Wednesday, December 29, 2021
1. Questions about General Conference
Out of everything that UM & Global published this last year, stories about what might happen with General Conference proved to be among the most popular to readers, from (correctly) predicting in January 2021 that the pandemic would prohibit holding General Conference in 2021 to analyzing the aborted May 8 virtual General Conference to reviewing how the pandemic and travel might impact the currently scheduled General Conference in 2022.
2. Analysis of UMC politics and current events
Readers have also turned to this site for thoughtful analysis of the internal conflicts and struggles of the UMC, especially from an international angle. That has included everything from historical background on current conflicts in the UMC in Nigeria to identifying the current issues of contention within the UMC to analysis of the strategic choices facing those seeking to launch the Global Methodist Church.
3. Understanding church decline
This blog has also spent a good deal of time seeking to understand various forms of decline in The United Methodist Church--from the "hollowing out" of the church to institutional decline to the connection between US membership decline and the rhetoric of the global church, and readers have found those explorations interesting.
4. Grappling with emotional impact
Conflicts in the church and in society, combined with the impacts of the on-going pandemic, have taken an emotional toll on people, and so pieces on grief in the church and pastors considering leaving the ministry have also appealed to readership.
5. Confronting racism
Amid conflict in the church and problems in the world, good ministry still goes on. This blog has tried to highlight over the past year the ways in which the church is (or should be) engaged in confronting the sin of racism. In that vein, John Oda's piece on why Asian Americans should speak out about racism has been one of the most read posts of 2021.
At this point, there is no particular reason to assume that the topics that will be of most interest to readers in 2022 will be any different, but if the past several years have taught us anything, it is that there are always surprises in store.
Monday, December 27, 2021
Two recent stories have highlighted the work of Methodist evangelism on the streets in two different contexts around the world: Brazil and Great Britain. In an interview with Asbury Seminary, Brazilian bishop João Carlos Lopes says, "Church planting doesn’t happen in the pastor's office. Church planting happens on the street where the unbelievers are." In a reflection for the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Evangelism and Contemporary Culture Officer Holly Adams writes that her work as a Street Pastor reminder her that "the greatest gift we share in evangelism is always, always about relationship – about being totally present to other people, listening to them, and loving them unconditionally."
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
Christians have been moving through the season of Advent over the last four weeks. Christmas is now only a few days away, and for those following the Western calendar, New Year's Day follows a week after Christmas. This time in the church's life is about cultivating a spirit of openness - openness to God, to others, and to the future - and this spirit of openness is one that characterizes our participation in God's mission too.
There are many ways that people talk about the work of Advent. It is described as a time of waiting, a time of preparation, of expectation, of hope. Pastors preach on the four traditional Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love.
One can also talk about Advent as a time of opening - of opening oneself up to prepare to notice and to receive Christ when Christ comes, both in a spiritual sense in the re-enactment of Christ's birth and in an eschatological sense in the anticipation of Christ's return.
We are reminded in Advent, too, the perils of having our hearts closed when Jesus comes. In Las Posadas and other traditions, we are reminded that those whose hearts and doors were closed when Mary and Joseph showed up missed the birth of the Savior. If we would not miss the Incarnation, we must open our doors and hearts to God and to others. "Fling wide the portals of your heart," writes Georg Weissel in the Advent hymn "Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates."
This openness to the coming of Christ of course culminates on Christmas, when it is combined with an opening to one another. For many, the opening of Christmas refers to the opening of Christmas presents - tearing off wrapping paper and emptying boxes. But it's not just about the gifts.
The gifts are, ideally, expressions of love from one to another, and what is really going on at Christmas is opening ourselves up to receive love and to give love in return. This insight can be seen in Dickens' classic "A Christmas Tale," as well as many a made-for-TV Christmas movie: The wounded or selfish person who has closed themselves off to others is transformed by the power of Christmas and becomes willing to love and be loved, even with the vulnerability and risks implied.
This interpersonal interpretation of Christmas openness should not be seen as in contrast to the openness to the divine envisioned in Advent but as deeply related. In Wesleyan theology, love of God and love of others are both aspects of sanctification.
Then comes the New Year, with its look ahead to the future. Whether or not one participates in the tradition of making resolutions, most still look to the new year with a sense of openness. There is a sense that the new year is a time when changes can be made, when things can be shifted. It is a time of open priorities, open schedules, open agendas. That openness won't last, nor should it, but as we observe the New Year, we experience the fluidity of the future.
All of these emphases on openness are a feature of the calendar this time of year, but this emphasis on openness - to the divine, to other people, and to the future - is a feature of mission year round.
Mission is about opening ourselves up to God, initially in our willingness to heed God's call to participate in the missio Dei. Those who answer that call find that they repeatedly encounter God along the path of mission, often in quite surprising ways. Engaging in God's mission is a way of opening ourselves up to God, encountering Christ, and inviting the Holy Spirit in to our hearts.
Mission is also about opening ourselves up to others. Mission is primarily relational. It is about loving and being loved by others in concrete contexts as together we join in the missio Dei. Mission cannot be accomplished alone. It is inherently a practice of partnership. When we join in God's mission, we open ourselves up to the presence of others in our lives that we would not have encountered in any other way. Often, these other people will be quite different from us, but we recognize the love and the blessings that they bring to our lives.
Finally, mission is about opening ourselves up to the future. We may have a sense of where our mission calling will take us, but since mission is primarily about being in relationship with God and with others, we can never control or fully predict where mission will take us. We will be surprised as our openness to God and our openness to others brings new things into our lives that we did not anticipate and could not have foreseen. But we experience this newness as a form of God's good news for our lives.
So, to all the readers of UM & Global, I pray your Advent has been holy, your Christmas may be merry, and your New Year's happy. And I pray that you may be open to all that God's mission will bring us, now and in the days to come.
Monday, December 20, 2021
In a piece entitled "Deacon Pioneers 'Global Learning,'" the Michigan Annual Conference recently profiled the work of Rev. Alex Plum, a deacon who works in the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Plum describes his work as a practice of "global learning," in which he and his team "identify promising models of care delivery in low- and middle-income
countries, and we adapt those approaches for implementation in the US," especially with the intent of "reducing health inequities in historically marginalized populations in low-income US communities." It is interesting to see the intersection between Plum's theology and his work in medicine, and the practice of global learning is one the all in the church should make greater use of.
Friday, December 17, 2021
For the first time in quite some time, a new UM & Global collection is available. The collection pulls together posts from this fall about "The UMC and Institutional Decline." Most of the posts are by David W. Scott, with one response by Darryl W. Stephens. The posts examine the nature, causes, and possible solutions to the decline of denominational institutions in The United Methodist Church. As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students.
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
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.
Last week, I described the evolution of the current centralized apportionment system that The United Methodist Church uses to fund its connectional ministries. The apportionment system replaced an earlier system of direct solicitation by individual boards and agencies. I also indicated that the apportionment system may not last forever, and that this past can help us think about the financial future of connectional ministry in the UMC.
While the apportionment system has not yet ended, apportionments clearly cannot and will not be the same sort of financial engine for denominational agencies as they have been in the past. The UMC has passed “peak apportionment,” the point at which increased per capita giving by United Methodists in the United States made up for a decreasing number of US members. An impending denominational split and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have made connectional giving trends worse, but the underlying financial dynamics towards lower apportionment giving exist independently of these two complicating factors.
Lower levels of apportionments can potentially have a lot of different impacts on the connectional ministries of the UMC. Back in 2019, I looked at the possible consequences for connectional institutions and ministry programs. There have indeed been steep cuts at many of the agencies in terms of personnel and programs since I wrote that piece. I also explored the possibilities of reconfiguring the apportionment system to create different options for the connectional ministries that congregations and annual conference support, using the metaphor of content bundling.
Yet regardless of what other strategies denominational agencies may or may not adopt to respond to lower apportionments, the agencies are moving towards greater soliciting of direct gifts from United Methodist individuals and congregations. Recent Giving Tuesday appeals in your United Methodist-related social media feeds are just the tip of that trend. If money will not continue to come from apportionments, at least in the same amounts, then the agencies will look elsewhere, and direct giving is one of the foremost places they are looking.
