Friday, May 29, 2020

David N. Field: Connecting Across Europe – the Case of the Methodist e-Academy

Today's piece is written by Dr. David N. Field. Dr. Field is the Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe.

The advent of the corona virus covid-19 has sparked an intensification of the move toward online theological education that has been slowly growing over the past decade. It is quite possible that in the aftermath the pandemic online education will have established itself as an integral component of theological education and pastoral formation.

It is appropriate at this juncture to look at one model that has been operating for almost 12 years. The European Methodist e-Academy started operating in 2008 as a response to the specific situation of (United) Methodism in Europe.

European Methodist Churches are all minority churches. In most cases the annual conferences are small with limited resources yet in many cases experiencing steady but limited growth. Establishing theological seminaries in every country was not viable, and it was not practicable or desirable for students to attend one of the existing seminaries.

A decision was taken that students would do their initial theological training at a seminary or university in their own country and that this would be supplemented by an online program focused on Methodist studies. Thus, the Methodist e-Academy was established to offer this program.

The program consists of six modules covering Methodist History (Early Methodism and European Methodism), Methodist Theology (Doctrine and Ethics), and Methodist Ecclesiology (Including polity but focused on the mission in contemporary Europe). Students take one module a semester. In the majority of cases, the students are engaged in ministry either prior to or after ordination during this time.

At present each module in made up of eleven lessons which have of three components.
 •  Printed and online readings.
 •  Online exercises
 •  A weekly webinar

From 2020, each lesson will also include at least one videoed lecture. This was successfully introduced to one course in 2019.

Each module is concluded with a residential block seminar of two to three days, and students have to complete a major essay on a topic related to the course.

The e-Academy operates primarily as a network linking together students and lecturers from diverse parts of Europe. The lecturers are either suitably qualified pastors or professors at one of the Methodist seminaries. The only people employed on a regular basis are the coordinator and an administrator – both of whom are employed in a part time capacity. The work of the e-Academy is overseen by a board comprised of representatives of the four UMC episcopal areas, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, and the independent Methodist Churches.

A new development which, it is hoped, will facilitate the expansion and improvement of the program is a partnership with Cliff College in Britain. This partnership includes access to the TheologyX learning management system, which offers numerous technological advances that will enhance our program.

The key pedagogical features that we strive to implement are.

 •  Learner centred – It seeks to enable students to learn with and from each other.

 •  Interactive – It requires interaction between the lecturers and students, and amongst the students.

 •  Praxis oriented – It is designed to facilitate interaction between academic theological content and thinking with the lived experience of ministry.

 •  Connectional – It brings together students and lecturers from diverse countries to learn together.

 •  Communal and relational – It is based on the recognition that the learning best takes place in the context of relationships of commitment and trust. A key element of the program is the building of a community of learning. Here, the residential seminars have been of great importance

 •  Responsibility and commitment – Community involves mutual responsibility. On the one hand, students are responsible for their own learning, but on the other, they responsible to enhance the learning of other students by participating in the interactional dimensions of each lesson. 

The program was designed to meet a particular need – to equip students who had been educated at non-Methodist Institutions with a deep understanding of the Methodist tradition so that they could creatively draw on it as they engaged their ministry. It has however had two unforeseen consequences which have become increasingly important particularly in the present context of The United Methodist Church.

1. The development of deep relationships between church leaders from different parts of Europe. This occurred not only in the organised dimensions of the program but also on the initiative of students. They organised, for example, an online fellowship group, congregational visits, and partnerships between congregations in different countries.

2. The facilitation of inter-contextual learning. While students were united by their common membership in a Methodist, in most cases United Methodist, Church they discovered the dynamic variety of contextual differences that lead to very different understandings of the Methodist tradition and its embodiment. Students came from the richest and some of the poorest nations of Europe. Some came from highly secularised societies others from deeply religious societies, though with different dominant religions – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Islamic. The nations and the churches had lived through the twentieth century on different sides of the Iron Curtain. The e-Academy provided a community in which students could learn from each other’s contexts and experiences  

The Methodist e-Academy has not achieved all its goals and has not fully implemented its desired pedagogy. However, its structure as a virtual connection linking students and lecturers across very different countries and contexts has provided the flexibility to address the particular needs of European United Methodism and provides an example of how online learning can be used to provide inter-contextual and connectional theological education with limited resources, which would not have been possible in a traditional institution.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Recommended Reading: Filipino United Methodists in Dubai

Last week, David Scott and Robert Harman discussed the connections between geography, mission, migration and polity in a post by Scott entitled "When It Comes to Geography, Mission Trumps Polity" and a response by Harman. Scott's post used a United Methodist News Service article on overseas Zimbabwean congregations as the basis for his reflections, but he also mentioned the existence of Filipino congregations in places like the United Arab Emirates.

