Monday, June 8, 2020

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: The Missional Division in The United Methodist Church

Today's piece is by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary.

On a recent jog near my home, I happened upon the former Marvin Memorial UMC, now a mission annex of Silver Spring UMC since the two congregations merged several years ago. Although little-known, the former Marvin Memorial UMC is the site of an important development in the looming division of the UMC. While the differences on human sexuality date back to the 1972 General Conference, the conflict over missions began in 1977. This difference eventually led to the founding of the Mission Society for United Methodists—a second non-official UM missionary-sending agency—which further exacerbated denominational tensions.[1]

This division began in 1977 when Linda and David Jessup sent their children to Sunday School at Marvin Memorial UMC, and the children brought home appeals for wheat shipments to the Vietnamese government.[2] David Jessup began to research the destination of church offerings and traced money through the UMC to the Church World Service Fund of the National Council of Churches, which supported causes that he deemed to be left-leaning. His research led him to write his findings in what came to be known as the “Jessup Papers,” which were distributed at the 1980 General Conference.

In the report, Jessup stated that local church offerings went to “groups supporting the Palestinian Liberation Organization; the governments of Cuba and Vietnam; the pro-Soviet totalitarian movements of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and several violence-prone fringe groups in the United States.”[3] He alleged that the GBGM, the Women’s Division, and the National Council of Churches financed left-wing movements, such as the PLO, the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe, and even socialist governments around the world. These accusations were interpreted through the lens of the Cold War and the Moral Majority religious right and fueled distrust of UM Boards and Agencies—especially the General Board of Global Ministries.

The “Jessup Papers” played an instrumental role in the distrust of GBGM, the UM boards and agencies, and ecumenical agencies by more conservative church members. The Good News movement did not like the boards and agencies spending denominational money on progressive causes—especially in countries considered socialist. Conservatives felt uncomfortable with mission funds promoting social justice agendas and not using traditional understandings of mission and evangelism. Moreover, the Good News movement believed that boards and agencies were too bureaucratic and didn’t reflect the views of the average person in the pews.

The pastor of First United Methodist Church[4] in Peoria, IL, Ira Galloway, picked up the cause and targeted the Women’s Division of the GBGM, citing the reading material about Cuba for UMW’s School of Christian Mission in 1980 that stated: “The revolutionary government established a socialist society that focused national priorities on the needs of the people instead of those of multi-national corporations.”[5] Moreover, GBGM made a $18,000 grant to the Cuba Resource Center, a Catholic and Protestant non-governmental agency founded “…to promote communication between North Americans and Cubans.”[6]

Another frustration for Galloway was the rejection of more evangelical missionary applicants by GBGM. Galloway wrote, “…the staff leadership of the Board has essentially frozen out or refused to consider for placement many missionaries who are primarily concerned with evangelistic or evangelical priorities.”[7] In particular, he cited a missionary couple who wanted to go to Peru in the 1970s whose application was not approved by GBGM. And so Galloway’s church sponsored the couple; this effort was a forerunner of the Mission Society.

Growing frustrations led to a group of 34 people—mostly UM pastors—meeting in St. Louis in 1983 to select Rev. H.T. Maclin as the first president of the alternative, unofficial mission agency. Based in Atlanta, the Mission Society for United Methodists, now simply known as TMS Global, was incorporated on January 6, 1984.[8] The emphasis would be more on evangelism and church planting than social justice ministries. Not drawing on the UMC general budget, missionaries for TMS Global raise their own funding from local churches and seek their own placements.

How I discovered this division
While I only recently discovered the former Marvin Memorial UMC on my neighborhood runs, I have known about this split for some time. I was a GBGM missionary in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Mexico from 1988-2003 and had several covenant (supporting) churches. I itinerated every three years to witness to the congregations. I often was asked “Are you from GBGM or the Mission Society?” I found this split to be confusing for local churches who just wanted to support missions but didn’t know the history or reasons why we had two United Methodist mission agencies—one official and one unofficial.