Viewed through the lens of the history recounted last week, this move towards denominational agencies soliciting greater direct giving is a move back towards an older, pre-apportionment system of giving, in which denominational agencies competed with one another to solicit direct gifts from individuals and congregations. Therefore, reflecting on that older, pre-apportionment system can help us think about what a move away from apportionments and towards direct giving might mean for the future of connectional ministries in the UMC.
In particular, as we go back towards a system of soliciting direct gifts, it is worth thinking about how that move will reshape relationships in the denomination: relationships among agencies, relationships between agencies and the denomination’s congregations and members, and relationships between agencies and conferences.
As I explained about the pre-apportionment system last week, financing connectional ministry through direct giving is a system that puts denominational agencies in financial competition with one another. Yet, there has been a significant move towards collaboration between the boards and agencies in the past two decades, and the desire for agency cooperation remains strong among denominational leaders.
How will a return to substantial direct giving as a funding source impact the more collaborative relationships that have been built up among agencies? How can the denomination foster relationships among the agencies that emphasize collaboration and do not become merely competitive? If finances will not be the lever to push agencies towards collaboration (and indeed will push in the other direction), what levers will push towards collaboration?
The leading group of critics of the pre-apportionment direct giving system was laity, especially businessmen whose money the various church agencies sought to obtain. Those laity found the appeals for money excessive and worried about the efficiency of connectional ministries. Perhaps by the 21st century United Methodists in the United States have become a bit more inured to a large number of charitable solicitations, but the desire for missional efficiency remains strong.
How does an increase in direct solicitation develop greater responsiveness by agencies to individual and congregational missional priorities without overwhelming United Methodist individuals and congregations with a dozen separate financial appeals? How can agencies present multiple requests for money while assuring potential donors that those moneys will be used efficiently and effectively?
Finally, there are the relationships between agencies and various levels of conferences. Annual conferences were much more important financial players in the pre-apportionment system. Are annual conferences prepared to again take a larger role as intermediaries between the agencies and congregations? What sorts of new tensions and conflicts would that introduce to annual conferences, which are already facing a number of tensions and conflicts?
The move to the apportionment system also gave General Conference much more control over what had previously been semi-autonomous agencies. This increased control assured United Methodists that organizations that used the United Methodist name would be accountable to the highest authority in The United Methodist Church. How can the General Conference continue to exert control over the agencies for the sake of coordination, accountability, and efficiency if it controls a smaller percentage of agency budgets?
I do not mean to depict a shift away from apportionments and towards direct giving as all bad. As indicated last week, there are problems with the apportionment system. There are also advantages to direct giving. It creates more engaged givers. On the other hand, there are advantages to apportionments, and there were disadvantages to the system of direct giving that preceded the apportionment system.
Rather than trying to make out one financial system as better or worse than the other, my intention is to point out that The United Methodist Church is in a time of transition in how it finances its connectional ministries. If we can be aware that we are in a time of transition and aware of what the challenges and advantages are in various systems, then perhaps we can be mindful and intentional in trying to best capitalize on the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of the systems we develop.
Monday, December 13, 2021
Frequent UM & Global contributor Robert A. Hunt has written an insightful piece on United Methodist Insight entitled "The Future is Chaos." In it, he notes the increasingly unpredictable nature of the social, cultural, and political future of the United States and the ways in which current Christian clergy have been ill-prepared to respond to that future. The solution, in Hunt's analysis, is to promote more entrepreneurial and creative approaches to pastoral ministry, a process that will require participation not only by individual pastors but also by church leaders and theological seminaries. Hunt offers hope that if the church is able to shift its approach to pastoral ministry in this way, the result will be not only greater faithfulness, but greater resilience amidst the chaos.
Friday, December 10, 2021
“How might the decline of democracy impact the United Methodist Church?” The question is difficult to answer, not least of all because from a historical perspective, it is obvious that the movements have grown up together. This has been well documented already. From a philosophical perspective, much the same reality is available to be unearthed.
The Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has remarked, “Democracy is teleological. It’s a collective effort with a noble goal: Inclusion.”
A statement like this does much to explain why democracy at least seems imperiled now. The democratic impulse Taylor observes towards inclusion has uncovered laudable results, especially around the inclusion of voters of color. In the first US Presidential election, the voting electorate was comprised almost exclusively of white men. While democracy would expand the pool of voters in dramatic ways over the next two centuries, extending suffrage to all free men, and then to women, and then to those as young as 18, the racial composition of that electorate would not change dramatically for the first 200 years of the American experiment. In 1992, for instance, 84% of voters in the presidential election were white.
2020 offered a new reality in the project of American democracy, as 33% of presidential election voters identified as non-white. Racially speaking, the electorate shifted by as much in less than 3 decades as it had in the previous 2 centuries. Is it any wonder that in the wake of this great exercise of inclusive democracy some individuals and groups felt threatened, rejected the outcome, and challenged the institutions which upheld it, posing an at least temporary threat to the American democratic project? Other forces not entirely dissimilar in shape are playing out in dozens of contexts around the world.
But how will this impact United Methodism?
The project of democracy as described by Taylor, bears a remarkable resemblance to the stated mission of the United Methodist Church, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (BoD p v).” Just as Taylor’s definition of democracy, the aims of this mission are teleological, focused on a goal: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. The goals of democracy and United Methodism share many fundamental features. Both are focused on creating a new vision of flourishing for the world, rooted in a philosophy of inclusion of all people. The roots of this broad inclusivity in Methodism can be traced back to John Wesley and his understanding of the atonement of Jesus Christ. To be sure, American democracy is not at all explicit about its commitment to Jesus as a central agent in its project.
It is at this point of difference that United Methodists might see cause for hope, even if the fortunes of democracy dim.The agent of Methodism’s inclusivity is not the citizens of Methodism, except insofar as they are agents interacting with the providing, contingent God of Jesus Christ. The Theological Task of the United Methodist Church spelled out in Paragraph 102 of the Book of Discipline places the agency of action first and most squarely with God in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit:
“At the heart of the gospel of salvation is God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture witnesses to the redeeming love of God in Jesus’ life and teachings, his atoning death, his resurrection, his sovereign presence in history, his triumph over the powers of evil and death, and his promised return. Because God truly loves us in spite of our willful sin, God judges us, summons us to repentance, pardons us, receives us by that grace given to us in Jesus Christ, and gives us hope of life eternal.”
It goes on to add, “We share the Christian belief that God’s redemptive love is realized in human life by the activity of the Holy Spirit, both in personal experience and in the community of believers.” The primary agent of Methodism is not the citizenry, but God.
All of this suggests that the impacts of the decline of democracy on Methodism will be proportional to the seriousness with which United Methodists take their own claims. If democracy declines, United Methodism will certainly too, at least in institutional, statistical, and numerical terms, regardless of what Methodists do, for the roots of the two are entangled.
Yet, if United Methodists are truthful in their theological claims, one might expect that God would continue to be the faithful agent of truth and liberation, speaking through people called Methodists. This means that even if the harvest of democracy withers in the field, the Church might still, through divine power, raise even a small harvest of witnesses pointing to truth and freedom for those oppressed by authoritarianism, violence, intolerance.
Depending on how steep a decline democracy faces, though, the path for these United Methodist witnesses may not be easy. If other historical scenarios of declining democracy offer any vision, some of these witnesses will bear social stigma and shame, decreased economic opportunity, and perhaps even martyrdom.
Again, if historical references serve as any guide, these costs will not be paid because anti-democratic powers come directly for United Methodists, who have historically in the USA and abroad found themselves at the intersection of cultural, political, and economic power. Rather, these kinds of witnesses will be called for when other marginalized communities, such as migrants, ethnic, racial, religious minorities, the economically marginalized, or LGBTQ+ persons, are targeted first as victims of regimes whose vision of power and prosperity deny the basically inclusive vision of democracy. If United Methodists speak up for those who are least and lost, they can be expected to be counted with them, not only at the sorting of sheep and goats, but by the brutal tendencies of societies sliding toward authoritarianism, intolerance, and hate.
This is not in the slightest to suggest, however, that United Methodists should understand the potential future depicted here as bleak. All these things, even at their worst, would only be consistent with the working of an abiding, contingent God present with God’s people to perfect God’s love in them, and through them to enfold all creation. The ultimate arc of history, no matter the fate of democracy, for Methodists is found to point toward the unfolding relationship with God for all creation, even if this arc must pass by the cross and other bearings of the burden of this holy, sacrificial witness of truth and love when the structures of our fleeting time stand broken.