There are at least three congregations of Filipino United Methodists in Dubai, which exist to serve Filipinos but not to evangelize Muslim residents of Dubai, which is prohibited by law. There are nearly a half million Filipino workers living in Dubai, where they may up about a fifth of the total population.

Those interested in the life of these congregations can check out the Facebook pages for those congregations and the regional United Methodist Young Adult Fellowship:

A description of these congregations can also be found on p. 16 of the Summer 2017 issue of New World Outlook. Thomas Kemper wrote this piece, entitled "Walking with United Methodists and other Christians in the United Arab Emirates," after a visit there.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Robert Harman: Response to “When It Comes to Geography, Mission Trumps Polity”

Today's post is by Robert J. Harman. Rev. Harman is a mission executive retired from the General Board of Global Ministries.

David Scott’s post earlier this week discussed the spread of Zimbabwean United Methodist congregations outside of Zimbabwe. The phenomenon of emerging churches sharing the gospel across cultural, ecclesiastical and national boundaries has been well established in recent years.

But questions persist. Just how secure is this venture in extending the global witness of the church? Will the forces of globalization that drive this trend survive the current resurgence of nationalism? How will the adoption of the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation impact the structural configuration and support systems needed to nurture this pattern of United Methodist witness? Can the UMC learn from mistakes of the past how to gracefully appropriate this trend?

The time has long passed since the Methodist Church charged its mission board with authorizing the origins of this kind of missionary activity by certifying the credentials of ministers sent from conferences beyond the US to serve appointments within the US conferences of the denomination.

Soon the migration of people called Methodist from churches beyond the jurisdiction of the missionaries of the board of missions began populating neighborhoods beyond the reach of existing Methodist congregations and presented a whole new reality for which disciplinary provisions were never written. But the notion that this activity could be regulated by recognizing clergy credentials of those sent by Methodist bodies beyond the US is what receiving conferences in the US-based UMC held onto for dear life.

The first serious challenge came from the Korean Methodist Church, whose pastors accompanied their migrating members to the US and established congregations with or without the blessing of either the KMC or UMC. Fearing ultimate financial liability for supporting the arriving KMC pastors, conferences established strict membership criteria for expat clergy including educational achievement that matched standards in place for existing clergy members, English language skills, and for their churches, an arbitrary sustainable congregational size and organizational structure that complied with the UMC discipline, not the KMC discipline.

Some of the Korean ministers played by these rules and brought their churches into UMC annual conference membership. Only when superintendents made their charge conference rounds did they discover that the first-generation Korean United Methodist Churches were United Methodist in name only. Their strong ties to the KMC were evident in their parish organizational structure and cultural support, while their linkage to other churches in their districts were non-existent.

Moreover, many immigrant Methodist pastors and congregations chose to remain independent of the UMC and establish a mission relationship to their homeland sending church bodies. This was true for fledgling groups from Korea, Japan, China, the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America. A similar pattern prevailed in European conferences, which generally promoted a fraternal relationship that respected mutual independence before cultivating direct connectional ties.

In most major urban population centers this pattern prevails. Immigrant congregations have distinct cultural needs that require nurturing by leadership from within the culture and connected to the denominational support systems that will maintain their identity and keep them viable throughout a first generational transition. Not until a second generation of members and clergy begin to influence congregational life will consideration of external affairs / relationships become evident.  Still, the threat from outside the established community, whether from geographically based-judicatory appeals or adherents attracted by virtual forms of communication, will be controlled from within.

So, Methodism today has a multivariate formation within its global community that defies traditional analysis by ecclesiastical, national and cultural standards. We sometimes write off that which is unmanageable with the jargon “mission is messy.” But it is truly beautiful and a blessing when church bodies can cultivate rather than insist on capturing each expression of culturally distinct faith communities that surfaces in our respective domains.

