Wednesday, December 29, 2021

2021 Year in Review

As 2021 draws to a close, here are some of the most read themes and stories from UM & Global over the course of the past year:

1. Questions about General Conference
Out of everything that UM & Global published this last year, stories about what might happen with General Conference proved to be among the most popular to readers, from (correctly) predicting in January 2021 that the pandemic would prohibit holding General Conference in 2021 to analyzing the aborted May 8 virtual General Conference to reviewing how the pandemic and travel might impact the currently scheduled General Conference in 2022.

2. Analysis of UMC politics and current events
Readers have also turned to this site for thoughtful analysis of the internal conflicts and struggles of the UMC, especially from an international angle. That has included everything from historical background on current conflicts in the UMC in Nigeria to identifying the current issues of contention within the UMC to analysis of the strategic choices facing those seeking to launch the Global Methodist Church.

3. Understanding church decline
This blog has also spent a good deal of time seeking to understand various forms of decline in The United Methodist Church--from the "hollowing out" of the church to institutional decline to the connection between US membership decline and the rhetoric of the global church, and readers have found those explorations interesting.

4. Grappling with emotional impact
Conflicts in the church and in society, combined with the impacts of the on-going pandemic, have taken an emotional toll on people, and so pieces on grief in the church and pastors considering leaving the ministry have also appealed to readership.

5. Confronting racism
Amid conflict in the church and problems in the world, good ministry still goes on. This blog has tried to highlight over the past year the ways in which the church is (or should be) engaged in confronting the sin of racism. In that vein, John Oda's piece on why Asian Americans should speak out about racism has been one of the most read posts of 2021.

At this point, there is no particular reason to assume that the topics that will be of most interest to readers in 2022 will be any different, but if the past several years have taught us anything, it is that there are always surprises in store.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Recommended Reading: Street evangelism around the world

Two recent stories have highlighted the work of Methodist evangelism on the streets in two different contexts around the world: Brazil and Great Britain. In an interview with Asbury Seminary, Brazilian bishop João Carlos Lopes says, "Church planting doesn’t happen in the pastor's office. Church planting happens on the street where the unbelievers are." In a reflection for the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Evangelism and Contemporary Culture Officer Holly Adams writes that her work as a Street Pastor reminder her that "the greatest gift we share in evangelism is always, always about relationship – about being totally present to other people, listening to them, and loving them unconditionally."

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Mission Is a Spirituality of Openness

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.

Christians have been moving through the season of Advent over the last four weeks. Christmas is now only a few days away, and for those following the Western calendar, New Year's Day follows a week after Christmas. This time in the church's life is about cultivating a spirit of openness - openness to God, to others, and to the future - and this spirit of openness is one that characterizes our participation in God's mission too.

There are many ways that people talk about the work of Advent. It is described as a time of waiting, a time of preparation, of expectation, of hope. Pastors preach on the four traditional Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love.

One can also talk about Advent as a time of opening - of opening oneself up to prepare to notice and to receive Christ when Christ comes, both in a spiritual sense in the re-enactment of Christ's birth and in an eschatological sense in the anticipation of Christ's return.

We are reminded in Advent, too, the perils of having our hearts closed when Jesus comes. In Las Posadas and other traditions, we are reminded that those whose hearts and doors were closed when Mary and Joseph showed up missed the birth of the Savior. If we would not miss the Incarnation, we must open our doors and hearts to God and to others. "Fling wide the portals of your heart," writes Georg Weissel in the Advent hymn "Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates."

This openness to the coming of Christ of course culminates on Christmas, when it is combined with an opening to one another. For many, the opening of Christmas refers to the opening of Christmas presents - tearing off wrapping paper and emptying boxes. But it's not just about the gifts.

The gifts are, ideally, expressions of love from one to another, and what is really going on at Christmas is opening ourselves up to receive love and to give love in return. This insight can be seen in Dickens' classic "A Christmas Tale," as well as many a made-for-TV Christmas movie: The wounded or selfish person who has closed themselves off to others is transformed by the power of Christmas and becomes willing to love and be loved, even with the vulnerability and risks implied.