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
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.
When the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) was officially adopted by General Conference in 1820, it received no funding from the denomination. Instead, the Missionary Society was supported through direct gifts from individuals and congregations. The Missionary Society was the second denomination-wide agency in American Methodism. The Book Concern (predecessor of today’s Publishing House), the one older agency, was funded entirely by sales of books, as it still is today. Indeed, at that time, there wasn’t any central process of collecting denomination-wide funds.
The apportionment system, which so dominates the current United Methodist Church, took a long time to develop, longer than most of the agencies it supports. Indeed, it did not solidify until 1924, over a hundred years later than the earliest agencies. And today, nearly another hundred years later, there is no guarantee that apportionments will endure indefinitely.
This post will briefly review the process of the development of apportionments, and a subsequent post will examine what lessons that history offers for the financial future of connectional ministries in the UMC.
While there is some variation across predecessor denominations to the UMC, in their early histories, denominational agencies such as the Missionary Society of the MEC functioned as voluntary associations that operated relatively independently from General Conferences, including in financial matters. In the MEC, it was not until 1872 that the General Conference sought to exert much direct control over boards and agencies, and that control was still not focused on finances.
Funding for denominational agencies was often coordinated by annual conferences, not General Conference. Annual conferences would designate specific months for collections for specific benevolent ministries of the church. This helped give some order for congregations and individuals as givers, though congregations and individuals still made the real financial decisions about connectional ministries.
Moreover, this system of monthly foci for giving did not prevent local church benevolent societies from constantly collecting money for their specified area of ministry, nor did it prevent special appeals for finances in local churches by visiting agency staff persons or missionaries.
The first iteration of apportionments was as a system of fundraising goals set by individual agencies in the latter decades of the 19th century. Early apportionments were merely a request by an agency that each congregation raise a certain amount for the work of that agency. They were not approved by conferences and did not carry the weight of denominational polity behind them.
Absent central coordination, financial competition among boards and agencies increased throughout the late 19th and early 20th century as Methodists continued to create new agencies, each of which would solicit direct contributions from Methodist individuals and congregations. Despite whatever pressures towards collaboration in ministry there might have been, financial concerns fostered a lot of intra-Methodist competition. Ministers and especially laity became increasingly exasperated by the slew of fundraising appeals they were bombarded with.
This led to the formation of the Commission on Finance in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1912, promoted by the Laymen’s Missionary Movement. Though ultimately ineffective because of its dependence on the agencies it was to regulate, it was an early attempt at central coordination of the finances of denominational agencies.
Then came the Mission Centenary in 1919. One aspect of the Centenary was a fundraising campaign. The Centenary fundraising campaign was somewhat unique in that it was a joint campaign on behalf of the Board of Foreign Missions, the Board of Home Missions, and the Board of Education of the MEC. These three boards agreed to work together on the fundraising campaign and then split the receipts according to a pre-determined formula.
While the fundraising campaign did not collect everything that had been pledged, this centralized approach to fundraising and division of denominational dollars was a relative success. That experience of centralized fundraising, along with concerns about debts incurred by the Board of Foreign Missions, led to the creation in 1924 of the World Service Commission, forerunner of the General Council on Finance and Administration, and the centralized denominational apportionment system.
Instead of each agency competing for local church and individual giving, the denomination as a whole asked each congregation to collect a certain amount in apportionments, which would then be divided among the agencies according to formulas established by the World Service Commission.
A centralized financial system allowed General Conference, both directly and through the World Service Commission, to promote ideals of efficiency, accountability, and coordination in the business of connectional ministry. Interestingly, General Conference 1924 rejected a proposal to create a single denominational agency, feeling that the goals of efficiency and accountability could be sufficiently realized through central financial control without requiring central administrative or programmatic control.
There were downsides to the apportionment system. It allowed agencies to become somewhat disconnected from the perspectives and desires of their constituencies, since they no longer needed to respond to pressures from local churches and average individuals to ensure their on-going financial support. Instead, denominational insider perspectives and the perspectives of large donors became more influential, since these were the groups who did have a significant impact on the agencies’ bottom lines.
Moreover, the apportionment system did not completely end the process of direct fundraising by agencies, and developments such as The Advance in 1940 created new opportunities for direct, second mile giving by congregations and individuals. The Advance, both in its denomination-wide and annual conference forms, has become a particularly important channel for the flow of connectional funds outside the apportionment system.
Nor did apportionments completely end board and agency competition, as anyone who has been around the denomination long enough is aware. Nevertheless, the apportionment system shifted the site of much of that competition from local churches to internal denominational mechanisms such as General Conference, the General Council on Finance and Administration, and the Connectional Table (and the predecessors of these latter two). In this way, much of the competition was only visible to denominational insiders and not the average member of the denomination, lay or clergy.
Whatever its weaknesses, the development of the apportionment system was revolutionary. It assured boards and agencies that their core functions would be funded, and it simplified giving for congregations and individuals. The apportionment system has become a robust and central means of funding connectional ministries in American Methodism. Although initially adopted by the MEC, this system of centralized denominational financing for connection ministries through apportionments persisted through the various of Methodist mergers of the 20th century, becoming the backbone of connectional ministry financing in the UMC.
But nothing lasts forever. The apportionment system is already facing pressures, and these are not likely to go away any time soon. As United Methodists contemplate the situation of denominational agencies now and the possible financial futures of connectional ministries, this history is highly relevant. Another post next week will explore that topic further.
Monday, December 6, 2021
Today's post is by Robert J. Harman. Rev. Harman is a mission executive retired from the General Board of Global Ministries. It is a response to David Scott’s recent post, “The United Methodist Church and Declining Democracy.”
David Scott recently wrote a blog post raising the question of how declining democracy and increasing authoritarianism will impact The United Methodist Church. Robert Hunt replied in a comment that, while that is a good question, “an equally good question is whether Methodists make any impact in opposing authoritarian regimes and promoting democracy.”
Dr. Hunt suggested that “most Methodist leaders and their followers are either disengaged from politics or are actually comfortable with authoritarian leaders - so long as they don't directly impact Methodist life.” I am sad to say that I agree with Dr. Hunt's assumption that church leaders today are probably fine with trends toward authoritarian governments as long as they continue to benefit or refrain from much interference with religious practices or services.
There were, however, moments in United Methodist Church history when the opposite was true—when Methodists worked to oppose political domination and on behalf of freedom. The era of decolonization was just such an era.
Liberation movements in the late colonial period were supported and even led by church leaders in their struggle to define and realize self-determining rule as their post-colonial reality. There was not great confidence in democracy as the antidote to colonialism, given the history of collaboration between democracies and colonial authorities. Instead, independence movements looked to indigenous sources for inspired leaders and found some in mission-established churches such as the UMC that had successful educational programs to produce them.
In Mozambique, Methodist-educated Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane became the first black Mozambican of his generation to enroll at the University of Lisbon, where he collaborated with other African students involved in the formation of national liberation movements. He was the founder and first president of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), the political and military movement that was eventually successful in deposing the Portuguese dictator Salazar and establishing the first post-colonial government in Mozambique.
The UMC experienced opportunities for cooperation with the new Mozambican government, benefiting their educational and social outreach programs. The indebtedness to the Methodist Mondlane, who fell to an assassin, has often been recognized on ceremonial occasions when country United Methodist leaders and government officials have shared the same public platforms.
In Angola, Dr. Agoutino Neto, medical doctor, son of a United Methodist pastor, and a former Crusade Scholar like Mondlane, became head of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. He had a profound vision for a self-determining alternative to Portuguese control and worked to implant it village by village, a process in which countless United Methodists gave leadership, sometimes resulting in death and imprisonment. Along with Neto's imprisonment was that of the Reverend Emilio de Carvalho, the first indigenous bishop of the UMC in Angola. MPLA became and remains the ruling party today in spite of protracted civil and insurgent challenges reflecting Cold War political interests in the region.
The governments of neither country today rank high on the scale of democratic influence, though they are trending in that direction with each passing decade. But it is their movement away from the controlling colonial authority through leadership which arose from the ranks of church leaders and members who sacrificed their lives for a new and hopeful futures for their people that is worthy of remembrance as we look at current trends in patterns of governance that may seem discouraging.
