Friday, February 26, 2021

Recommended Reading: Out of Chaos: Creation Statement

Last Friday, the "Out of Chaos: Creation" group released a new "vision map," a statement outlining a vision for the future of The United Methodist Church. This vision emerges not only from the ideas of the steering group members, but from feedback submitted by United Methodists around the world through surveys and two webinars. The statement situates itself within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It presents a series of affirmations about who the UMC is/should be, a set of "table manners" that should characterize United Methodists' interactions with one another, and five areas for action.

Major emphases of the statement include a call for continued unity, combined with a call for the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ individuals in the church and a call for reform of neo-colonialist structures within The United Methodist Church. In its call for continued unity with greater regionalization, it shares something with the Christmas Covenant's recent press release or the Statement of Church Unity from the Africa Voice of Unity, though both of these statements do not call for full inclusion. (The Africa Voice of Unity statement is explicit about this point.) In this regard, the European bishops' "Our Commitment" statement, which was released yesterday, is perhaps closer in spirit, though the Out of Chaos: Creation statement is stronger on the point of LGBTQIA+ inclusion.

Like the Africa Voices of Unity statement, the Out of Choas: Creation statement explicitly condemns racism. The Out of Chaos: Creation statement is also concerned with ecclesiology and how members of the church relate to each other, including through the process of Christian conferencing. These foci also distinguish the Out of Chaos: Creation statement from other recent statements in the church.

For further information about the statement, see this UMNS article and this EmK article.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Migrant Clergy and Brain Drain

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 wrote a piece arguing that, at least in some cases, it is fair to see immigrant pastors serving in the United States as missionaries. An astute reader pointed out to me that this argument also applies in much of Europe. Furthermore, seeing immigrant pastors in this way adds something to the conversation about those pastors that is not captured in the cross-racial, cross-cultural appointment conversation, and it adds an element to the discussion about the relationships between the UMC in the United States (and Europe) and Methodism elsewhere.

There is another side to the phenomenon of migrant clergy, one that is also critical to better understanding relationships among national branches of (United) Methodism. In their host countries, immigrant clergy might be missionaries, but we must look at the impact on their home countries as well. Do migrant clergy represent a form of brain drain for the countries they leave?

Behind this question of whether migratory clergy represent a brain drain for their home countries is the vast differences in clergy per laity across The United Methodist Church, and presumably other Methodist bodies as well. As I demonstrated last month, the clergy-to-laity ratio in United Methodist annual conferences varies from 1:16 to 1:5500. Yet in some cases, it is annual conferences with higher clergy-to-laity ratios, such as those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that export clergy to countries with lower clergy-to-laity ratios, such as the United States. Is this then not a case of the church in the United States using its power and wealth to attract clergy to serve its own needs, even at the expense of the church elsewhere?

As with the question of whether immigrant clergy count as missionaries, though, there are a number of complexities in answering this question, given the variety of experiences of migratory clergy.

As noted last week, in some cases, clergy are sent by Methodist bodies in their home countries to minister to fellow migrants in the host country. While this is uncommon in the UMC in the United States, it happens more frequently in Europe. That pattern may still count as a form of brain drain, in that those migrant clergy are not using their talents in their home countries, but it is hard to argue against the self-determination of those home Methodist bodies to deploy their clergy as they see fit.

In other cases, people become clergy in the United States (or other Western countries) because they would not have had the opportunity to do so in their home country, or the route to doing so would have been much harder and the sorts of ministries in which they could have engaged would have been much more limited. In these instances, these migrants may still represent a loss of talent for their home country, but their home churches would not have made use of those talents had they stayed.

Yet despite these counter-examples, it is clear that in some instances, migrant clergy do represent a loss of talents for their home churches that those home churches could have used. This is true both of clergy serving in churches and especially of clergy with advanced education would could use that education to teach in colleges, universities, and seminaries back home and thereby train additional clergy.

Churches in developing countries are sometimes justifiably nervous about sending their clergy members for advanced study in the United States, knowing that those clergy members may choose to stay in the United States, and their home church would thus lose the spiritual and financial investments they have made in that person. Given this danger, it is fair for churches sending their clergy abroad to study to try to craft rules or incentives for those clergy to return.

But it is not the role of the church in the United States to unilaterally try to prohibit clergy from other countries from remaining in the United States. For United Methodists in the United States to make such a move unilaterally would be to go against the reciprocity and mutually that should characterize the body of Christ.