That admonition is especially directed toward factions within the UMC that will soon be faced with the challenge of sorting out which branches will claim each other going forward from the proposed separation protocol. I pray that a new global vision of church will prevail and a threatened Balkanization of the emerging expressions of Methodism can be avoided.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Jeanie Reimer: Doing Mission by Videoconferencing

Today's post is by Jeanie Reimer. Jeanie is the Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia In Mission Together Partnership Coordinator for Global Ministries.

Using videoconferencing for mission has been a new experience for many during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is a long-standing practice among United Methodists in the Baltics. Through my consulting work with Global Ministries, it has been such a blessing to build relationships with people from all over the Baltics, not only by in-person visits but with the wonderful world of videoconferencing!

My local church, FUMC of Neenah, Wisconsin, and our partner church, Pilviskiai UMC in Lithuania, started doing monthly Skype Bible studies in 2014 shortly after one of our mission trips. The idea of videoconferencing was born out of the desire to keep our relationship strong and to grow spiritually together in between our in-person visits.  Although it was a step outside our comfort zone, little did we know that 6 years later this connection would continue with great enthusiasm.

That first Skype Bible study back in 2014 reminds me of the parable of the mustard seed, which has grown in profound ways that we never imagined. We have planted and nourished seeds as we sought new ways to communicate and build relationships, despite being physically distant from each other. Together, through our openness to videoconferencing, we have been able to be the hands and feet of Christ for each other, halfway around the world. Grounded in prayer and devotions, we are now more involved in each other’s lives and more connected to our mutual spiritual journeys. Although it has not been easy, we have patiently and steadily developed the tools to gather people together virtually.

Connecting over a computer screen does not change the importance of being together in person and doesn’t replace the “real” hugs, but it certainly can keep partnerships alive and strong in between visits. And during this time of pandemic, we have been able to lift each other up and listen to the sharing of similar struggles and challenges. It has been very meaningful to see each other and pray for each other during this difficult time.  I am grateful for the groundwork laid in 2014 between UMC Pilviskiai and FUMC Neenah that has brought us to this point.

Even more exciting has been to see how the concept of videoconferencing has been embraced by more Methodist groups in the Baltics as a result of our first Bible study between our two partner churches, 5,000 miles apart. Here are the Methodist groups from the Baltics that are now using videoconferencing on a regular basis: 

Friends of Lithuania – This is a group of partner churches, individuals, and clergy from the US and Lithuania who have engaged in In Mission Together partnerships with the Lithuania UMC. We have been meeting monthly, and more recently quarterly, through WebEx since January 2018. We are grateful to Global Ministries for providing this resource. Beginning with devotions and prayer, we learn about what is happening in the Lithuania UMC and we keep each other informed about our partnerships. It has deepened our relationship with each other and has definitely improved our communication. It is a joy to have these calls!

Friends of the Baltics – This committee was born out of the desire to connect the three Baltic “Friends” groups – Friends of Estonia, Friends of Latvia, and Friends of Estonia. These are all groups in the US who partner with Methodist churches in the Baltics. Noticing that there was little communication between these groups, Dr. Üllas Tankler, Regional Representative – Europe, Eurasia & North Africa, Global Mission Connections, and I launched this group in the fall of 2018. Consisting of the co-chairs and leaders of each group, we meet quarterly though teleconferencing. The goal is to build relationships, learn from each other, and create a vehicle for communication. These “Friends” groups are passionate about their relationships with fellow Methodists in the Baltics. There are many similarities and challenges with United Methodism in these post-Soviet occupied countries and we knew there was a wealth of information that could be shared. One day, we hope to have a Friends of the Baltics gathering.

Friends of Latvia – This is a group of partner churches, individuals, and clergy from the US and Latvia who have engaged in connecting congregation partnerships with the Latvian UMC. We had our first call in January 2020 before even knowing what COVID-19 was! Since then, we have had two other teleconferencing calls. Our last call on April 25th replaced what was supposed to be an in-person gathering in Dallas, Texas. There were 40+ people on the call from the US and Latvia, and people stayed on the call for the entire time! I was blown away … I thought we would lose people, or they would be disengaged, but quite the opposite was true. Initially, this group was hesitant about getting started, but once we did, we realized how amazing it is to be connected. Our next call will be May 30th, and we look forward to our ongoing connections and conversation.

