Wednesday, July 17, 2024

David W. Scott - United Methodist Disciplines: Discipline and Discipleship

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.

Among the many actions of the recently concluded General Conference was to approve continued work on the General Book of Discipline. The creation of a General Book of Discipline is an idea that’s been around The United Methodist Church for some time and is laid out in ¶101 of the Book of Discipline.

In short, work on the General Book of Discipline involves designating certain portions of the Book of Discipline as adaptable and certain portions of it as non-adaptable. Adaptable portions of the Book of Discipline could be changed by central conferences (and regional conferences, should Worldwide Regionalization be ratified). Non-adaptable portions of the Book of Discipline are binding on all branches of the church.

Clearly in the non-adaptable portion of the Book of Discipline is the Constitution, the Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task, the Ministry of All Christians, and the Social Principles. Work on the General Book of Discipline is thus focused on the largest portion of the Discipline, Part VI: Organization and Administration. The instructions in ¶101 call for Part VI to be split into adaptable and non-adaptable parts.

This work is primarily assigned to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters (SCCCM) and the Committee on Faith and Order (CFO), with some additional groups consulted on portions of the work. A movement at General Conference to give the SCCCM and CFO the power to reword portions of the Discipline rather than merely categorize them as adaptable or non-adaptable ran out of time to revise the authorizing legislation.

Worldwide Regionalization was one of the major foci for General Conference, and the work on the General Book of Discipline intersects in important ways with the push for regionalization. The regionalization legislation (which still requires ratification by annual conferences to go into effect) would clarify and strengthen the power of what would become regional conferences to adapt portions of the Book of Discipline. A General Book of Discipline would clarify where that power to adapt should be focused.

For some portions of the Book of Discipline, the decision about whether to categorize them as adaptable or non-adaptable is fairly straightforward. Portions of the Discipline dealing with US clergy pension programs, for instance, are clearly relevant only to one part of the church, and other parts of the church should be able to remove them or replace them with their own clergy retirement provisions.

Other portions of the Book of Discipline are less clear. Should the order of deacons be an adaptable part of the Discipline, since some places in Africa still practice the transitional diaconate, or should that become a standard practice everywhere? Should the agencies be seen as part of the global infrastructure of the church, or are they primarily vehicles for the US church to do its work? Should the process of organizing a new congregation be the same in all places?

Such questions push the church to think carefully about theological issues around contextualization, subsidiarity, unity, and mission. They impinge upon relational issues such as trust, differentiation, control, and reciprocity. These are all good and important issues to think through.

Yet if we go one level further up, work on the General Book of Discipline raises a further question: Why do we have a Book of Discipline? What is its role in the United Methodist understanding of the Christian life? How does the concept of discipline and the existence of a Book of Discipline shape The United Methodist Church as a Christian community?

Discipline is a central concept in Methodism, dating back to the days of John Wesley. In secular meanings, discipline has connotations of instruction, knowledge, training, and adherence to rules. All of these fit with Methodism’s understanding of discipline.

But the best linguistic connection through which to understand Methodist discipline is the connection between discipline and discipleship. Discipline is, in essence, a reflection of the Methodist understanding of how discipleship should work. For Methodists, a life of discipleship is a disciplined life.

John Wesley believed, and subsequent generations of Methodists have maintained, that a life of Christian discipleship should be focused on growing in holiness through sanctifying grace. That process of growth involves spiritual and moral training, which is best carried out in Christian community through a set of regularized practices that structure the Christian life.

In Wesley’s revival, such lives of Christian discipline were initially structured through small groups – the classes and bands. Eventually, as Wesley and the preachers associated with him began to meet in yearly conferences, the minutes of those conferences wrote down “what to teach, how to teach, and how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.” These written minutes were the beginning of the evolution of the present UMC Book of Discipline.

Yet it should not be lost that the point of these formalized minutes was to assist the individual Christians who were part of Wesley’s revival in living out disciplined lives of Christian holiness. The point of disciplines (and a written Discipline) was ultimately spiritual, not administrative, legislative, or legal. Disciplines existed to standardize best practices from the revival so that people could incorporate these practices into their Christian discipleship and thereby grow in holiness.

Thus, as United Methodists think about work on the General Book of Discipline, it is critical to keep in mind the spiritual intent of having a Book of Discipline. The question is not merely, “What rules can we afford to allow variation in around the world?” Ultimately, the question must be, “How do we craft a General Book of Discipline that helps United Methodists around the world be successful disciples of Jesus Christ?”

