Friday, October 29, 2021

Recommended Reading: Lovett Weems on Demographic Changes and the Mission of the Church

 Lovett H. Weems, Jr. of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership recently published a piece entitled, "What Might the 2020 Census Mean for Churches?" In it, he examines what transformations in the nation's demographics, especially around race and age, mean for the mission of the church in terms of evangelism and church growth. Weems writes that these demographic changes should "upend the working assumptions of most congregations about the future of their churches." This is especially true for predominantly white churches (and, one might add, denominations). He notes bluntly, "There is no future for predominantly white congregations that cannot reach the growing people-of-color population." Yet, he also warns that these demographic transitions have the potential to bring forth white racism, a "blatant disregard for Christlike values [that] will make a mockery of our witness unless it is countered by churches that exemplify love of God and love of neighbor without reservation."

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: A Call for Denominational Renovation

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.

In a series of previous posts, I have depicted United Methodist denominational institutions as declining, crumbling even, beset by a host of long-term pressures from both within and beyond the denomination, all of which have been compounded in recent years by crises of denominational division and the COVID-19 pandemic. I have argued that these pressures towards decline are far beyond the ability of these institutions to manage through an approach of incremental and inward-focused maintenance.

Instead, the time has come for major denominational renovation. Renovation is a process in which an organization undertakes extensive rethinking of its institutions, their purposes, and how they go about achieving their purposes by trying to produce certain types of regular behavior. The last time the UMC substantially renovated its institutions was in 1972, in the wake of the merger of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Nearly 50 years later, it is far past time to do so again.

The need for institutional renovation stems from the nature of the forces producing institutional decline in the UMC. I have argued that the decline of institutions in the UMC is a result of decreased institutional relevance, the delegitimization of institutions by special interests in the denomination, a decreased ability of members to pay the time and effort costs associated with denominational institutions, and the failure of denominational institutions to respond adequately to moments of crisis.

Maintenance, however, has led to institutional complexification, amplifying opportunities for elite capture of institutions and a decreased ability by average constituents to participate in those institutions. Maintenance cannot address questions of institutional relevance. Since maintenance is internally focused, it is a poor strategy to address external challenges, such as the time squeeze limiting members’ ability to give of their time and money. Finally, the failures of denominational institutions in recent crises are further evidence that a more significant response to institutional decline is required than further maintenance.

We are past the point of maintenance. We need substantial renovation.

Yet in this regard, the UMC is fortunate. A division with the Global Methodist Church represents an opportunity for the remaining UMC to enter a process of institutional renovation. Mergers have consistently been an occasion for Methodism to periodically revamp its institutions. Having missed the chance to do that with the merger with Cote d’Ivoire in 2008, the UMC will have to content itself with a division as an opportunity to reassess its institutions.

And an opportunity it is. Traditionalists recognize the opportunity they have to revamp denominational institutions by establishing a new denomination; those remaining in the UMC should not miss the opportunity they have to make overdue changes while there is fluidity in the denomination.

Yet to recognize this division as an opportunity, those remaining in the UMC must avoid scapegoating their anxieties about and frustrations with denominational institutions in either of two ways.

First, they must avoid scapegoating Traditionalists for the dysfunctions of denominational institutions. As previously described, Traditionalists have de-legitimized denominational institutions, but they are far from the only force pushing those institutions towards decline.

In this regard, it is important to avoid thinking of the division itself as the thing that will relieve pressures on denominational institutions. While division will alleviate one current crisis and will reduce some of the pressures from special interests, it will by no means solve most of the challenges of the denomination’s institutions, which result either from external societal forces or from having a system of denominational institutions that has not been substantially updated in a half century. Division creates a window of opportunity for changes to strengthen the denomination; it is not itself the solution to all the problems in the denomination.

Second, those staying in the UMC must avoid scapegoating leaders for the dysfunctions of denominational institutions. It is easy to attribute the current situation of institutional decline to a failure of leadership. While not without truth, such a view can be dismissive of the magnitude of challenges facing denominational institutions and the extent to which denominational institutions are geared towards maintenance as a primary strategy.

The biggest failure of institutional leaders in the UMC has perhaps been too great a fidelity to the institutions of the church as they currently exist. In this regard, they are caught in a paradox: They are selected to care for and maintain institutions as they are, which by design are supposed to be consistent and not change much. Yet, by resisting changes for the sake of institutional preservation, leaders subject those institutions to on-going pressures that, over time, have substantially weakened them, making them more vulnerable to collapse.

