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.