With this lens of discipleship in mind, I will suggest a few additional concepts over the next several posts to help United Methodists think through how disciplines and a Discipline can contribute to living out lives of holiness in Christian community.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Recommended Viewing: American Society of Missiology 2024 Conference Plenary Videos

The American Society of Missiology, the premier ecumenical professional organization dedicated to mission studies in North America, held its annual meeting a couple weeks ago. This year's theme was “Mission with Children, Youth, and Young Adults.” The theme was chosen by 2023-2024 President (and Association of Methodist Professors of Mission member) Rev. Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley.

The conference included a schedule of plenary presentations and paper presentations, all focused on the yearly theme. The plenary presentations were videotaped and have been posted on the society's YouTube channel. They are well worth viewing, especially Hartley's fine presidential address.

Benjamin Hartley: John R. Mott amidst the Students

Dwight Radcliff, Jr.: Remixing the Center

Andrea Toledo Baker: Sacred Spaces

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Was John Wesley a Missionary to Georgia?

Today's piece is by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Professor of Missiology, World Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary and author of the forthcoming book, John Wesley and the Origins of Methodist Missions.

It is widely assumed that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was a missionary to Georgia. I have seen this matter-of-fact statement multiple times in biographies about John Wesley’s life and ministry. If, indeed, Wesley was a missionary, was he commissioned? What entity or missionary agent sent him? This blog will reflect on this assumption and raise some questions about its veracity.

Background

Wesley graduated from Christ Church, University of Oxford, in 1724 and was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1725. After assisting his father in parish ministry in Epworth and Wroot, he was ordained an elder in 1728. When Wesley’s father, Samuel Wesley, became ill in 1734 he unsuccessfully attempted to convince his son to succeed him as rector in Epworth. As John wrestled with whether or not to go to Epworth he wrote his father on November 15, 1734 with his decision: “The question is not whether I could do more good to others there or here, but whether I could do more good to myself; seeing wherever I can be most holy myself, there, I am assured, I can most promote holiness in others. But I am equally assured there is no place under heaven so fit for my improvement as Oxford.”

Epworth, Georgia or remain in Oxford?

Another of Samuel Wesley’s connections, John Burton, was a trustee of the Colony of Georgia and entered into correspondence with Wesley about America. The trustees were unhappy with the ministry of missionary Quincy Adams and wished to replace him.

Meanwhile, John Wesley had returned to Oxford where he was leading a group of students, including his younger brother Charles, on their spiritual quest for holy living. The group, known as the Holy Club—and later Methodists—sought to renew themselves and the church in the spirit of Primitive Christianity. The spiritual quest of the Oxford Methodists, including the Wesley brothers, could be described as mysticism. Wesley’s goal was to work out his salvation by faith and trembling (Phil. 2: 12-13). He also felt a sense of persecution and the desire to suffer on his faith journey.[1] When John Burton proposed mission work in Georgia, Wesley saw this as an opportunity to suffer and work out his salvation.

So, Wesley turned down his father’s invitation to succeed him at Epworth because he felt that Oxford was the best place to pursue his spiritual growth. Burton’s invitation, on the other hand, captured Wesley’s imagination. When General Oglethorpe, the de facto governor of Georgia, brought the Yamacraw chief, Tomochichi, to England to meet with King George, Wesley became even more fascinated with the idea of evangelizing Native Americans. This opportunity aligned with his vision of self-sacrifice and recovering the spirituality of early church in Jerusalem, who shared all things in common. While Europeans had been corrupted, Wesley held the belief that Native Americans were pure and closer to Primitive Christianity, embodying a communitarian lifestyle.

Motivation to go to Georgia

After his father’s passing on April 25, 1735, Wesley consulted his mother, Susanna, about going to Georgia as a missionary, to which she responded, “Had I twenty sons, I should rejoice they were all so well employed, though I should never see them more.”[2] With his mother’s approval, he recruited his younger brother Charles and Oxford Methodists Charles Delamotte and Benjamin Ingham, and they embarked for Savannah on December 10, 1735. On board the ship, Wesley wrote John Burton about his motivation for going to America:

“My chief motive, to which all the rest are subordinate, is the hope of saving my own soul. I hope to learn the true sense of the gospel of Christ by preaching it to the heathens…But you will perhaps ask, Can’t you save your own soul in England as well as in Georgia? I answer, No, neither can I hope to attain the same degree of holiness here which I may there, neither, if I stay here knowing this, can I reasonably hope to attain any degree of holiness at all.”