Moreover, focusing on the culpability of leaders misses a significant point. Whoever may deserve blame for the current situation (and I have suggested that it is a broad group), determining blame is not the same as determining a strategy for how to address institutional decline. Regardless of the errors up to this point, right now it is time to rethink our institutions.

If those remaining in the UMC are convinced that denominational renovation is necessary, there are a variety of ways to go about it. Work on the Global Book of Discipline could become a platform for rethinking the church’s structures.

General Conference could create a series of commissions to work on denominational revamping, as the 1968 Uniting General Conference did. There could be an extra session of General Conference to support the work of those commissions, as there was in 1970.

General Conference could even pass an amendment at its next meeting (to be approved in annual conference voting) to allow for a future General Conference to function as a constitutional convention, which could allow major changes to be passed more efficiently than the normal one-resolution-per-paragraph method and perhaps with less possibility of judicial review blocking any major denominational revisions.

My point here is not to advocate for one strategy for implementing the work of systemic and extensive renovation of The United Methodist Church’s denominational institutions. My point here is simply to insist that that renovation must happen, by whatever means possible. The alternative is further institutional decline. Those who love the church must be willing to let it change or risk condemning it to a slow death.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Recommended Viewing: Meet Bishop Patrick Streiff

As part of the "Get Your Spirit in Shape" podcast series, Joe Iovino interviewed Patrick Streiff, Bishop of the Central and Eastern Europe Central Conference. Their conversation included Bishop Streiff's experiences growing up in Switzerland, his intellectual influences, his study of John Fletcher, and his work as a bishop in one of the most nationally, linguistically, and culturally diverse parts of The United Methodist Church. The interview provides an interesting glimpse into some of the experiences of European United Methodists.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Recommended Viewing: Tuesdays at the Table

The Connectional Table has launched a new series of video interviews called "Tuesdays at the Table." The videos feature conversations with thought leaders from around the United Methodist connect. New videos premier weekly, and previous videos can be viewed online. The first several videos should be of particular interest to UM & Global readers.

The first episode included an interview by Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai of Dr. David N. Field, Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Dialogue for the Council of Bishops and occasional UM & Global contributor. Dr. Field spoke about mission, theology, and his life experiences in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Switzerland.

The second episode featured occasional UM & Global contributor Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj interviewing Rev. Dr. Kabamba Kiboko. The two spoke about Bible interpretation, with Rev. Dr. Kiboko drawing on her experiences as a Congolese woman serving a multicultural church in Ohio.

The third episode involved an interview by Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj of Dr. Filipe Maia. Dr. Maia, who was born in Brazil and currently teaches at Boston University, spoke about the role of reason in faith and the process of individually and communally putting faith and reason in dialogue.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: Institutional Maintenance and Expansion

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.

Throughout this fall, I have been exploring the issue of the decline of denominational institutions in The United Methodist Church. In these posts, I have followed Patrick Wyman’s definition of institutions: ( “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior.” I have defined institutional decline, then, as a change by which institutions are no longer able to produce the same sorts of behaviors that they have previously or at least not to the same extent.

Note that not all forms of institutional change constitute institutional decline. Institutions have a bias against change because their purpose is focused on “regularity of behavior.” Yet, some changes may be neutral or may even help institutions be better able to generate regular behavior. Indeed, since the world changes all the time, some institutional changes are a necessary response to external forces to ensure that the same sorts of behavior continue to be generated regularly.

Thus, we can define institutional strengthening as changes to an institution that increase or maintain its ability to generate regular behavior. Institutional strengthening is the opposite of institutional decline, though both are forms of institutional change.

We might think about three forms of institutional strengthening: institutional maintenance, institutional expansion, and institutional renovation. Institutional maintenance includes relatively small, routine changes in an institution that are designed to preserve its ability to produce existing regular behaviors. An example is a change in provider for clergy health insurance with the aim of keeping costs and benefits the same. Institutional expansion includes changes to increase the amount or extent of an existing regular behavior. An example is starting new Walk to Emmaus chapters and holding more walks in existing chapters. Institutional renovation is reconsidering which behaviors an institution should produce and how it should produce them. An example is an annual conference ceasing support for a children’s service agency and instead promoting the formation of Fresh Expressions in congregations.