If United Methodists found this confusing, just imagine our mission partners abroad who began to receive missionaries from both agencies—each with very different priorities and theologies! This division created schizophrenic mission efforts around the world and led to having UM missionaries in several countries, such as Nicaragua, Venezuela and Argentina, from two different UM mission sending organizations.[9]

For example, in Argentina the bishop of the Methodist Church discovered that a missionary from the Mission Society had purchased land under the name of the Methodist Church—an action that he didn’t authorize. In the case of Venezuela, a country without an historical Methodist expression, GBGM worked with La Comunidad Cristiana Metodista de Venezuela (CCMV) and the Mission Society started Concilio de Iglesias Evang√©licas Metodistas en Venezuela (CIEMVE). Both churches began about the same time in different regions of Venezuela—each without the knowledge of the other. If this is confusing alphabet soup for you, just imagine how it looked to the Venezuelans!

In Nicaragua there have been GBGM missionaries for a long time, and suddenly the Mission Society sent missionaries that did not work or have anything to do with the Methodist Church of Nicaragua. It is one thing to have a division within the United Methodist Church in the US, but it is poor witness to export internal differences to people who are new Christians. In an ironic twist, the General Board of Global Ministries moved their headquarters to Atlanta in 2016—about 20 miles from the Mission Society—and the two agencies have since conducted some joint missionary trainings.

Discussions about a division in the UMC are currently on the backburner as plans for General Conference have been postponed until 2021. This delay is also an opportunity to reflect on how we got to be where we are today. Just as I discovered the former Marvin Memorial UMC and the “Jessup Papers,” we can also look at how our history has contributed to different approaches to missions, missiology and ecclesiology. While the debate within the UMC mostly focuses on human sexuality, different understandings of mission and missiology are other sources of tension.


[1] The Mission Society for United Methodists changed its name to simply “The Mission Society” in 2006 and then “TMS Global” in 2017. It is based in Norcross, GA.

[2] Rael Jean Isaac, "Do You Know Where Your Church Offerings Go?," Reader’s Digest, January 1983, 120-125, http://www.materialreligion.org/documents/july99doc.html

[3] Jessup Papers, 1980.

[4] It is of interest to note that First UMC in Peoria had some prominent members who were executives at Caterpillar, Inc., which receives about $250 million in development contracts through the USAID. See Helen Milner and Justin Tingley, “The Political Economy of U.S. Foreign Aid,” Economy & Politics, vol.22, no.2, (July 2010). In the spirit of transparency, First UMC in Peoria later become a supporting church for me as a missionary, and I met one such executive at Caterpillar, Inc.

[5] James and Margaret Goff, In Every Person that Hopes (New York: Friendship Press, 1980), 55-56.

[6] “The Use of Money in Mission—An Opportunity for Understanding,” United Methodist Communications brochure (October 17, 1980), 3.

[7] Ira Galloway, Drifted Astray: Returning the Church to Witness and Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 109.

[8] TMS Global, https://www.tms-global.org/test-page-for-reed (accessed February 8, 2020).

[9] As recently as 2018, CIEMAL has moderated conversations between the two Methodist Churches in Venezuela to merge, but this is still inconclusive. See “Metodistas en Venezuela buscan camino a la unidad,” Servicio Metodista Unido de Noticias, November 20, 2018.

3 comments:

  1. Interesting article. I was a missionary in the Congo (DRC, then Zaire) from 1984 to 1991, sent by the UMC in Switzerland. Some of the tensions between the two mission agencies were felt there too.

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  2. Thanks for posting. I love learning about our history, even if it is a bit dysfunctional. Sort of like family.

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  3. Phil, thanks for this article. It is an important part of our institutional history, helping explain our present situation in the UMC. I appreciate your detailed research notes. I would add, it is not so much "an ironic twist" as "a deliberate strategy of the conservative movement that GBGM moved out of NYC. This was one of the stated goals of the Memphis Declaration 1992. That GBGM moved to Atlanta, so close to TMS Global, is icing on the cake, so to speak, not irony.

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