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.