Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Robert A. Hunt: The Future of Theological Education – Fly or Die: Some Responses

Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. It is the second of a two-part series. The first part can be found here.

The future of theological education will depend on it becoming truly accessible, culturally and situationally contextual, financially sustainable, and engaged in continuous partnership and dialogue with local churches and the global church. Of these, the last is first in importance because all the others can be realized only in the context of partnership and dialogue. But as the COVID 19 crisis has clarified, our structures for engaging in partnership and dialogue with the global church are deeply dependent on the convening power that US-based institutions have because of their overwhelming financial resources. Absent the ability to gather significant numbers of persons in a single place, we quickly see how fragile the infrastructure of partnership really becomes. And this is particularly true of the UMC, where almost all the power to convene was vested in General Boards and Agencies or Episcopal offices that are rapidly being defunded.

I would suggest that the conditions described above require the following:

First theological schools, and indeed all schools, will need to shift away from a campus paradigm to a systems paradigm of self-understanding. In particular, both administrators and faculty must understand that a school is essentially a learning management system, LMS, in which facilities, faculty, courses, library resources, and so on are coordinated for the benefit of the student.

COVID 19 has effectively demonstrated the truth of this statement as every function of most schools has moved into an “online” environment. The potential to exist entirely in a virtual space is one of the key characteristics of an LMS as opposed to a campus-based school. Whether it is an LMS focused on course management, such as Canvas or Blackboard, or one based on administration such a People-Soft, a focus on the LMS allows schools to re-think what [was] is essential to education rather than maintaining legacy assets. This doesn’t mean that the classic campus isn’t a valuable resource for learning, but rather that it can and must be treated as a valuable as opposed to essential resource. 

Given a change in paradigm away from the campus to the LMS, theological schools must rapidly develop their competence and resourcefulness in existing and emerging forms of education through digitally mediated relationships, or DMR. “Online education” isn’t sufficiently comprehensive and is too focused on technological rather than relational competence. Seminaries can hire technicians to get them online. What they really need is to engage experts in emerging pedagogies for DMR to become competent and effective. We will need to learn the emerging psychology and sociology of the DMR environment and develop new aspects of emotional and cultural intelligence.

The capacity to engage fruitfully and to cultivate competence in DMR will serve three critical needs.

First, it will become the basis for more sustained partnerships with geographically distant theological schools and churches. Beyond the current crisis, capacity in DMR will allow us to more fully and consistently engage our partners and both learn from them and appropriately share resources with them.

Secondly, it will be the foundation of a theological education that is fully accessible not only in terms of those with disabilities but also those whose disability comes from lack of proximity. This requires more, however, than merely thinking about online teaching. 1. Students in theological schools now need personal computers and internet access as much as they telephones and library access. For this reason, theological schools have a moral obligation to ensure that as part of the aid they offer students they include personal computers and home internet access. 2. Theological schools must rapidly move beyond video-conferencing technology to the cutting edges of DMR such as VR classrooms, 360 engagement with places of pedagogical interest, and Enhanced Reality tools for learning. This technology is available now, and the failure to use it to make theological education more compelling and effective is negligence.

Third, and most importantly, competence in DMR is essential for preparing future pastors to minister in the context of DMR so that they can competently form and lead digitally mediated ministries (DMM). The theological school should and must become a laboratory for emerging ministries in which students can experiment. Courses in DMM incorporating DMR are as critical to the future of theological education as those teaching worship, preaching, evangelism, and pastoral care.

For theological education to endure through both the current crisis and the broader shifts taking place in our culture, in short, to be sustainable, it must fundamentally change its understanding of its goals and its financing.

First, it must recognize that the goal of all professional education is NOT a degree or certification, but involvement in lifelong learning in a community committed to scholarship and professional skill. Theological schools need to move students who graduate into immediate, year-round opportunities for continued engagement in learning. This will only be possible if theological schools work in partnership with the larger church to provide the types of continuing education, and certifications, critical to pastoral leadership of many types.

