Friday, October 30, 2020
In reflecting on my understandings of biblical and Wesleyan theologies of health and healing, I think about a number of insights offered up by those theologies—that health is multifaceted and not confined to physical health, that individual health is connected to communal and national health, that there is a connection between health and sin including injustice, and that healing involves healing relationships.
Yet, such theology is not my area of expertise, so when asked to reflect publicly on the practice of health mission, I want to talk about something that does directly connect to my expertise: the importance of learning cross-culturally and across contexts, including learning about health and healing around the world.
Some quick definitions first:
A context is the setting where people live, work, and go about their lives. It can be a neighborhood, city, region, etc. Contexts are characterized by unique socio-economic, cultural, ethno-racial, political, historical, and other traits. So, each context in unique in some way, even as it also shares some things with other contexts.
A culture is a way of thinking about the world shared by a group of people. There can be local, regional, and national cultures; cultures shared by different ethnic or racial groups; cultures for groups defined by common interests; etc. A culture is characterized by a common set of beliefs, assumptions, and values. Cultures are an important part, but not the only part, of what makes a context unique.
First, I want to argue that learning across cultures and contexts is intrinsic to the practice of Christian mission. My definition of mission, which I lay out in my book Crossing Boundaries, is that mission is “cultivating relationships across boundaries for the sake of fostering conversations in word and deed about the nature of God’s good news.”
This definition mentions “relationships across boundaries,” and that means connecting to others across contexts and cultures. There are many types of boundaries—cultural, linguistic, geographic, political, socioeconomic, etc. But whatever type of boundary is involved, mission involves interacting with people who are different from us.
This definition of mission also mentions “conversations in word and deed about the nature of God’s good news,” and that means that mission involves talking and working with those who are different from us and learning from them in the process, just as we hope to share something with them at the same time. This learning goes both ways, as a good conversation does, and cannot be one-sided in which we only talk but do not listen and learn as well.
This process of learning through mission helps us better understand God and God’s good news because others will have different experiences of God than we do, different ways of thinking theologically, different conclusions that they reach from reading the Bible, and different senses of what would be good or new or life-giving within their own lives. Thus, when we engage in mission, we encounter these other ways of thinking and we thereby gain new insights into the ways in which God loves and redeems the world.
And while our ultimate goal in mission might be mutually learning more about God, along the way we are certain to learn about other things as well—we are going to learn about our mission partners’ lives and the ways in which they think about and experience the world around them. Learning about those other aspects of our mission partners’ lives and ministries is essential to being able to really understand what they can teach us about God.
Learning from those who are different than us can happen in a variety of settings. There are differences in cultures and contexts within the United States—southern Louisiana is different than rural Maine is different than metro San Francisco—and I’m sure that you’ve encountered and hopefully discussed some of those differences among contexts already during the conference. Cultures and contexts also differ internationally, often to a greater degree than they do within a single country such as the United States. So, while it is good to learn across contexts within the United States, it is also good to learn across contexts internationally.
The importance of learning across contexts applies to the field of health, both as a form of mission and ministry, and as an important aspect of health work itself. In fact, there is probably more learning across contexts in health than in many other fields. “Global health” is a field of study in prestigious medical schools that examines what we can learn about health and healing across countries, contexts, and cultures. For instance, the United States spends twice as much as on health care than other affluent nations and yet has the lowest life expectancy and highest suicide rate of any affluent country. Why do we spend more and end up less healthy? That sort of question can only be answered by learning across contexts.
But the United States can also learn from less affluent countries. Many think of health as being “better” in developed countries, and it’s true that there is a correlation between the relative income of a country and some of its health outcomes, especially as they relate to maternal and child health and certain infectious diseases.
But wealth is not the only indicator of health outcomes, and even to the extent it is, that does not mean that those in affluent countries have nothing to learn from those in developing countries. Education and women’s rights are also important indicators of a country’s health outcomes, and these vary within income brackets. Countries with better educational and women’s rights outcomes should be models for others. And affluent countries have more of certain types of diseases, especially mental health issues and chronic diseases related to diet or a sedentary lifestyle. Thus, the question, “Why is there more depression in the United States than in Mozambique?” is just as fair to ask as the question, “Why is there more malaria in Mozambique than in the United States?”
Moreover, there are many different models for arranging a health system, and developing countries often take innovative approaches to their health systems in ways that affluent countries can learn from. Remote access to health services is one such area. For example, the Gates Foundation has partnered with health providers in Malawi and Ghana to expand access to health care information and advice via cell phones, especially in rural, hard-to-reach areas. The challenge of providing health services in rural, hard-to-reach areas applies in the United States just as it does in Malawi.