In other words, Wesley’s motivation for going to preach to Native Americans was intimately tied to his own spiritual journey toward holiness. Of this momentous vocational decision, Kenneth Collins writes in his biography, John Wesley: A Theological Journey: “upon further reflection and prayer, Wesley finally decided to accept the invitation to become a missionary…” (p. 55).

Was John Wesley a missionary?

John Wesley volunteered to go to Georgia to evangelize Native Americans without any conversation of official missionary status. At the time, there were many volunteer societies functioning in England, but two primarily had to do with overseas missions: The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Both of these societies were formed by Thomas Bray, in 1698 and 1701, respectively. The former provided Christian literature for priests and the later focused on supporting priests to minister among the colonists. Bray was an Anglican priest who traveled to Maryland and saw the need for spiritual care among the colonists, as well as the enslaved Africans and Native Americans in the British colonies.

While Wesley knew of these societies, he did not go to Georgia under their auspices. Rather, his invitation came from the Georgia Trustees via John Burton and General Oglethorpe. During his voyage and unbeknownst to him, however, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts held its annual meeting on January 16, 1736, and approved John Wesley, retroactively, as a missionary in Georgia. The SPG recorded in its journal: “…he had nearly arrived in Georgia by the time he was approved without consultation as a SPG missionary.”[3] The SPG re-assigned Adam’s £50 missionary salary to Wesley, but he did not accept these terms and saw himself as a volunteer missionary. His vision was to evangelize the Native Americans, and he did not consider himself an SPG missionary. After Quincy Adams was dismissed from his post, General Oglethorpe asked Wesley to not leave Savannah “destitute of a minister.” Meanwhile, Charles became an assistant of Oglethorpe and Secretary of Indian Affairs for the colony and did not seek a missionary designation either.

Conclusion

The SPG Journal for the following year, 1737, lists John Wesley as an SPG missionary, but with no salary. The 1738 SPG journal states that “Wesley thought of himself as an independent volunteer missionary.”[4] Wesley also did not fulfill all the requirements of SPG missionaries, for example, sending regular reports and updates to the society. He did, however, receive funding and books from the SPCK, which he utilized, and he gave an account with receipts. Although John Wesley did not receive a salary as a missionary, the SPG continued to include his name in their journals. So, was Wesley a missionary to Georgia? In spite of multiple unqualified accounts, this assumption joins the list of Wesleyan hagiography. While the SPG would like to claim him, Wesley saw himself as a volunteer missionary and not an official missionary of the SPG.

[1] Geordan Hammond, “John Wesley’s Mindset at the Commencement of His Georgia Sojourn: Suffering and the Introduction of Primitive Christianity to the Indians,” Church History, October 2008, vol.47, No. 1, pp18-25.

[2] Moore’s Life of Wesley, vol. I, p.234.

[3] SPG Journal, 16, January, 1736, vol.6, fo.305, SPG Archives, Rhodes House Library, Oxford, p.146.

[4] SPG Journal, 21 July 1738, vol.7, fos.26:1-2. Also see Wesley letter to the SPG, July 6, 1737, Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 25:516.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: The Mission of the Church in the World

Today's piece is by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Professor of Missiology, World Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary. This piece was originally published on United Methodist Insight and is republished here with the permission of the publisher.

Every other year I have the privilege of teaching a course for aspiring United Methodist elders and deacons entitled “Mission of the Church in the World.” Along with Evangelism, Old and New Testament, Church History, Theology, United Methodist History, Doctrine and Polity, this is one of nine courses that is required for ordination in our church.

I love the title of the class—in fact I love everything about the class. I have taught this course in various settings, modalities, and institutions over the last two decades. Before Covid-19 this course was taught face-to-face both in semester-long and intensive formats. Since the pandemic, I have taught it online and hybrid (some in-person and some online). One of my favorite ways to teach the class is experiential. I have taught the class at Brooks Howell Home in Asheville, North Carolina, and students interviewed retired United Methodist missionaries and deaconesses, as part of the course requirements.

We have combined reading and writing assignments with experiential learning and field trips to ministries that prioritize those who are overlooked by society. We have invited guest speakers participating in God’s mission around the world, and used tools like “Mission Insite” to understand mission opportunities in one’s local community. During these days of reorganizing and refocusing the mission of the church considering our colonial history, it is helpful to reflect on the mission of the church in the world.