Most of the time, institutions and their leaders are focused on maintenance and expansion. This is as it should be. Institutions exist for regularity of behavior, and both maintenance and expansion take as a given the nature of that regular behavior. Institutional renovation calls it into question. It is impossible to always be in renovation mode, since if an organization were constantly questioning what behaviors it should produce, it would be ineffective at producing any regular behavior.

Institutional maintenance and expansion, however, have their own limitations. Some of these limitations can ironically end up creating an additional set of forces leading to institutional decline, and maintenance and expansion are not sufficient strategies for all situations.

One result of a focus on maintenance and expansion is a general trend towards institutional complexity. Like many institutions in the United States, the institutions of the UMC have evolved towards greater comprehensiveness (that is, anticipating as many scenarios as possible and prescribing actions in those scenarios) and towards legal protectionism (that is, guarding against the threat of lawsuit).

These two driving forces – greater comprehensiveness and legal protectionism – are a byproduct of institutional maintenance and expansion. Institutional maintenance tries to address unique scenarios that raise questions about the regular behaviors of an institution. Maintenance in the form of greater comprehensiveness eliminates “glitches” that might disrupt those regular behaviors. Institutional expansion creates new scenarios in which an institution’s desired behaviors are generated, thus also expanding institutional comprehensiveness. Legal protectionism often goes along with the elaboration of possible challenging scenarios and seeks to guard against threats that could disrupt an institution’s ability to function.

The result of these two trends is a preference for formal rules instead of informal norms and thus an increasing number of rules for the operation of institutions. The upshot of such developments is that while institutions are not necessarily more expensive to operate than they were fifty years ago (though in some instances, they are), they do require more specialized knowledge. Therefore, fewer constituents have the knowledge necessary to maintain those increasingly rule-bound institutions.

To put it in concrete terms, while the percentage of local church budgets collected in apportionments has gone down by 50% in the last 50 years, the length of the Book of Discipline has gone up by 50%. Denominational bureaucracies are less expensive to the local church, but all of the institutions of The United Methodist Church are more opaque to the average lay person or even the average clergy person.

Therefore, there are fewer people willing and able to navigate the complex procedures required to serve as conference delegates or to participate in denominational committees. With denominational institutions comprehensible to fewer people, that increases the chances of both loss of relevance and elite capture for those institutions. Thus, when maintenance and expansion lead to increased complexity, that can actually lead to rather than prevent institutional decline.

Moreover, even when institutional maintenance and expansion avoid such pitfalls, there are inherent limits to what they can accomplish. Maintenance and expansion seek to preserve and expand institutions as they are. Thus, they are ill-equipped to address questions of institutional relevance. They assume that the behaviors an institution seeks to produce are the right behaviors to focus on, even if there is less call for such behavior among an institution’s constituency.

Moreover, maintenance as a strategy is generally inward focused. It seeks to make relatively small, internal changes to ensure smooth organizational functioning. Therefore, it may be unable to address significant challenges that result from disruptive pressures from an organization’s external environment. Such pressures, since they originate from beyond an organization, are outside the realm of what maintenance seeks to control and indeed may be beyond an organization’s ability to control at all.

Therefore, institutional renovation is occasionally necessary. Institutions benefit from periodic reassessment of their functions and constituency to ensure continual adjustment to their environments. Without renovation and the periodic attention it brings to questions such as institutional relevance and external environment, it is impossible for organizations to adequately balance the tensions that inevitably build up between an institution and its environment. Renovation will not free institutions from all external pressures but can help ensure that the amount of pressure is manageable.

It remains an outstanding question, though, of how and when an institution determines a major revision is necessary. I would argue that The United Methodist Church is at a point where it requires institutional renovation, not merely maintenance or expansion of its existing institutions. I will elaborate in my next post.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Emmanuel and Florence Mefor: The Practice of Health Mission

Today's post is by Dr. Emmanuel and Florence Mefor. They are health (Medical and Nurse/midwife) missionaries with Global Ministries. This is the first of a two-part series.

As we said in our last post, one must have passion as a Christian medical missionary. Passion for one’s profession and passion for the Christian mission are interdependent in order to achieve the desired effect (mission practice in relation to that particular profession), despite the difficulties of practicing medicine in mission settings.