Public health is another area in which developing countries can serve as models. Many countries in West Africa learned significantly from their experience with the Ebola epidemic in 2014. Experts cite African nations’ long experience with confronting public health epidemics such as Ebola and AIDS as a primary reason why Africa has been one of the regions of the world least affected by the coronavirus pandemic. In a Washington Post opinion piece about African success in combatting coronavirus, Karen Attiah says, “This pandemic has coincided with a global movement challenging anti-Black racism and white supremacy. This should have been a moment for media outlets to challenge corrosive narratives about Africa and the idea that Africans are not capable of effective policy-making. We could be learning from the experiences that Africans and their governments have had with pandemics and viral diseases, including Ebola and AIDS.”
Beyond outcomes, there are a wealth of different ways of thinking about health and healing in cultures across the world, and these various views also represent resources for learning, sharing, and developing our own perspectives on disease and healing. For instance, in many cultures outside of the West, the psychosomatic nature of disease is much better understood—that disease and healing are not only about what happens in the body, but about the ways in which the body, spirit, emotions, and social setting are out of harmony or in harmony.
And while people in the United States have been recently focused on the connection between diet and health, there are literally millennia of thinking about this issue in other cultures around the world that can offer potential insights.
For all these reasons, there are a variety of things we can learn from others around the world about health and healing.
And when these others are mission partners or are fellow Christians or even fellow United Methodists who are confronting the same sorts of challenges in their mission work and ministry that we are in ours, the potential for learning is that much greater, and it extends not only to health per se but about our shared faith and how health intersects with our faith and our practices of mission and ministry. There is much to be learned, even as we ourselves have things to offer and teach in return.
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
The United Methodist Church (UMC) is one of the so-called mainline churches in Zimbabwe, with strong presence in both rural and urban areas across the country. The church employs both clergy and lay workers, and the pastors are on an itinerant appointive system. Salaries (base compensation) for pastors are determined through the use of a grading system that takes into account the individual’s training, qualifications, and years of service. In this, the hope is that some semblance of equity is maintained.
Until ten years ago, the payment of salaries and allowances was the responsibility of the circuit (charge) to which a pastor is appointed. The charge was expected to also care for the pastor’s housing, transport, communication, etc. However, the demographics and economic capacities vary from one charge to the other, with some circuits being financially poor to the extent of failing to meet these basic obligations. This was more common in rural areas than was the case in most urban areas. These disparities would obviously put paid to the achievement of equity and the general wellbeing of some pastors and their families. Given a choice in such circumstances, every pastor preferred to get an appointment a more able urban charge/circuit. With over 68% of the Zimbabwe population being in the rural areas, this is not possible; churches in the rural areas also need pastors.
Though pastoral work is not just a job but a calling, the pastor has responsibilities to provide for his immediate and extended family like any other person. Pastors serving in those impoverished communities would go for several months without a salary and/or allowances, while their counterparts in well-to-do charges would be better looked after. In the past, it was not difficult at huge gatherings, such as Annual Conferences, to identify those serving in impoverished rural circuits by their general presentation as compared to their well-cared-for colleagues.
No doubt, it must have been a daunting task for the Bishop and his cabinet to carry out appointments: Who do you send where? Because of those known disparities, those who were fortunate to receive appointments to serve better-off charges were viewed as being more favored, and of course those that ended up at poorer circuits were considered disliked by the leadership. Of cause these were mere perceptions and not backed by facts. Each change in appointment meant a change in one’s standard of living, either for the better or worse. Pastor’s children had to endure economic and social changes, with new appointments at times disrupting their education when the parents suddenly became unable to pay school fees.
Strategy to Deal with the Challenges
During Annual Conferences, year in and year out the matter of pastors’ salaries (base compensation) and the lack of equity consumed a great deal of time and energy. Being an emotive issue, such discussions would always end up in an antithesis of “Holy Conferencing”.
The Book of Discipline ¶ 624 provides for the following: “Each church or charge has an obligation to pay the base compensation, the benefits adopted by the Annual Conference, and other ministerial support (including housing) adopted by the Charge Conference, to its pastor(s)” No doubt this concept worked somewhat well in the past, but with the increased disparities among the charges in terms of financial capacities, the glaring lack of equity in base compensation and pastors going without salaries for several months could not be allowed to continue.
There was therefore a clarion call for a paradigm shift and the need to think outside the box. The church leadership considered a number of options and ended up settling for the introduction of the “Common Pool” centralized salary payment system for pastors. The benefits were obvious, among them the equitable base compensation and guaranteed salary payment to all pastors on time every month regardless of their geographic location. The pastor is able to focus on his/her calling and mission work instead of focusing on his/her economic challenges.