Closely related to this, theological schools must become intimately involved in pre-professional programs of discernment, working with college student ministries, local churches, and boards of ordained ministry to give potential pastors an opportunity to fully understand the commitments of ministry across many types of calling. Ultimately the MDiv and DMin will simply be intensifications of a process that begins in young adulthood and continues to retirement.

With this groundwork, theological schools will be able to develop more sustainable financial models. In our emerging economy, the days of paying fixed-fees for non-concrete products in need of constant upgrades are rapidly passing. We don’t buy software. We don’t even buy textbooks, we rent them. The reason for this is simple: subscriptions for services provide more reliable cash flow to those who provide such services. Theological schools must move toward a subscription model for their product, something that has already happened with most courses offered through online learning platforms.

What was formerly tuition will become a subscription for a high-level and deeply personalized teaching service. Other subscription levels might provide access to the classroom but not the teacher’s time or course credit. Another level might provide for certification in a specific skill or field of knowledge rather than a degree. Most importantly subscribers to theological education would be encouraged to maintain their subscription at an appropriate level for CEU credits after graduation. Instead of hounding alumnae for donations, theological schools should be encouraging their churches to pay for their continuing education.

Finally, theological schools will need to recognize that forming pastor-teachers, pastor-administrators, and pastor-entrepreneurs is as important as forming pastor-theologians. Teachers must know how to think, but every theological school faculty offers proof that there are thinkers who do not know how to teach. Only the embrace of the universe of pedagogies associated with engaged learning will keep theological education relevant in the emerging church and its social context. A blog post, podcast, PowerPoint deck, sermon, screenplay, video, or even board game can as easily demonstrate the capacity for critical thinking and knowledge as the standard academic essay or exam. But unlike the essay or exam, it also creates the capacity to do the work of pastoral ministry. And that is what the church needs.

The changes I’m proposing are sweeping and will be difficult to implement. They will take time. But the meteor has already struck, and we will either learn to fly or die.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Robert A. Hunt: The Future of Theological Education – Fly or Die: The Problem

Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. It is the first of a two-part series.

It hasn’t been a secret for nearly a decade that Christian theological education faces some very difficult challenges. Some of these are well documented. Over the last 30 years or so, the number of accredited theological schools has more than doubled. Independent evangelical churches have sought to reassess and, in some cases, expand the educational qualifications of their pastors by creating their own theological schools and remaining independent from established denominational seminaries and older non-denominational schools.

Yet over the last 20 years, there has been both a decline in applications for graduate-level theological education and a shift away from the Master of Divinity to shorter and more focused degree and certificate programs. These changes are driven by shifts in the understanding of Christian vocation, membership declines in mainline denominations, and the leveling of growth among independent evangelical churches.

Beneath these readily observable changes are tectonic changes in the understanding of how Christian communities are formed and live out their ministries and the growing demand for creative and innovative leadership. The artifacts of 20th century Christianity are readily observable in the form of buildings dedicated to the church, both large and small. And they still provide a model of visible Christian presence in a community. However, what these buildings house may not look like the church of their founders and obscures the existence of countless new Christian communities with no ties to either the physical or the political structures of earlier forms of Christianity.

Finally, the social and cultural setting in which churches and their leaders carry out their mission is also rapidly changing. Secularization and the rise of the “nones” are only fragments of these changes. Less noticed is that the cultural complexity of US society is both more visible and growing. The result is that diversity in social settings and organizations has become normal rather than exceptional even as Christian churches obstinately regard multi-cultural ministries as exceptional rather than normal. As importantly the shift into what is being generally called the 2nd Machine Age and the rise of “gig economy” promises to disrupt long-standing economic structures, increase unemployment, decrease wages, and turn on its head the long-standing association of human value with productivity and efficiency in American culture.

COVID 19 is only exacerbating the already developing fault lines in our culture. Humans isolated from work become vastly more dependent on Artificial Intelligences that manage both our online commerce and our communication networks. That same isolation is already accelerating development of AI technologies that replace humans in jobs that would otherwise pose a health risk to worker or customer. Robots are already replacing orderlies and cleaners in hospitals.

