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.

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