures often arranged in ten to twenty-minute "bite sized" chunks to accommodate best pedagogical praxis. The Theo box boasts dual SIM card slots which can be set up to facilitate further content, but – critically – it does not itself require an internet connection to function. Broadband is sparse in Africa, but almost every African has a mobile phone, hence why the Theo box is fitted to run on signal data. It is effectively a Bible college in a box, accessible to believers in diverse locations and from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.
We are personally familiar with institutions based in the Global South that have faced lockdown and which have also seen their doors shut immediately in the wake of COVID-19. TheologyX has been able to step into this situation, providing a virtual learning environment that has equipped those institutions to maintain the same degree of rigour and depth of substance, but in a way that grants its students easy access to learning without them needing to be technically proficient. In short, we have had the privilege of helping institutions keep their doors open, albeit virtually. These institutions would otherwise have faced significant financial problems – potentially closing forever as a result, a tragedy both academically as well as for the local Church. In the meantime, TheologyX has given institutions the space to breathe and to reflect, providing a "sandpit" environment in which to play and create and see what might work in a post-COVID world.
And perhaps best of all, as colleges and believers across the world contribute to TheologyX’s online platform, we are teased with the exciting possibility of western learners bearing witness to the quality theological teaching and research coming out of the Global South. We hope TheologyX will thereby serve not only to bless and equip those in diverse contexts, but also to train and encourage those of us in the West with the unique gifts and perspectives found only in the Global South.
Friday, November 6, 2020
The press release is notable for at least three reasons as United Methodists look to the future of the denomination:
1. The bishops rejected the choice presented to them by the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.
The bishops asserted their intention to remain in The United Methodist Church, even following some sort of separation in the denomination. Yet at two separate points, they also expressed displeasure with a choice between leaving with US Traditionalists and staying with US Centrists and Progressives, and they suggested that the Protocol might need to be renegotiated.
2. The bishops rebuked both American Traditionalists and American Centrists/Progressives.
On the Traditionalists, the African bishops disputed the US definition of theological traditionalism and decried "interference in African conferences by people from the United State who are causing confusion and hatred among Africans in the church," a reference to Traditionalist efforts to recruit Africans to a new Traditionalist denomination, often by actively undermining the bishops.
On the Centrists, the African bishops indicated that Africans "might not feel comfortable to remain with the [Centrist/Progressive] branch of the United Methodist church," even as both US Centrists/Progressives and Africans intend to remain in the UMC after a separation.
3. The bishops asserted their intention to set their own path.
The press release is entitled, "African bishops: Let’s make our own choices," and that summarizes the sentiment of the piece. Bishop Nhiwatiwa said, "We have a choice of merely folding our hands and wait[ing] for events to unfold and then react to them. The other option which we have been espousing from the beginning of these deliberations is one of protecting the heritage of the United Methodist Church in Africa." The African bishops clearly intend to set their own path.
Thus, smart analysis of the political situation in The United Methodist Church should view it as a three-way conflict (with additional viewpoints held by smaller groups) instead of as a two-way conflict between US Traditionalists and US Centrists/Progressives.
Monday, November 2, 2020
Two previous UM & Global collections have looked at issues of global ecclesiology: one on the UMC as a global church and one on church autonomy and the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS).
The latest collection continues that theme by looking at the global UMC in ecumenical perspective. These pieces examine other models of being a global or world-wide church, including Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and other Methodist/Wesleyan denominations, raising questions for The United Methodist Church through the process of comparison. The collection also includes several pieces that examine the World Methodist Council and other ecumenical associations of Methodist denominations for the light they can shed on what it means to be a global Methodist, United Methodist or otherwise.
The collection includes thirteen essays by Arun W. Jones and David W. Scott. As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students
Friday, October 30, 2020
In reflecting on my understandings of biblical and Wesleyan theologies of health and healing, I think about a number of insights offered up by those theologies—that health is multifaceted and not confined to physical health, that individual health is connected to communal and national health, that there is a connection between health and sin including injustice, and that healing involves healing relationships.