Our understanding of what it means to be human is changing. Yet neither theological schools nor churches have given significant attention to these changes and thus neither has an intelligible witness to the gospel in this context.

Yet just when research and reflection are most needed [just], these changes, coupled with declining financial resources and increasing desperation to create growing churches, undermine the traditional role of theological schools as centers of research in theology, Biblical interpretation, church history, and Christian ministry. Even if such research weren’t still focused on Enlightenment-era problems, as it often is, it has come to be seen as a luxury churches cannot afford as they seek pastors trained for immediately effective ministry rather than long term reflection. The concept of the pastor-theologian, which research seminaries were formed to foster, is giving way to the demand for pastor-entrepreneurs and pastor-managers that traditional seminaries are ill-equipped to meet.

And that is just in the US. In the global south where Christianity is growing rapidly, churches barely have the resources to adequately train pastors. At the same time, neither the content nor the pedagogy of Western theological training is particularly relevant or helpful. Merely exporting expertise from over-served to under-served schools is of little value and may, in fact, be toxic. In short, the rise of the global south has revealed how contextual, and limited in relevance, Western theological education really is.

Given these challenges, theological educators will need to reexamine the foundational values and purposes of their work. I would suggest that the critical values for the future will be: accessibility, cultural and situational contextualization, sustainability, and continuous partnership and dialogue. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Recommended Readings: Coronavirus and social justice in the Philippines

The coronavirus pandemic has become a political and social justice issue, as well as a public health issue, in some places around the world. Among those places is the Philippines. Analysts have expressed concerns about the authoritarian approach to combatting the virus taken by Philippines President Duterte (see Article 1, Article 2, and Article 3). As in most places, restrictions on movements have had disproportionate impacts on the financial state and food security of those who rely on daily wages to buy their daily bread. Moreover, there have been instances of the government disrupting aid to the poor and even jailing those distributing the aid. The National Council of Churches in the Philippines has condemned these moves by the government.

Amid this situation, Filipino United Methodists have been expressing concern for the impacts of the virus and the government's response on the most vulnerable in Filipino society.

Deaconness Norma Dollaga has written several pieces on this theme. She has lifted up the need for food for the poor amidst the crisis and the necessity of incorporating social justice into the government's response to the pandemic.

Dollaga has also reported on an Easter Sunday visit by her organization, DAMBANA (Damayahan Simbahan sa  Panahon ng Disaster), and the Promotion of Church People’s Response to an impoverished area of Manila impacted by the pandemic. Relatedly, Prof. Lizette Galima Tapia-Raquel highlighted the plight of the poor and oppressed in her Easter message for the Promotion of Church People's Response.

Deaconness Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana has pointed out the intersection of social distancing restrictions and privilege.

Gladys Mangiduyos, writing for UMNS, has shared a story about United Methodist pastors facing increased government harassment while in quarantine for their social justice work.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

UMVIM: We Are Still in Mission!

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Tammy Kuntz. Rev. Dr. Kuntz is Coordinator of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM), North Central Jurisdiction. It is a response to David W. Scott's post, "COVID-19, Travel, Zoom, and the Future of United Methodist Mission."

Yes, World, We are still in mission!

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us into stay-at-home and self-quarantine, we know that United Methodists continue to serve their neighbors. Masks and gloves have replaced hammers and saws as people shift their skills to provide food and necessary daily-living supplies to their communities. Those with sewing machines are moving beyond school bags and Days for Girls kits to making masks. Volunteers in Mission (VIM) work with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) to respond quickly to the needs of their neighbors following tornadoes in alternative ways as directed by each annual conference. We are still in mission. It just looks different.

Yes, the number of short-term teams has dropped off. Project sites have suspended operations, international borders are closed, and airlines have cancelled flights. However, there are still stories to tell. Previous mission engagements are shared through web sites and social media connections with team members. We are still telling the story. It just looks different.

Some project site directors are offering a virtual mission journey. We can still share in the good work happening at Give Ye Them to Eat and Bahamas Methodist Habitat. More of these missions will be available in the coming weeks. We are still serving. It just looks different.

