Monday, November 30, 2020

Becky Parsons: God's Call: A Place at the Table

Today’s post is by Becky Parsons. Parsons is the Global Ministries Mission Advocate for the Northeastern Jurisdiction.

As the mission sending agency of The United Methodist Church, Global Ministries connects the church in mission. General Conference tasks the agency to do four specific things:

1) Send missionaries
2) Join in efforts to alleviate human suffering
3) Seek justice, freedom and peace
4) Strengthen, develop and renew Christian congregations and communities.

Sending missionaries is the response we have to God’s call to mission. I find the other three goals all intersect in the presence and spark of a community who has invited a missionary or Global Ministries in; they are the result of healthy relationships of mutuality. The Holy Spirit, as it did in Acts, is calling us all to catch up to God's vision of the beloved kin-dom! Therefore, I want us all to consider how God is calling us to be in mission and whether God might be calling us to serve as a missionary.

Most often the image of call is left to ministers—ordained clergy or licensed local pastors—but I am here to tell you God’s call is bigger than needing preachers. As important as preaching can be, God's church has places for everyone the other 160 hours of the week.

And as in Acts, we are all called into many places, cultures, governments, and many ministries by our baptism into the family of God. Some of us are called into other cultures, not to dominate like Rome, but to transform through the mystery of God with us in our relationships of compassion, care, empowerment, and in the sharing of our lives.

In the United Methodist church, missionaries go out on behalf of the millions of us who sit in the pews or on Zoom. They share all our lives of faithful witness to Christ’s listening love, healing power, and bountiful grace. Christ offers all the world this opportunity of relationship, as there is nowhere God is not already present. The unique call of missionaries is seeking to witness to the Holy Spirit's movement in the world in local communities. Mission happens locally in seemingly ordinary time and tasks.

As the loftiest goal, the objective of a missionary is to work with the community of assignment with the intention of working ourselves out of a job, which means we support, empower, cross boundaries that have chained up people’s potential, and equip communities to unlock the God-given spirit within themselves. We do not build dependance or hierarchy, but instead we see to address complex social, economic, and political situations, which requires time, deep listening, and compassion. In my first placement, God was able through our long-term work (they had a missionary for about seventeen years, including eight years in which I had served there) to build up local leaders who continue God's work today without a missionary.

All UMC commissioned missionaries serve in full-time project placements that range from children’s ministries, legal services, health clinics, airplane ministries, community gardens, education, feeding ministries, farming and animal husbandry, ending human trafficking, surfing ministries, church growth/development, and mental health services. The list of talented people and vibrant ministries God calls the church into is endless. Every church, from the hollers of West Virginia to the echoing halls of The Church of the Resurrection, makes it possible to be in mission in over 70 countries (including the United States) because we take seriously Acts 2:45; we can do more together.

Don't get any ideas that missionaries wake up in the morning, polish their halos, and get about the work of God. When it was ten minutes until a board meeting where they were changing my title to executive director, I was elbow deep in an overflowing toilet. That is mission: no power, but service, truth telling, facing the pain of truth and humility for the one who calls us.

I am the daughter of two UMC Elders who met when one of them was serving as a Town and Country missionary. I myself was three-quarters of the way through my master’s of divinity and serving as an intern in a local church in suburban New Jersey when I heard about United Methodist missionaries who service in the United States. That is when I discerned my call to mission service. Today I have served eleven years as a missionary, and it still makes my heart leap for joy in the wholeness of knowing God's call is truth. Despite the ups and downs of life, being in mission is the delight of my life.

Now, as I serve as Mission Advocate in the Northeastern Jurisdiction, one of the things that called me to say yes to this placement is this very opportunity to share with others as they discern and re-evaluate their call, to let them know that our church responds when we are called. Whether we are called to the communion table, the construction table, or the kitchen table, each of us are called, and God has a place at the table for all.

The path to commissioned missionary status mirrors that of ordination, though the length of time is likely much shorter. The missionary application itself is a wonderful discernment tool; it helps guide you through your theology, your calling, and vision of service. There is an interview process that involves active missionaries, Global Ministries staff, and your local conference missions committee. Once approved, missionaries are given psychological evaluation, health screening, and begin training when they have been matched with a project where the community has invited the missionary to serve. Global Ministries trained twenty-one new missionaries in Spring 2020, and training and sending missionaries continues.