Will this history find recurrence in critical contexts where the UMC is engaged? One would hope that the activity within the denomination's base in the United States would provide some signs of awakening to the drift into nationalism. If the charism of a church leader is required, we should be praying for return of the likes of Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam who was a militant against political repression in the Red Scare period of the late 40s and 50s.
But the current trend toward authoritarianism is embraced and successfully led by evangelical groups that harbor no shame in endorsing self-benefitting political strategies rather than advocating for or protecting the goodwill of all the governed. They have yet to be challenged by mainstream churches that bear the Oxnam legacy but choose silence. Will United Methodists remain silent in the face of such a slide towards authoritarianism?
Friday, December 3, 2021
United Methodist News Service published a piece earlier this week entitled, "Storms destroy two church institutions in Zimbabwe." This headline accurately sums up the main event in the story, but it omits what I found most interesting. In commenting on the disaster, UMC Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa remarked, "Within 24 hours, all roofs were blown off from buildings at our two institutions by a heavy, windy storm. Experts are saying that it is because of the change in the climate," adding, "We never used to get cyclones in Zimbabwe."
While it is impossible to ascribe any particular storm solely to the effects of climate change, Nhiwatiwa is right that climate change is driving more extreme and often more harmful weather. This connection prompts a reminder and an open-ended question.
First, the reminder: While climate change is polarized along liberal / conservative lines in the United States, that is not true elsewhere. The politics of climate change look very different outside the United States, so US United Methodists should resist making assumptions about the environmental views of United Methodists outside the United States based on other political or theological positions.
Second, the question: The UMC is well-known for its disaster response work through UMCOR, both within the United States and globally. What happens to that ministry focus in a world changed by climate where there are increasingly more disasters, many more than the UMC and UMCOR could ever respond to?
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
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.
Last week, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance released their annual report, “The Global State of Democracy Report 2021 - Building Resilience in a Pandemic Era." For those who support democracy, the report was not encouraging. The title of the accompanying press release put it bluntly: "Democracy Faces Perfect Storm as the World Becomes More Authoritarian."
As I read through the report, I was struck not only by how democracy in general is imperiled in 2021, but how much that is true for countries that contain significant numbers of United Methodists. Out of countries that contain at least 100,000 United Methodists, the report called out the United States, the Philippines, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe for recent declines in democracy, though Zambia was also the one bright spot in the report, after the opposition party successfully won elections there this year.
According to the report, the DRC, Burundi, and Zimbabwe are all classified as authoritarian regimes. Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia are all classified as hybrid regimes and not full democracies. The only strongly United Methodist countries where democracy existed and was not in recent decline, according to this report, were Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, all classified as weak democracies.
A number of other countries with historically-related Methodist bodies, including Brazil and India, have also seen notable recent declines in democracy, and several countries in Eastern Europe with small United Methodist populations (Poland, Hungary, Serbia, and Russia) have also seen recent declines in democracy. Russia, home to a small population of United Methodists, was also just declared by the US State Department to be a significant violator of religious freedom.
The challenges to democracy can be bemoaned for political reasons, but these trends also raise a religious question: What is the impact of declining democracy likely to be on Methodism as a religious system and on The United Methodist Church in particular?
The relationships between Methodism and democracy has been historically complicated, and especially early in its history, Methodism tended towards populist authoritarianism, the direction of much of the world today.
John Wesley was a noted royalist and opposed the American revolution, a stance which caused Methodists in the American colonies some considerable difficulties. Nathan Hatch, in The Democratization of American Christianity, identifies Methodism as one of the religious traditions that really embraced a form of populism in keeping with the democratic spirits of the new United States, while at the same time he notes the authoritarian style of Francis Asbury as a leader of the movement.
David Hempton, in Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, notes that Methodism globally was all too happy to ride the coattails of expanding British political empire and American commercial empire, systems which boasted of the benefits of democracy while largely withholding the opportunity to participate in democracy from those in its subjugated territories.
By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the situation had changed. By then, Methodism, especially American Methodism, had emerged as a system of promoting democracy around the world.
In my book Mission as Globalization: Methodists in Southeast Asia at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, I argue that through mission, "Methodist polity spread modern, American ideas about democracy as a means of collective self-determination" (p. 66). At the same time, as Robbie B. H. Goh notes in Sparks of Grace: The Story of Methodism in Asia, "The work of Methodism in Asia was significantly hampered in certain areas by totalitarian politics" (26).
In 1918, the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States published Christian Democracy for America and The Christian Crusade for World Democracy. Commenting on these books in Methodist Evangelism, American Salvation: The Home Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1860-1920, Mark Teasdale writes, "Both sets of authors argued that by the beginning of the twentieth century this Methodist-forged nation [the United States] needed to take leadership in spreading its Christian American civilization to the rest of the world in the form [of] democracy" (227).
In more recent years, it is noteworthy that the early 1990s were both a surge in democracy world-wide and a boom time for The United Methodist Church globally. While I know of no systematic work exploring that connection, in some specific instances, such as the revival of Methodism in Russia and Eastern Europe, the connection is obvious.
The UMC's Social Principles currently state, "While our allegiance to God takes precedence over our allegiance to any state, we acknowledge the vital function of government as a principle vehicle for the ordering of society," and assert, "The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens," a strong endorsement of democracy without directly using the term.
Much of recent United Methodist attention to democracy, however, has been to questions about our own internal democratic systems, including issues of representation, access, voting credentials, and of course, the uncertainty over when General Conference will next meet.
But if mission history teaches us anything, it is that contexts matter for the success or struggles of religious systems. Internal factors matter, too, but focusing entirely internally misses half the picture.
Therefore, issues surrounding democratic decline or the related issue of religious freedom are issues that should matter to United Methodists. The state of the world and the societies within which the church operates have an impact on the church, and the system of government in those societies is one component of that societal impact.
While I know that declining democracy will likely affect the UMC, at this point, I cannot tell you what that effect will be. That is too far beyond my field of expertise. But if you have a take of 700-1200 words on how declining democracy is likely to impact The United Methodist Church, please share it with me at dscott (at) umcmission dot org, and it may be published here on UM & Global.
Monday, November 29, 2021
I write to you from San José, Costa Rica, where I teach as a professor of feminist theology at the Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana (UBL). A Methodist institution, the UBL has a long history as one of the foremost ecumenical Protestant centers of theological education in Latin America. In fact, next year, the UBL will begin celebrating its centennial.
From its earliest beginnings in 1922 as the Biblical School for Women and its formal establishment as the Biblical Institute of Costa Rica the following year, the institution has evolved continually to meet the changing needs for theological education in the region. In 1941, it was renamed the Latin American Biblical Seminary to mark the establishment of correspondence courses throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in 1997, it received formal Costa Rican accreditation as the Latin American Biblical University. Today it offers degree programs in theology and biblical studies at the bachelor, licensure, and masters levels, as well as a variety of certificate programs.
I first visited the UBL in 2013 when I was a doctoral student at Claremont School of Theology. At the time, I was preparing for my qualifying exams. In addition to my time spent in the library (marveling over the Spanish-language resources from Latin America that are seldom available in the United States), I sat in on some classes and participated in the weekly chapel services and other events. I was fascinated by the depth and richness of the classroom conversations, teaching, and preaching. In other circumstances, drawing a community together from different countries, denominational backgrounds, and genuinely different life experiences might be a recipe for conflict and discord, but, at the UBL, I experienced warmth, curiosity, generosity, a passion for learning, and a deep desire to develop the skills necessary to be of service in the churches and in society.
Last year, I accepted a position as a missionary with GBGM, and in December, my husband and I moved from the United States to Costa Rica. In January, I began teaching courses in feminist theology at the UBL. While the pandemic sent nearly all of our residential students home and moved all classes online, in this first year, I have taught students in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, and Spain. The UBL’s other online events, such as lectures and conferences, have regularly attracted participants from all over Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond.
These experiences might suggest that I would have something to say about the connection between mission and theological education.
I have to confess, however, that I am as unlikely a missionary as you can imagine. Or, at least, that is how it seemed to me.
To start with the obvious, I am not a Methodist. I am a Catholic who typically attends church with my husband, an ordained pastor with the Disciples of Christ. Fortunately for me, that did not prove to be an obstacle for working with GBGM. Next, I am not ordained. While not a requirement for my position, GBGM’s application is full of language asking for call stories and visions of ministry. To me, as an academic, the application felt quite foreign.