Teams, districts, and conferences partnering with mission sites in the US and around the world are connecting and gaining an understanding of the concerns for the future. The cancellation of teams means a reduction of income as well as an inability to meet the needs of the community. This is evidenced in the Michigan-Haiti Partnership previously referenced. We are still partnering. It just looks different.

Yes, our international partners may realize that they have been relying too heavily on US short-term mission teams. People are coming together for their own communities, meeting the need of neighbors, and offering skills they may not have realized they had. After all, when we share in God’s mission, we know that we are there to meet the needs of the community, not serve our own expectations of what need to be done. (I John 3:16-18) remembering that the most important task is the one we have just been given. We are still serving God in the world. It just looks different.

There is no doubt that the mission field will look different when the world emerges from this pandemic. We will still be in mission. It will just look different.

Rev. Dr. Tammy Kuntz, Volunteers in Mission North Central Jurisdiction
Rev. Tom Lank, Volunteers in Mission Northeastern Jurisdiction
Karen Distefano, Volunteers in Mission South Central Jurisdiction
Ronda Cordill, Volunteers in Mission Western Jurisdiction
Rev. Matt Lacey, Volunteers in Mission Southeastern Jurisdiction
Gray Gambrell, Volunteers in Mission Southeastern Jurisdiction

Monday, April 20, 2020

Recommended Reading on Differing Cultural Understandings of Disease

Rev. Esther Inuwa, an intern for Church and Society, has written a post on Church and Society's website entitled "A United Methodist Reflections on COVID-19 in Nigeria." While the post can be read for its connection to the current pandemic, it is most insightful as a window into the ways in which disease is understood differently and therefore produces different responses in a non-Western culture than in Western culture. Rev. Inuwa, a native of Nigeria currently studying in the US, is to be commended for her informed and accessible depiction of Nigerian cultural understandings of disease, understandings that differ significantly from those common in the United States. Last week, I recommended the work of Hofstede and Meyer on differing cultural values. Rev. Inuwa adds a significant element to that discussion of cultural differences. They are not just about values but about the mental schemas that people use to make sense of the world around them. Rev. Inuwa's piece therefore further shows the challenge of being an international, intercultural church.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Recommended Reading: Erin Meyer's The Culture Map

Earlier this week, I (David) argued that exploring cultural differences is a good way to prepare for The United Methodist Church's General Conference, at which people will be coming together across cultures to make collective decisions. I recommended Hofstede Insights' Country Comparison as a way to make such comparisons for the six dimensions of culture examined in the work of Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede.

Hofstede's work is not the only possibility for such comparisons, however. Erin Meyer has written The Culture Map, a book that examines cultural differences among countries on eight dimensions:

* Communicating (low context vs. high context)
* Evaluating (indirect vs. direct negative feedback)
* Persuading (principles first vs. application first)
* Leading (egalitarian vs. hierarchical)
* Deciding (consensual vs. top-down)
* Trusting (task-based vs. relationship-based)
* Disagreeing (confrontational vs. non-confrontational)
* Scheduling (linear vs. flexible time)

These dimensions of cultural differences are all also highly relevant to how various parties will approach the collective decision-making process at General Conference in May.

In addition to her book, Meyer's website has a pay-to-use cultural comparison tool that allows users to select countries and make direct comparisons. While not free, users can purchase one-day access for just $4 USD and longer-term access for more.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

General Conference and the Hofstede Culture Country Comparison

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.

When The United Methodist Church's General Conference next gathers (even if it is not clear yet when exactly it will do so), it will make decisions as a global body, across national and cultural differences. Many commentators have noted the US-centric nature of the decision-making processes at General Conference, with its reliance on complex, technical procedural maneuvering based on Robert's Rules of Order.

Yet Robert's Rules are not the only way in which culture is embedded in decision-making processes at General Conference. Regardless of the rules or procedures employed, each participating cultural group comes to the process of decision-making with its own cultural presuppositions that shape its understanding of how decisions should be made.

Fortunately, resources exist to help delegates (and others) make sense of those differing cultural presuppositions, and the delay in holding General Conference gives delegates some more time to explore them.