This interpersonal interpretation of Christmas openness should not be seen as in contrast to the openness to the divine envisioned in Advent but as deeply related. In Wesleyan theology, love of God and love of others are both aspects of sanctification.

Then comes the New Year, with its look ahead to the future. Whether or not one participates in the tradition of making resolutions, most still look to the new year with a sense of openness. There is a sense that the new year is a time when changes can be made, when things can be shifted. It is a time of open priorities, open schedules, open agendas. That openness won't last, nor should it, but as we observe the New Year, we experience the fluidity of the future.

All of these emphases on openness are a feature of the calendar this time of year, but this emphasis on openness - to the divine, to other people, and to the future - is a feature of mission year round.

Mission is about opening ourselves up to God, initially in our willingness to heed God's call to participate in the missio Dei. Those who answer that call find that they repeatedly encounter God along the path of mission, often in quite surprising ways. Engaging in God's mission is a way of opening ourselves up to God, encountering Christ, and inviting the Holy Spirit in to our hearts.

Mission is also about opening ourselves up to others. Mission is primarily relational. It is about loving and being loved by others in concrete contexts as together we join in the missio Dei. Mission cannot be accomplished alone. It is inherently a practice of partnership. When we join in God's mission, we open ourselves up to the presence of others in our lives that we would not have encountered in any other way. Often, these other people will be quite different from us, but we recognize the love and the blessings that they bring to our lives.

Finally, mission is about opening ourselves up to the future. We may have a sense of where our mission calling will take us, but since mission is primarily about being in relationship with God and with others, we can never control or fully predict where mission will take us. We will be surprised as our openness to God and our openness to others brings new things into our lives that we did not anticipate and could not have foreseen. But we experience this newness as a form of God's good news for our lives.

So, to all the readers of UM & Global, I pray your Advent has been holy, your Christmas may be merry, and your New Year's happy. And I pray that you may be open to all that God's mission will bring us, now and in the days to come.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Recommended Reading: Deacon Pioneers "Global Learning"

In a piece entitled "Deacon Pioneers 'Global Learning,'" the Michigan Annual Conference recently profiled the work of Rev. Alex Plum, a deacon who works in the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Plum describes his work as a practice of "global learning," in which he and his team "identify promising models of care delivery in low- and middle-income countries, and we adapt those approaches for implementation in the US," especially with the intent of "reducing health inequities in historically marginalized populations in low-income US communities." It is interesting to see the intersection between Plum's theology and his work in medicine, and the practice of global learning is one the all in the church should make greater use of.

Friday, December 17, 2021

UM & Global Collections: The UMC & Institutional Decline

For the first time in quite some time, a new UM & Global collection is available. The collection pulls together posts from this fall about "The UMC and Institutional Decline." Most of the posts are by David W. Scott, with one response by Darryl W. Stephens. The posts examine the nature, causes, and possible solutions to the decline of denominational institutions in The United Methodist Church. As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Financial Future of Connectional Ministry

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 described the evolution of the current centralized apportionment system that The United Methodist Church uses to fund its connectional ministries. The apportionment system replaced an earlier system of direct solicitation by individual boards and agencies. I also indicated that the apportionment system may not last forever, and that this past can help us think about the financial future of connectional ministry in the UMC.

While the apportionment system has not yet ended, apportionments clearly cannot and will not be the same sort of financial engine for denominational agencies as they have been in the past. The UMC has passed “peak apportionment,” the point at which increased per capita giving by United Methodists in the United States made up for a decreasing number of US members. An impending denominational split and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have made connectional giving trends worse, but the underlying financial dynamics towards lower apportionment giving exist independently of these two complicating factors.

Lower levels of apportionments can potentially have a lot of different impacts on the connectional ministries of the UMC. Back in 2019, I looked at the possible consequences for connectional institutions and ministry programs. There have indeed been steep cuts at many of the agencies in terms of personnel and programs since I wrote that piece. I also explored the possibilities of reconfiguring the apportionment system to create different options for the connectional ministries that congregations and annual conference support, using the metaphor of content bundling.