Development Committee of the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary (BMTS) in Estonia – We are excited about the newly-formed BMTS Development Committee which held its first meeting in early 2020 and continues meeting almost weekly.  Through Webex and Zoom resources from Global Ministries, this committee consists of BMTS leadership and board members and the Friends of Estonia co-chairs from Estonia and the US.  We were already working virtually on a 2020 Development Plan when suddenly everything changed with COVID-19. Creating a new development plan specific to the response to COVID-19, we quickly adjusted because we had the resource of videoconferencing available to us.

While the idea of doing mission through teleconferencing may seem foreign to many people, the partner relationships I am seeing in the Baltics during this pandemic are only heightening our steadfast commitment to each other. Teleconferencing is making real connections possible! Because the relationships are personal and ongoing, people are caring about each other, praying for each other and taking opportunities to engage with each other via videoconferencing. Our collective willingness to stretch outside of our comfort zones has made this growth possible.

These examples of groups using videoconferencing have reaffirmed my strong belief in the concept of In Mission Together where the framework embraces ongoing relationships. Promoting sustainability versus dependency, creating a journey of engaging in spiritual development with each other, each of us bring to the table our own unique gifts to share with one other. And just like the mustard seed, I see these covenant relationships growing in mutuality through God’s grace and love. We are joined together in human connection by participating equally as the body of Christ. I continue to marvel at God’s wisdom, guidance, and hand in this process for certainly the Spirit has inspired, and will continue to inspire, this journey.

Monday, May 18, 2020

When It Comes to Geography, Mission Trumps Polity

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.

Nearly two months ago, United Methodist News Service posted a story written before the pandemic about diaspora ministry for Zimbabwean United Methodists. I doubt the story got much traction, as it was published as the pandemic was really ramping up, but it is significant, and in ways that surprisingly end up being related to the pandemic.

Briefly, the UMNS piece describes how the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area provides spiritual and religious care for Zimbabwean United Methodists who have migrated. In many cases, this includes starting congregations with appointed pastors from Zimbabwe. The article mentions congregations of Zimbabwean United Methodists in England, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates.

Moreover, while it's not discussed in the article, Zimbabweans are not alone in this trend. Filipinos, for instance, have United Methodist congregations in the United Arab Emirates as well. Other national branches of The United Methodist Church have organized and sometimes appointed clergy to congregations that lie outside the geographic boundaries of their nations. These congregations are primarily created to serve migrants, though occasionally others will join as well.

These modern migrants forming new congregations have long historical precedent. Methodist migrants (and migrants from many other religious traditions) have carried their faith and their religious identities with them and started new religious groups in their new homes. Indeed, the first Methodist small groups and worship services in many places in the world were organized not by missionaries but by migrants.

The one catch in this normal and wide-spread practice is that it is not provided for in our current United Methodist polity. UMC polity assumes a geographically-based system of organization with clear boundaries to those geographical units. Annual conferences, episcopal areas, and jurisdictional and central conferences are all presumed to cover designated geographic areas and to focus their ministries within those areas. There is no provision for officially-recognized congregations beyond those boundaries. Anything outside those areas is theoretically supposed to be organized as a mission of the church, not a part of the annual conference structure.

These restrictions don't come from nowhere. There are thorny ecclesiological, missional, polity, and ecumenical questions involved in the spread of a denomination (or branch thereof) to new areas, especially where other branches of that same or closely-related denominations exist (as the World Methodist Council has addressed). Yet, geographic restrictions on ministry are just not how the church works, and probably not how it should.

One might argue that the BOD's current failure to recognize or account for the existence of migrant congregations outside of home episcopal areas is another instance of the US-centric nature of the document. The United States is used to being a country of in-migration, but United Methodists in many places live in countries of out-migration, and the BOD take on such migrant congregations would be very different written from their perspective.

Nevertheless, the coronavirus pandemic is giving some in the United States a taste of the tricky questions that come up with the blurring of geographic boundaries in the church. Previously, because of the physical nature of most worship services, most churches focused their ministries on geographically proximate persons. Now, with churches online because of the pandemic, that dramatically raises the possibility for people to "attend" churches that are not geographically proximate.