Instead, what is needed is more conversation between United Methodists in the United States and (United) Methodists in other countries where clergy are coming from, conversation about how to collaborate in developing sufficient clergy for the church as a whole and deploying those clergy where they may best use the talents God has given them. Seeing migrant clergy as both potential missionaries and potential sources of brain drain can help the conversation partners be honest about their own needs as parts of the body of Christ while trying to figure out together how they may support the other parts of the body in their needs as well.

Monday, February 22, 2021

William Payne: Biblical Interpretation, Gender Equality, and the Evangelistic Mandate

Today's blog post is written by Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.

John Wesley famously stated that he was homo unius libri (a man of one book). Following that lead, United Methodism affirms that Holy Writ is the primary authority for issues related to right faith and right practice. Considering this, how should Bible-affirming people make sense of the New Testament’s mixed messages about female Christ-followers?

In Titus 2:2-4, Paul says that the old women should behave themselves with reverence and not gossip or drink too much. They should give a good example, teach the young women to love their husbands and their children, remain judiciously pure, be keepers of the home, remain full of kindness and be subject to their husbands.

On the surface, this sounds very sexist and out of step with our modern world. After all, American society values gender equality. I also value gender equality because the spirit and teaching of the New Testament establishes this ideal.

In the church, the cultural categories that diminish women should be reconsidered in the light of the gospel message that emphasizes equality in Christ (Gal 3:28). As such, I do not believe that American women need to follow Paul's exhortation as if it were a universal law to be mimicked.

Why do I say this? Verse 5 makes the point. Do all of this so that "no one will be able to speak badly against the gospel message."

In other words, the culture of the people to which Paul was writing had normative expectations regarding the proper way for a woman to behave in public and in the home. If Christian women acted contrary to the cultural norm, they would bring discredit on the Gospel and would cause the unbelieving public to think that Christianity was a bad religion that should be shunned.

First Peter 2-3 makes a similar point when writing to slaves, to women who are married to harsh unbelievers, and to Christians who live under an evil government. In this light, one should not read 1 Peter 2:18ff as if it were establishing slavery.

The larger teaching of the New Testament points to an in-breaking kingdom of God that transforms human societies that are under the tutelage of the gospel. Ultimately, God will abolish all forms of injustice and sin to include slavery.

As such, 1 Peter does not endorse slavery. Rather, it assumes the unjust reality of slavery in the Roman Empire. It was a social fact for the people of its time. In the context of slavery and other forms of unjust systems, 1 Peter tells Christian slaves how they should live so they can influence others for Christ. In other words, Peter tells his audience that those who abuse you will be drawn to you and the Christ in you because of your exemplary behavior. As such, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15b).

First-century slaves did not have the freedom to preach or to protest against social injustice. However, they could lay a foundation for witnessing by living a life that was beyond reproach. When we approach 1 Peter and other similar verses from the perspective of social justice, we miss this point.

For Paul and 1 Peter, the evangelistic mandate was more important than personal liberty. That is why Paul affirms that he compromises his personal liberty by becoming all things to all people in order to win some to Christ (1 Cor 9:19-23). Paul did not ask others to do something he was not willing to model in his own life.

In both Paul and 1 Peter, the evangelistic mandate requires that Christian act in ways that do not bring discredit to the gospel to the extent they can without compromising the gospel message. This is a critical point. To do this, we must identify what is essential and what is cultural. On points related to the essential, we cannot water down the faith or change the clear teaching of scripture.

In the context of today’s debates, I place sexual purity in this category because it is a moral imperative. However, I do not place social gender roles in this category. Different societies have different social structures. The Bible does not establish a normative social structure for every culture. An old professor used to say, “The gospel will offend. However, it should offend for the right reasons.”

Let me offer a simple example that shows why scripture must be interpreted in terms of meaning rather than form. Proverbs 23:13 opines, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Many people who fail to make a distinction between meaning and culture have used this proverb as a mandate for corporal punishment. However, this proverb is not mandating corporal punishment. Rather, it is mandating that parents correct and discipline their children in order for them to grow up well. Corporal punishment was the culturally appropriate way that people did that in the time of the proverb.

United Methodists have to affirm that scripture is sacred and that it is the word of God. We must place ourselves under the authority of God as it has been mediated to us through the divine witness of scripture and tradition. However, we must make cultural adjustments as we interpret it and apply it to any given social context. Scripture has to be interpreted before it is rightly applied!