A general example is to consider a situation where a sick or injured patient needs treatment and does not have enough funds for his or her treatment in a higher health centre. But a similar treatment can be rendered to that patient in a lower centre at a lower cost, based on several factors like the patient’s social status (poverty) and the missionary’s compassion (for the sake of Jesus Christ) and determination to do a good job professionally, even to the point of improvising equipment due to lack of adequate equipment (passion for profession).

Mission hospitals of the United Method Church are usually located in rural areas. A few may be found in the cities in some countries. In such situations, the rural area might have grown to become cities around the preexisting hospital. Medical missionaries should be ready not to reside in cities.

For us, we have never served in cities but in rural mission centers, so our patients are poor. Though the hospitals have to survive, medical charges have to be made, putting into consideration the social status of the community. In considering the poor social status of the patient, we end up offering free treatment and/or scheduling payment plans. Other sources of income for the hospital will be through donations, and in some countries, limited government support. Financial and material support for hospital supplies is very important to missionary to meet work needs.

With this poverty is the associated problem of neglect and hunger. There are patients who not only don’t have money for medical bills; they don’t have food to eat. They range from younger people to some who may be physically challenged and neglected, to the elderly who are neglected by their children and relatives.

We have had to get involved in social work, which includes provision of groceries to the underprivileged in the community. Like Christ, we not only have to treat; we have to provide food. This has led to what looks like a permanent feeding project for the pregnant women who come to wait for labor and delivery in our hospital’s pregnant women waiting home.

Basic medical equipment is not always available in mission hospitals. This situation should not deter one from getting things done and moving on. I have therefore learnt to be ready to improvise so long as it is safe for the patient at that point intime.

Some years ago, I had decided to assist a young man who sustained compound fracture of the leg (tibia and fibula are the long bones of the leg) following his inability to go to the next level of care where there could be an orthopedist or a General Surgeon and where he could be treated better. He said he did not have money to go there and would prefer to go home.

My idea was to do the normal traction for six to eight weeks.  Some days later, I found an “External Fixation set” for management of compound fractures in our Central Sterilization Department. I was excited I could use it for this patient, and I got ready to take him to the operating room. The surgery was going on well until I got to the final stage when our theatre nurse said there was nothing to tighten the nuts which holds the various parts of the External Fixation set together, thereby putting the bone fragments in place. Yet I couldn’t stop the surgery.

The only idea was to send for the hospital driver to get me the vehicle spanners sizes 12, 13, and 14 washed. We quickly got them sterilized by putting them in a metal kidney dish, poured methylated spirit (alcohol) and setting them on fire. After the alcohol burnt up, I was sure the spanners were sterile. the #13 spanner fitted perfectly with the nuts, and it was used to tighten them well. The patient was successfully sent home after 3 weeks when the wound healed, and the fixation set was removed at six weeks.

Medical missionaries must be ready to take up multiple tasks in the hospital/place of assignment. The same applies to the institution’s employees. This is due to frequent shortage of staff in such institutions. Though most medical missionaries each have their area of specialty in medicine, everyone works as a General Practitioner because the number of patients is overwhelming compared with the number of available doctors.

It must have originated from the fact that in early days of establishing a mission center, usually first by evangelism, the team may have one medical doctor (early or later) who would provide medical services. The services surely will start with consultations and treatment of simple ailments. As time goes on, the doctor is confronted with more complex ailments which this doctor is expected to treat. In order to assist the patients, the doctor may have to set aside his specialty, so to save life and considering that surrounding hospitals may not be able to handle the case.

The mission work system prepares the doctors to be versatile, being ready to solve the medical needs of at least 80% of the patient population. Besides, one never knows where he will find himself with a need to render medical assistance. Most patients treated get better, and a few will need specialist attention, which falls outside the scope of the specialty of the medical missionaries. In that situation, such patients are referred, followed by possible financial assistance.

Within our family, we don’t have any challenges. This is because my wife and I are both missionaries and both in the health profession. It may not be easy for professionally discordant couples, but God has blessed us with a strong partnership in serving God.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Recommended Reading: The Pandemic's Impact on Short-Term Medical Missions

Short-term medical missions, in which teams of medical professionals travel from the West to a developing nation to provide services for a week or two, are a common model of both church and secular mission. However, like many aspects of mission work, such trips have been disrupted by the pandemic over the past two years. While there are negative outcomes to such disruptions, they also provide a space for rethinking mission practice. A recent post on NPR's Goats and Soda blog titled "COVID is changing medical fly-in missions — and it might be for the better" shares examples of how that rethinking of short-term medical missions is happening. In brief, the pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends towards focusing on developing local medical expertise and capacity, rather than focusing on provision of services by Western experts. New communication technologies have made such capacity-building work possible even without Western travel, though the article notes that travel can still play a role in the work of building relationships across contexts. Focusing on the growth of local expertise and capacity provides for a more sustainable and equitable long-term approach to the provision of medical services. While the article's main examples come from secular work, those involved in church-related short-term medical mission projects would do well to consider the implications for their own work.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: The Impact of COVID and Denominational Crisis

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.