Yet regardless of what other strategies denominational agencies may or may not adopt to respond to lower apportionments, the agencies are moving towards greater soliciting of direct gifts from United Methodist individuals and congregations. Recent Giving Tuesday appeals in your United Methodist-related social media feeds are just the tip of that trend. If money will not continue to come from apportionments, at least in the same amounts, then the agencies will look elsewhere, and direct giving is one of the foremost places they are looking.

Viewed through the lens of the history recounted last week, this move towards denominational agencies soliciting greater direct giving is a move back towards an older, pre-apportionment system of giving, in which denominational agencies competed with one another to solicit direct gifts from individuals and congregations. Therefore, reflecting on that older, pre-apportionment system can help us think about what a move away from apportionments and towards direct giving might mean for the future of connectional ministries in the UMC.

In particular, as we go back towards a system of soliciting direct gifts, it is worth thinking about how that move will reshape relationships in the denomination: relationships among agencies, relationships between agencies and the denomination’s congregations and members, and relationships between agencies and conferences.

As I explained about the pre-apportionment system last week, financing connectional ministry through direct giving is a system that puts denominational agencies in financial competition with one another. Yet, there has been a significant move towards collaboration between the boards and agencies in the past two decades, and the desire for agency cooperation remains strong among denominational leaders.

How will a return to substantial direct giving as a funding source impact the more collaborative relationships that have been built up among agencies? How can the denomination foster relationships among the agencies that emphasize collaboration and do not become merely competitive? If finances will not be the lever to push agencies towards collaboration (and indeed will push in the other direction), what levers will push towards collaboration?

The leading group of critics of the pre-apportionment direct giving system was laity, especially businessmen whose money the various church agencies sought to obtain. Those laity found the appeals for money excessive and worried about the efficiency of connectional ministries. Perhaps by the 21st century United Methodists in the United States have become a bit more inured to a large number of charitable solicitations, but the desire for missional efficiency remains strong.

How does an increase in direct solicitation develop greater responsiveness by agencies to individual and congregational missional priorities without overwhelming United Methodist individuals and congregations with a dozen separate financial appeals? How can agencies present multiple requests for money while assuring potential donors that those moneys will be used efficiently and effectively?

Finally, there are the relationships between agencies and various levels of conferences. Annual conferences were much more important financial players in the pre-apportionment system. Are annual conferences prepared to again take a larger role as intermediaries between the agencies and congregations? What sorts of new tensions and conflicts would that introduce to annual conferences, which are already facing a number of tensions and conflicts?

The move to the apportionment system also gave General Conference much more control over what had previously been semi-autonomous agencies. This increased control assured United Methodists that organizations that used the United Methodist name would be accountable to the highest authority in The United Methodist Church. How can the General Conference continue to exert control over the agencies for the sake of coordination, accountability, and efficiency if it controls a smaller percentage of agency budgets?

I do not mean to depict a shift away from apportionments and towards direct giving as all bad. As indicated last week, there are problems with the apportionment system. There are also advantages to direct giving. It creates more engaged givers. On the other hand, there are advantages to apportionments, and there were disadvantages to the system of direct giving that preceded the apportionment system.

Rather than trying to make out one financial system as better or worse than the other, my intention is to point out that The United Methodist Church is in a time of transition in how it finances its connectional ministries. If we can be aware that we are in a time of transition and aware of what the challenges and advantages are in various systems, then perhaps we can be mindful and intentional in trying to best capitalize on the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of the systems we develop.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Recommended Reading: Robert Hunt on a Chaotic Future

Frequent UM & Global contributor Robert A. Hunt has written an insightful piece on United Methodist Insight entitled "The Future is Chaos." In it, he notes the increasingly unpredictable nature of the social, cultural, and political future of the United States and the ways in which current Christian clergy have been ill-prepared to respond to that future. The solution, in Hunt's analysis, is to promote more entrepreneurial and creative approaches to pastoral ministry, a process that will require participation not only by individual pastors but also by church leaders and theological seminaries. Hunt offers hope that if the church is able to shift its approach to pastoral ministry in this way, the result will be not only greater faithfulness, but greater resilience amidst the chaos.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Glenn Knepp: Methodism, Democracy, and the End of Inclusion

Today's post is by Rev. Glenn Knepp. Rev. Knepp is an ordained elder in the Indiana Annual Conference and pastor of Ford Street UMC in Lapel, IN. He is responding to a post by David Scott, "The United Methodist Church and Declining Democracy."