This raises a series of questions for pastors and other church leaders: What if parishioners from a pastor's former and church now want to switch from their home church to worship virtually at the pastor's new, geographically distant church? If new people start worshipping virtually with a congregation they do not live nearby, what should happen once meeting restrictions are relaxed? Should they be encouraged to find an in-person church near them, or should they continue to worship virtually with the distant church? Should a church organize small groups in another state? Does it make a difference if the geographically-distant followers come from the same denominational background, a different denominational background, or an unchurched background?

Historically, it has proven hard to balance a missional spirit and a concern for pastoral care on the one hand and geographic restrictions on the other. It would be a shame to sacrifice the former just to uphold the latter. If there is a way to respect geographic boundaries, it must be one that still affirms and accommodates the missional spirit of the church. Yet, it can also sow division within the body of Christ to completely ignore the latter for the sake of the former. Thus, the missional spirit must always also coincide with an ecumenical spirit, one is that is willing to work with others, especially when once distant people suddenly become neighbors.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Recommended Reading: UMVIM-NCJ Virtual Mission Trips

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the short-term travel model of mission engagement, along with so many other things in life. Nevertheless, that has not stopped local and regional UMVIM Coordinators from continuing to forge mission connections. With travel off the table, though, those connections look different. One model for continuing those connections is the "virtual mission trip."

UMVIM-NCJ has this resource page on virtual missions. The model they are promoting involves hour-long virtual conversations among mission partners for five days that aim to help participants "learn, explore, connect, and partner."

The UMVIM-NCJ resource page has four potential host partners for virtual missions (two domestic and two international), a list of suggested roles for church participants, and a sample schedule.

There is a fundraising component to support the on-going work of partner organizations (which are still doing ministry, often with increased demand and fewer resources). Yet the virtual mission trip goes beyond just a fundraiser to facilitate more extensive learning and interaction among partners.

While the idea of a virtual mission trip may seem strange to many, this is an interesting model for two reasons: First, as a response to the current pandemic that still facilitates global mission, it is an interesting short-term alternative. And second, given the critiques of some short-term mission practices as forms of helping that can hurt, it will be interesting to see if this virtual model, which is focused more on relationship-building, will be an attractive long-term model as well.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Recommended Viewing: Thomas Kemper Hosts Global Mission During a Pandemic Interviews

Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of Global Ministries, has been conducting short (4-7 min.) video interviews with missionaries and mission partners around the world to ask them about their experiences in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. These interviews are interesting for several reasons: They show the variety of responses to and concerns about the pandemic in different countries and regions, but they also show the variety of types of mission work, missionaries, and mission leaders that characterize global United Methodist mission. The series currently stands at 17 videos, but more will continue to be added. The following is a list of the videos as of the time of this post.

Entire series (link will include additional videos added later)

Nyamah Dunbar, Global Ministries West Africa Area Liaison, serving in Liberia (posted 5/1/2020)

Monday, May 11, 2020

What I've Learned about the Global UMC Internet Presence

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

While I've long paid attention to global United Methodist news for the sake of this blog, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed me to be more thorough in searching for the online presence of every United Methodist central conference, episcopal area, and annual conference outside the United States. In the process of surveying these sources for information about United Methodist responses to the pandemic, I've learned something about the ways in which The United Methodist Church is (and isn't) present online around the world. Many of the following could also be said about the annual conference in the United States, but here are six things I think are true of the UMC beyond the US.

1. Facebook is king - especially in Africa
I looked for official UMC websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. Twitter feeds are relatively rare, though the Swiss and German UMC branches have quite good Twitter feeds. Most European branches of the UMC have a website, though the quality and frequency of updating these varies. But almost every branch of the UMC around the world has an official Facebook page. In many places in Africa, an official Facebook page is the only official web presence for an episcopal area or annual conference. Granted, there are significant variations within these Facebook pages with regard to the frequency and content of posts. Still, the best place to learn what's happening in most places in the UMC is on Facebook.