Global Ministries is currently accepting applications for its Global Mission Fellow program, and applications to serve as Global Missionaries, Church and Community Workers, and Mission Volunteers are on-going.

* The subtitle of this post is taken from lyrics to “For Everyone Born,” by Shirley Erena Murray in For Everyone Born: Global Songs for an Emerging Church, ed. by Jorge Lockwood and Christopher Heckert (New York: The General Board of Global Ministries, GBGMusik, 2008), 4.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Recommended Reading: Norwegian United Methodists Decide to Apologize to LGBT+ People

The Norway Annual Conference, during a COVID-delayed meeting last week, decided to issue a public apology to LGBT+ persons, part of a process in the Norway Annual Conference that is intended to result in full inclusion of LGBT+ persons in the life of the church. An article on the church's website announcing the decision described it as follows:

"Ole-Einar Andersen was the original proponent of an apology for the treatment LGBT+ people have been subjected to in the Methodist Church and the damage individuals have suffered. There was a long debate where many took the floor. Everyone agreed on the need to apologize where injustice has been done to individuals, but a minority did not want to apologize for the church's traditional teachings.

"In an amendment proposal from Kirsti Dahl Johansen, Andersen's intention was supported, but the actual formulation of the text will be left to the [annual conference] Executive Board and the cabinet. The conference wanted to give the Executive Board and the Cabinet time to formulate the apology for the treatment LGBT+ people have been subjected to and to weigh the text for the process [the annual conference is] in.

"A sentence in Andersen's original proposal was cited by many as a good starting point: 'We acknowledge that through condemnatory attitudes and actions we have inflicted great harm, pain, sorrow and suffering on fellow human beings, contrary to the gospel of God's unconditional grace and love for all.

"A proposal to postpone consideration of the proposal was rejected.

"The amendment received 70 votes in favor, 32 voted against and 6 abstained. Two proposals to temporarily lift restrictions on marriage and ordination of LGBT+ people in the Methodist Church, and reject restrictions adopted in the worldwide [Traditional] Plan, were postponed earlier today to the first annual conference after the next general conference.

"It was the annual conference in 2019 that took an important path in a consensus decision where it was stated that the Methodist Church in Norway is on its way to full inclusion of LGBT + people."

Translated from the Norwegian by Google Translate and David W. Scott

Monday, November 23, 2020

Recommended Readings: German Plans for Denominational Future Solidify

As this blog has previously shared ([1] and [2]), German United Methodists have been working on a solution that would preserve the unity of the denomination in the country while allowing for differences in understandings of human sexuality, including the practice of gay marriage and gay ordination by some. This process has been led by a roundtable group appointed by Bishop Rückert.

As this recent article (in German) by Klaus Ulrich Ruof indicates, this roundtable process has now come to an end, and the roundtable has submitted its proposal to the central conference's Executive Committee. The proposal calls for removal of passages of the German version of the Book of Discipline that prohibit gay marriage and gay ordination and the formation of an association of traditionalist individual and congregations within Germany to facilitate mutual support among those holding traditionalist views. This proposal came with a high degree of support across the theological spectrum.

As further reported by Ruof (again in German), this past weekend, the proposal was considered by the central conference's Executive Committee. The Executive Committee decided to implement this solution provisionally until it can be formally approved at the next meeting of the Germany Central Conference, currently scheduled for fall of 2021.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Recommended Reading: International Mission from the Global South

All too often, United Methodists from around the world think of international mission as something that flows from the West to the global South. I have heard even missionary candidates from Africa say that they thought of missionaries as being Westerners until they applied to be one. Increasingly, though, this West-to-the-Rest model is an outmoded way of thinking about mission. Global Ministries' practice of sending missionaries "from everywhere to everywhere" is one example of international mission from the global South. African annual conferences sending evangelists to nearby countries is another.

There are also increasing instances of health, education, and other development institutions from the global South engaging in international South-to-South mission. Mary Johnston Hospital in the Philippines has previously trained doctors from Africa in C-section techniques. And just recently, another example of South-to-South international mission within The United Methodist Church has been reported: The UMC in Cote d'Ivoire, which maintains an excellent school system, has entered into an agreement with the government of the Central African Republic (CAR) to build a system of schools in that country.

These trends are likely to only increase in the future as United Methodists in the global South continue to assert their agency in mission.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Some European United Methodist Churches Faces New COVID Restrictions

Just as the United States has experienced a sharp upswing in the number of COVID-19 cases this fall, many European countries have encountered their own spikes in cases. In some instances, this spike has triggered a new wave of social restrictions in European countries. These social restrictions have included, for some, limits on the number of people allowed to gather for worship services or a temporary outright suspension of group in-person worship.