“How might the decline of democracy impact the United Methodist Church?” The question is difficult to answer, not least of all because from a historical perspective, it is obvious that the movements have grown up together. This has been well documented already. From a philosophical perspective, much the same reality is available to be unearthed.

The Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has remarked, “Democracy is teleological. It’s a collective effort with a noble goal: Inclusion.”

A statement like this does much to explain why democracy at least seems imperiled now. The democratic impulse Taylor observes towards inclusion has uncovered laudable results, especially around the inclusion of voters of color. In the first US Presidential election, the voting electorate was comprised almost exclusively of white men. While democracy would expand the pool of voters in dramatic ways over the next two centuries, extending suffrage to all free men, and then to women, and then to those as young as 18, the racial composition of that electorate would not change dramatically for the first 200 years of the American experiment. In 1992, for instance, 84% of voters in the presidential election were white.

2020 offered a new reality in the project of American democracy, as 33% of presidential election voters identified as non-white. Racially speaking, the electorate shifted by as much in less than 3 decades as it had in the previous 2 centuries. Is it any wonder that in the wake of this great exercise of inclusive democracy some individuals and groups felt threatened, rejected the outcome, and challenged the institutions which upheld it, posing an at least temporary threat to the American democratic project? Other forces not entirely dissimilar in shape are playing out in dozens of contexts around the world.

But how will this impact United Methodism?

The project of democracy as described by Taylor, bears a remarkable resemblance to the stated mission of the United Methodist Church, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (BoD p v).” Just as Taylor’s definition of democracy, the aims of this mission are teleological, focused on a goal: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. The goals of democracy and United Methodism share many fundamental features. Both are focused on creating a new vision of flourishing for the world, rooted in a philosophy of inclusion of all people. The roots of this broad inclusivity in Methodism can be traced back to John Wesley and his understanding of the atonement of Jesus Christ. To be sure, American democracy is not at all explicit about its commitment to Jesus as a central agent in its project.

It is at this point of difference that United Methodists might see cause for hope, even if the fortunes of democracy dim.The agent of Methodism’s inclusivity is not the citizens of Methodism, except insofar as they are agents interacting with the providing, contingent God of Jesus Christ. The Theological Task of the United Methodist Church spelled out in Paragraph 102 of the Book of Discipline places the agency of action first and most squarely with God in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit:

“At the heart of the gospel of salvation is God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture witnesses to the redeeming love of God in Jesus’ life and teachings, his atoning death, his resurrection, his sovereign presence in history, his triumph over the powers of evil and death, and his promised return. Because God truly loves us in spite of our willful sin, God judges us, summons us to repentance, pardons us, receives us by that grace given to us in Jesus Christ, and gives us hope of life eternal.”

It goes on to add, “We share the Christian belief that God’s redemptive love is realized in human life by the activity of the Holy Spirit, both in personal experience and in the community of believers.” The primary agent of Methodism is not the citizenry, but God.

All of this suggests that the impacts of the decline of democracy on Methodism will be proportional to the seriousness with which United Methodists take their own claims. If democracy declines, United Methodism will certainly too, at least in institutional, statistical, and numerical terms, regardless of what Methodists do, for the roots of the two are entangled.

Yet, if United Methodists are truthful in their theological claims, one might expect that God would continue to be the faithful agent of truth and liberation, speaking through people called Methodists. This means that even if the harvest of democracy withers in the field, the Church might still, through divine power, raise even a small harvest of witnesses pointing to truth and freedom for those oppressed by authoritarianism, violence, intolerance.