Like all new concepts and ideas, the resolution took much longer to implement than had been anticipated. Several years went by before there was a shared vision and adequate buy-in by all stakeholders. There was a time some were starting to feel that the resolution was never going to see the light of the day. Some of us were convinced that this was a good idea maybe ahead of its time, and at the right time, a shared vision will materialize. Indeed, this came to pass, and in 2010 the Common Pool was finally implemented successfully. This year marks the ten-year anniversary since the introduction of the Common Pool. No Pastor has gone unpaid since the inception of the Common Pool, we thank God. A total of 332 Pastors are currently benefitting from the new salary payment system. In the past, pastors’ benefits like funeral coverage and medical aid were not guaranteed, as both depended on the financial capacity of each circuit, let alone the pastors’ pension contributions. Now all these benefits are guaranteed as they are catered for through the Common Pool.
The Common Pool Funding Structure and Logistics
A 40% levy was introduced on the standard income lines, such as tithing, Sunday offerings, Thanksgiving, and any other undesignated funds. However, the said levy does not apply on designated funds and any such other special fundraising efforts by the charge, such as building funds, among others. Every charge remits the 40% levy on a weekly or monthly basis direct to the Conference Treasury, and the remaining 60%, along with the other designated funds will be used by the circuit to fund its mission work within the charge. On its part, the Conference Treasury Department, in close consultation with the Council on Finance and Administration (CONFAD), will put aside 25 – 30% of the levy towards the Common Pool. Salary payments for all the Pastors are then paid from the Conference Treasury directly into each individual’s bank account, at least by the 25th of every month. Other benefits such as medical aid and funeral coverage are also paid from the Common Pool directly to the service providers.
We are pleased that in spite of the economic challenges we are facing as a country—inflation and erosion of disposable income among others—the levy has sustainably provided capacity to pay salaries and benefits without fail.
The pie chart below illustrates the fact that the 40% levy stands out as the mainstay of the Conference income, accounting for 74% of the total annual income for the year under review.
Coming second as a major income line is the Harvest Thanksgiving at 15%, with the rest of the other smaller income lines accounting for the remaining 11% combined. We are hoping to grow this levy further in order to create capacity to cater for payment of all other allowances, such as transport, communication, office consumables, and the like. Currently this is already happening, where the Conferences pay the said allowances only in cases where the charge has failed to do so due to lack of capacity; we call them “unable circuits.”
If there is one major achievement we are proud of as a church during the last decade, it is without doubt the implementation of the Centralized Clergy Salary Payment System (Common Pool). It has worked for us, and we have no hesitation to recommend the system as a solution to address the many challenges associated with the decentralized obligation to pay the base compensation to pastors.
Monday, October 26, 2020
I love Baker's story because it so well illustrates two important things about God's call to mission:
First, Baker is an excellent example of mission from the margins. Mainstream society might overlook Baker because of the host of challenges in her past, but God did not. God called Baker to important work, work that Baker was able to do not despite her background but because of it. Because she had experienced homelessness herself, she could connect with other homeless individuals in a way that housed people could not. We should not condone society's marginalization of Baker or others, but we should recognize and celebrate the ways in which God is able to work through those on the margins.
Second, Baker is another example of how often God calls people to significant second acts in their lives. Even for Abram, God didn't call until him until he was 75 years old. While there are certainly many biblical, historical, and contemporary examples of God calling the young, there are also many biblical, historical, and contemporary examples of God calling people to new forms of service at later stages of life, service that goes far beyond what their lives up to that point might have suggested. In Wesleyan terms, God's grace is never done with us. And that is good news indeed.
Friday, October 23, 2020
UM & Global Collection: Church Autonomy and the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS)
The collection includes essays by Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Robert Harman, David W. Scott, Blair Trygstad Stowe, Daniel Bruno, and Kyle Tau, as well as documents from the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS), including writings by D. T. Niles. As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students.
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Gabriel Straka and Bishop Harald Rückert: The Salary System for Pastors of the Germany Central Conference
Overview of the Salary System (by Gabriel Straka)
For the pastors of the Germany Central Conference of The United Methodist Church (the EmK—Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche), there is a uniform salary and pension system. Salary and pensions are regulated in the Book of Discipline of the EmK (the VLO – Verfassung, Lehre, und Ordnung der EmK) under Articles 911 and 912, as well as in special regulatory texts (VI.281 and VI.282).
In this system, all charges pay a levy to the three annual conferences, with which the conferences finance all costs of supra-regional work, including salary and pension costs. Pastors are therefore not paid by the local congregation but by the annual conference.
The salary of the pastors of the EmK in Germany consists of the basic salary, a rent-free parsonage or apartment, and, if necessary, a child supplement. The amount of the basic salary is determined annually by the Commission for Finance and Labor Law of the Central Conference, in which the three annual conferences work together, and agreed upon by the Central Conference Executive Committee. Since the annual conferences are financially autonomous, they can decide on deviations from the common pay scale, which they do in practice.
