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.
I am in Burundi this week, teaching mission and evangelism to pastors in the Burundi Annual Conference of the UMC. Working with these pastors has been rewarding, but it has also been interesting to learn more about the history of the church in Burundi. Combining what I already knew and the new things I have learned on this trip, it has been interesting to see how two things are simultaneously true about the UMC in Burundi: It has been remarkably self-supporting, and the global connection has meant a good deal to it.
The United Methodist Church in Burundi did not start out United Methodist. It was planted in the 1940s by missionaries from the Missionary Department of the National Association for the Promotion of Holiness (later World Gospel Mission), an independent, interdenominational, holiness faith mission. The World Gospel Mission was founded by Methodist Episcopal Church member Iva Vennard, though it also drew supporters and missionaries from other Methodist/Wesleyan traditions.
In 1980, that work has been formalized into the Evangelical Episcopal Church of Burundi with Alfred J. Ndoricimpa as its first bishop. Also in the late 70s and early 80s, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza gained control of the country's government. As part of the process of consolidating his power, he significantly clamped down on religious freedom. This included sending home all missionaries, including those of the World Gospel Mission.
At this point, the church could have just become a completely independent church with no connections to outside bodies. It was well-developed enough and had sufficient internal leadership and resources.
Yet Bishop Ndoricimpa saw the value in wider connection. Relying on the web of relationships he has with United Methodists through the World Gospel Mission, he began negotiations in 1982 for the church to join the UMC. That union was approved at the 1984 General Conference.
Certainly, some of the value to Burundi of being part of the UMC was access to outside resources through UMCOR and Global Ministries. Yet, for a church in a politically unstable country, much of the value of connectionalism was the value of a relational and spiritual support system that went beyond just one country. Indeed, Ndoricimpa would eventually end up in political exile from Burundi, but still cared for by the wider connection and assisted by the connection in spreading United Methodism throughout East Africa.
After Bishop Ndoricimpa's death in 2005, the church in Burundi split into two factions. Because of this division and because of conflicts between the general church and the new Bishop of East Africa, Daniel Wandabula of Uganda, the church in Burundi received little connectional support during this time. While there were many problems caused by the schism, the church was financially self-reliant.
This division not reconciled until 12 years later, culminating in a reunification at the February 2018 Annual Conference meeting. That reunification was largely the work of Rev. Jean Ntahoturi, the legal representation of the UMC in Burundi elected in 2017, and Zephirin Ndikumana, the conference lay leader. Both of these men are graduates of Africa University, trained through the support of the United Methodist connection. It was their training at Africa University and the web of relationships they had from AU that helped them facilitate this reconciliation.
The pastoral training program I'm here teaching in is part of cementing that reconciliation. I am here for the fifth of five sessions, and based on what I have observed, it has been a success. This training program could not have happened without excellent leadership, sacrificial financial commitment, and wise stewardship from the church in Burundi. But it has also been facilitated by personnel and financial support from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Global Ministries, Africa University, the Virginia Annual Conference, and Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio. It has been a connectional endeavor.
As I have talked to pastors this week, I have gotten a strong sense of optimism for the future of The United Methodist Church in Burundi. They expect the church to grow and for God to do great things through them. They base that optimism on two things: on reconciling their division and on their reconnection to the global United Methodist connectional system. The connection means more than just a source of money; it means an affirmation of what they have done and are doing themselves.
So there you have it: the United Methodist Church in Burundi is largely self-supporting and could survive on its own if it wanted to. But it recognizes the value of the United Methodist connection. It has repeatedly chosen to be part of that connection, not out of financial calculations, but because it recognizes the strength that comes from being part of a larger web of relationships.