Friday, February 19, 2021

Recommended Reading: Missional Takes on Korean Immigrant UMC Clergy

As previously indicated on this blog, The United Methodist Church in the United States is reliant on immigrant clergy, especially Korean immigrant clergy serving in cross-cultural, cross-racial settings. This creates a host of missional and strategic issues and opportunities for the church, as we may fairly interpret at least some of these clergy as missionaries. There is a small literature exploring missional interpretations of Korean immigrant pastors, especially Korean immigrant women pastors, serving cross-culturally and cross-racially in the UMC in the United States. Among that literature are the following items:

A 2007 dissertation by Kyung Mo Koo entitled, "A study of the cross-cultural/racial ministry of a Korean immigrant pastor in the United Methodist Church." This dissertation includes an analysis of the mission of the church in globalization as part of the context for understanding such ministry.

A 2017 dissertation by Hyekyung Pauline Kang entitled, "Cross-racial and cross-cultural leadership experiences of Korean-American United Methodist clergywomen." The dissertation is particularly interested in Korean-American immigrant clergywomen, whom it describes as "bold and courageous missionaries."

The writings and presentations of AHyun Lee, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary in Indiana Wesleyan University. Rev. Dr. Lee's work falls more within the realm of pastoral care rather than missiology, but it is squarely focused on Korean immigrant clergywomen and clergy spouses.

As the church seeks to better understand the role of immigrant United Methodist pastors in the United States as a missionary role, this literature, along with writings on other immigrant groups, can help build that understanding.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Are Immigrant Pastors Missionaries?

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.

As I asserted last week, a church that imports pastors is a mission field, and by this definition, many parts of The United Methodist Church in the United States are a mission field, since they do not produce enough clergy from among their own membership and must instead recruit clergy from elsewhere in the United States or from other countries, including Korea, the Philippines, and various Africa nations.

This week, I want to explore a possible corollary of my statement last week by asking, "Are immigrant pastors missionaries?" While one could ask this question about clergy from other areas of the United States, I think focusing on immigrant clergy both sharpens the question and highlights some possible implications for the relationship between the UMC in the United States and (United) Methodism elsewhere around the world.

To the extent that immigrant clergy are currently discussed in the US United Methodist Church, it is most commonly as part of the discourse about cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments, that is, clergy who serve churches with a racial and/or cultural background different from their own. This discourse has good merit to it, but it is rooted more in American race relations and theories of diversity than in mission per se, so making the assertion that immigrant clergy are missionaries would potentially add something new to the conversation. By specifying immigrant clergy, the question also makes a distinction often lost in the conversation about cross-racial, cross-cultural appointments, which as a term applies to clergy of any race, culture, or national background.

A missionary is one who is sent (missio) to engage in the work of God's mission, in and beyond the church. Foreign missionaries are those sent to another country to do so. Thus, the question of whether immigrant pastors are missionaries hinges on how one construes sending and its relationship to the process of migration. Who must be doing the sending, and how should that sending be related to other factors influencing the decision to migrate?

In relatively few situations are other branches of Methodism, especially other branches of The United Methodist Church, sending personnel to the United States for the sake of carrying out evangelistic, discipleship, charitable, or social justice ministries. To the extent that Methodist churches outside the United States do so, it is largely autonomous Methodist churches (Korea, Nigeria, Ghana, etc.) sending clergy to care for immigrant members of their own denominations and engage in broader outreach. These clergy are not serving United Methodist congregations.

Another interpretation of immigrant clergy serving in the US UMC would focus on US annual conferences' need to recruit clergy. This take would thus frame the migration of clergy in terms of calling rather than sending. Clergy from outside the United States are encouraged to migrate because US churches work to bring them to the United States. Like the previous accounting, this account is institutionally focused.

Alternatively, one could look at individual clergypersons rather than church institutions (in either home or host country) as the locus of the decision to migrate. Such a focus would examine a range of incentives for each clergyperson to migrate, including family and other social networks in the host country, relative political and economic conditions between home and host country, educational opportunities in the host country, and so on. If the decision to migrate is seen as solely a result of a series of rational calculations of self-interest by the clergy person her- or himself, we are unlikely to see it as an act of mission, since we do not send ourselves into mission.

Yet exploring personal motivations for migration can also highlight the religious reasons that are behind clergypersons' decisions to migrate, and here we do come to a missional interpretation of clergy migration. Many clergy from other countries who choose to serve in the United States do so because of the ministry opportunities involved. For female clergy, this opportunity is often to serve in pastoral roles denied them in their home countries. For some clergy, this opportunity is to engage in a style of pastoral leadership or style of ministry that is out-of-step with their home countries but more prevalent in the United States. For some clergy, this opportunity is entwined with the opportunity to pursue higher education for the sake of equipping their ministry. And for some clergy, this opportunity is explicitly the opportunity to serve cross-culturally.