Having looked at various reasons for the decline of denominational institutions—the unwillingness and/or inability of their constituency to support them and de-legitimization from vested interests—there remains one last set of contributing factors to explore: the impact of crises on denominational institutions, specifically internal denominational conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The basic insight here is that the more institutions fail to serve the purposes for which they were created, the weaker they become. When institutions are unable to produce their intended regular behaviors, it reduces their ability to do the same in the future. Unless skillfully addressed, institutional failure usually begets further institutional decline.

In large part, this is because institutional malfunction delegitimizes institutions by lowering constituents’ expectations and willingness to have their behavior shaped by the institution in the future. Regardless of whether the sentiment on the part of constituents is “That institution won’t work for me” or “I don’t want to work for that institution” or some combination of the two, the result is decreased institutional capacity to shape the behaviors of its constituents.

While such institutional breakdown can happen at any time, crises are particularly fraught situations that make failure more likely.

Unfortunately for its institutions, The United Methodist Church has been in a prolonged crisis in the form of the debate over the place of LGBTQ+ persons in the church. This crisis has undercut the institutions of the church in at least three ways.

First, the conflict between Traditionalists and Progressives in the UMC has led to the polarization of almost everything in the church, including its institutions. Thus, one’s willingness to participate in and give heed to the church’s institutions, from the boards and agencies to the Judicial Council to the appointive process to apportionments, becomes a function of whether one sees those institutions as aligning with one’s own theopolitical stance. Support for institutions is no longer a given part of denominational membership; it is a political statement in an ongoing conflict.

Second, the debate over sexuality has undermined many of the institutions of the denomination because of their failure to resolve the debate. A mutually acceptable for both sides solution may always have been a fantasy, but many institutions within the church have still tried and failed to find such a solution. This includes General Conference, the Council of Bishops, and the Judicial Council. When the highest authorities within the denomination are unable to resolve a crisis, it undercuts the membership’s trust in and expectations of their ability to successfully regulate behavior.

Third, the denomination’s divisions have made it increasingly difficult for any other business to get accomplished. The debate between Traditionalists and Progressives has come to dominate more and more spaces within the denomination, which has reduced the capacity of denominational institutions to produce regular behavior even in matters unrelated to the main debate. There is less time and attention available, so less gets done. This lack of capacity can lead to the inability to carry out even routine other forms of business.

Of course, denominational division is not the only crisis the UMC has faced in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional layer of crisis. And, as in discussions of other sorts of institutions in US society and the world, the pandemic has both amplified and accelerated the pressures already facing denominational institutions. Again, this has taken several forms.

Related to the challenges of denominational division, the pandemic has forced the postponement of many denominational meetings. While necessary, such delays have forced United Methodists to devise other means for making decisions and doing work. In the process, it has raised questions about the value of traditional means for doing so. If it’s possible for the work of the church to get done without meetings of the standard institutions (such as General Conference), and if the main function of those institutions is just to serve as a forum for fighting, how important is it really to have those institutions?

The COVID crisis has revealed another way in which institutional weakness begets institutional weakness. Many annual conferences in the United States have struggled over whether and how to issue guidance to their congregations about in-person gatherings and health precautions during the pandemic. Especially in light of the politization of COVID precautions within secular society, denominational leaders have been faced with a tough choice:

On the one hand, annual conference leaders could issue guidance, knowing that some pastors and congregations would not follow that guidance. But issuing guidance that one knows will not be followed (and cannot be enforced) exposes the weakness of an institution: It shows that the institution is unable to produce regular behavior among its constituents. Moreover, if congregations flaunt annual conference guidance in this area without consequence, it emboldens them to flaunt guidance in other areas as well.