Depending on how steep a decline democracy faces, though, the path for these United Methodist witnesses may not be easy. If other historical scenarios of declining democracy offer any vision, some of these witnesses will bear social stigma and shame, decreased economic opportunity, and perhaps even martyrdom.

Again, if historical references serve as any guide, these costs will not be paid because anti-democratic powers come directly for United Methodists, who have historically in the USA and abroad found themselves at the intersection of cultural, political, and economic power. Rather, these kinds of witnesses will be called for when other marginalized communities, such as migrants, ethnic, racial, religious minorities, the economically marginalized, or LGBTQ+ persons, are targeted first as victims of regimes whose vision of power and prosperity deny the basically inclusive vision of democracy. If United Methodists speak up for those who are least and lost, they can be expected to be counted with them, not only at the sorting of sheep and goats, but by the brutal tendencies of societies sliding toward authoritarianism, intolerance, and hate.

This is not in the slightest to suggest, however, that United Methodists should understand the potential future depicted here as bleak. All these things, even at their worst, would only be consistent with the working of an abiding, contingent God present with God’s people to perfect God’s love in them, and through them to enfold all creation. The ultimate arc of history, no matter the fate of democracy, for Methodists is found to point toward the unfolding relationship with God for all creation, even if this arc must pass by the cross and other bearings of the burden of this holy, sacrificial witness of truth and love when the structures of our fleeting time stand broken.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

A Brief History of Apportionments

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.

When the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) was officially adopted by General Conference in 1820, it received no funding from the denomination. Instead, the Missionary Society was supported through direct gifts from individuals and congregations. The Missionary Society was the second denomination-wide agency in American Methodism. The Book Concern (predecessor of today’s Publishing House), the one older agency, was funded entirely by sales of books, as it still is today. Indeed, at that time, there wasn’t any central process of collecting denomination-wide funds.

The apportionment system, which so dominates the current United Methodist Church, took a long time to develop, longer than most of the agencies it supports. Indeed, it did not solidify until 1924, over a hundred years later than the earliest agencies. And today, nearly another hundred years later, there is no guarantee that apportionments will endure indefinitely.

This post will briefly review the process of the development of apportionments, and a subsequent post will examine what lessons that history offers for the financial future of connectional ministries in the UMC.

While there is some variation across predecessor denominations to the UMC, in their early histories, denominational agencies such as the Missionary Society of the MEC functioned as voluntary associations that operated relatively independently from General Conferences, including in financial matters. In the MEC, it was not until 1872 that the General Conference sought to exert much direct control over boards and agencies, and that control was still not focused on finances.

Funding for denominational agencies was often coordinated by annual conferences, not General Conference. Annual conferences would designate specific months for collections for specific benevolent ministries of the church. This helped give some order for congregations and individuals as givers, though congregations and individuals still made the real financial decisions about connectional ministries.

Moreover, this system of monthly foci for giving did not prevent local church benevolent societies from constantly collecting money for their specified area of ministry, nor did it prevent special appeals for finances in local churches by visiting agency staff persons or missionaries.

The first iteration of apportionments was as a system of fundraising goals set by individual agencies in the latter decades of the 19th century. Early apportionments were merely a request by an agency that each congregation raise a certain amount for the work of that agency. They were not approved by conferences and did not carry the weight of denominational polity behind them.

Absent central coordination, financial competition among boards and agencies increased throughout the late 19th and early 20th century as Methodists continued to create new agencies, each of which would solicit direct contributions from Methodist individuals and congregations. Despite whatever pressures towards collaboration in ministry there might have been, financial concerns fostered a lot of intra-Methodist competition. Ministers and especially laity became increasingly exasperated by the slew of fundraising appeals they were bombarded with.

This led to the formation of the Commission on Finance in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1912, promoted by the Laymen’s Missionary Movement. Though ultimately ineffective because of its dependence on the agencies it was to regulate, it was an early attempt at central coordination of the finances of denominational agencies.