Two of the most significant researchers into the nature of cultural differences and how those differences impact organizational life, including decision-making, were/are the Dutch father and son Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede. Their work focuses, in part, on comparing countries on six dimensions of culture. These six dimensions are as follows:

* Power Distance, defined as "the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally."

* Individualism, defined as "the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members."

* Masculinity, which, according to the Hofstedes, concerns "what motivates people, wanting to be the best (Masculine) or liking what you do (Feminine)."

* Uncertainty Avoidance, which reflects "the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these."

* Long Term Orientation, which "describes how every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future."

* Indulgence, which describes "the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses." 

Hofstede Insights (a consulting organization connected to the Hofstedes) has a country comparison website that allows you to compare two or more countries on these six dimensions.

While unfortunately, the Democratic Republic of Congo (home to the second-largest number of United Methodists) is not one of the countries available for comparison, the United States, the Philippines, and many countries in Africa and Europe with branches of United Methodism can be compared. Here, for instance, is a comparison of the US and Nigeria.

Spending some time examining comparisons between countries may be a useful way for General Conference delegates to prepare to make decisions across cultures. In particular, this exercise highlights differences, especially around power distance and individualism. Such comparisons can provide delegates (and others) with a better understanding of how their fellow United Methodists approach the shared task of making decisions.

Monday, April 13, 2020

COVID-19, Travel, Zoom, and the Future of United Methodist Mission

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.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many things around the world, among them the practice of mission. This blog has examined some of the impacts of the pandemic on United Methodist mission around the world. Lisa Beth White has reflected on “Short-Term Mission in a Time of Coronavirus,” including what happens when you are “Not Going on the Mission Trip.”

In addition, I have noticed in the past month has been a significant drop-off in the number of pieces posted by the US annual conferences about their work with mission partners around the globe. The boards and agencies and UMNS have continued to share stories about global United Methodism, even going out of their way to inform United Methodists about responses around the world, but annual conferences and local churches have not as much. Our own readership at UM & Global has also been markedly lower in the past month.

It seems safe to conclude that amidst the pandemic, US United Methodists are not paying nearly as much attention to global mission.

That is to some extent perfectly understandable. Churches have been overwhelmed trying to transition to online worship, figuring out how to celebrate Easter without in-person services, and in some cases providing expanded local mission services in greatly changed circumstances. Certainly, these pressing concerns have left US churches with less capacity to focus on many things, and international mission is just one of those things.

I think this drop-off in interest in international mission is, however, also a sign of just how dominant short-term mission trips have become as a form of mission engagement for American United Methodists. In the present context, no mission trips are happening, and upcoming mission trips have been canceled. That leaves annual conferences and local churches with a lot less to share about their engagement in international mission, especially since those trips may or may not be part of on-going relationships involving significant other aspects beyond trips.

The dominance of short-term trips in the US ties into differences I have noticed between US responses to the pandemic on the one hand and Swiss and Norwegian United Methodist responses on the other. While short-term trips are part of Swiss and Norwegian engagement with international mission, they are a smaller part of on-going relationships with specific partners that also involve regular communication, prayer, and funding. Despite COVID-19 cases and church closures in Switzerland and Norway, those branches of the UMC have continued to be engaged with their international partners, sharing information and launching special fundraising campaigns to support them. There has been some of that in the US (the Michigan-Haiti partnership is one example), but much less.

Given that the pandemic has been so disruptive to perhaps the major form of US United Methodists’ engagement with global mission, there are questions about what the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be on US United Methodists’ relationships with international partners. The pandemic will certainly disrupt mission travel for the next couple of months at least, but as commentators have noticed about many aspects of life, things may not just go back to pre-pandemic normal afterward.

For instance, if US United Methodists are left with heightened concerns about travel in general and the risks of various diseases or of being stranded, short-term mission trips may be perceived as riskier and thus become less popular. Or, if local church finances are significantly impacted by the lack of in-person giving and the economic fallout of the pandemic, congregations may decide that they cannot afford to take international trips as they did in the past.