But perhaps most significantly, my academic work has focused on the decolonial critique of the Christian churches in Latin America. From this perspective, the work of missionaries—whether in the 16th century or today—is more often seen as the source of problems than of grace. The decolonial perspective has rightly identified instances in which evangelism served as one arm of a larger political and economic project of domination, in which the teaching of religion conveyed a message of cultural inferiority to the recipients, in which the Christian churches failed to protect the most vulnerable, and in which newly established Christian communities were expected to remain subservient and were not encouraged to develop local leadership and authority.
During my application process, I was surprised to learn that GBGM has retained the title missionary, while other denominations have adopted titles like mission coworker to signal an updated vision of ministry. My experience as I filled out my application was one of mixed feelings: I was thrilled about the possibility of returning to the UBL to teach and, at the same time, genuinely uncomfortable with the title of missionary.
I wish I could tell you that this internal argument is a thing of the past. I can, however, share with you two hopeful signs that I have found encouraging.
The first is the GBGM motto for ministry: from everywhere to everywhere. As I participated in the training sessions, I was pleased to see that these were not empty words. The approximately twenty members of my training cohort came from Asia, Africa, and the Americas, significantly reducing my fears that GBGM’s work was yet another act of United States-based cultural imperialism.
The second emerged in a conversation with Dr. Elisabeth Cook, the rector at the UBL. While describing the many relationships that the UBL maintains with churches, denominations, nonprofit organizations, and other funding bodies, Dr. Cook explained that the UBL occasionally has refused funding offers when the donor organization was unwilling to relate as an equal partner. As an institution, the UBL is willing to forego much-needed cash if the other organization intends to impose projects or activities that are incompatible with the UBL mission. Again, I was grateful for this encouraging bit of news that contradicted my (admittedly pessimistic) view about how loudly money talks.
The UBL itself has become for me a symbol of mission. It is committed to reading the signs of the times in order to adapt to better meet the needs for theological education in the region. It acknowledges and celebrates its roots as a mission project and its long history of collaboration with a variety of Christian churches, but it is not willing to compromise its institutional identity in order to balance the books. Likewise, it is dedicated to walking alongside its students throughout their educational journeys and its graduates as they engage in their ministries in Latin America and beyond.
Despite my misgivings, this is a vision of mission I can embrace.
Wednesday, November 24, 2021
In the United States, many people will be gathering with family and friends tomorrow to share food for Thanksgiving. In some of these gatherings, one person or one host family will have done the cooking and will provide that food to others. But in many other gatherings, every participant will bring a dish or two to share with others -- the host cooking the turkey, perhaps, but someone else bringing the cranberry sauce, another person bringing a casserole or vegetable dish, another bringing the pie, and so on.
Of course, for many United Methodists in the United States, this model of shared food is a hallmark of church culture in the form of the potluck. While potlucks are not exclusively a church phenomenon, they are a staple of church dinners throughout much of the country. Their popularity likely comes from their simplicity and equality: Even a potluck in which participants are assigned a genre of dish by last name ("A through H bring a salad; I through R a main course; and S through Z dessert."), they are easy to organize and allow all participants to contribute something according to their gifts.
It is this last feature that makes potlucks a good metaphor for asset-based mission practice. An asset-based approach to mission assumes that all people have assets or gifts that they can contribute to the work of God's mission, and such an approach expects that all people will contribute those gifts. This is analogous to the potluck assumption that everyone can and will bring some sort of food to contribute to the meal.
Asset-based approaches to mission also recognize that everyone's gifts for mission are distinctive. Not everyone is expected to contribute the same thing to the mission project. Each is expected to contribute their best and their unique strengths. A good potluck depends upon everyone (or almost everyone) bringing a different gift. Variety is the strength of potlucks, and if you don't make a very good chili, that is okay. Someone else will make the chili, and you can make whatever it is you are good at.
Asset-based approaches to mission not only assume that everyone has something to give in mission; they assume that everyone can be mutually blessed by mission. Mission is not from one group to another. Mission is the work of God redeeming all. Just as everyone contributes to a potluck, everyone eats at a potluck. A potluck is not a meal that one group feeds another but does not partake in.
Asset-based mission does not try to quantify or compare what each partner is able to bring to the work of mission. Contributions reflect the abilities of the partners; benefits reflect the needs. There is usually not an elaborate cost-benefit calculation to make sure that the two are always equal. People bring as much as they can or want to a potluck and eat as much as they are hungry for. The two do not need to be the same amount.
In this way, asset-based mission is based on a presumption of abundance. There is less worrying about whether there will be enough to engage in God's mission. Instead, there is trust that God will provide what is necessary for God's work. At a good potluck, while individual dishes run out, everyone can eat their fill, and there is almost always more than enough to go around.
I hope those readers in the United States will enjoy their Thanksgiving dinners tomorrow. And I hope, as you are passing and sharing food, that you will spend a moment to think about how God calls us to share with one another in God's mission.
Monday, November 22, 2021
In my two previous posts, I have described the church grief that many of us in The United Methodist Church are experiencing and described the theological message of hope that we have in the midst of all forms of mourning and grief. I would like to close this series with some practical affirmations about the work of moving with and through our grief.
First, we need to name the griefs we are facing. We cannot cope with what we refuse to acknowledge. We are facing the end of the UMC as we know it. We are continuing to face COVID and its line of variants. We are facing climate change and ecological crises. These are disorienting and somber. We cannot cope with what we refuse to acknowledge.
Second, we need to provide people a place to have their grief. Everyone is at a different place. Some people are still at a place where they haven’t bought into the idea of the potential split of the UMC or the full realities of COVID or the reality of climate change. We must meet people where they are. It requires extra effort and creativity to welcome all into the fold. Hospitality, God’s radical love, calls us to do so.
Third, we need to provide opportunity for healing. Rituals, liturgy, music, and pastoral care matter. So do opportunities for storytelling. These opportunities could be in a journal, small group setting, or in general conversation. We must lead reflective conversations that acknowledge loss and change. We should offer opportunities to make meaning. Remember that people will make meaning no matter what—I would rather they do so in the care of the church than alone out in the world. These conversations will happen immediately and for months and years to come.
Fourth, we should resource out. Most of us are not counselors. Clinical complicated grief, prolonged grief, and persistent complex bereavement are serious and beyond most of our abilities to address. Remember to refer to other professionals as needed. Connect with other faith leaders and professionals in your area to see what temporary and permanent resources are available (and also consider how your church can fill any gaps).
Fifth, we should know our communities and adopt our strategies to those contexts. Someone living in a rural community of farmers might have different conversations and different grief to witness than a coastal city that is hit every year by major storms and flooding.
Sixth, we must bear witness to others’ grief. Mourning is a dark place where most people don’t feel comfortable sitting. We like to cheer people up; we like to feel comfortable; we like to fill the silences. But most of us also know that one of the most hopeful and healing things we can ever experience is someone knowing us at our deepest and darkest—and them staying and loving us as we are. Practice witnessing. Help others learn to effectively witness others' grief.
Seventh, we must practice radical hope. Provide images for what healing and the future can look like. Ask effective questions. What can go back to normal? What needs to change? How can we be okay no matter what the future holds? How can we reframe hope when life does not go as we want? How can we live out the kingdom of God now, in this circumstance? How can our congregations know it will be okay no matter what the future holds? Provide images for what healing and the future can look like. Have these conversations—ask these questions—and more.
Moreover, radical hope might involve acting radically, getting involved with social justice movements and advocating for those who are most harmed by the current environment. With COVID, many of us have worked to get the vaccine accessible to all people, not just some. Some of us advocate for clean air and water and other environmental and health needs. Again, this goes from the individual to the larger community. Big businesses that profit from ecological destruction must be confronted. As the church, I think we must take effort to connect how our mass consumption in the US causes harm in the exploitation of workers and natural resources around the world.
Finally, we should tend to our own grief. Our work with the grief of others cannot proceed without work on our grief as well.