The basic salary increases over the course of the years of service. At the start of service, it is 88% of the amount reached after 21 years of service. This means that pastors in Germany earn almost the same amount. The salary is paid regardless of the size or financial strength of the local congregation.
In addition to the basic salary, a Christmas allowance and, if necessary, a heating allowance are paid for all employees. There are also certain services for which an allowance is paid. Here, too, these allowances are borne by the annual conferences.
The pastor’s entire salary and also the value of the rent-free parsonage or apartment is taxed. Salaries and pensions are administered via a central accounting office for the whole of Germany.
Retired pastors receive a pension payment from the Church, the amount of which is also based on the current salary scale.
Advantages of the System (by Bishop Harald Rückert)
We experience the following advantages through our salary system:
• When it comes to new assignments for pastors, the question of salary plays no role, as our salary scale shows that everyone earns the same regardless of the location in which they are supposed to serve.
• Small congregations that face financial difficulties still have the chance to receive a pastor to help them start a new missionary endeavor. The cabinet can set missionary priorities regardless of salary issues.
• The system strengthens the idea that pastors are sent to a certain place by the church, or rather, the bishop.
• This means that pastors are more independent of the internal dynamics of their congregations, as they are not paid directly by them. This can make it easier for them to act as helpful counterparts to the congregation or to individual groups in the congregation, if necessary. They are at the same time always representatives of the whole Church.
Monday, October 19, 2020
dis·so·lu·tion /ˌdisəˈlo͞oSH(ə)n/ noun. 1. the closing down or dismissal of an assembly, partnership, or official body.
In a previous post, I explored the possibility that General Conference might not ever meet again. I am not the first to raise this possibility. Indeed, more than a few other church leaders and scholars have called for the dissolution of The United Methodist Church (UMC). However, my discussion dissolution of the denomination differs in an important way from previous proposals: rather than construct and prescribe future connectional relationships through protocols and agreements, I believe new relationships can emerge organically if we allow them.
The possibility of new beginnings requires an end to what was. There are many reasons for the divisions currently tearing the UMC apart, not the least of which have to do with a white, US, imperialistic mindset. The denominational structure has become an obstacle to our ecclesiology, a hinderance rather than an enabler of connectional relationships.
I am not the first or the only one to reach this conclusion or something similar. In March 2017, Professor Mark Teasdale recommended “dissolving United Methodism as a denomination”—but he lost our ecclesiology by proposing every congregation become independent. More recently, Professor Tom Frank also advocated for terminating “a global denomination with common governance” in favor of “mov[ing] authority for ministry closer to where it is practiced”—albeit through a US denominational structure. My consideration of dissolution differs from Teasedale’s congregationalism and Frank’s US-denominationalism by suggesting the annual conference, “the basic body of the Church,” be the largest institutional entity.
Envisioning the dissolution of the UMC is not a call for ecclesial anarchy or the end of connectional relationships. Rather, this path forward can maintain the essence of what our clergy and laity recognize as the United Methodist way of being church. I am in agreement with Bishop Bob Farr, who declared, “It is time to find a way for The United Methodist Church to separate.” He suggested, along the lines of what I am discussing, “convert[ing] all [annual] conferences into affiliated autonomous conferences.” Likewise, Amy Valdez Barker, former top executive of the Connectional Table, argued for “a connection based on relationships” centered in the local congregation and annual conference. “General Conference is not a system that allows for conflicts to be resolved through relationships and, therefore, it needs to change,” she asserted.
Despite differences in strategy, each of these leaders recognizes the importance of subsidiarity—allowing decision-making to occur at a more local level of authority. We need to deal with divisive issues locally, face-to-face, and among those who live side-by-side. The denominational level is no longer (if it ever was) an effective place for deliberation, discernment, and decision-making.
Dissolution is not the same as schism or restructure. Dividing up the denominational spoils among competing caucuses through a negotiated “Protocol” would exacerbate United Methodist divisions, focusing on money and property rather than mission. Jeremy Smith described the differences in an informative post, “What does it mean to Dissolve The United Methodist Church?” Restructuring the denomination into affinity conferences through the Connectional Conference Plan, Bard-Jones Plan, or a similar negotiated arrangement would also fail us ecclesiologically, enshrining our differences over homosexuality into the very structure of our church. Furthermore, both schism and restructuring for the sake of US ecclesial politics would leave in place the inequities of central conference structures.