The title of the course reflects a change in the way that mission has traditionally been understood. Historically mission has been a one-way street from the center to the periphery. The western Church inherited the traditional mission model from Christendom when the Church and the State were fused together in Western Europe. Following Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the West Indies and the subsequent “Doctrine of Discovery,” the missionaries accompanied colonial expansion to newly settled territories to teach native peoples western civilization. Mission became centered within Christendom and went out to the margins. Mission was an overseas task from “us to them.” Mission started in the Church and went out to the unchurched. This was still the missiological view at the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland with the goal to spread Christianity from Christendom to non-Christian lands.

This traditional understanding of mission started to change midway through the 20th century following World War II. Following Edinburgh a continuation committee formed and the international missionary community gathered every ten years or so to reflect on the mission of the church. There was an inherent imbalance of power between mission-sending and mission-receiving churches that gradually began to change. The self-determination movement and independence movement of formally colonized nations awakened a new understanding of mission.

Six years prior to the 1938 Tambaram (India) Conference, Karl Barth read a paper at the Brandenburgh Missionary Conference where he described missions as an activity of God. A couple years later Karl Hartenstein articulated a similar understanding and coined the term “Missio Dei” to emphasize that it is God’s mission and not the mission of the church (“missio ecclesiae”).[1] The Church also shifted its understanding of mission to be God’s mission. Karl Barth was one of the first theologians to state that mission was God’s activity.[2] About the same time frame Emil Brunner wrote: “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith.”[3]

The next meeting of the International Missionary Council in 1952 was held in Willingen, Germany in the aftermath of World War II. The conference built on the concept prevalent at Tambaram that mission is derived from the very heart of God, especially within the Trinity. The conference findings viewed God as the source of missions. Hartenstein’s concept of the “Missio Dei” or a missionary God influenced the conversations. David Bosch summarized the image of mission developed at Willingen as “…participating in the sending of God.”[4] In other words, God is the source of mission, not the church. This theme continued the movement away from an ecclesio-centric understanding of mission to a mission-centered church.[5] Instead of the church being the one who sends, the church itself is sent.[6]

One of the unexpected twists of missions in the 20th century was that the so-called “younger” or “receiving” churches grew stronger meanwhile secularism weakened the “sending” churches in the West. After the Great Depression, two world wars, and colonial wars, the West was not in an economic or moral position to claim that they had the exclusive right to do mission. In 1961 the International Missionary Committee was dissolved, and the World Council of Churches formed with younger and established churches having equal representation. A Scottish theologian and missionary, Leslie Newbigin, was the General Secretary of the International Missionary Committee and stewarded the transition into the World Council of Churches, where he became Associate General Secretary. He returned to his home country of Scotland in 1974, after serving as a missionary in India for more than three decades and was astounded the decline of Christianity and the secularization in the United Kingdom. He had left Scotland during an era of Christendom, but upon his return found a society that was post-Christian or even anti-Christian.[7] He realized that the West is a mission field. This broke down the traditional paradigm of mission “from the West to the rest.”

In 1983 Newbigin published "The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches" in which he built upon the theological consensus of the “missio Dei.” Newbigin’s work that emerged in the late 20th century with a focus on moving beyond Christendom, seeing the West as a mission field, and the Missio Dei. This is the historical background of the shift to seeing the Church as an instrument of God’s mission in the world.

As we reflect on the mission of The United Methodist Church in the aftermath of schism and division, it is important to go back to our mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I treasure the opportunity to reflect with aspiring United Methodist clergy about the mission of the church in the world.

[1] Hartenstein, Karl (1934). "Wozu nötigt die Finanzlage der Mission". Evangelisches Missions-Magazin. 79: 217–229.

[2] David Bosch, Transforming Mission, Orbis Press, 1991, 389.

[3] Emil Brunner, The Word and the World, 1931.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bosch, 370.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Darrell Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998, 3.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Darryl W. Stephens: United Methodists in the Ivory Coast: One Vote, One Million Departures, Many Questions

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens. Rev. Dr. Stephens is Director of United Methodist Studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and is author of many books, articles, and chapters on Methodism, including Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness(2016) and Reckoning Methodism: Mission and Division in the Public Church (2024).

The United Methodist Church (UMC) potentially lost one million members on May 28, 2024, complicating its ambition to become a “worldwide” denomination. In a special session held in Abidjan, the annual conference of the United Methodist Church of Ivory Coast (EMUCI, Eglise Méthodiste Unie Côte d’Ivoire) voted “For reasons of conscience before God and His word, the supreme authority in matters of faith and life . . . to leave the United Methodist Church denomination.” (Reported by La Croix International. See also UM News.) The departure is not yet finalized.