Yet, such theology is not my area of expertise, so when asked to reflect publicly on the practice of health mission, I want to talk about something that does directly connect to my expertise: the importance of learning cross-culturally and across contexts, including learning about health and healing around the world.
Some quick definitions first:
A context is the setting where people live, work, and go about their lives. It can be a neighborhood, city, region, etc. Contexts are characterized by unique socio-economic, cultural, ethno-racial, political, historical, and other traits. So, each context in unique in some way, even as it also shares some things with other contexts.
A culture is a way of thinking about the world shared by a group of people. There can be local, regional, and national cultures; cultures shared by different ethnic or racial groups; cultures for groups defined by common interests; etc. A culture is characterized by a common set of beliefs, assumptions, and values. Cultures are an important part, but not the only part, of what makes a context unique.
First, I want to argue that learning across cultures and contexts is intrinsic to the practice of Christian mission. My definition of mission, which I lay out in my book Crossing Boundaries, is that mission is “cultivating relationships across boundaries for the sake of fostering conversations in word and deed about the nature of God’s good news.”
This definition mentions “relationships across boundaries,” and that means connecting to others across contexts and cultures. There are many types of boundaries—cultural, linguistic, geographic, political, socioeconomic, etc. But whatever type of boundary is involved, mission involves interacting with people who are different from us.
This definition of mission also mentions “conversations in word and deed about the nature of God’s good news,” and that means that mission involves talking and working with those who are different from us and learning from them in the process, just as we hope to share something with them at the same time. This learning goes both ways, as a good conversation does, and cannot be one-sided in which we only talk but do not listen and learn as well.
This process of learning through mission helps us better understand God and God’s good news because others will have different experiences of God than we do, different ways of thinking theologically, different conclusions that they reach from reading the Bible, and different senses of what would be good or new or life-giving within their own lives. Thus, when we engage in mission, we encounter these other ways of thinking and we thereby gain new insights into the ways in which God loves and redeems the world.
And while our ultimate goal in mission might be mutually learning more about God, along the way we are certain to learn about other things as well—we are going to learn about our mission partners’ lives and the ways in which they think about and experience the world around them. Learning about those other aspects of our mission partners’ lives and ministries is essential to being able to really understand what they can teach us about God.
Learning from those who are different than us can happen in a variety of settings. There are differences in cultures and contexts within the United States—southern Louisiana is different than rural Maine is different than metro San Francisco—and I’m sure that you’ve encountered and hopefully discussed some of those differences among contexts already during the conference. Cultures and contexts also differ internationally, often to a greater degree than they do within a single country such as the United States. So, while it is good to learn across contexts within the United States, it is also good to learn across contexts internationally.
The importance of learning across contexts applies to the field of health, both as a form of mission and ministry, and as an important aspect of health work itself. In fact, there is probably more learning across contexts in health than in many other fields. “Global health” is a field of study in prestigious medical schools that examines what we can learn about health and healing across countries, contexts, and cultures. For instance, the United States spends twice as much as on health care than other affluent nations and yet has the lowest life expectancy and highest suicide rate of any affluent country. Why do we spend more and end up less healthy? That sort of question can only be answered by learning across contexts.
But the United States can also learn from less affluent countries. Many think of health as being “better” in developed countries, and it’s true that there is a correlation between the relative income of a country and some of its health outcomes, especially as they relate to maternal and child health and certain infectious diseases.
But wealth is not the only indicator of health outcomes, and even to the extent it is, that does not mean that those in affluent countries have nothing to learn from those in developing countries. Education and women’s rights are also important indicators of a country’s health outcomes, and these vary within income brackets. Countries with better educational and women’s rights outcomes should be models for others. And affluent countries have more of certain types of diseases, especially mental health issues and chronic diseases related to diet or a sedentary lifestyle. Thus, the question, “Why is there more depression in the United States than in Mozambique?” is just as fair to ask as the question, “Why is there more malaria in Mozambique than in the United States?”