Dissolution of the UMC is not a last-ditch effort to “save” this denomination or to orchestrate its demise. Instead of euthanasia by Protocol, dissolution pulls the plug on artificial life support and allows a natural death. In doing so, we may find that the UMC, like the late Terri Schiavo, had ceased meaningful functioning and any chance of resuscitation long before we allowed death to occur. No hopeful covenant for unity can change the fact that church law, for nearly 50 years, has categorically denied the first principle of unity, that “we are all children of God.” Resurrection cannot occur prior to death. We must allow this denomination to die in order to experience rebirth as a Church.
Dissolution is an intentional means of allowing new relationships to form while being true to our ecclesiology. Getting back to basics by centering our connectionalism in the annual conference can renew United Methodism. Removing the denominational overlay could actually help foster more genuine connection between individuals, congregations, and conferences. We would have to give up the imperialistic features of our global connection and our ambition to become a “worldwide” denomination. Rather than relying on structural ties, annual conferences and congregations would have to do the hard work of building new relationships—this time truly recognizing our equal dignity and equality as children of God.
Friday, October 16, 2020
Video of the fifth and final episode
of Global Ministries' monthly webinar series, "Mission Beyond
COVID-19," which examines aspects of mission theology in the light of
the COVID-19 pandemic, is now available online. This webinar occurred
last week, with Dr. David W. Scott facilitating a conversation with Tatenda Mujeni of Global Ministries, Dr.
Tendai Manyeza of Kissy United Methodist Hospital, and Dr. Katelin Hansen of United Methodist Church & Community Development for All People on "COVID-19 and the Health of
Communities." The video is just over a
Viewers who find this discussion interesting may also be interested in the upcoming All People Conference, Oct. 24-26, hosted by United Methodist Church & Community Development for All People of Columbus, OH. The theme of this year's conference is "Abundant Health for All." The conference will feature keynote speakers and workshops on topics related to health and asset-based approaches to mission and ministry. UM & Global blogmaster David Scott will present and host a discussion in a plenary session on Monday, Oct. 26. The conference can be attended virtually or in person. A paid registration is required for either option.
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
The Methodist tradition is distinct among streams of Protestantism in practicing ministerial appointment. Appointment means that bishops (in the UMC; other titles apply in other Methodist bodies), in consultation with others (the cabinet, ministers, and congregations), assign ministers to serve congregations. Both ministers and congregations get input in that process, but the ultimate decision of which ministers serve which churches is up to the bishop and her cabinet.
This appointive approach contrasts with a call system, which is employed by most Protestants with a primarily congregational polity (such as Baptists, UCCs, and Presbyterians), in which a congregational committee puts out a job posting for a minister, screens applicants, and ultimately decides whom to hire. There are modified call systems, such as those used by the Lutherans and Episcopalians, in which bishops help connect churches looking for ministers and ministers looking for churches. Nevertheless, in these modified call systems, congregations still make the final decisions about who to hire as a minister.
There are good and bad aspects of all these systems of matching pastors and congregations. One of the positives often touted about the Methodist appointment system is that it allows for a more “missional” approach to deploying ministers. In the words of the Indiana Conference:
“We believe that missional appointments will be strategic in attempts to match the characteristics of the congregation and community with the gifts and strengths of the pastor to maximize our fruitfulness in the transforming work of reaching people with the Gospel and leading them to become and live as disciples of Jesus. We will expect to be very intentional to pair our brightest and best pastors with churches that have demonstrated a high degree of readiness to make disciples.”
To ensure that pastoral gifts and ministry contexts match, the Book of Discipline (¶ 427) states, “Appointments shall take into account the unique needs of a charge, the community context, and also the gifts and evidence of God’s grace of a particular pastor.” The goal is for the church and ministry context to which a pastor is appointed to fit “with gifts, evidence of God’s grace, professional experience and expectations, and the family needs of the pastor” (BOD ¶ 428.5.a).
In the United States, there is one important criterion in pastoral appointments that is not explicitly spelled out on this list: finances. The BOD mentions the “financial condition” of a church as a sub-point on a list of relevant information about congregations (¶ 427.1.a), but that underscores the role of congregational finances in the appointive process.
In the United States, United Methodist clergy are predominantly paid by the congregation they serve. Health insurance, pensions, and other benefits are usually pooled through the annual conference or denomination, but take-home pay comes from the congregation. Most annual conferences have equitable compensation funds that can supplement the amount a congregation pays so that clergy are still paid the conference minimum salary. Equitable compensation funds, though, tend to be used in limited situations rather than as a main means of funding pastoral payrolls in US annual conferences.
Thus, because pastors are paid by congregations and because not all congregations can afford to pay their pastor the same amount, the cabinets of US annual conferences must take finances into consideration when making appointments. In general, pastors are not given pay cuts when they are assigned to new congregations. Thus, pastors are only assigned to congregations that can pay them as much or more than their last congregation.