Countries where the government and/or the local unit of The United Methodist Church have suspended in-person worship, at least in significant portions of the country, include Switzerland, France, Austria, Slovenia, and Norway. In some other countries, such suspensions have gone into place but have not (yet) been announced via the annual conference's public internet presence. Moreover, even in European countries where in-person worship continues, it often does so with size limits, and online worship continues to be an important option offered by local churches and/or the annual conference.

Most European countries had strict limitations on public gatherings, including worship services, in the spring that were relaxed over the summer, when the number of COVID-19 cases in most European countries was quite low. This new wave of restrictions, however, seems less comprehensive and less wide-spread that the restrictions in the spring. The restrictions are, in general, also more temporary, with expiration dates within a few weeks or a month, as opposed to the spring restrictions, which in some cases were indefinite when announced.

Whether the different nature of these fall worship restrictions is a feature of having learned about the virus since the spring or just a sign of growing tired of the pandemic, this fall lock down will not be quite the same experience for United Methodists as the spring lock down was. Still, COVID-19 continues to disrupt church life for many United Methodists around the globe.

Monday, November 16, 2020

UM & Global Collection: Culture, Context, and the Global Church

Three previous UM & Global collections have looked at issues of global ecclesiology: one on the UMC as a global church, one on church autonomy and the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS), and one on ecumenical perspectives on the global UMC.

The latest collection continues that theme by looking at culture, context, and the global church. These pieces examine the impact of culture on what it means to be a global United Methodist church, the challenges of communicating and doing theology across cultural differences, the definition of contextualization, issues of contextualization in Europe and the United States, and ministry practices for multicultural congregations.

The collection includes twenty-four essays, many of them by Robert A. Hunt. Additional essays are by David W. Scott, William Payne, Darrell Whiteman, Barry Bryant, Michael Nausner, David Field, Hendrik R. Pieterse, Heinrich Bolleter, and David Markay. As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Recommended Viewing: Jenny Phillips on Green Technology and Mission

As part of the "Get Your Spirit in Shape" video podcast series, Joe Iovino recently interviewed Rev. Jenny Phillips, Senior Technical Advisor for Environmental Sustainability at United Methodist Global Ministries, for an episode entitled "Technology and Mission." The half-hour long conversation includes a discussion of solar power generation solutions and other green technology being deployed in current United Methodist mission, the theological underpinnings of creation care as a United Methodist mission activity, and the variety of benefits of adopting such technology. The link to the podcast also includes a transcript for the podcast for those interested in the subject but looking to more quickly familiarize themselves with the material.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

What Would a Distributed General Conference Look Like?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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.

Since this blog raised the question of what happens if General Conference does not meet in 2021 (see Part 1 and Part 2), that possibility has been much discussed in a variety of contexts, including a UMNS article and a Connectional Table interview of Bishop Thomas Bickerton. The Commission on General Conference has named a "Technology Study Team" (see press release, UMNS story) to explore online participation in the next General Conference.

Much of the discussion about possibilities for General Conference 2021 is whether the event could become "virtual." However, I would like to suggest that most Americans' understanding of a "virtual" event do not fit with what a technology-assisted GC2021 would actually look like. A much better way of thinking about that possibility is to talk about a "distributed" GC2021.

For those in the United States, the term "virtual" connotes Zoom meetings or other online events where each individual participates from their own home, office, or home office. Virtual schooling, virtual church, virtual work have all operated on this model of individual participation in technology-mediated online meetings, where each person has an internet device and is in a separate location from others.

The problem with this model in many parts of the world is that individuals do not have reliable, high-bandwidth access to the Internet in their homes or even offices. Thus, a General Conference delegate from Mulungwishi, DR Congo is unlikely to be able to Zoom into General Conference while sitting on a couch in their living room, even if a delegate from Memphis, Tennessee could.

This does not, however, mean that the Internet is completely unavailable in DR Congo or other developing nations. In almost every country, the Internet is accessible somewhere, usually in urban areas and/or hotels and conference centers that cater to global business travelers and NGOs.

Thus, for delegates from such countries to participate in an online General Conference would probably mean gathering these delegates at a central point or central points, where they could then access the meeting through the reliable internet of whatever facility in which they were meeting. Several African commentators suggest such a possibility in the UMNS piece "Should General Conference go virtual?"