Then came the Mission Centenary in 1919. One aspect of the Centenary was a fundraising campaign. The Centenary fundraising campaign was somewhat unique in that it was a joint campaign on behalf of the Board of Foreign Missions, the Board of Home Missions, and the Board of Education of the MEC. These three boards agreed to work together on the fundraising campaign and then split the receipts according to a pre-determined formula.

While the fundraising campaign did not collect everything that had been pledged, this centralized approach to fundraising and division of denominational dollars was a relative success. That experience of centralized fundraising, along with concerns about debts incurred by the Board of Foreign Missions, led to the creation in 1924 of the World Service Commission, forerunner of the General Council on Finance and Administration, and the centralized denominational apportionment system.

Instead of each agency competing for local church and individual giving, the denomination as a whole asked each congregation to collect a certain amount in apportionments, which would then be divided among the agencies according to formulas established by the World Service Commission.

A centralized financial system allowed General Conference, both directly and through the World Service Commission, to promote ideals of efficiency, accountability, and coordination in the business of connectional ministry. Interestingly, General Conference 1924 rejected a proposal to create a single denominational agency, feeling that the goals of efficiency and accountability could be sufficiently realized through central financial control without requiring central administrative or programmatic control.

There were downsides to the apportionment system. It allowed agencies to become somewhat disconnected from the perspectives and desires of their constituencies, since they no longer needed to respond to pressures from local churches and average individuals to ensure their on-going financial support. Instead, denominational insider perspectives and the perspectives of large donors became more influential, since these were the groups who did have a significant impact on the agencies’ bottom lines.

Moreover, the apportionment system did not completely end the process of direct fundraising by agencies, and developments such as The Advance in 1940 created new opportunities for direct, second mile giving by congregations and individuals. The Advance, both in its denomination-wide and annual conference forms, has become a particularly important channel for the flow of connectional funds outside the apportionment system.

Nor did apportionments completely end board and agency competition, as anyone who has been around the denomination long enough is aware. Nevertheless, the apportionment system shifted the site of much of that competition from local churches to internal denominational mechanisms such as General Conference, the General Council on Finance and Administration, and the Connectional Table (and the predecessors of these latter two). In this way, much of the competition was only visible to denominational insiders and not the average member of the denomination, lay or clergy.

Whatever its weaknesses, the development of the apportionment system was revolutionary. It assured boards and agencies that their core functions would be funded, and it simplified giving for congregations and individuals. The apportionment system has become a robust and central means of funding connectional ministries in American Methodism. Although initially adopted by the MEC, this system of centralized denominational financing for connection ministries through apportionments persisted through the various of Methodist mergers of the 20th century, becoming the backbone of connectional ministry financing in the UMC.

But nothing lasts forever. The apportionment system is already facing pressures, and these are not likely to go away any time soon. As United Methodists contemplate the situation of denominational agencies now and the possible financial futures of connectional ministries, this history is highly relevant. Another post next week will explore that topic further.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Robert Harman: The United Methodist Church and Resisting Political Oppression

Today's post is by Robert J. Harman. Rev. Harman is a mission executive retired from the General Board of Global Ministries. It is a response to David Scott’s recent post, “The United Methodist Church and Declining Democracy.”

David Scott recently wrote a blog post raising the question of how declining democracy and increasing authoritarianism will impact The United Methodist Church. Robert Hunt replied in a comment that, while that is a good question, “an equally good question is whether Methodists make any impact in opposing authoritarian regimes and promoting democracy.”

Dr. Hunt suggested that “most Methodist leaders and their followers are either disengaged from politics or are actually comfortable with authoritarian leaders - so long as they don't directly impact Methodist life.” I am sad to say that I agree with Dr. Hunt's assumption that church leaders today are probably fine with trends toward authoritarian governments as long as they continue to benefit or refrain from much interference with religious practices or services.

There were, however, moments in United Methodist Church history when the opposite was true—when Methodists worked to oppose political domination and on behalf of freedom. The era of decolonization was just such an era.

