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.

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