Thus, an online General Conference would not be virtual in the sense of each delegate accessing the event individually; it would be distributed in the sense of there being multiple sites at which General Conference delegates gather, with each site linked through technology, but not necessarily each delegate on an individual internet device.

Such a distributed model of General Conference would probably be necessary to ensure access for delegates from many countries in Africa and perhaps parts of the Philippines. It also probably makes some issues like translation a bit easier, or at least no harder. Nevertheless, it also raises some issues and challenges.

First, it is technologically more complicated to ensure participation if not every delegate has a personal device to access the internet. Would delegates at the distributed points each be provided with devices to access the online event? Would the event be live streamed on a single screen? If it is live streamed, how could individual delegates interact with the proceedings?

Second, there are logistical procedural challenges to having delegates from multiple different group locations participate in an online event. How would sessions be scheduled to accommodate different time zones? How would raising questions or making comments work? Could or how could committees function if their members are in multiple different locations without access to individual internet devices? How would votes be tabulated if not every delegate has their own internet device?

Third, there are issues of relationship building and trust. Many General Conference decisions are made not because of what happens in the plenary session but because of the conversations that happen on the margins of the meeting--over meals and in hallways. If delegates are still having such conversations, but only with others from their geographic area, how does that change the approach to decision-making? Especially in the light of possible voting irregularities in GC2019, how do distributed sites retain trust in what is happened at other sites when there is less central verification of processes, procedures, credentials, etc.?

Thus, while holding a distributed General Conference might be a logistical necessity to ensure equitable access to an online event, it is by no means an easy or simple solution, and it poses a variety of challenges. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the Technology Study Team or the Commission on General Conference itself might conclude that an online General Conference is simple not feasible and, despite the challenges associated with not having a General Conference, conclude that further delaying General Conference is still the best option.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Andrew Harper: TheologyX Provides Greater Access to Theological Education for All

Today's post is written by Rev. Andrew Harper, Director of Global and Learning Innovation, Cliff College, UK. It is part of an occasional series on new, missionally-focused forms of theological education.

In May 2020, the International Association of Universities (IAU) published its Global Survey Report concerning the impact of COVID-19 on higher education around the world. The IAU canvassed four hundred and twenty-four higher education institutions (HEIs), representing one hundred and nine different countries. Their report paints a startling picture of how deeply the pandemic has affected institutions and teachers alike. Fifty-nine percent of HEIs reported the total cessation of all campus activity.

As one might expect, this has had a devastating impact on the delivery of student education: an overwhelming majority of HEIs (ninety-eight percent) replied that their teaching and learning had been affected in some way. It is also clear that students in the Global South suffer disproportionately compared to those elsewhere. Whereas eighty percent of European students will be given the opportunity to complete their exams, only sixty-one percent of African students will enjoy the same. Indeed, although ninety-seven percent of American and European HEIs reply that they have adequate communication infrastructures in place to keep their students up to date, that number drops to sixty-six percent for African HEIs.

TheologyX is perfectly positioned to respond to the global tumult caused by COVID-19 and to remedy the deleterious effects it has had on higher education around the world. Based on Open edX (used by nine of the ten highest ranked universities), TheologyX provides an online learning platform specially designed for theological education. Indeed, it utilises certain tools and features which help to overcome those geographical, financial and social barriers to learning exacerbated by the pandemic, especially in the Global South. Developed in partnership with Cliff College (Derbyshire UK) and the Methodist Church of Great Britain, TheologyX makes it possible to access theological education at a time when it might otherwise be out of reach and many theology departments in the West are adjusting to the peculiar demands of online pedagogy.

TheologyX’s digitalised curriculum makes it unnecessary to travel long distances just to learn, and its inexpensive programme of delivery eliminates the prohibitively high cost of entry associated with traditional forms of education – boons which stand to benefit believers in the Global South disproportionately more than students based in the West. To send an African student to the U.K. to obtain a theology degree at Cliff College, for example, would cost around $75,000. For the same amount, TheologyX can train thirty-three African students for an MA degree.