Alternatively, increased comfort with videoconferencing services such as Zoom for meetings within the United States may lead US United Methodists to become more willing to use video conferencing to talk to mission partners around the world even when not traveling to see them. Although internet availability and speeds vary around the world, it is still possible to conduct video calls with partners in most major urban areas, even in developing countries. More communication outside of trips could strengthen rather than hurt international mission partnerships.

Another possibility is that if US United Methodists become more inward-focused because of a felt need to focus on their own survival during the pandemic, that inward focus will persist after the pandemic is over. There was a rising tide of nationalism in the US (and many other countries) before the pandemic. That desire to separate from international connections and focus instead on the domestic may be exacerbated by the psychological impacts of the pandemic, which would be bad for the future of international mission partnerships.

A more optimistic prospect is that the pandemic could help to de-colonize mission partnerships between US United Methodists and their partners around the world. If partners discover that they can survive without short-term mission teams from the US, or even that they are able to flourish in some ways without such teams, they may be reluctant to return to the status quo after the pandemic. On the other side, if US United Methodists become chastened about their ability to save the world because of the severe impacts of the virus in their own country, they may bring a humbler attitude to mission partnerships in the future.

Finally, it is possible that things pretty much go back to normal after the pandemic. Once the virus is under control and travel is possible again, people take up the same patterns of mission practices as they previously did. Perhaps the resumption of mission trips will even give people a sense of normalcy restored.

It is impossible to know at this point what the long-term consequences, if any, of COVID-19 and the interruption of the short-term mission trip model of missions will be for US United Methodists. And it may be too much to contemplate these consequences on top of scrambling to respond to the many disruptions and large amount of sickness, death, and economic pain that are a part of our current experience. Yet, when we have the capacity, we should look for what is emerging from this situation. The answer may be surprising.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Rolf Wischnath on the Coronavirus Pandemic: The Questioners Are Questioned

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Rolf Wischnath. Rev. Wischnath is an honorary professor at Bielefeld University. He was a reformed pastor in Soest and Berlin. From 1995 to 2004 he was general superintendent for eastern Brandenburg. This article is taken, with permission, from the biweekly magazine "unterwegs" of die Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche (The United Methodist Church in Germany) - number 07/2020 of March 29, 2020. It first appeared online on the EmK’s website. The translation is by UM & Global’s David W. Scott.

In the history of Jewish and Christian religion, epidemics were signs that intolerable things were happening in the people of God's way of life. That is why God, with a fatal illness, executed a punitive judgment against sinners and non-sinners. There is an old word for it: "the scourge of God."

So is the corona pandemic a scourge of God?

If that were true, incomparably worse epidemics in the southern half of the world would be drastic forms of the scourge of God. The Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (German World Hunger Relief) recently sent a letter with a message that everyone could understand: "About every ten seconds a child under five years of age dies from the consequences of malnutrition. Over sixty million children in India suffer from malnutrition."

There is no scourge of God
Jesus gives an example and explains: “Do you think that the eighteen people whom the tower at the pool of Siloam fell upon and killed were more guilty than all the other inhabitants of Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but if you do not repent, you will all perish as well” (Luke 13: 4-5). He ties this to an accident: a tower collapsed at the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem and buried eighteen people under it. According to the understanding of the time, this could not be a coincidence: Such a misfortune could not happen without the will of God. This is so because God determines a man's hour of death. The slain must have done something unforgivable.

"Do you think that the eighteen people were more guilty than all the other residents of Jerusalem?" With only one question, Jesus cuts down the dogma that special guilt leads to special misfortune. There is no scourge of God. God in Christ does not torture and kill. Humans should not question God. Rather, God questions the questioners: "If you do not repent, you will all perish as well."

An unsolvable question
Jesus dares to remove the differences in the question of guilt and set out of bounds accountability for sin among the victims of the Siloam accident. We won't solve the agonizing question of why Almighty God allows Siloam and Corona and so many other mass diseases and mass harms. It cannot be answered. It has never been solved philosophically and theologically.