I believe we must honor these senses of divine calling or sending that go into clergypersons' decisions to migrate to serve congregations in the United States. And in so doing so, I think it makes sense to adopt a missional hermeneutic of these immigrant clergypersons' service. They serve congregations in the United States because they have responded to God's sending of them across national borders. And we should not reduce these decisions to merely social, economic, or political factors (though those may be present too), nor should we read those decisions entirely through institutional lenses.

Of course, there are many immigrant pastors serving in the UMC in the United States, each of which has a unique experience of migration and of pastoral service. It is impossible to say that all immigrant clergy have migrated in response to a divine sending to serve in the United States. So, not all immigrant clergy may be missionaries.

Nonetheless, that narrative of divine call and sending among immigrant clergy is common enough that we can say at least some immigrant clergy are missionaries. Therefore, it makes sense to use a missional lens to reflect upon and understand both the experiences of immigrant clergy and the service they render the UMC in the United States.

Monday, February 15, 2021

"Methodist Mission at 200" book released

The following is adapted from a press release written by Dan Curran for Global Ministries.

Methodist Mission at 200, a new book from United Methodist Global Ministries, seeks to inspire readers to engage in Christian mission today while learning from the challenges of the past. It also marks the bicentennial of the agency that traces its origins to 1819.

One emphasis is on the way effective mission crosses boundaries in friendship. This is a lesson from John Stewart, an African American Methodist preacher whose work with the Wyandotte people in Ohio is credited with inspiring the formation of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, forerunner to today’s General Board of Global Ministries.

Edited by Thomas Kemper, former general secretary, and Dr. David W. Scott, director of mission theology at Global Ministries and blogmaster for UM & Global, Methodist Mission at 200: Serving Faithfully Amid the Tensions is published by Abingdon Press and is now available for purchase in paperback or as an e-book.

“This is an opportune time to look back at our first 200 years and see how the Methodist mission community grew as a movement,” said Roland Fernandes, general secretary of United Methodist Global Ministries. “People committed to mission have faced serious challenges ranging from cultural shifts to mass migration to world wars to service in unchartered parts of the globe. While commemorating these first 200 years, the book also delves into the mission theology that guides our current work.”

Methodist Mission at 200 informs but also uplifts and inspires, as together the church seeks to faithfully answer God’s call, encouraged by the stories of those who have come before us,” said Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, Global Ministries board president and leader of the Wisconsin Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church. “This analysis makes us conscious of the tensions that surround us, and dependent upon the relationships that connect us.”

Methodist Mission at 200: Serving Faithfully Amid the Tensions (ISBN: 9781791015985) delves into the origins of mission and service, shares lessons from 200 years of mission history, offers details about the celebration of the bicentennial of Methodist mission, describes how theology guides present mission practice and analyzes the enduring tensions in mission.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Recommended Reading: Emmanuel T. Naweji on Congolese Immigrant Pastors

Emmanuel T. Naweji is a United Methodist pastor originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo currently serving churches in the Iowa Annual Conference. In 2016, he published a dissertation with the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary entitled, "The Ministry of United Methodist Pastors from the Democratic Republic of Congo Serving American United Methodist Churches: A Vision for Renewing United Methodist Ministry Drawn on Wesleyan and Congolese Experience." While there is a literature on cross-cultural, cross-racial appointments in general, to my knowledge, this is one of the few resources that look at how specifically immigrant United Methodist pastors serving in cross-cultural, cross-racial appointments can drawn upon their backgrounds as a missional resource, perhaps the only one focused on African immigrants. (A future post will review resources on Korean immigrant pastors, especially Korean women.) The first 30 pages of the dissertation, including the abstract, table of contents, and introduction are available in preview from ProQuest. While this preview does not give access to the full dissertation, it does give readers a sense of Rev. Dr. Naweji's argument.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

A Church That Imports Pastors Is a Mission Field

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.

The classic "Three-Self" definition of an autonomous, self-sustaining church is that it should be self-governed, self-supported, and self-propagating. To this, David Bosch has added the need to be self-theologizing. Under most systems of polity, clergy are critical to the first, third, and fourth points of this formulation. Clergy help govern the church, they play a role (though not an exclusive one) in mission and evangelism, and they are an important means for articulating and promoting a church's theology. Thus, a self-sustaining church is one that produces enough clergy to satisfy its needs for leadership.