2. Different communications channels carry different types of news
While Facebook may be king, some branches of the UMC, especially in Europe, will have multiple communication channels: a website, perhaps with a separate news page, a Facebook page, and perhaps even a Twitter feed. Often, the sorts of material that appears on the website and what appears on the Facebook page are different. Websites tend towards official announcements, news stories, and reports on events. Some of that also appears on Facebook, but Facebook also contains a lot more prayers, other devotional materials, and event announcements. This distinction is similar to how US Americans use the Internet.

3. Size does not determine technological sophistication
Some branches of the UMC outside the US are huge. Some are tiny. Size, however, does not determine the quality of a United Methodist website or the facility with which United Methodists use social media. There are some really nicely designed and fairly regularly updated websites for very small branches of the UMC in Eastern Europe. There are larger groups in the same region with fairly static websites with less contemporary designs. In Africa, some small annual conferences or episcopal areas update Facebook regularly, and some large annual conferences or episcopal areas do so infrequently. I attribute much of the difference to the presence or absence of technologically-inclined leaders and staff, not the size of the group.

4. There are differences between and within regions
There are certainly differences between how European, African, and Filipino United Methodists use the Internet, as indicated above. But there are also differences within those regions as well. Two out of the three Filipino episcopal areas have regularly updated websites and Facebook pages. The third does not. There are also significant differences, for instance, among the countries in the West Africa Central Conference. Some of the difference here may be access to the internet, but some of it is also likely due to personal differences in communication style or cultural differences around how important formal communication via the Internet is.

5. Some places in Africa have no official web presence
While some annual conferences/episcopal areas in Africa have active Facebook pages with regular posts and perhaps websites as well, some have nothing. The two Mozambique annual conferences and the Uganda Annual Conference have no official internet presence. The Malawi Provisional Annual Conference hasn't posted anything online since 2013. That doesn't mean that there is no online communication that happens in these areas. It does mean that communication happens by other than official channels and is therefore difficult to access by outsiders.

6. Personal networks still matter
Both in those places with a robust official Internet presence and especially in those areas with little or no official Internet presence, a lot of communication about United Methodist issues happens on personal Facebook pages or Twitter feeds. Important issues are discussed on personal pages, and important announcements may be made on personal pages. While having online discussions through personal or unofficial pages is common in the US as well, the extent to which the line between personal and official is blurred for the sake of sharing news is less so. It is harder for outsiders to know what is happening in Liberia, for instance, when information is not shared through official pages but only on personal pages. This model of communication makes a lot of sense in cultural contexts where personal networks are still very important and official infrastructures are less so. But this model of communication reinforces the tendency of US Americans to see Africa as a black box whose internal workings are a mystery. This makes international understanding more difficult and the role of intermediaries that much more important.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Recommended Readings: Lessons from Missionaries on Staying Connected Amid COVID-19

Even as some countries, states, and regions begin to lift coronavirus-related restrictions, social distancing continues. The process of social distancing can be difficult not only in social but also in spiritual and emotional ways. UM & Global blogmaster David Scott has written three reflections for Global Ministries on the lessons that missionaries can teach about how to maintain connections - to God, to other people, and to the broader world - while in difficult and unfamiliar settings.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Jacob Dharmaraj: Mutuality to Mutual Aid in Mission: The Return of A Deep-Rooted Model, Part 2

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj. Rev. Dharmaraj is President of the Retired Clergy and Spouse Association of the New York Annual Conference. It is the first of a two-part series. For part one, click here.

Part II: The Church’s Required Response: Mutuality to Mutual Aid
Amidst the current crises of COVID-19, the church today is called to respond in at least two ways: by offering Trauma Informed Care (TIC) and by moving from mutuality in mission to mutual aid in mission. In both these ways, the church can walk alongside the traumatized, as they journey through loss, grief, and change, by offering not pieties but grace, reassurance, and compassion, not mere instruction and charity.

One thing COVID-19 has taught those of us who serve the church is that loss endures, even as grief departs. Our recoveries are always partial. Grief is a long-term project.  Grief is circular, until suddenly it abates. Those who have been abused by the system during times of crisis will remember for a lifetime.

Researchers and psychologists have found, in past crises, the deepest traumas surfaced only after they had ended. The trauma is well contained whilst people are actively engaged in fighting and protecting, but the problems transpire only afterward. The scars of this crisis will linger for generations.