Jesus also does not answer the question of why the tower collapsed. Therefore, we should definitely decide similarly not to know and to say where the misfortune gets its deadly potency from and why it is able to come into God's world. Given our inability to reconcile God who in Christ loves us unconditionally with the experience of limitless suffering, we should admit that we cannot settle it. We can only ask that God's love carries us and others through guilt and misfortune, through epidemics and death. However, we information-less people longingly expect more: nothing less than the new heaven and the new earth and with them God's answer to so many questions.

About face to engage the world
This hope "for the end" is not a consolation. It is a promise. And it is also an invitation to human care. Christ who came and who is coming gives present strengthening and instruction. Only then does hope prove true. Only after Corona, only one day will Christ's return and the new creation come. That is why the question of why no longer relates primarily to one's own suffering but becomes a question of solidarity with the suffering of others. You are by no means the victim of a scourge of God.

"If you do not repent, you will all perish as well," Jesus warns. Where does repentance happen? First in the turn of humans to God. The penitent begins to trust and obey God in Christ. After that, it consists of turning to others. The penitent begins anew to do his/her part for a world in which the sick will be comforted and illnesses will be treated with sense and understanding. And many, many sufferers - no matter where they come from - need to be better received and nourished, respected and protected by us. And in the foreseeable future, justice and power, wealth and poverty must come to a better balance.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Recommended Reading: COVID-19 impact on Haiti and other poor countries

The Michigan Annual Conference published this excellent and thorough article about concerns that their mission covenant partners in Haiti have in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. While some parts of the Haitian context are unique to that country, the article is worth a read because many of the challenges confronting Haiti because of coronavirus are also challenges in other poor countries. In particular, the article discusses the trade-offs between social distancing and a host of other concerns, including the need to get food, the importance of social networks for survival, and the close physical proximity required for many transportation modes. Moreover, while handwashing stations have proliferated, the availability of water for sanitation remains a concern. The article also points out that new global demand for Chloroquine as a possible treatment for COVID-19 may make it less available (or more expensive) for treating malaria, which is its primary use. While United Methodists in the US are facing their own legitimate concerns about coronavirus, they must not forget the concerns of partners around the world as well and instead respond with prayer, advocacy, and tangible support.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Recommended Readings: Global United Methodist Responses to the Coronavirus, Updated

The coronavirus pandemic continues to develop rapidly, affecting societies around the world, including a new surge within the developing world. Updating a previous rundown two weeks ago, here is how United Methodists around the world are responding to the pandemic and to official measures being taken to halt the spread of COVID-19.

As coronavirus has spread into Africa, more branches of The United Methodist Church there have canceled church services, including in Kenya (announced Mar. 20), Angola (announced Mar. 21), Nigeria (announced Mar. 23), the Democratic Republic of Congo (announced Mar. 23), Zimbabwe (announced Mar. 24), and Zambia (announced Mar. 28). Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia had already canceled services prior to the last update. The Liberian UMC has since announced an anti-COVID-19 campaign in two Liberian counties. Africa University has moved to online classes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, though about 250 foreign students remain on campus, and the university is working to produce lowcost hand sanitizer. Africans are also offering lessons for coronavirus that they learned from the 2014 Ebola outbreak, including in this UMNS story and in an interview of Sierra Leone Bishop John Yambasu by Global Ministries' Thomas Kemper.

Several branches of the UMC in Europe have put together lists of church live streams, resources for congregations, and other coronavirus information. Included among these are the Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche in Germany, the Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche in Switzerland, and the UMC in the Czech Republic. The EmK in Switzerland is also coordinating two special Easter initiatives: a letter-writing campaign for members to send Easter greetings to each other and a collection of uplifting videos to be compiled and shared on the conference's YouTube channel.
In the Philippines, United Methodists expressed concern about the justice impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Church and Society posted this reflection by Filipina deaconess Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana about how the pandemic interacts with social inequality. And United Methodist News carried this story about two Filipino pastors experiencing harassment for their social justice work, harassment which has been exacerbated by stay-at-home orders.

United Methodist conferences and episcopal areas around the world have undertaken campaigns of prayer and fasting, including the UMC in Estonia, the Finno-Swedish Annual Conference and the Baguio Episcopal Area in the Philippines.