Friday, November 19, 2021
While this blog does not frequently recommend academic articles, Kirsteen Kim's recent article "Racism Awareness in Mission: Touchstone or Cultural Blind Spot?" published in the October issue of the International Bulletin of Mission Research, raises some important questions about the field of missiology. Kim begins by reflecting, "The heightened awareness of race, racialization, and racism in 2020
furnishes the context for asking why these issues are not more prominent
in mission and missiology." She argues, "I will show that, although on the one hand, sensitivity to culture and
context in postwar and postcolonial missiology has encouraged diversity,
interculturality, and movements for greater equity, and so mitigated
what we now call 'racism,' on the other hand, ... attention to 'culture' and 'context' may also
obscure racism in mission and missiology" and therefore "racism awareness should be integral to mission education and that antiracism should characterize mission practice." Given the current cultural landscape of the United States, this article is highly recommended reading for US missionaries and missiologists. For those without access to the written article, much of the same ground is covered in Kim's 2020 Louis J. Luzbetak Lecture at Catholic Theological Union.
Wednesday, November 17, 2021
United Methodist Insight and United Methodist News Service have both reported on recent conflict in the Nigeria Episcopal Area, especially that between Bishop John Wesley Yohanna and his supporters on the one side and Rev. Ande Emmanuel, the former Administrative Assistant to the Bishop, and those associated with him on the other.
Despite quality reporting by United Methodist Insight and UMNS, it is easy for news readers in the United States to see the conflict in the UMC in Nigeria through the lens of the Traditionalist vs. Centrist/Progressive conflict in the United States. To do so, however, is to fundamentally misunderstand the long roots of this conflict, which extend back over a century to ethnic conflict and missionary divisions in the beginnings of what is now Nigerian United Methodism. Tracing the history of that conflict suggests different conclusions about the present conflict.
To get a better view, we must begin with a geography lesson. The UMC in Nigeria is mostly located in the eastern state of Taraba. Taraba is divided by the Benue River, which flows from the northeast to the southwest. North of the river is a plains, which then rises to hills.
Onto this physical geography is mapped the human geography of tribal affiliation. South of the Benue live the Mumuye people. North of the river live the Karimjo, sometimes (falsely?) referred to as the Wurkun. Still farther north, in the hills, the population is primarily Tangale-speaking. Each of these groups has its own history, language, and customs. While there is intermingling and exchange among groups, there also was and occasionally still is conflict along ethnic lines.*
Into this situation came missionaries associated with the Sudan United Mission. Rev. C. W. Guinter, a member of the United Evangelical Church (later the Evangelical Church after its reunification with the Evangelical Association) went to Nigeria as a missionary of the Sudan United Mission in 1906 to serve, initially with the Jukun people and then with the Karimjo/Wurkun. Although Guinter went as an individual, he drew on denominational sources for support, and eventually his work was taken over by the Evangelical Church, which sent additional missionaries to the area. In addition to strengthening his work, they commenced work among the Tangale-speaking Pero people in the hills to the north of the Karimjo.
Slightly later, in 1928, a group of holiness-inspired British Methodists began work among the Mumuye people to the south of the Karimjo, also through the Sudan United Mission. While the British missionaries were associated with the Sudan United Mission, the same parent organization that gave birth to the Evangelical Church’s work in Nigeria, that does not mean the two missions were closely related. With the two mission efforts drawing on separate home bases and the work among the Karimjo becoming ever more closely associated with the Evangelical Church, the two mission efforts proceeded on largely separate tracks.
Thus, the pattern that continues to dominate The United Methodist Church in Nigeria was set: one group in the center, one in the north, and one in the south. These groups are/were connected to each other ecclesiastically but not well, with particular tensions between the center and the south.
Despite the separate histories, separate ethnic groups, and largely separate organizations, in 1946, the British branch of the Sudan United Mission decided to turn its areas of work over to the care of the neighboring Evangelical Church mission among the Karimjo, at just the same time the Evangelical Church was merging into the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church.
Whatever sense the decision to combine Mumuye, Karimjo, and Pero work made to Western mission boards, it meant that the EUB was suddenly overseeing the developing of a multi-ethnic church. Yet, this multiethnic mission did not reflect a natural harmony between these ethnic groups nor decisions made by Nigerian people themselves. It was a decision from the outside, one that would bring ethnic conflict into the nascent church.
Still, true to its mission principles of fostering indigenous churches, the EUB worked to establish an independent, autonomous denomination, a process begun in 1954 with the creation of the Muri Church Council and completed in 1968 with the launch of the EKAN Muri Church. Nevertheless, missionaries from the EUB and then, following another merger, the United Methodist Church continued to serve with the EKAN Muri Church.
However, the ethnic diversity within the Muri Church helped fuel an internal conflict in the 1970s that involved issues of leadership and property. Notably, the ethnic coloring of a conflict about determining legitimate leadership that played out in a contest for control of property would set a pattern for things to come. The conflict in the 70s resulted in a temporary schism within the church, which was healed by 1976, in part through the mediation of international Christians and civil authorities, another pattern which would recur.
In the aftermath of this conflict, leaders within the church, working in collaboration with several UMC missionaries, decided that the solution to the internal problems in the church should be to rejoin The United Methodist Church.
The UMC approved that proposal in 1984 and assigning Bishop Arthur Kulah of Liberia to oversee the area, a role he served until 1989. Bishop Thomas Bangura of Sierra Leone served until 1992, at which point Nigeria became a full annual conference and elected its own bishop. Those eight years between 1984 were spent addressing internal issues within the church and training church leaders in United Methodist systems. Much of that work was carried out by Ethel Johnson, a retired seminary professor from Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
For its first indigenous bishop, the Nigeria Annual Conference elected Done Peter Dabale, from the Chamba tribe, a group related to the Mumuye, in the Jereng District, just east of the British Sudan United Mission stronghold of Zing. Under Dabale’s leadership, the church grew greatly in membership, from 10,000 to 400,000. But it did not grow evenly. Almost all the growth was in the south. Membership in the central and northern regions grew much more slowly.
Nor did this pattern of growth exempt the church from its lingering ethnic conflicts. Those conflicts would continue to re-emerge late in Dabale’s episcopacy, rising even to the level of violence in the church. Significant mediation by United Methodists from the United States and the Congo and by civil authorities was necessary to quell tensions in the church.
After his death from cancer, Dabale was followed by Bishop Kefas Kane Mavula, another southerner. Mavula died of a sudden illness, within a year of his consecration. After Mavula’s death in 2007, the region was once again overseen by Bishop Arthur Kulah from Liberia.
Ethnic tensions in the church came to a head again around the process of electing an indigenous successor to Mavula in 2012. There was a dispute over the number of delegates to the nominating convention allotted to each area, which by then were their own annual conferences. This led the southern and northern conferences to boycott the meeting and the subsequent West Africa Central Conference. As a result, the current bishop, John Wesley Yohanna from the central region, was elected.
Ethnic conflicts and lingering disputes about the validity of his election have continued to plague the entirety of Yohanna’s episcopacy. A complaint about the election was sent to the UMC Judicial Council. Some groups from the south split from the church. A few of these have since rejoined. Others have not. There continues to be a separatist Southern Annual Conference that still identifies as United Methodist but does not recognize Yohanna, in addition to the Southern Nigeria Annual Conference that does recognize Bishop Yohanna. There have been significant disputes over control of church property between the separatist group and Bishop Yohanna, disputes which have drawn the government in.
It is within this context that some details of the present conflict in the UMC in Nigeria take on heightened significance. Ande Emmanuel and almost all of the other pastors supporting him are from the south. There are issues of control of church property (in this case a radio station). Emmanuel’s arrest continues a pattern of the government becoming involved in church disputes. Viewed from this angle, this conflict has little to do with the impending UMC/GMC split and everything to do with long-standing ethnic and ecclesial tensions indigenous to Nigeria.
But perhaps that assessment lets the rest of The United Methodist Church off the hook too easily. The pattern in the UMC in Nigeria is not just ethnic conflict among the three groups – those from the south, central, and northern areas. The pattern is ethnic conflicts that repeatedly pull in and involve the international church, with Nigerians seeking to enlist either its aid to calm conflict or its power to resolve conflict in favor of one group or another.