The vote followed an eventful General Conference in Charlotte, NC, in which the denomination’s longstanding prohibitions against LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage were lifted. The UMC Discipline (book of law and doctrine) now takes a permissive stance, allowing discernment on these issues at the local and regional levels of the UMC, which has conferences in Africa, Europe, North America, and the Philippines.

Contextually flexible ministry to and with LGBTQ persons precipitated the vote by United Methodists in Côte d’Ivoire to leave the UMC. The EMUCI president, Bishop Benjamin Boni, explained: “the United Methodist Church now rests on socio-cultural values that have consumed its doctrinal and disciplinary integrity” (La Croix International). Did the Ivorians join the UMC under the false assumption that its policies on homosexuality would never change?

None of the denomination’s prior prohibitions against same-sex marriage or ordination of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” were matters of doctrine. Like long-standing prohibitions against alcohol, tobacco, and divorce in generations past, these policies on sexual morality rested on social statements (for discussion, see Methodist Morals, pp. 31–41). Unlike the UMC’s “standards of doctrine” (Book of Discipline 2016, ¶ 17), the Social Principles—and any policies built on them—can be changed with a simple majority vote at General Conference.

Although their “marriage” was never very intimate, the failing merger of the UMC and the Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire raises significant questions regarding the “worldwide nature” of the UMC and its global ambitions.

A Surprise Wedding

The Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire and the UMC initiated their merger in 2004. Was this joining of denominational bodies a merger, a partnership, a marriage, or something else? The initial commitment to unite the UMC and the Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire came as a surprise to all parties—the ecclesial equivalent to an elopement.

The Ivorians had operated as an independent ecclesial body for less than twenty years. Established as a church in 1924, Methodists in Côte d’Ivoire became autonomous from the British Methodist Church in 1985 (for a history, see https://www.umnews.org/en/news/a-brief-history-of-methodism-in-cote-divoire). This church subsequently requested mission status from the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries circa 2001 in anticipation of joining the UMC in 2008.

Through a petition to the General Conference of 2004, the Commission on Central Conference Affairs recommended referring the matter to its executive committee for further study. However, during the General Conference plenary, a delegate made a substitute motion to add Côte d’Ivoire without delay. It passed. The United Methodist News Service reported a one-million-member increase for the UMC, documenting surprise and delight among the respective leaders involved.

After the initial euphoria and a more precise census, the Judicial Council ruled that the appropriate Disciplinary procedures had not been followed, delaying a merger of the two churches until 2008. Lack of sufficient premarital counseling and a hurried wedding did not bode well for a successful marriage between the UMC and the Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire. Many issues of how to be church together remained unaddressed.

An Unconsummated Marriage

At the time of merger, Côte d’Ivoire became the UMC’s largest annual conference, and it was clear who held the power and controlled the finances. I do not know what motivated the Ivorian leaders to seek to become part of the UMC. However, the results included consecration of a bishop, access to US-funded agencies, and other denominational resources. Despite the perception of mutual benefits, the 2008 merger maintained the inequalities and disparities of the central conference structure in the UMC. The institutional integration of the two churches was never fully consummated.

From the outset, the former Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire showed ambivalence about participating in the business of the UMC. Côte d’Ivoire was the only annual conference not in crisis to fail to submit vote totals on the five constitutional amendments approved by General Conference 2016. It was also the only annual conference to fail to revise its membership numbers for the 2020 General Conference delegation calculation. The annual conference has not submitted a journal to the General Council of Finance and Administration since 2016.

The UMC, for its part, did not prioritize this new international partnership. While various shared ministry partnerships arose, the efforts did not endeavor to address fundamental issues. Differences in language, culture, geography, institutional history, and socio-political context on a denominational level were not addressed. Despite a merger of institutions on a similar scale to the 1968 merger that created the UMC, little attention was given to the details of being church together (for discussion, see Reckoning Methodism, pp. 38–44)

Twelve years after the initial vote to acquire the Côte d’Ivoire church, significant aspects of the work of denominational union remained unresolved. General Conference 2016 postponed and referred eight major pieces of legislation to various agencies and commissions, including a Global Book of Discipline, revised Social Principles, and an ongoing study of the “worldwide nature” of the UMC. Meanwhile, United Methodists in the United States perceived few changes, and most were unaware that a merger had occurred.