On the other hand, annual conference leaders could not issue guidance or issue guidance that leaves decisions up to pastors and congregations. This avoids exposing the weakness of annual conferences’ inability to produce required behavior. But it ends up weakening the institution in another way: By doing nothing, it raises questions among those who would like guidance about why the institution is not doing anything. If the institution is not going to provide guidance during a crisis, what good is it? Why pay for an institution if it is not going to serve you when you need it most?

The result of these overlapping crises is that the institutions of the church emerge weakened. People have fewer expectations that denominational institutions will try to influence their religious behaviors, and people are less willing to go along with those institutions when they do. And this process compounds upon itself: failure begets weakness, which makes future failure more likely, thereby accelerating decline.

Having now surveyed the variety of forces that are currently conspiring against denominational institutions, I will turn in my next post to the question of whether there is anything that could be done to support or strengthen denominational institutions amid such a climate.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Emmanuel and Florence Mefor: Our Calling to Medical Mission

Today's post is by Dr. Emmanuel and Florence Mefor. They are health (Medical and Nurse/midwife) missionaries with Global Ministries. This is the first of a two-part series.

A missionary is a person who is sent to promote Christianity, usually in a foreign land. The organization which sends the missionary expects the missionary to imitate Jesus Christ in all aspects. During his ministry on earth, Jesus Christ preached love and forgiveness to his followers, he showed them mercy and compassion, he fed them when they were hungry, and he healed the sick of their infirmity.

A person practicing mission in relation to health, or permit us to use the term “a medical missionary,” is a medically- or health-trained person who is sent to promote Christianity by providing health services. Mission programs in churches or organizations are viewed as incomplete if the provision of health services is lacking. It is an important aspect of Christian mission, just as the spiritual aspect is. Put it another way, just as Jesus Christ did, Christian mission becomes meaningful when both the physical and spiritual needs of the community involved are met.

Being a missionary is a calling. One must have passion first for his or her original profession, then there must be passion for Christian mission. Passion for something is the driving force to surmount difficulties within the limits of what one can do regarding that thing.

How did we become missionaries? It all started in the first hospital we worked in, immediately after my (Emmanuel’s) training. It was a Church-related hospital belonging to the ECWA Evangel Hospital system. The then Medical Superintendent, who happened to be a missionary, was busy in the operating room. He spoke to me in between his cases and asked me to come to work the next day, including the documentation of my job offer. There were three more missionaries working in the hospital whose ways of practicing medicine and attitudes, shaped or molded me towards hoping to be like them. We worked together, and I learnt a lot from them as a junior doctor.

I (Emmanuel) became a missionary eighteen years later. Initially I became a Person-In-Mission (PIM) for the General Board of Global Ministries. This happened in Mozambique. I had gone for a government program in Mozambique and was assigned to work in a rural part of the country. As God would have it, the hospital I was assigned to work in belonged to the United Methodist Church in Mozambique, but in collaboration with the government. The missionary working there had left for hip replacement surgery back home in the USA; and I was to sit-in for him.

At the end of the program, the Resident Bishop offered to retain me as a PIM. Though I never knew what it would lead me to, I was happy to work with the mission just as I was in Nigeria. There was a need to move my family from Nigeria (an English-speaking country) to Mozambique (a Portuguese-speaking country). It was four years later I became a missionary while still in Mozambique.

A general problem which confronts missionaries is the decision to move the family. When kids are under 18, the mission board will always support the non-separation of families. My family moved to Mozambique. It was difficult for them to adjust to the situation. Our children had the problems of moving from a city school to a rural school, the problem of language, especially the uphill task of transiting from English to Portuguese. Missionary kids are usually academically disadvantaged if they continue to move with their missionary parents. We agreed with our kids for them to stop moving with us.

Missionary work is always thought of as being exclusively for the clergy. Besides the United Methodist Church and the related church Institutions, it is difficult to understand the missionary work in relation to other professions. This can lead to misunderstandings of our work.

A good example and personal experience was when we went for an interview for a visiting visa at the America Embassy. After some questioning and answers, the interviewer said if you are a missionary and going to the USA for missionary work (itineration, which is visiting supporting churches to tell them stories about missionary work in place of assignment), you need to apply for clergy/religious visa and not visiting visa. They also questioned why the GBGM should sponsor our flight to the US and pay our salaries while we are in the USA. That meant we were going the USA to work with visiting visa. The conclusion was that we were denied a visa. It was interesting to note that prior to this incident, we had been to the USA several times to visit our supporting churches. It can be concluded that this time around, the devil was at work at the Embassy. It was difficult to understand that.

