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.