Moreover, there are many different models for arranging a health system, and developing countries often take innovative approaches to their health systems in ways that affluent countries can learn from. Remote access to health services is one such area. For example, the Gates Foundation has partnered with health providers in Malawi and Ghana to expand access to health care information and advice via cell phones, especially in rural, hard-to-reach areas. The challenge of providing health services in rural, hard-to-reach areas applies in the United States just as it does in Malawi.
Public health is another area in which developing countries can serve as models. Many countries in West Africa learned significantly from their experience with the Ebola epidemic in 2014. Experts cite African nations’ long experience with confronting public health epidemics such as Ebola and AIDS as a primary reason why Africa has been one of the regions of the world least affected by the coronavirus pandemic. In a Washington Post opinion piece about African success in combatting coronavirus, Karen Attiah says, “This pandemic has coincided with a global movement challenging anti-Black racism and white supremacy. This should have been a moment for media outlets to challenge corrosive narratives about Africa and the idea that Africans are not capable of effective policy-making. We could be learning from the experiences that Africans and their governments have had with pandemics and viral diseases, including Ebola and AIDS.”
Beyond outcomes, there are a wealth of different ways of thinking about health and healing in cultures across the world, and these various views also represent resources for learning, sharing, and developing our own perspectives on disease and healing. For instance, in many cultures outside of the West, the psychosomatic nature of disease is much better understood—that disease and healing are not only about what happens in the body, but about the ways in which the body, spirit, emotions, and social setting are out of harmony or in harmony.
And while people in the United States have been recently focused on the connection between diet and health, there are literally millennia of thinking about this issue in other cultures around the world that can offer potential insights.
For all these reasons, there are a variety of things we can learn from others around the world about health and healing.
And when these others are mission partners or are fellow Christians or even fellow United Methodists who are confronting the same sorts of challenges in their mission work and ministry that we are in ours, the potential for learning is that much greater, and it extends not only to health per se but about our shared faith and how health intersects with our faith and our practices of mission and ministry. There is much to be learned, even as we ourselves have things to offer and teach in return.
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
The United Methodist Church (UMC) is one of the so-called mainline churches in Zimbabwe, with strong presence in both rural and urban areas across the country. The church employs both clergy and lay workers, and the pastors are on an itinerant appointive system. Salaries (base compensation) for pastors are determined through the use of a grading system that takes into account the individual’s training, qualifications, and years of service. In this, the hope is that some semblance of equity is maintained.
Until ten years ago, the payment of salaries and allowances was the responsibility of the circuit (charge) to which a pastor is appointed. The charge was expected to also care for the pastor’s housing, transport, communication, etc. However, the demographics and economic capacities vary from one charge to the other, with some circuits being financially poor to the extent of failing to meet these basic obligations. This was more common in rural areas than was the case in most urban areas. These disparities would obviously put paid to the achievement of equity and the general wellbeing of some pastors and their families. Given a choice in such circumstances, every pastor preferred to get an appointment a more able urban charge/circuit. With over 68% of the Zimbabwe population being in the rural areas, this is not possible; churches in the rural areas also need pastors.
Though pastoral work is not just a job but a calling, the pastor has responsibilities to provide for his immediate and extended family like any other person. Pastors serving in those impoverished communities would go for several months without a salary and/or allowances, while their counterparts in well-to-do charges would be better looked after. In the past, it was not difficult at huge gatherings, such as Annual Conferences, to identify those serving in impoverished rural circuits by their general presentation as compared to their well-cared-for colleagues.
No doubt, it must have been a daunting task for the Bishop and his cabinet to carry out appointments: Who do you send where? Because of those known disparities, those who were fortunate to receive appointments to serve better-off charges were viewed as being more favored, and of course those that ended up at poorer circuits were considered disliked by the leadership. Of cause these were mere perceptions and not backed by facts. Each change in appointment meant a change in one’s standard of living, either for the better or worse. Pastor’s children had to endure economic and social changes, with new appointments at times disrupting their education when the parents suddenly became unable to pay school fees.