Yet despite the difficulties in our work, God has given us the passion to surmount them through God’s grace.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Plan Now: UMVIM Roving Listener Training

UMVIM is sponsoring a training on October 23 at 9am Central/10am Eastern entitled "Roving Listeners: Shining Light of the Gifts of Our Neighbors." Roving listeners are a central component of the asset-based approach to mission developed at Broadway UMC in Indianapolis. DeAmong Harges, the originator of the roving listener approach, has gained wide-spread recognition for that work. This training will feature Rev. Alicia Baker and Rev. Aaron Hobbs from Broadway UMC. The training should be highly relevant for anyone seeking to move their mission practice, especially their local mission engagement, in the direction of asset-based approaches to mission. Those interested can register here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: The Time Squeeze

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.

For the past two weeks, I have been exploring reasons why the institutions of The United Methodist Church are in decline, at least in the United States. For the purpose of this analysis, I have defined decline as a reduced capacity to produce regular behaviors among the constituency of the UMC, which is primarily its members.

My previous two posts have looked at choices, motivations, and strategies among United Methodists that have had the effect of weakening institutions, either by reducing the time and effort members choose to devote to them or by delegitimizing them as a source of norms.

For this analysis, I want to look at a series of forces outside the denomination that have reduced the ability of United Methodists to support their denominational institutions, even when they see those institutions as legitimate and are motivated to contribute time, effort, and money to those institutions.

These are forces that originate within the economic and social structures of American society that have left denominational members (and potential members) with less time and energy to devote to the maintenance and continuation of denominational institutions, even if, all other things being equal, they might be interested in doing so.

The key insight here is that many church institutions, from local congregations up through denominational bodies, have traditionally relied on significant amounts of volunteer labor to function. Volunteer labor has supported everything from charitable work to Sunday schools to committees to the two weeks plus prep time it takes to serve as a General Conference delegate. Moreover, much of the institutions of the church are structured around people being able to contribute such volunteer labor on a regular basis. Yet economic and cultural factors have reduced the time and energy available for such regular volunteer labor from several different groups: women, retirees, the working class, and the middle class, especially parents.

While women in the workforce may seem like a given nowadays, it is worth remembering that in 1972, when most of the institutions of the UMC were set, female paid workforce participation in the United States was 44%. For the past two decades, it has been around 60%. The change is slightly more dramatic for married women. This transformation has been about both cultural factors (more opportunities for women) and economic factors (families have increasingly relied on women’s wages to maintain or expand their earning power).

While there have certainly been beneficial aspects to women’s paid employment, more women in the workforce means left fewer women available to serve as volunteers to keep denominational institutions going. It’s one thing to organize Sunday school in your congregation or serve as the treasurer for the annual conference UMW when working in the home. It’s another when working 40-50 hours a week outside the home.

The reduced availability of homemakers as a source of volunteer labor has put greater emphasis on another traditional pool of volunteers: retirees. Yet here too, there have been economic and cultural forces eating into the ability of retirees to contribute their time and efforts to churches and denominational institutions, as older Americans are working longer and filling their retirement years with additional commitments.

After decades of falling, the average age of retirement and the percentage of US residents over 65 in the workforce have been creeping back up in the past two decades. While there are a variety of reasons that older adults might choose to work, financial constraints are one reason. Changes to retirement plans over the past several decades have moved toward less generous benefits and have shifted much of the financial risk associated with saving for retirement toward individuals. Even among those individuals who do retire, the Baby Boom generation has embraced a model of “active retirement,” with increased travel and leisure activities that take them away from regular church commitments.

Economic and cultural developments impacting working adults have also left them less able to contribute the volunteer time necessary to maintain denominational institutions, though for different reasons in different groups.

Working-class Americans have been increasingly alienated from mainline Protestantism, and institutional religion in general, over the past several decades for a variety of social and cultural factors. Yet even working-class people who are part of United Methodist churches may be less able now than in years past to partake in and contribute to the institutions of the denomination.

While life has always been precarious for those among the poor and working classes in the United States, the amount of precariousness has increased in recent decades. Low wage jobs increasingly have erratic and unpredictable schedules, often including work on Sunday mornings, thus making regular participation in church and its institutions difficult. There’s a difference between working a regular shift at a diner that was closed on Sundays in 1972 and working at a fast-food restaurant that’s open seven days a week in 2021, but where you never find out your shift schedule more than a week in advance.