This creates a career ladder system within the US apportionment system that introduces a variety of considerations other than missional fit when making apportionments. Cabinets must consider pastors’ previous salaries, churches’ ability to pay, and where pastors could go in future appointments. Pastors have a financial incentive to seek appointment to better-paying churches, since that will impact their income potentially for the rest of their careers. This also puts pastors in competition with one another, since the number of high-paying churches in any given annual conference is limited.
These additional factors limit cabinets’ abilities to make appointments based on purely missional reasons. If there is a church and ministry context that would fit very well with a particular pastor’s ministry skills, but that congregation can only pay the minimum salary, and the pastor currently makes more than minimum, it is highly unlikely that she/he would be appointed to that church, regardless of how well her/his gifts fit the missional opportunities present.
Moreover, while one of the benefits of the appointive system is that it ensures women and racial and ethnic minorities are given appointments, the congregational payment system can lead to compounding systemic discrimination against women and minorities in their income. If white men are given better churches early in their career, whether that is because of unconscious bias by congregations or cabinets, gendered assumptions about the need for men to be primary breadwinners, or because some churches “just aren’t ready for a woman/minority pastor,” that is a financial leg up that will continue to boost that white man’s earnings above those of his female and minority colleagues for the rest of his career.
Thus, the two main benefits of the appointive system—missional fit and ensuring the rights of women and minorities—are undermined by the congregational payment system used in the US church.
The congregational payment system, however, is not required. Nowhere is it prescribed in the Book of Discipline, nor is it the only option under US law. Indeed, several branches of United Methodism outside the United States have adopted a different system, in which the annual conference, episcopal area, or central conference pays all pastors out of a central pool of money. This centralized approach to paying pastors has the potential to overcome the problems outlined above with a congregational system of payment.
In the coming weeks, UM & Global will profile two examples of centralized systems of paying pastors: those used in Germany and in Zimbabwe. These two examples, which will be written up by the people running those systems, are offered up as model for the US church to learn from and to potentially consider for their own adoption.
Monday, October 12, 2020
United Methodists are facing the very real possibility that General Conference will not meet in 2021, as scheduled. David Scott has explored the near-term implications, examining denominational division in one post and budgets, boards, and bishops in another. Here, I explore the question, What would happen to The United Methodist Church (UMC) if General Conference never met again?
For those church members worried that such a possibility would mean the end of the UMC, it is important to recognize that the UMC does not currently exist—nor has it ever existed, at least not in a legal sense. According to our own Discipline, the UMC “as a denominational whole is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes” (General Discipline 2016, para. 141). In other words, the general church is a fiction.
To be sure, General Conference is a real thing. It met May 10–20, 2016 in Portland, Oregon and again February 23–26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. It even passed legislation and approved a general church budget to fund the work of boards, agencies, and commissions between sessions of general conference. However, General Conference ceased to exist as soon as the meeting came to a close, February 26, 2019. It will not exist until it meets again—if it ever does. The boards, agencies, and commissions mandated to carry out work on behalf of the General Conference continue to exist between sessions of General Conference. They are independently incorporated legal entities, and most have positioned themselves to serve multiple, splinter denominations in the event of a denominational schism. But that which we know as “The United Methodist Church” or “the general Church” does not exist.
What does this fiction mean? The UMC is a figment of our collective imagination, or to put it more theologically, the UMC is a covenantal agreement. The Discipline is our “book of covenant”: “It is the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together” (General Discipline 2016, p. v). The UMC “exists” only as a covenant. The only thing animating the idea of the UMC among United Methodists is our mutual buy-in. Consider funding: apportionment formulas are precise and much debated, but actual payouts are unenforceable. Congregations and annual conferences pay what they choose to pay to the general Church.
The UMC is only as “real” as we allow it to be. When we participate faithfully and with integrity in this covenant, the denomination takes on life. Our covenantal life together can become a wondrous instrument of God’s grace. To whatever extent we fail to be in covenant, the UMC also fails to be the general Church that we so value. For many in the UMC, that covenant has already been broken; the UMC has failed to be a church for many years. Thankfully, the general church is not the essence of United Methodism.
United Methodist ecclesiology is based on connectionalism. Connectionalism, that “vital web of interactive relationships” (General Discipline 2016, para. 132), distinguishes Methodist polity from congregationalism. Connectional relationships between the general Church and every annual conference and congregation embody the functional and financial relationships of the UMC. However, we do not need a “general Church” for connectionalism. There are more immediate levels of covenant within United Methodism. This is why United Methodists claim that “The annual conference is the basic body of the Church . . .” (General Discipline 2016, para. 33).