A Failing Merger and Global Ambitions

Many aspects of this failing merger were specific to the way the UMC and United Methodists in Côte d’Ivoire related to each other. Both sides neglected the relationships and structural changes necessary to forge a shared life together. This union was treated as an acquisition, and these institutions did not view each other as equals. When General Conference finally approved two major pieces of global polity—the Revised Social Principles and a regionalization plan—Boni and other leaders in Côte d’Ivoire decided that the changes were not compatible with their understanding of Methodism. Their planned exit from the UMC could be accomplished as quickly as their entry since there are no strong structural ties. Could an equally swift exit vote happen among United Methodist annual conferences elsewhere in Africa?

It is possible that conferences in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Congo, and others could also vote to depart the UMC—though this is unlikely. The Africa Forum supported the recent regionalization legislation, and connectional relationships appear much stronger beyond the denominational newcomers in Côte d’Ivoire. Whether the UMC mirrors the cross-cultural antagonism found within other church bodies, such as the Anglican Communion, or finds a different path for international cooperation remains to be seen.

The failing merger of the UMC and the Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire exposes the difficulties of realizing United Methodism’s global ambitions. The ambition for global expansion appears to be motivated by a US, imperialistic mindset. The project of building a “worldwide” church is funded through US apportionments and is emblematic of cultural power and prestige. In a winner-obsessed culture, nothing is more indicative of success than increasing numbers, whether through baptisms or acquisition. Despite a century of perpetual studies of “Methodism overseas” and the “worldwide nature” of this denomination, the UMC has yet to adequately address its replication of the structures of empire.

For the project of a “worldwide” church to be shared among United Methodists outside of the United States, international partnerships must be mutually transforming. For a lasting marriage, US United Methodists will have to do church differently—or suffer yet another departure from the US “mother church.”

Further Reading

Maia, Filipe, and David W. Scott, eds. Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church. Nashville: Abingdon, 2023.

Scott, David W. “Is Being a World-Wide Denomination an American Aspiration?” UM & Global, June 14, 2019. http://www.umglobal.org/2019/06/is-being-world-wide-denomination.html.

Stephens, Darryl W. Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2016.

———. Reckoning Methodism: Mission and Division in the Public Church. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2024.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Recommended Reading: Bishop Nhiwatiwa's Autobiography

Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa, the soon-to-retire bishop of Zimbabwe, has recently published an autobiography with Abingdon: By the Grace of God: My Life as an African Bishop. The book is well worth a read, especially for US United Methodists. Here are six reasons why:

1. Bishop Nhiwatiwa's loyalty to The United Methodist Church and his leadership in the African Colleges of Bishops were an important factor in preparing African delegates to General Conference to support regionalization. You get a sense of this in his sermon at General Conference. His autobiography explains how he grew up in The United Methodist Church and where his loyalty to that church comes from. His story is an important window for US United Methodists into understanding similar African perspectives as we work together for the ratification of regionalization.

2. As African United Methodists come to compose more of the denomination's members and much of its areas of growth, it's important for United Methodists in the US to understand the variety of perspectives and experiences among African United Methodists so that together we can work for the good of the denomination and the kin(g)dom of God. Bishop Nhiwatiwa's autobiography represents a significant opportunity to do that in English in a format that's readily available in the US.

3. In his autobiography, Bishop Nhiwatiwa is reflective on how cultural practices in Zimbabwe shaped his life and his faith. Thus, his autobiography is an opportunity to learn not just generally about African perspectives but also more specifically about the relationship between culture and faith in Zimbabwe and in a broader sense, Africa generally.

4. Bishop Nhiwatiwa studied in the United States in college. Thus, the book also contains his reflections on his experiences in the US and on US culture. This opportunity to learn how some of our fellow denominational members see us is an important opportunity for US United Methodists to better understand ourselves and how we come off to those with whom we are in partnership.

5. In his work as bishop, Bishop Nhiwatiwa is famous for promoting the concept of "chabadza" mission partnerships. This is a significant contribution to mission thinking by a practical United Methodist mission leader. Bishop Nhiwatiwa's concept of chabadza partnership deserves more attention and study, especially as the church ponders what a decolonial mission future looks like.

6. Bishop Nhiwatiwa is also a student of leadership, and he reflects throughout the book on his understanding of leadership. Leadership is both a universal human experience and a culturally-conditioned practice. For both of those reasons, Bishop Nhiwatiwa's insights into leadership are worth exploring.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

UM & Global Resources on Regionalization

One of the significant decisions taken by the recent General Conference was the passage of the Worldwide Regionalization legislation. The legislation, some of which still needs to be ratified by annual conferences over the next year, would restructure the church to convert existing central conferences into regional conferences, create a regional conference for the United States, and give regional conferences greater local control in adapting structures, ministries, and policies for maximal missional effectiveness in their contexts.