Historically, the Three-Self schema has been used to reflect on when a body of Christians had developed from being a mission field to become an autonomous, self-sustaining church. Yet it is also possible that an established church might go from being self-sustaining to becoming a mission field, likely through some process of decline. That could manifest in one any of the aspects of the Three-Self formula--perhaps through no longer being able to support its own budget--but one indicator of whether a church has become a mission field is whether it needs to import pastors.

If a church must import pastors, it is a sign that church is not producing enough pastoral leaders from among its own membership, whatever the overall dynamics and trends are among that membership. A church that must import pastors is thus dependent upon other parts of the body of Christ. It is no longer fully autonomous and self-sustaining.

Under this definition, much of The United Methodist Church in the United States likely qualifies as a mission field. Hard data is difficult to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many annual conferences in the United States import clergy from elsewhere.

In some instances, this includes clergy from other annual conferences. Seminaries play a significant role in redistributing clergy across the United States, both as a way of drawing clergy into a particular area and as a recruiting ground for US annual conferences with insufficient indigenous clergy.

There are also a large number of immigrant clergy serving United Methodist congregations in the United States. Korean immigrant clergy in particular have helped sustain overall clergy numbers in the US UMC, but the US UMC also draws clergy from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

To highlight this trend is not to say anything about the legitimate reasons why clergy from other countries wish to move to and serve in the United States. Nor is it to disparage the quality of the leadership that these clergy bring to the UMC in the United States. On the contrary, since these clergy come from areas with sufficient clergy vocations to export clergy to other areas of the world, they may bring essential insights that can benefit their congregations and annual conference in the United States.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to find information online about which annual conferences import clergy. Various groups track age, gender, and racial demographics among US United Methodist clergy, but so far as I know, there is no one tracking immigrant status among clergy or whether clergy serve in the annual conferences in which they first experienced a call to ministry. Thus, this is another instance in which United Methodists need to move beyond a sole preoccupation with laity demographics to pay more attention to clergy demographics.

Questions about where clergy come from vs. where they serve have implications for clergy development, missional strategy, and international relationships within the church, among other issues. How can churches best use their resources to ensure sufficient clergy leadership? What insights can missionary pastors bring to an area, and in what ways are indigenous voices necessary to articulate an indigenous theology? What does it mean for the United States to be a sender of mission finances but an receiver of mission personnel? Given the magnitude of the issues involved, it is imperative that church leaders and scholars pay more attention to these sets of questions.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Recommended Reading: Biography of Bishop Ralph E. Dodge

Ralph E. Dodge was a Methodist missionary from the United States to Angola, Board of Missions executive for Africa, and bishop elected by the Africa Central Conference, serving from 1956-68. Dodge was a noted proponent of racial equality, African leadership in the church, and a gospel that combines personal salvation and the social gospel.

Dodge himself wrote several books, including an autobiography, and a number of short profiles about him can be easily found online. Samuel Dzobo, a Zimbabwean student at Asbury University, though, has written one of the first recent treatments of Dodge and his career. Dzobo's dissertation, entitled "Toward a New Church in a New Africa: A Biographical Study of Bishop Ralph Edward Dodge 1907-2008" is freely available on Asbury's website.

As the subtitle suggests, the dissertation is a biography that is structured around a straight-forward narrative of Dodge's life. Scholars might wish for a bit more analysis of Dodge's thought and practices as a missionary, mission executive, and bishop, but Dodge's commitments still come through strongly in the narrative, even without extensive commentary. The narrative approach also makes the profile approachable for a non-specialist, though there are editing errors and jumps in the narrative structure that may be distracting for some readers.

While not all readers of this blog might have the capacity to read a book-length study of Dodge, as the church looks for ways in the present to dismantle racism and create a church in which US Americans and Africans are equal partners, he is a figure worth re-considering, even a half century after his retirement.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Recommended Viewing: Unmasking the Evil of Colonialism

The Methodist Federation for Social Action and United Methodists for Kairos Response are co-hosting a webinar next Wednesday, Feb. 10th at 10am EST entitled "Unmasking the Evil of Colonialism." The webinar will explore the impact of colonialism on Turtle Island (a traditional Native American term for North America), the Philippines, Africa, and Palestine. According to press materials, the webinar will help viewers wrestle with the question, "How can we meaningfully reject the sin of settler colonialism and support these indigenous peoples' liberation struggles?" Interested readers can register at the above link.