Therefore, the current context calls for spiritual leaders to retool themselves and their churches to offer what other organizations cannot offer.

TIC creates a culture that empowers and enables the vulnerable and victimized. TIC offers frameworks, structures, rituals, and prayers. TIC is not an intervention. It does not follow prescribed methods or actions. It is rooted in empathy. It creates a more helpful and therapeutic environment through compassion and solidarity that would promote safety, inclusion, dignity, values, and respect.

More important are monitoring and managing how to move past biases and bring about holistic healing. During stressful times, when resources are in short supply and needed equipment becomes scarce, many professionals make ethical decisions on an hourly basis. Some of them are sincere and straightforward. Other times certain extraneous factors such as age, gender, race, and class come into play. Who will be the guardian here and who has the ultimate power to make the split-second decision? It is impossible to monitor or remediate every situation. Knowing what is just and ethical to do in a given context and being able to apply them to crucial situations are two different things.

TIC advances a culture of safety, empowerment, and curative. Recognizing power differentials, acknowledging that flashbacks of past abusive episodes can affect the victims, and understanding the reason why some avoid therapeutic care is the first step. Too often trauma survivors who seek out support find themselves re-traumatized by the very systems designed to help them.

In the midst of this practice of TIC, one fundamental change that will happen in the area of mission theology is a shift from a theology of mutuality, which many, including me, advocated for the last quarter of a century, to a theology of mutual aid.

Mutual aid is defined primarily as a concept of providing each other support, either through resources or services, for the sake of mutual benefit.  The hallmark of mutual aid is that support flows between peers, neighbors, colleagues, community members, horizontally rather than from the top-down, as it would hierarchically from a government agency or a mission institution to those in need.

Charity funds or bureaucratic allocation of resources have no room in mutual aid, as they are deeply entrenched in processes and frameworks that often mean handouts or strings attached with inflexibility: for example, donated funds or resources to be used only for elderly, children, mothers, etc.

Mutual aid is neither hierarchical nor charity based. It is horizontal, mostly volunteer-run. It is driven by the emerging or immediate needs expressed by the members of the community. Bureaucratic and middle agents are eliminated as survival needs and shared understanding take priority over all others. People in the community, not the elected or appointed leaders of an organization, take responsibility for caring for one another. 

Mutual aid is deeply rooted in counter-cultural theory, invariably so during times of major crisis. Since TIC is as much about social justice as it is about spiritual, emotional, and physical healing, it enables mutual aid as an effective tool to do the right thing in the right place in short order.

When structural or siloed institutions are absent or fail, human altruism and community selflessness come as the vanguard. During crisis time, already vulnerable communities experience what is known as intersectional vulnerabilities. COVID-19 has again proven that some people and communities are more vulnerable. They need greater support from members of their own communities and those community organizations that work with them with sharpened advocacy skills and agility of movement.

It will take a long time before we will call ‘business as usual.’ Until then, the members of the faith community have a vital role to play, despite their own vulnerability. What we need today is the learning, training, and practice of trauma-informed care with a willingness to migrate from mutuality in mission to mutual aid in mission.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Jacob Dharmaraj: Mutuality to Mutual Aid in Mission: The Return of A Deep-Rooted Model, Part 1

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj. Rev. Dharmaraj is President of the Retired Clergy and Spouse Association of the New York Annual Conference. It is the first of a two-part series.

Part 1: The Impact of COVID-19 Upon Churches
The shopping malls are shuttered, church services suspended, places of recreation closed. COVID-19 has upended the laissez-faire in unprecedented ways. It has robbed many families of their dear ones and upended everyday life with death, fear, and anxiety.

Millions have lost their jobs, some permanently. Stock and commodity markets around the world gyrate unpredictably. Governments worldwide have reduced their benchmark interest rate which have resulted in lower fixed income for seniors who often rely on safe-haven income.

After re-evaluating the economic activities and health concerns of their citizens, leaders of many nations are in the thrall of unabashedly nationalist principles curbing multinational trade, international travel, and global migration. The doors may not open fully, even after an antibody vaccine is discovered.