The General Board of Church and Society has short reflections on the lived experience of the coronavirus from United Methodists in Norway, Germany, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Nigeria. Connexio, the Swiss United Methodist mission agency, offers these snapshots of how the pandemic is affecting United Methodist social and health agencies around the world.

Connexio has also launched a special Easter fundraising campaign for support to partners impacted by coronavirus. The Norwegian Misjonsselskap launched a fundraising campaign for coronavirus support for partners in Africa. The Baguio Episcopal Area launched a fundraising campaign for a special COVID-19 Help Fund. Mary Johnston Hospital, the first Methodist hospital in the Philippines, put out a call for personal protective equipment. And while Global Ministries has had to put most mission and relief grants on hold because of the financial consequences of the pandemic, its COVID-19 response is an exception. It is working with partners in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippines to build response capacity.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Global United Methodist Views on Online Communion

Churches around the world are shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and these closures will, in most places, last for at least another several weeks, past the first Sunday of April, through Holy Week, and past Easter. These are all times when United Methodists frequently celebrate communion together.

With many churches offering online worship instead of meeting in-person, this has let to what Discipleship Ministries has referred to as "the online communion dilemma." The UMC's official theology of communion, This Holy Mystery, and the Council of Bishops have both officially discouraged offering online forms of communion.

But can exceptions be made for the extenuating circumstances of the coronavirus shutdown? Cynthia Astle of United Methodist Insight has referred to this as "THE question" at the present moment. Many US bishops, theologians, pastors, and others have weighed in on this issue, some summarized in the two articles linked above.

Yet, given the extent of church closures in Europe, the Philippines, and Africa, this is an issue that affects more than just US churches. Here are some responses to this question by United Methodists from outside the United States:

Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area Bishop Christian Alsted has issued guidance regarding online communion. He states, "Until we again are able to worship in our churches, I give permission for pastors to offer communion online." He connects this provision to the UMC's theology of communion which stipulates, "The Communion elements are consecrated and consumed in the context of the gathered congregation. The Table may be extended, in a timely manner, to include those unable to attend because of age, illness, or similar conditions."

He also sets the following requirements for online communion:

 • "Communion should only be offered during live streamed worship services, where people participate in real-time.

 • "If recordings of such live streamed worship services are made available for persons to view at a later time, you should note that communion should only be taken when participating in real-time.

 • "In the announcement of the worship service, you should ask participants, who wish to take part in Holy Communion to have a piece of bread and a glass with juice available.

The Finno-Finnish Annual Conference, among others, has offered online communion following Bishop Alsted's guidance.

Note that Bishop Alsted's permission is limited to the present situation and requires real-time participation.

Norwegian District Superintendent Knut Refsdal offered instructions for a March 22nd online service led by himself and Rev. Ingull Grefslie that also fall in line with Bishop Alsted's guidance:

“The service includes communion. Those who wish to take part in the communion are asked to have bread and juice available.

“Such communion celebrations are only possible as part of a live online service, where people participate in real-time. If recordings of such online services are made available at a later time, listeners / viewers should be made aware that communion is only possible when attending in real-time.”

The Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche im Schweiz (UMC in Switzerland) notes that "there are some justified reservations about online sacrament celebrations," but nonetheless notes that in these "extraordinary times" it can make sense "to celebrate communion at home - and yet together - knowing and hoping that in a few weeks or months we will be able to celebrate together again in public service." The EmK has provided two possible liturgies ([1] and [2], both in German) for use under the following conditions:

"Pastors set the date and time. Church members that want to participate inform the pastor. The pastor connects 4-6 houses with each other so that the celebrants pray for each other by name during the celebration or pass on a blessing in a telephone chain."

It is worth noting that the above conditions can be met through other forms of connection than online livestreaming, but as in Northern Europe, synchronicity is a prerequisite.

The Manila Episcopal Area has acknowledged that it has received multiple questions about online communion, but has referred pastors and church members to pre-existing church guidance discouraging online communion.

While some African branches of The United Methodist Church have provided opportunities for online worship, there have been no official announcements about online communion there.