Strategy to Deal with the Challenges
During Annual Conferences, year in and year out the matter of pastors’ salaries (base compensation) and the lack of equity consumed a great deal of time and energy. Being an emotive issue, such discussions would always end up in an antithesis of “Holy Conferencing”.
The Book of Discipline ¶ 624 provides for the following: “Each church or charge has an obligation to pay the base compensation, the benefits adopted by the Annual Conference, and other ministerial support (including housing) adopted by the Charge Conference, to its pastor(s)” No doubt this concept worked somewhat well in the past, but with the increased disparities among the charges in terms of financial capacities, the glaring lack of equity in base compensation and pastors going without salaries for several months could not be allowed to continue.
There was therefore a clarion call for a paradigm shift and the need to think outside the box. The church leadership considered a number of options and ended up settling for the introduction of the “Common Pool” centralized salary payment system for pastors. The benefits were obvious, among them the equitable base compensation and guaranteed salary payment to all pastors on time every month regardless of their geographic location. The pastor is able to focus on his/her calling and mission work instead of focusing on his/her economic challenges.
Like all new concepts and ideas, the resolution took much longer to implement than had been anticipated. Several years went by before there was a shared vision and adequate buy-in by all stakeholders. There was a time some were starting to feel that the resolution was never going to see the light of the day. Some of us were convinced that this was a good idea maybe ahead of its time, and at the right time, a shared vision will materialize. Indeed, this came to pass, and in 2010 the Common Pool was finally implemented successfully. This year marks the ten-year anniversary since the introduction of the Common Pool. No Pastor has gone unpaid since the inception of the Common Pool, we thank God. A total of 332 Pastors are currently benefitting from the new salary payment system. In the past, pastors’ benefits like funeral coverage and medical aid were not guaranteed, as both depended on the financial capacity of each circuit, let alone the pastors’ pension contributions. Now all these benefits are guaranteed as they are catered for through the Common Pool.
The Common Pool Funding Structure and Logistics
A 40% levy was introduced on the standard income lines, such as tithing, Sunday offerings, Thanksgiving, and any other undesignated funds. However, the said levy does not apply on designated funds and any such other special fundraising efforts by the charge, such as building funds, among others. Every charge remits the 40% levy on a weekly or monthly basis direct to the Conference Treasury, and the remaining 60%, along with the other designated funds will be used by the circuit to fund its mission work within the charge. On its part, the Conference Treasury Department, in close consultation with the Council on Finance and Administration (CONFAD), will put aside 25 – 30% of the levy towards the Common Pool. Salary payments for all the Pastors are then paid from the Conference Treasury directly into each individual’s bank account, at least by the 25th of every month. Other benefits such as medical aid and funeral coverage are also paid from the Common Pool directly to the service providers.
We are pleased that in spite of the economic challenges we are facing as a country—inflation and erosion of disposable income among others—the levy has sustainably provided capacity to pay salaries and benefits without fail.
The pie chart below illustrates the fact that the 40% levy stands out as the mainstay of the Conference income, accounting for 74% of the total annual income for the year under review.
Coming second as a major income line is the Harvest Thanksgiving at 15%, with the rest of the other smaller income lines accounting for the remaining 11% combined. We are hoping to grow this levy further in order to create capacity to cater for payment of all other allowances, such as transport, communication, office consumables, and the like. Currently this is already happening, where the Conferences pay the said allowances only in cases where the charge has failed to do so due to lack of capacity; we call them “unable circuits.”
If there is one major achievement we are proud of as a church during the last decade, it is without doubt the implementation of the Centralized Clergy Salary Payment System (Common Pool). It has worked for us, and we have no hesitation to recommend the system as a solution to address the many challenges associated with the decentralized obligation to pay the base compensation to pastors.