Liberation movements in the late colonial period were supported and even led by church leaders in their struggle to define and realize self-determining rule as their post-colonial reality. There was not great confidence in democracy as the antidote to colonialism, given the history of collaboration between democracies and colonial authorities. Instead, independence movements looked to indigenous sources for inspired leaders and found some in mission-established churches such as the UMC that had successful educational programs to produce them.

In Mozambique, Methodist-educated Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane became the first black Mozambican of his generation to enroll at the University of Lisbon, where he collaborated with other African students involved in the formation of national liberation movements. He was the founder and first president of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), the political and military movement that was eventually successful in deposing the Portuguese dictator Salazar and establishing the first post-colonial government in Mozambique.

The UMC experienced opportunities for cooperation with the new Mozambican government, benefiting their educational and social outreach programs. The indebtedness to the Methodist Mondlane, who fell to an assassin, has often been recognized on ceremonial occasions when country United Methodist leaders and government officials have shared the same public platforms.

In Angola, Dr. Agoutino Neto, medical doctor, son of a United Methodist pastor, and a former Crusade Scholar like Mondlane, became head of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. He had a profound vision for a self-determining alternative to Portuguese control and worked to implant it village by village, a process in which countless United Methodists gave leadership, sometimes resulting in death and imprisonment. Along with Neto's imprisonment was that of the Reverend Emilio de Carvalho, the first indigenous bishop of the UMC in Angola. MPLA became and remains the ruling party today in spite of protracted civil and insurgent challenges reflecting Cold War political interests in the region.

The governments of neither country today rank high on the scale of democratic influence, though they are trending in that direction with each passing decade. But it is their movement away from the controlling colonial authority through leadership which arose from the ranks of church leaders and members who sacrificed their lives for a new and hopeful futures for their people that is worthy of remembrance as we look at current trends in patterns of governance that may seem discouraging.

Will this history find recurrence in critical contexts where the UMC is engaged? One would hope that the activity within the denomination's base in the United States would provide some signs of awakening to the drift into nationalism. If the charism of a church leader is required, we should be praying for return of the likes of Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam who was a militant against political repression in the Red Scare period of the late 40s and 50s.

But the current trend toward authoritarianism is embraced and successfully led by evangelical groups that harbor no shame in endorsing self-benefitting political strategies rather than advocating for or protecting the goodwill of all the governed. They have yet to be challenged by mainstream churches that bear the Oxnam legacy but choose silence. Will United Methodists remain silent in the face of such a slide towards authoritarianism?

Friday, December 3, 2021

Recommended Reading: Climate Change, Natural Disasters, and the UMC in Zimbabwe

United Methodist News Service published a piece earlier this week entitled, "Storms destroy two church institutions in Zimbabwe." This headline accurately sums up the main event in the story, but it omits what I found most interesting. In commenting on the disaster, UMC Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa remarked, "Within 24 hours, all roofs were blown off from buildings at our two institutions by a heavy, windy storm. Experts are saying that it is because of the change in the climate," adding, "We never used to get cyclones in Zimbabwe."

While it is impossible to ascribe any particular storm solely to the effects of climate change, Nhiwatiwa is right that climate change is driving more extreme and often more harmful weather. This connection prompts a reminder and an open-ended question.

First, the reminder: While climate change is polarized along liberal / conservative lines in the United States, that is not true elsewhere. The politics of climate change look very different outside the United States, so US United Methodists should resist making assumptions about the environmental views of United Methodists outside the United States based on other political or theological positions.

Second, the question: The UMC is well-known for its disaster response work through UMCOR, both within the United States and globally. What happens to that ministry focus in a world changed by climate where there are increasingly more disasters, many more than the UMC and UMCOR could ever respond to?

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The United Methodist Church and Declining Democracy

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, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance released their annual report, “The Global State of Democracy Report 2021 - Building Resilience in a Pandemic Era." For those who support democracy, the report was not encouraging. The title of the accompanying press release put it bluntly: "Democracy Faces Perfect Storm as the World Becomes More Authoritarian."