Since regionalization will now go to the annual conferences for ratification, and since, if ratified, the church will need to go through a process of living into regionalization, there is more discussion of regionalization that needs to happen, even with General Conference approval. Therefore, UM & Global offers the following resources to assist in conversations about regionalization and what it means to strive to be a church that structures itself in internationally equitable ways:

A brief description of David Scott & Filipe Maia's recent book, Methodism and American Empire

All UM & Global articles tagged with the term "regionalization"

A collection of UM & Global articles on "The UMC as a Global Church," with study questions

A collection of UM & Global articles on "Culture, Context, and the Global Church," with study questions

A collection of UM & Global articles on "The Global UMC in Ecumenical Perspective," with study questions. Some of these articles served as early drafts for David Scott's chapter in Methodism and American Empire.

A collection of UM & Global articles on "Church Autonomy and the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS)," with study questions. These articles provide additional background information on the COSMOS process described by Joon-Sik Park and Phil Wingeier-Rayo in their chapters of Methodism and American Empire.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

It Was a Good General Conference for Europeans

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The recently concluded General Conference was an historic one, marking a dramatic shift in tone from previous General Conferences and a clear (if not universal) consensus on the direction for the church in the future. Among the General Conference's many accomplishments were passage of the "3 R's": regionalization, revised Social Principles, and removal of the restrictive language on ministry with and by LGBTQ+ persons in the denomination.

As the wide vote margins on most issues showed, this work of turning from conflict toward a renewed focus on future ministry was carried forward by delegates from all over the world.

In particular, the Africa Forum showed its significance as an organizing body. Heading into the conference, many observers in the United States were uncertain how African delegates would vote on key issues. But the hard work by leaders in the Africa Forum was key in African support for regionalization and the revised Social Principles. Also key was the Africa Forum's grace-filled decision to allow US United Methodists to embrace inclusive ministry in the US context while maintaining a traditional religious and cultural understanding of marriage in the African context.

Regionalization also owes so much to Filipina/o leaders in the denomination. Many of the early leaders of the Christmas Covenant were Filipinos and Filipinas, and it was an annual conference from the Philippines that sent the Christmas Covenant legislation to General Conference, legislation which became the basis for the Worldwide Regionalization proposal that was passed. Drawing on a history of thinking deeply about autonomy and connectionalism, Filipina/o writers have also had some of the most eloquent reflections on and arguments for regionalization.

But I found myself thinking at General Conference how European United Methodists have had a special role in much of what happened at this General Conference. European United Methodists also contributed to the Christmas Covenant and advocating for regionalization. We saw Bishop Rückert's leadership repeatedly in making presentations to General Conference on regionalization and other topics, and Bishop Streiff and others were leading that work before him.

The revised Social Principles arose because of a request from European delegates to a previous General Conference for more globally-relevant statements of the denomination's social teachings.

Removing the restrictive language both is an important step for Western Europeans and validates the general European approach of seeking local control over marriage and ministry, with the understanding that Eastern and Western Europeans will have different approaches.

Even the departure of the Eurasia Episcopal Area, bittersweet though it may have been, was a validation of local decision making about future connectional arrangements by European leaders.

I say this not to lionize European United Methodists or to suggest that they deserve more credit than others. Certainly, there is credit enough to go around for all that was accomplished in Charlotte.

But I think the contributions that European United Methodists made to this General Conference show something important, as do Filipino contributions to the Christmas Covenant. European United Methodists are a very small group spread out over many countries in languages. In many ways, they are functionally marginal to a denomination that is overwhelmingly African and North American.

Yet, it is often from the margins that the most important ideas and innovations come. Without the contributions of European United Methodists to a vision of global equity and a structure that works for all around the world, and without Filipino/a leadership in advancing the project of regionalization, we would not have the church we are now celebrating. Good ideas and insights come from the margins.

The bulk of United Methodists live in the United States and in various African countries, especially the DRC. The relationship between United Methodists in the US and those in Africa will continue to be a critical focus for the denomination, especially as the drive for ratification and implementation of regionalization proceeds.