Of course, TheologyX wouldn’t be possible without accessible and affordable technology, funded by Cliff College as well as others. Participating colleges receive web cameras with built-in microphones and books on Wesleyan theology from Cliff College. In addition, TheologyX provides these colleges with a ‘Theo’ box – an intranet device which creates a local digital learning environment for up to fifty students using an internal data / Wi-Fi connection. Each box hosts the entirety of TheologyX’s digital theological library, and all the tools necessary to facilitate teaching at all levels. It provides the opportunity for users around the world to access global theological materials, no matter the user’s location.

Its library boasts diverse curricula covering a variety of subjects, with lectures often arranged in ten to twenty-minute "bite sized" chunks to accommodate best pedagogical praxis. The Theo box boasts dual SIM card slots which can be set up to facilitate further content, but – critically – it does not itself require an internet connection to function. Broadband is sparse in Africa, but almost every African has a mobile phone, hence why the Theo box is fitted to run on signal data. It is effectively a Bible college in a box, accessible to believers in diverse locations and from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

We are personally familiar with institutions based in the Global South that have faced lockdown and which have also seen their doors shut immediately in the wake of COVID-19. TheologyX has been able to step into this situation, providing a virtual learning environment that has equipped those institutions to maintain the same degree of rigour and depth of substance, but in a way that grants its students easy access to learning without them needing to be technically proficient. In short, we have had the privilege of helping institutions keep their doors open, albeit virtually. These institutions would otherwise have faced significant financial problems – potentially closing forever as a result, a tragedy both academically as well as for the local Church. In the meantime, TheologyX has given institutions the space to breathe and to reflect, providing a "sandpit" environment in which to play and create and see what might work in a post-COVID world.

And perhaps best of all, as colleges and believers across the world contribute to TheologyX’s online platform, we are teased with the exciting possibility of western learners bearing witness to the quality theological teaching and research coming out of the Global South. We hope TheologyX will thereby serve not only to bless and equip those in diverse contexts, but also to train and encourage those of us in the West with the unique gifts and perspectives found only in the Global South.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Recommended Reading: African bishops make their own choices

The Council of Bishops has issued a press release summarizing the sentiments expressed by the African bishops on the future of the denomination at their meeting last month. The press release incorporates quotations by Bishop Nhiwatiwa, current president of the African College of Bishops, rather than taking the form of an official statement by the bishops.

The press release is notable for at least three reasons as United Methodists look to the future of the denomination:

1. The bishops rejected the choice presented to them by the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.

The bishops asserted their intention to remain in The United Methodist Church, even following some sort of separation in the denomination. Yet at two separate points, they also expressed displeasure with a choice between leaving with US Traditionalists and staying with US Centrists and Progressives, and they suggested that the Protocol might need to be renegotiated.

2. The bishops rebuked both American Traditionalists and American Centrists/Progressives.

On the Traditionalists, the African bishops disputed the US definition of theological traditionalism and decried "interference in African conferences by people from the United State who are causing confusion and hatred among Africans in the church," a reference to Traditionalist efforts to recruit Africans to a new Traditionalist denomination, often by actively undermining the bishops.

On the Centrists, the African bishops indicated that Africans "might not feel comfortable to remain with the [Centrist/Progressive] branch of the United Methodist church," even as both US Centrists/Progressives and Africans intend to remain in the UMC after a separation.

3. The bishops asserted their intention to set their own path.

The press release is entitled, "African bishops: Let’s make our own choices," and that summarizes the sentiment of the piece. Bishop Nhiwatiwa said, "We have a choice of merely folding our hands and wait[ing] for events to unfold and then react to them. The other option which we have been espousing from the beginning of these deliberations is one of protecting the heritage of the United Methodist Church in Africa." The African bishops clearly intend to set their own path.

Thus, smart analysis of the political situation in The United Methodist Church should view it as a three-way conflict (with additional viewpoints held by smaller groups) instead of as a two-way conflict between US Traditionalists and US Centrists/Progressives.

Monday, November 2, 2020

UM & Global Collection: The Global UMC in Ecumenical Perspective

Two previous UM & Global collections have looked at issues of global ecclesiology: one on the UMC as a global church and one on church autonomy and the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS). The latest collection continues that theme by looking at the global UMC in ecumenical perspective. These pieces examine other models of being a global or world-wide church, including Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and other Methodist/Wesleyan denominations, raising questions for The United Methodist Church through the process of comparison. The collection also includes several pieces that examine the World Methodist Council and other ecumenical associations of Methodist denominations for the light they can shed on what it means to be a global Methodist, United Methodist or otherwise.

The collection includes thirteen essays by Arun W. Jones and David W. Scott. As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students