If General Conference never met again, most of what we recognize as United Methodism would continue uninterrupted. The annual conference is the heartbeat of connectionalism. United Methodist congregations are connected to each other in an annual conference through participation in an itinerant ministry; clergy are connected through the Order of Elders and Order of Deacons; laity are connected via elected members to annual conference. In practical terms, the annual conference is where ministerial candidates are evaluated and nurtured, where clergy are commissioned and ordained, and where elders itinerate and receive pensions.
Some aspects of connectionalism would change. Political wrangling in the quadrennial arena of General Conference would cease, along with the vitriol practiced there. Annual conferences in the US, independent of the general Church, may choose different means of inculturation for Methodist polity, adapting the Discipline to their own missional needs, as conferences outside the US do currently. The process by which certain elders are elected, consecrated, and assigned as bishops would be opened to adaptation—perhaps within a pan-Methodist or wider ecumenical environment. It is also possible that some annual conferences might follow the example of the Methodist Church of Great Britain or the erstwhile Methodist Protestant Church, choosing to forgo an episcopacy. General apportionments would cease. Annual conferences would still be free to send money to general agencies, boards, and commissions to support ministry and mission around the globe. True, those payouts would be unenforceable. But is that not actually the case today?
If General Conference never met again, new relationships would be allowed to form while remaining true to the core of United Methodist ecclesiology. Old, forced relationships could be allowed to end rather than fester in acrimony within a divided denomination. Removing the denominational façade might actually help foster more genuine connection between individuals, congregations, and conferences—especially across national borders. We would have to give up the imperialistic features of our global connection and our ambition to become a “worldwide” denomination. Rather than relying on structural ties, annual conferences and congregations would have to do the hard work of relationship building. The dissolution of the UMC by abandoning General Conference would open new possibilities. Recentering our connectionalism in the annual conference could renew United Methodism in ways we have yet to imagine.
Friday, October 9, 2020
The fifth and final (for now) episode of this series, featuring Dr. David W. Scott facilitating a conversation with Tatenda Mujeni, Dr. Tendai Manyeza, and Dr. Katelin Hansen, on "COVID-19 and the Health of Communities" will happen at 10:00am EDT next Thursday, October 15th. Those interested may register in advance for the webinar. A fuller description is below:
COVID-19 and the Health of Communities
We often think about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health of individuals with the disease, but the pandemic affects the health of communities in a variety of ways—physical, social, economic, etc. How, in this time, can the church support the health of the broader communities in which it is located? What are the main threats and challenges to the health of our communities posed by the pandemic? How can the church share its resources and talents with the resources and talents of other partners to promote the health and flourishing of local communities, despite and in the midst of these challenges?
Thursday, October 15, 2020 at 10:00 am EDT
Tatenda Mujeni, Imagine No Malaria Program Manager, Global Ministries
Dr. Tendai Manyeza, Missionary Doctor, The United Methodist Church Hospital in Kissy, Sierra Leone
Dr. Katelin Hansen, Director of Operations, Community Development for All People
Dr. David W. Scott, mission theologian, Global Ministries
Wednesday, October 7, 2020
As explained last week, there is real reason, based on the best available expertise on how the coronavirus pandemic may play out, to expect that the General Conference delayed to August/September of 2021 may not happen. If true, this further postponement would raise significant questions about how the denomination will address pressing problems and keep the machinery of the denomination running. This piece will examine what a further delayed General Conference would mean for denominational budgets, boards, and bishops.
General Conference sets the denomination’s quadrennial budget, and this power is reserved to this body. Other groups, especially GCFA and the Connectional Table, have a role in proposing a budget to General Conference, and GCFA has a good deal of authority to administer apportionment money and set payout rates based on the budget, but General Conference makes the budget. No General Conference in 2021 means no updated budget for the denomination.
It is easy enough to roll over current budgets, and GCFA has indicated that they will continue to operate based on the previous quadrennium’s budget until General Conference convenes in 2021, though they recognized that this decision was taken on shaky authority. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons (membership declines, denominational division, the pandemic, the economy) the UMC’s budget going forward will need to be different and smaller than the previous quadrennium’s budget.
What then happens in this situation? Does the UMC continue to operate based on percentages of the 2016–2020 budget, since that was the last one approved, even if it does not reflect the financial realities of the church? This would impose proportional cuts on all budget lines. Or is there some move to try to prioritize within these cuts? If so, who will have the authority to make these difficult decisions?
Board members for most denominational boards and agencies and chosen following General Conference, though not directly by it. General Conference does appoint members to certain denominational committees, such as the Judicial Council, University Senate, and study commissions. For now, these boards, agencies, and committees have asked their members from last quadrennium to continue to serve until new members can be elected following General Conference 2021.