This, then, is the true pattern in the current conflict in Nigeria: ethnic factions in the church that seek to draw powers from the international church and civil government into internal Nigerian church conflict, along with actors from outside Nigeria that wittingly or unwittingly allow themselves to be drawn in. This is a complex pattern, and there is a lot to unpack here: questions about mission strategy, local decision-making, and international relations within the church; about ethnic conflict and peace and reconciliation efforts that seek to address it; and about branches of the church in one nation, whether the United States or Nigeria, that seek to use other branches of the church as pawns in their own games.
This is not a story about heroes and villains. It is a story about complexity and the intractability of conflict. It is also a cautionary story. Those who go into a context without understanding the internal dynamics of that context are likely to find themselves bogged down, sidetracked, and struggling to achieve the objectives they set out to achieve. To avoid repeating such mistakes, US Americans should be careful not to see the context in the church in other countries as the same as in their own.
* The names of different ethnic groups, the precise meanings of names used to designate people groups, and the precise locations inhabited by various groups are all subjects of debate. I have made every effort to use correct terminology, but there are inconsistencies across sources.
Monday, November 15, 2021
I study grief, especially grief in The United Methodist Church [link to previous article], but hope is why I do the work I do. I believe that the church has a unique message of hope that is relevant in our own experiences of church grief and in the many other sources of grief in life, including grief from COVID and from climate change.
We all learn that part of life is living in pain. I have also learned of the transformative power of hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation through Jesus Christ. For me, it was a life-saving message. It is a radical message. And it’s one that we, as the church, uniquely have to offer to the world: radical hope—that in the midst of horror, wonderous things also occur.
The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones writes about trauma and grace, and I appreciate how she ties together mourning and wonder. She writes:
To mourn and to wonder, that is what the spirit yearns for when it stands in the midst of trauma and breathes in the truth of grace. Mourning and wonder…They are states of mind, that, if nurtured, open us to the experience of God’s coming into torn flesh, and to love’s arrival amid violent ruptures…. Mourning and wonder… there is a space that both carries traumatic loss and yet remains open and new. Poised here, we always wait to be dragged from despair into light. The cross trains us in these dispositions of body and imagination. It narrates for us, again and again, two paradoxical stories about who we are: God’s inevitably broken children, and God’s constantly renewed beloved; these two stories run down parallel tracks of resolution. We are not becoming better or worse: we just are these two things, in the juxtaposed tension of our everyday life. (pp. 161-163)
We don’t know exactly what the United Methodist Church will look like in the next few years. We don’t know what COVID has in store for us next. We don’t know exactly how we’ll be impacted by climate change in the next five or ten or fifty years. We don’t know how any of the currents of grief in our lives will develop. We don’t need to.
We, like the disciples, struggle to see what can come next. One day, the disciples thought they were living in one kind of world, and three days later, they were living in an entirely different world of understanding. They couldn’t grasp what could come next—they could not do the work that Christ called on them to do— until they let go of how they thought things should be and realized grace and love were always there to conquer all.
I do want to emphasize that we hold these things—trauma and grace, mourning and wonder—in tension. If we just skip to resurrection and eternal life, I think we’re making the same mistake that Freud did in his concept of successful grief as leaving the traumas behind, detaching from the pain, and moving on to the hope. That’s problematic. We cannot erase wounds.
Dr. Shelly Rambo emphasizes ideas kindred to contemporary grief theories about continuing bonds and narrative construction in our trauma in her work that really digs into the story in John 20, where Jesus returns to the disciples. Jesus shows the scars on his hands and side. Even after the hope-filled resurrection, he wears the evidence of past pain.
Touching again on the individual and collective, this story has elements of Jesus and the disciples as individuals, like Thomas individually struggling to grasp what is in front of him. But there are also elements of the collective—that they came together in their grief in the Upper Room, that they witnessed Jesus together, that they received the Holy Spirit together. Additionally, Jesus himself is both an individual in that moment but also enfleshed. Upon him is evidence of the brokenness of the whole of humanity.
So as the church, what we really need to do is to help the world remember both trauma and grace, mourning and wonder, resurrection and wounds. These things can be held in tension, both in our own lives and in the good news narrative of Jesus Christ. There are other places that the church gets to have a unique voice—in talking about resistance or confrontation and repentance, in forgiveness and what Dr. Andrew Sung Park calls forgiven-ness. He, and others, rightly argue that we have messages of healing and wholeness, holiness and sanctification. We have stories of jubilee and the inspiration of Christian perfection.
It is important to acknowledge what we lose—and don’t get me wrong, the losses with the UMC and ecological degradation are immense. We need to mourn. We need to sit in darkness. We can’t just brush away our pain. But I am concerned that individually and collectively we sometimes struggle to move forward. There can be a dark, sinister comfort in wallowing.
When we draw on our unique message of hope amid mourning, we get to play a role in gently walking beyond the veil with people because loss is always only one part of the story. God is already present and playing a role in what is now and what is to come. That is our radical hope.
Friday, November 12, 2021
Having looked at the missiology of the “middle” Wesley, I would like to now examine the “late” John Wesley’s understanding of mission. I see 1767, the year Wesley published “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” as a watershed dividing “middle” Wesley and “late” Wesley. From the point of view of sanctification, the “late” Wesley's understanding of mission in a qualitative sense, including economic perfection, led to a more mature Methodist movement. In this post, I would like to deal with the qualitative characteristics of the Methodist missional movement.
In his journal, Wesley emphasized Christian perfection in "The Character of a Methodist," saying:
These are the same principles and practices of our sect; these are the marks of a true Methodist; that is, a true Christian, as I immediately after explain myself: ‘by these alone do those who are in derision so called desire to be distinguished from other men.’ (P. ii.) ‘By these marks do we labor to distinguish ourselves from those whose minds or lives are not according to the gospel of Christ.’ (p.12). (John Wesley 1951, 186)
The other is that on September 4, 1771, John Wesley commissioned 26-year-old Francis Asbury and Richard Wright as American missionaries (Hong-ki Kim 2013, 193), and the era of American missions began. In this regard, the “late” Wesley saw mission as the transformative power to change persons as well as the world.
The nature of mission for Wesley must be understood in terms of how Wesley understood human beings and salvation. Wesley saw the Lord's "death as the only sufficient means of redeeming man from death eternal, and his resurrection as the restoration of us all to life and immortality" (Wesley, "Salvation by Faith," I.5). Sin caused a loss of relationship with God, but Wesley saw fallen man “as living, not now under a covenant of works, but under a covenant of grace” (Chong-nam Cho 1984, 257). And salvation through “justification by faith through grace” brought restoration of the broken relationship with God. Wesley articulated his concept of salvation in terms of relationship with the Lord by likening the process of salvation to a house. “Prevenient grace serves as the porch, justification as the door, and sanctification or holiness as the room of the house” (Runyon 1998, 27).
Original sin, in Wesley’s view, leads to both the temporal and spiritual death of humanity. “Holy love of God” (Wesley, "Justification by Faith," IV.1) always “‘comes before’(pre-venio) we are conscious that God is seeking us out” (Runyon 1991, 27). That is prevenient grace that reawakens the spiritual senses to let sinners hear the call of God and respond to salvation in terms of supernatural gift of God (Runyon 1998, 31-32). Since humanity inevitably commits sin, prevenient grace must now issue in what Wesley calls convincing grace and a more active role must be taken by the Holy Spirit in convicting men and women of their guilt in the sight of God. Conviction of sin and repentance lead to justification by grace through faith. In this sense, with the manifold operation of the Holy Spirit, Wesley understood mission as participation in the drama of God’s redemption. It purposes not only to “renew our hearts in the image of God” (Wesley, "Original Sin," III.5), but also "to reform the nation, especially the church, and to spread scriptural holiness." (Hong-ki Kim 2013, 153).
Wesley did not understand sin and salvation in solely individualistic terms, though. Wesley stressed that “Christianity is an essentially social religion” that cannot survive in isolation (Wesley, "Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount IV," I.1). It is God’s work to change the lives of men and women. In this sense, Christians are called to live out their Christian testimonies in human society, comprised of good and evil persons (Hynson 1984, 118). Wesley regarded the spiritual relationship of Christians as analogous to the community of the Holy Spirit that “becomes a transforming community in the larger human society” (Ibid, 121).