As I read through the report, I was struck not only by how democracy in general is imperiled in 2021, but how much that is true for countries that contain significant numbers of United Methodists. Out of countries that contain at least 100,000 United Methodists, the report called out the United States, the Philippines, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe for recent declines in democracy, though Zambia was also the one bright spot in the report, after the opposition party successfully won elections there this year.

According to the report, the DRC, Burundi, and Zimbabwe are all classified as authoritarian regimes. Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia are all classified as hybrid regimes and not full democracies. The only strongly United Methodist countries where democracy existed and was not in recent decline, according to this report, were Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, all classified as weak democracies.

A number of other countries with historically-related Methodist bodies, including Brazil and India, have also seen notable recent declines in democracy, and several countries in Eastern Europe with small United Methodist populations (Poland, Hungary, Serbia, and Russia) have also seen recent declines in democracy. Russia, home to a small population of United Methodists, was also just declared by the US State Department to be a significant violator of religious freedom.

The challenges to democracy can be bemoaned for political reasons, but these trends also raise a religious question: What is the impact of declining democracy likely to be on Methodism as a religious system and on The United Methodist Church in particular?

The relationships between Methodism and democracy has been historically complicated, and especially early in its history, Methodism tended towards populist authoritarianism, the direction of much of the world today.

John Wesley was a noted royalist and opposed the American revolution, a stance which caused Methodists in the American colonies some considerable difficulties. Nathan Hatch, in The Democratization of American Christianity, identifies Methodism as one of the religious traditions that really embraced a form of populism in keeping with the democratic spirits of the new United States, while at the same time he notes the authoritarian style of Francis Asbury as a leader of the movement.

David Hempton, in Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, notes that Methodism globally was all too happy to ride the coattails of expanding British political empire and American commercial empire, systems which boasted of the benefits of democracy while largely withholding the opportunity to participate in democracy from those in its subjugated territories.

By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the situation had changed. By then, Methodism, especially American Methodism, had emerged as a system of promoting democracy around the world.

In my book Mission as Globalization: Methodists in Southeast Asia at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, I argue that through mission, "Methodist polity spread modern, American ideas about democracy as a means of collective self-determination" (p. 66). At the same time, as Robbie B. H. Goh notes in Sparks of Grace: The Story of Methodism in Asia, "The work of Methodism in Asia was significantly hampered in certain areas by totalitarian politics" (26).

In 1918, the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States published Christian Democracy for America and The Christian Crusade for World Democracy. Commenting on these books in Methodist Evangelism, American Salvation: The Home Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1860-1920, Mark Teasdale writes, "Both sets of authors argued that by the beginning of the twentieth century this Methodist-forged nation [the United States] needed to take leadership in spreading its Christian American civilization to the rest of the world in the form [of] democracy" (227).

In more recent years, it is noteworthy that the early 1990s were both a surge in democracy world-wide and a boom time for The United Methodist Church globally. While I know of no systematic work exploring that connection, in some specific instances, such as the revival of Methodism in Russia and Eastern Europe, the connection is obvious.

The UMC's Social Principles currently state, "While our allegiance to God takes precedence over our allegiance to any state, we acknowledge the vital function of government as a principle vehicle for the ordering of society," and assert, "The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens," a strong endorsement of democracy without directly using the term.

Much of recent United Methodist attention to democracy, however, has been to questions about our own internal democratic systems, including issues of representation, access, voting credentials, and of course, the uncertainty over when General Conference will next meet.

But if mission history teaches us anything, it is that contexts matter for the success or struggles of religious systems. Internal factors matter, too, but focusing entirely internally misses half the picture.

Therefore, issues surrounding democratic decline or the related issue of religious freedom are issues that should matter to United Methodists. The state of the world and the societies within which the church operates have an impact on the church, and the system of government in those societies is one component of that societal impact.

While I know that declining democracy will likely affect the UMC, at this point, I cannot tell you what that effect will be. That is too far beyond my field of expertise. But if you have a take of 700-1200 words on how declining democracy is likely to impact The United Methodist Church, please share it with me at dscott (at) umcmission dot org, and it may be published here on UM & Global.