But that becomes more difficult the longer the situation endures, especially if denominational division happens in the meantime. If people are no longer United Methodist, they are presumably no longer serving on United Methodist boards, agencies, or committees. Even for those who remain United Methodist, life circumstances may change in a way that prohibits members from continuing to serve. In some cases, changed life circumstances (new jobs, retirement, shifted family responsibilities) may make some members unwilling to continue to serve. In other more severe instances, circumstances (death, major illness) may make some members unable to continue to serve.
Boards typically have some amount of fluctuation in membership, and in normal times, they are set up to handle that fluctuation. But if a significant portion of the membership of the board does not continue, that can raise issues that impact the board’s ability to function, including quorum, officers, etc. Especially if responding to significant budget reductions or selecting new leadership, a fully functioning board can be quite important to an organization. Boards and agencies are likely to not wait indefinitely to replenish their membership if needed, even if this means departing from convention.
Full membership is potentially quite important for the Judicial Council as well. Although there are alternates for the Judicial Council, it is still possible that the Council could end up short of members before the next General Conference. And if there are significant judicial issues surrounding denominational division, it would be very important to have a fully functional Judicial Council. The alternative is that judicial review becomes less significant in the denomination.
General Conference does not elect bishops (at least not anymore.) But Jurisdictional and Central Conferences, which do elect bishops, are set to happen after General Conference. No General Conference likely means no Jurisdictional or Central Conferences. Jurisdictional and Central Conferences may also face the same sorts of pandemic-related restrictions that could scuttle GC2021.
If Jurisdictional and Central Conferences are further postponed, it raises questions for bishops’ tenure and replacement. In most instances, active bishops have agreed to postpone their retirement and continue to serve through 2022, when successors elected at delayed Jurisdictional and Central Conferences could begin their terms.
But bishops may not be willing to do the same until 2023 or 2024. And some active bishops may leave with the WCA. This may leave episcopal vacancies. How would they be filled? Would remaining bishops then cover expanded territories? Would bishops be called back out of retirement?
Alternatively, significant numbers of churches in an episcopal area might leave with the WCA, leaving a bishop supervising a much smaller number of remaining churches. How could episcopal areas be reconfigured without Jurisdictional or Central Conferences to do so?
The upshot is that a further delayed General Conference may have a significant impact on the extent and quality of episcopal leadership in the denomination over the next four years.
On all of these issues, and on issues surrounding denominational division, authority and leadership will be devolved to lower levels of the denomination, whether that is individual churches deciding to leave with the WCA, GCFA and the Connectional Table making budget decisions, boards and agencies deciding how to fill board vacancies, or district superintendents stepping up to cover some duties during episcopal transitions. As part of this trend, local churches will probably have to get along with less support from the denomination at a time when they are already under great strain from the pandemic. Many pastors may decide to retire early or leave ministry as a result.
The corollary of this devolution of leadership is that not just General Conference, but the Book of Discipline will be undercut as a source of authority. The Book of Discipline did not anticipate and made no provision for many of the extraordinary circumstances in which the church now finds itself. That means that people will need to find ways to run the church in the next couple of years that skirt around or, in some cases, flat out ignore what the Book of Discipline says. A Judicial Council hobbled by incomplete membership would be less able to resist this trend.
Once the Book of Discipline becomes something that can be ignored in certain circumstances, though, a precedent has been set. It will become easier to ignore the Book of Discipline in the future, even under less dire circumstances.
That scenario of a diminished Book of Discipline is likely unavoidable. But it is another sign that, even when things return to “normal” post-pandemic, it will no longer be business as usual as it was before the pandemic. We—individuals, churches, and as a denomination—will bear the impacts of the present pandemic on us for a long time to come.
Monday, October 5, 2020
The latest UM & Global collection include a compilation of 15 posts written by a variety of authors about The United Methodist Church as a global denomination.
The collection, "The UMC as a Global Church," includes pieces by Hendrik R. Pieterse, Dana L. Robert, David W. Scott, Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Robert A. Hunt, Amy Valdez-Barker, Darryl W. Stephens, Igmedio Domingo, and Robert Harman. The pieces raise questions about what it means to be a global denomination; the benefits, costs, and challenges of being such; and the various ways in which a global denomination is connected - through mission, relationships, polity, and money.
The collection includes discussion questions for reflection on the included pieces. These discussion questions are intended to help students, annual conference leaders, General Conference delegates, local church leaders, and others to think wisely about what it means to be a global denomination and whether and how the UMC should aspire to be such.
Friday, October 2, 2020
WCC story on the statement
United Methodist News Service story on the statement
EMK (German United Methodist) story on the statement (in German)
WCC story on the receipt of the petition by the European Commission
Even amidst the pandemic, United Methodists continue to be engaged on the issue of migration as a vital dimension of God's action in mission.