The social and economic safety net to support poor and working-class Americans has also been steadily dismantled over the past four decades. Even where it remains, it has often been made intentionally more difficult to navigate to discourage people from using it. Thus, much of the surplus time and energy of working-class church members may be used up trying to navigate obtuse government and school bureaucracies to arrange the supports they and their families need instead of dedicating that surplus to helping ensure the smooth functioning of church institutions.

Thus, life for lower-income Americans has become increasingly chaotic with fewer supports. Some working-class Americans would likely be interested in being part of United Methodism and its denominational institutions but find themselves unable to pay the time costs involved.

Finally, there are middle-class Americans, who also find themselves with less time and energy, especially with the rise of always-on-call work cultures, increased expectations on parents, and decreased support for families.

There has been a proliferation of think pieces in the past decade about burnout, especially as a phenomenon among middle-class and upper middle-class professionals. This is a group that traditionally might have had the flexibility to take time from their jobs to dedicate to church efforts. Yet new technologies such as laptops and smart phones and increased economic anxieties about middle-class instability, among other forces, have driven these professionals to working more, having fewer “off” hours, and having less mental and physical energy for endeavors outside of work, such as church.

In addition, for middle-class parents, there are increased expectations around active parenting compared to fifty years ago and frequently fewer supports for parents. Moreover, the economic anxieties of the middle class have driven parents to enroll their children in an increasing number of activities, including on Sunday morning, to try to ensure that their child will have an opportunity to get into the right sort of college that ensures the right sort of job that will make a middle-class lifestyle still possible for them. Thus, middle-class parents are run ragged, with little left over to devote to church.

All these economic and cultural forces (combining personal choices and structural pressures) which take more from people and make them responsible for a greater load of their well-being and that of their families leaves all these groups – women, retirees, the working class, and the middle class, especially parents – with less to dedicate to the church. Yet, as discussed in a previous post, denominational institutions, like all other institutions, require time, energy, and money to persist. When time and energy are increasingly squeezed out of people, denominational institutions must suffer.

The forces I have described over the past three posts have operated in the best of times. Next week, I will examine the impact of COVID and other crises on church institutions.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Recommended Reading: William P. Payne on Irish Religion

United Methodist Professor of Mission and UM & Global contributor Rev. Dr. William P. Payne has recently published an article entitled "Report of Survey Completed for Irish Evangelical Leaders" in Witness: Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education. As the title suggests, the article unpacks the results of a survey of the Irish population that Dr. Payne conducted in 2018.

The survey was intended to explore whether disgruntled and disaffiliating Irish Catholics might be receptive to Irish evangelicalism as an alternative Christian tradition. However, what the research found instead was that, for a variety of reasons, evangelicalism was not seen as an attractive alternative. Instead, former Catholics overwhelmingly became de-traditioned (i.e.,"nones"), instead of converting to an alternate Christian tradition.

As Dr. Payne notes in an email, "Even though the results of this survey only apply to Ireland, the implications show that the growth of secularism is a threat to all forms of Christian faith in America. Evangelicals, progressives, and Roman Catholics must find a positive way to respond to this ideological challenge if they desire to remain a popular option for future generations."

Dr. Payne's research can help further understanding of the important question of why religious change in the modern West is primarily (though not exclusively) a movement away from organized religion rather than movement across religious traditions.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Recommended Reading: Remembering Native American Boarding School Victims

Earlier this week, 11 United Methodist boards and agencies issued a statement entitled "Remembering Native American victims of US schools." The statement acknowledges Methodist involvement with the historical system of "Indian boarding schools" in the United States that were aimed at cultural assimilation of Native peoples and the eradication of their indigenous cultures. The statement pledges further investigation into the topic and calls for healing and repentance and "equity and justice for Native Americans in both church and society."

The statement coincides with a National Day of Remembrance for U.S. Indian Boarding Schools held yesterday on Sept. 30. The Native American International Caucus of the United Methodist Church has called for Oct. 6 as an additional Day of Truth and Repentance.

For more resources for churches about the history of Native American boarding schools in the United States, see this site from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

For more on United Methodist relationships with Native peoples, see the text of the resolution on "Native People and The United Methodist Church" from the 2016 Book of Resolutions.