The current pandemic environment is an unpleasant, alarming, and displeasing place where we do not want to be, but it is neither dystopian nor apocalyptic. COVID-19 is nonetheless a game-changer. It has already sown the seed for the evolution of new forms of worship gathering, church ministry, and mission outreach. It has spawned a three-axis disrupter to the church: its worship-style, its real estate, and its worldwide participation or partnership in mission.

The scars of this crisis will linger for years, if not decades, which will color views on using public places and congregating in large numbers. Seniors make up a significant percentage of our Sunday worship attendance. It will take a long time before they return with their generous giving.

Many parishioners may demand “virtual” services and ecclesial programs on-line, in addition to on-site services. A small group composing a dynamic worship team can garner a larger group of worshipers online than an on-site church gathering. Conversely, cross-cultural and cross-racial ministers will face an uphill battle. Several congregations, including small-town churches and service agencies, will be on a survival mode.

Since many established and start-up churches will offer worship services in cyberspace, there will be intense competition for membership, and there will be less demand for the church’s physical gathering space. Some will easily migrate from one worship setting to another.

The current crisis will reset our view of real estate, and our expectations from it.  Will a massive church building be good stewardship of dwindling resources? Churches have already experienced a precipitous decline in demand for services held at their buildings, such as funerals and weddings, as more and more of them are being held in one-stop settings such as funeral homes or hotels or open-air settings.

COVID-19 is also impacting the funding of our mission partnerships. Social distancing has already disrupted fundraising efforts of churches, VIM, and mission events that are normally scheduled during spring and summer. Revenue generating programs such as daycare, summer camps, and various group activities will be adversely affected. Mega-donors and corporations may step in to fill the gap – but only to help multi-religious or Inter-faith organizations. They will promote their own agenda. 

As a result, churches will have less cash revenue along with a reduction in the number of volunteers to run thrift shops, soup kitchens and engage in mid-week activities, which will weaken services to their local communities. Mission agencies and boards will have tough times keeping their doors open and programs afloat. With the cash flow much reduced, ecumenical and outreach programs will wane as well, while virtual connections remain.

Organizations that provide essential support services to groups on the front lines of issues such as human rights, social justice, poverty, environment, etc., will be heavily hit since they often run on a shoestring budget with no buffer, no cushion, and no room for error.  Even if they have a sizeable endowment, they will be hit hard as their cash flow would be sub-par as the major stock index has lost a sizeable value and cut short the revenue stream. Even if the economy recovers, as recent history has proved, the recovery will only be partial for all industries.

COVID-19 will also remake academic institutions, especially seminaries and bible colleges that have already been adversely affected by dwindling resources and student enrollment. MacMurray College, a 174-year-old United Methodist-affiliated school near Springfield, Ill., announced last month that it will close in May 2020. The Chair of the board of trustees says that although the pandemic “complicated MacMurray’s financial condition,” it wasn’t the main reason for the closure.

The value of stock portfolios that several academic and church-related institutions hold has been seriously hurt. Loss of dividend income and the persistently low income from fixed securities will further crimp students’ scholarship, endowed chairs, and new faculty hiring. Fewer international students and racial-ethnic minorities would be able to attend theological schools full time as a good number of them are sponsored by church and mission agencies. Habitation rate of campus dormitories, usage of dining halls, and occupation of the classrooms will contract. 

The church hierarchy’s hiring requirements will shift along with its current established boundaries: those ministerial candidates who know how to manage technology, with pleasant personalities and excellent communication skills, will succeed. More and more Schools for License for Local Pastors and Course of Study programs will be demanded by cabinets. Since those programs are totally geared towards practical aspects of church ministry, many pastoral candidates will seek that route. Resource-rich church and non-denominational groups will offer Bible Study and training programs online. Study materials will be digitized and translated into multiple languages.

Thus, the impact of the present crisis on the church will be pervasive, affecting all parts of the church and its ministry.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Recommended Readings: More from Robert Hunt on the Future of Theological Education

For those readers who found interesting Robert Hunt's two-part piece earlier this week on the future of theological education ("The Future of Theological Education - Fly or Die: The Problem and Some Responses"), there's good news: Dr. Hunt has written additional pieces on the future of theological education on his personal blog, Christianity and Intercultural Encounters. He published three more thought-provoking pieces back in January:

The Future of Theological Education is YouTube?

Theological Education - from Tuition Funding to Subscription Funding

The Recycled Seminary