The webinar will feature a panel of four presenters: Rev. Alvin Deer - Retired Clergy in Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, UMC; Rev. Lloyd T. Nyarota – Clergy in the Zimbabwe East Conference, UMC; Rev. Armando Arellano - Filipino Clergy in the East Ohio Conference, UMC; and Ata Manasra - Director of the Wadi Foquin-Narjes Community Development Project, former Mayor of Wadi Foquin, West Bank, Palestine. It will be moderated by Michelle Dromgold-Sermen, former UMKR Intern and PhD candidate in sociology, University of North Carolina.

Lloyd Nyarota in particular has been an outspoken critic of colonialism within The United Methodist Church. Given his presence on the panel and given the generally United Methodist flavor of the event, it is likely that the discussion of colonialism will include a discussion of colonialism within the church as well as within secular realms.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Regionalization Would Have Prevented Some Problems with Delaying General Conference 2020

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.

The General Conference that was scheduled to meet in May 2020 has already been delayed once and may be forced to be delayed a second time or transition to an alternative technology-mediated format. There have been a variety of challenges associated with these postponements, from the administrative to larger questions about the future of the denomination.

At this point, the denomination must find a way forward from this situation in which it finds itself. Yet it is worth point out that greater regionalization of the denomination would have prevented some problems stemming from delaying General Conference. The possibility of a church split in the United States best illustrates how regionalization could have reduced the challenges of delaying General Conference.

One of the major pieces of legislation before General Conference, whenever it next meets, is the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. This proposal, which is the result of mediated negotiation among mostly US United Methodist leaders from across the theological spectrum, would pave the way for the exit of Traditionalist churches with a $25 million payment to help found a new denomination. Traditionalist churches in the United States have been increasingly restive to leave the denomination in the fallout of General Conference 2019, when it became clear that Centrists and Progressives would not abide by the provisions of the Traditional Plan passed at that event.

Even amid the pandemic, Traditionalists remain focused on passing the Protocol in 2021, despite questions about whether and how General Conference will meet. They have even suggested that General Conference should convene just to take up the single issue of the Protocol. Yet the longer it is until General Conference meets, the more time there is for the negotiated consensus behind the Protocol to collapse or challenges to come from other corners, such as the African bishops.

The challenge, of course, is that passing the Protocol requires General Conference to meet, since there is no polity structure for the United States capable of implementing the Protocol within the United States, and there are numerous logistical challenges to bringing together delegates from around the world, either in person or digitally, to implement the Protocol globally.

If, however, there was a regional structure that had the ability to make some budgetary, policy, and legal decisions for the UMC in the United States, that body could potentially take up the issue of church separation in the United States. A special meeting of a US regional structure could have provided for such separation, satisfying Traditionalists' calls for a speedy departure, even if larger questions about the global connection remained.

While a schism may extend to the entire global connection, the greatest pressure for a legal and financial separation comes from within the United States. Since the United States funds 99% of the denomination's budget, it might have been possible to arrange a payout within the United States alone. And the logistical and health questions surrounding a United States-only meeting are much easier to handle than the international meeting that is General Conference.

Of course, such a regional structure does not currently exist. But it could.

The Christmas Covenant, the first major legislative package originating in the central conference, would create a system of regionalization within the UMC that would allow regional contexts, including the United States, greater flexibility in handling their own missional and administrative affairs.

It is too late for such a system of regionalization to mitigate the issues associated with delaying General Conference 2020. Passing the Christmas Covenant is not necessary to pass the Protocol, if indeed the latter does pass.

But it is not too late to implement a system of regionalization to give the church greater flexibility to adapt to the next crisis facing one of its branches. The Christmas Covenant represents one opportunity to do so.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Recommended Reading: Stefan Moll On Being Uncomfortable in Church

The Aargauer Zeitung (the newspaper from Aargau, Switzerland) recently ran a profile of Stefan Moll, a United Methodist pastor who serves a church in Baden as well as leading the Swiss UMC's TV and radio outreach. For those who can read German or want to run the article through an online translation service, it's an interesting recounting of a distinctive pastoral career from Switzerland.

But one particular comment by Moll stands out. The article says:

"Moll] maintains the claim that the church must offer believers a feeling of home is wrong: "Church should be a place where the foreign can be found." Faith always means crossing borders."

This comment in the article follows a discussion of migrants in the Swiss church and the political implications of the faith. But Moll's testimony gets to an important theological point about the church: Being the church involves being in mission, and mission is not always comfortable. But, as Moll makes clear, the willingness to be uncomfortable is how the church remains focus outward, offering the gospel to new people in new times.