According to Hynson, Wesley understood the task of the church as, first, “fostering the Christian life of its members through the means of grace it provides,” and second, “to stimulate the practice of love in all the relations of Christians to their neighbors outside the Church” (Hynson 1984, 128). In other words, “the church is marked by love… The moral demand of love is to regard every person as neighbor, to avoid partiality, and to act from the motive of concern.” (Ibid). As Jesus taught us to live out “the Christian lifestyle based upon a new motivation, not the old ‘eye for an eye’” (Ibid), the church as a missionary community cannot withhold the Good News from the world but is “toward conversion or transformation, not accommodation or capitulation. (Ibid, 128). Wesley’s “purpose in the Methodist societies was not to raise up a new church, but to reform the nation and the church and to spread scriptural holiness across the land” (Hynson 1984, 129).
By nature, Christians cannot be remained as isolated individuals. In the close relation between the individual and the society, the church can expect a series of chain reactions, like a domino theory, from the individual Christian. If each Christian applies his/her personal holiness to their social contexts, in which they can demonstrate Christian influence, the world gradually will become the kingdom of God.
Thus, changed individuals transform the world by their Christian influence and actions. As a channel of God’s blessing, “Whatever grace you have received of God may through you be communicated to others” (Runyon 1998, 163). The love of God should “flow through us to all the world’s creatures, especially to those in need and distress” (Ibid). In this sense, mission includes not only individual but also social dimensions. Runyon says, “Orthopathic experience expresses itself in orthopraxy as faith is at work in service. True Christianity cannot exist without both the inward experience and outward practice of justice, mercy, and truth” (Ibid, 164).
In "Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount IV," Wesley made it clear that as a lamp cannot light the whole world and a handful of salt cannot prevent the rottenness in the whole world, there is a clear limitation of a Christian's influence in a society. However, a believer or a Christian community who “have need daily to retire from the world, at least morning and evening, to converse with God, to commune more freely with our Father which is in secret” (IV) can only be the “divine favor which is in you, to spread to whatsoever you touch; to diffuse itself, on every side, to all those among whom you are” (I.7). The reason is that Christianity is "essentially a social religion" (I. 1), when Christians communally "that every holy temper, and word, and work of yours, may have an influence on lo them also" (I.7). The intensity is increased, and the concentration of salty taste is naturally strengthened. It is sure that Wesley proclaimed this sermon with a prophetic conviction that as the collective “we,” the stronger the light of Christians, the saltier the Christian life, the more the corrupt and decayed British society, and even the whole world, will change and be transformed.
It is interesting to note how Wesley measured the degree to which society had been changed into a new social state. According to Jennings, “economics has a central place in Wesley’s project of transforming the nation and spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land” (1990, 15). Whether the enterprise of scriptural Christianity could be said to succeed or fail can be judged only by the transformation of the nation linked to economic issues. In this sermon, Wesley gave “three rules of gaining, saving, and giving ‘all you can’” (Jennings 1990, 165). With these rules, Wesley once lamented that “Methodists have proven all too willing to gain and even save but have failed utterly to give with the same willingness” (Jennings 1990, 165). These three rules certainly serve as one of the ways in which Wesley measures how Methodism transformed the nation.
In the awakening of the Wesleyan tradition, Holy Spirit-filled Christians in the community of the Spirit could transform the evils of society, liberate the oppressed from their bondage, and reform their organization. The revival movement recharged them to continuously work in the world. Without the power of the Holy Spirit, who can transform his/her society? No human beings have the power to change even bad habits by his/her own efforts. In conclusion, true revivals that impact mission fields to be transformed are God’s witness to urge unbelievers repent and believe in Jesus and to transform nominal Christians from selfish, self-centered lives to Christ-centered lives.
Cho Chong-nam. 1984. “John Wesely’s View of Fallen Man” 248-264. In Theology of John Wesley. Seoul: Korean Christian Publishing House.
Hynson, Leon O. 1984. To Reform the Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press of Zondervan Publishing.
Jackson, Thomas, editor. 1872 Edition. The Sermons of John Wesley. http://wordsofwesley.com/lib.cfm
Jennings, Jr. Theordore W. 1990. Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
Kim Hong-ki. 2013. A Methodist Church History: From John Wesley to Henry Appenzeller. Seoul: KMC.
Runyon, Theodore. 1998. The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today. Nashville: Abingdon.
Wesley, John. 1951. The Journal of John Wesley. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Wednesday, November 10, 2021
Today's post is an attempt to address frequently asked questions about General Conference and the effects of the on-going pandemic on it.
I have seen contradictory statements about General Conference 2022. The "A Call to Grace" statement said it was unlikely to happen, but Good News says that's not true. Is General Conference happening next year or not?
In short, that decision has not been made yet.
The Commission on General Conference is the group tasked with preparing for General Conference, and they get the final say on whether General Conference happens or not. The Commission has already decided to postpone the General Conference twice, to its currently scheduled dates of Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022. While the group is making preparations for an in-person conference next year, there is also the possibility that the could decide that conditions related to the pandemic necessitate a further postponement or even cancellation of General Conference. In the latter case, General Conference would likely not meet again until its regularly scheduled 2024 meeting.
The Commission will make a decision sometime in the first several months of 2022.
What about a virtual General Conference? Is that another possibility?
While holding a virtual or distributed General Conference is an idea that has gotten a lot of discussion, including on this blog, the Commission on General Conference seems opposed to the idea. A sub-committee released a report earlier this year that explored a variety of virtual options, but ultimately concluded that such options did not provide for equitable participation across the globe. A proposal by the Council of Bishops for a very limited virtual General Conference earlier this year had to be scrapped because of opposition. While it is possible that the Commission on General Conference could reconsider the idea, that seems unlikely.
What factors will the Commission on General Conference use to make a decision on whether or not to hold General Conference next year?
Based on the decisions made and reports issued by the Commission thus far, its strong preference seems to be for an in-person meeting that a broadly representative swath of delegates are able to attend. The main factors then become whether delegates from around the world are able to travel to Minneapolis, MN to attend. The largest influencing factor there is the policies that the United States government sets for travel to the United States for visitors from other countries.
What are those US government travel policies? I heard that the United States reopened to visitors this week.
The US government did update its travel policies for visitors to the United States as of this Monday, Nov. 8. It loosened requirements to allow all fully vaccinated persons from outside the United States to travel to the United States, provided they had a negative COVID test within three days before travel. While this is good news for delegates from Europe, where there has been extensive access to vaccine, this policy change does not much help delegates from many parts of Africa, where less than 10% of the population in almost all cases and less than 1% of the population in some cases is fully vaccinated.
But isn't there an exception for travelers from countries with low vaccination rates?
There is such an exception, but only for certain types of visas. B1/B2 visas, which are the type of visa that General Conference delegates use, are not covered under this exception.
Can't UMCOR do anything to vaccinate delegates to allow them to attend?
UMCOR is helping sponsor the “Love Beyond Borders: The Interfaith Movement to End the Pandemic” campaign to promote global vaccine distribution. That campaign does not allow UMCOR to direct vaccine doses to particular recipients. The process of distributing vaccines, especially internationally, is a complicated logistical process that requires significant medical, storage, legal, and transportation infrastructure. UMCOR does not possess such infrastructure on its own, which is why it is partnering with other organizations to promote global vaccinations.
But if delegates can get vaccinated, they should be set, right?
Even vaccinated delegates from developing countries could still face obstacles in obtaining visas or may have limited access to COVID tests, which must be taken within three days before travel. Even when such tests are available, they may be expensive or may add to the expenses of in-country travel for delegates, if they must therefore arrive in an airport city an extra day or two in advance of their departure to take a COVID test.
How much world-wide participation will be enough for the Commission on General Conference to decide to proceed?
This is ultimately the big question. No General Conference has the full participation of all its elected delegates, if for no other reason than US visas are a perennial problem for General Conference delegates. The Commission on General Conference cannot guarantee that all delegates will be able to attend a General Conference in 2022, no matter what. But they seem to want to make sure that large groups are not automatically excluded from participation.
The biggest consideration to watch, then, is the Democratic Republic of Congo. With nearly a quarter of the denomination's membership and over a sixth of General Conference delegates, the DRC is the largest group of United Methodists outside of the United States. It also currently has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world (0.04% of its population fully vaccinated). If it looks like most delegates from the DR Congo will be unable to attend General Conference, then the Commission is likely to postpone or cancel General Conference, rather than hold it without representation from such a significant group within the church. There will be and should be "no GC without the DRC."