But as Africa and the United States rightfully receive a lot of attention going forward, the contributions of European and Filipina/o United Methodists remind us that we depend as a connection on the generous offering of gifts, ideas, and insights from our entire connection. Who knows where the next big ideas that will shape the future of the denomination will come from? If the past is any guide, we should continue to look to the wisdom and insight of small groups with unique perspectives.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Filipe Maia: Decolonizing Wesleyan Theology: Theological Engagements from the Underside of Methodism

The following is a preview excerpt from the Introduction to the recently published Decolonizing Wesleyan Theology: Theological Engagements from the Underside of Methodism, edited by Filipe Maia: https://wipfandstock.com/9781666793482/decolonizing-wesleyan-theology/. This excerpt is used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers, www.wipfandstock.com.

In August 2018, a group of scholars, pastors, and ecclesial leaders met at Wesley House in Cambridge, UK, to imagine and plot the decolonization of Methodist and Wesleyan traditions. Standing on British territory and under the shadow of the prestigious Cambridge University, the gathering embodied the ambivalent legacy of the Wesleyan tradition, birthed in the midst of British imperialism while cherished by Methodist communities in the postcolonial world. We were Methodist scholars and leaders from the Global South, immigrants in the diasporas of the Global North, all coming to Wesleyan theology via the complex entanglement between missionary movements and western colonialism.

While steeped in Wesleyan traditions, the group gathered in Cambridge embodied a Methodism that could not have been envisioned by John Wesley nor the missionaries who set out to spread “scriptural holiness” to all corners of the planet. In those corners of the world, Methodism gained new edges. Those of us meeting in British territory had returned to the birthplace of our theological and spiritual tradition with a difference. We noticed that claiming our Methodist roots demanded a reinterpretation of the tradition. The gathering showed that the Wesleyan theological tradition has been pluralized in the context of colonial and neocolonial expansion.

One of the ideas suggested by the group in Cambridge was the organization of an edited volume under the working title, Decolonizing Wesleyan Theology. This was more than a title: it was a task.

This volume is one response to that task. It gives testimony to the Methodist roots that grow in territories and bodies that uproot longstanding colonial forces. It has been envisioned, nurtured, and curated as a work of decolonial love. Authors in this volume write from multiple locations in the Global South where our Wesleyan heritage is giving new contours to the tradition.

Readers will most likely notice that the language of decline, so common in Methodist circles in North America, is rarely, if ever, mentioned. This is no indication that Methodism flourishes without difficulties in the Global South, but rather a statement about how contributors are less interested in thinking about the numerical decline of Christendom and more committed to a renewed Wesleyan theology that meets the harsh realities of a world still embedded in the structures of colonialism.

The decolonial approaches to Wesleyan theology offered in this volume give witness to a tradition that gains strength and vitality in decolonial struggles and in the engagement with traditions and ways of knowing that have been suppressed by western modernity.

The essays in this volume offer perspectives into a Methodism that lives and flourishes on the underside of colonial powers. From all corners of the planet, communities of faith in the Wesleyan tradition experiment with theological imaginaries and ecclesial practices that are transforming the face of global Methodism. Decolonizing Wesleyan Theology gives voice to these experiments while seeking to deepen the reflection in decolonial theologies and spiritualities.

As authors revisit the history of the Methodist movement, they witness to the different shapes Methodism gained in the colonies—old and new. As they revisit Wesley’s own writings and other important themes in Wesleyan theology and practice, they inhabit the cracks of our founder’s theology and turn it in unforeseeable directions.

It is worth mentioning that the volume that you are now engaging is but one element of the ongoing task of decolonizing Wesleyan theology and traditions. In fact, it is appropriate to approach this volume as a snapshot of an ongoing conversation. This book is the fruit of a larger project that involves monthly conversations among a global network of Methodist theologians and leaders.

The “World Parish Webinar” has been a platform where we have been shaping conversations in the direction of a decolonial Methodism. Since January 2020, we have been gathering monthly and our group has grown into a global parish, a “people on the move,” to borrow the expression from J. C. Park, developed in his essay later in this volume. This group has been called out as an assembly—an ekklesia—to retrain our theological ways of knowing and to conjure up a decolonial Wesleyan theology.

We have been put on the move through these webinars: we have become a migrant church, pilgriming through many locations as we pursue the task of decolonizing the Wesleyan tradition. The World Parish Webinar became a Pentecost of sorts, a place where we share good news with the accents of a multitude of locations, where we do not pursuit the homogeneity of Empire, but relish on the difference that resists the colonial dream of sameness, of a single voice, of one Wesley, of one homogenous church body. The webinar is ongoing and is convened through Wesley House in Cambridge. If you would like to join the conversation you are welcome to do so. Information can be found at Wesley House’s website.

Decolonizing Wesleyan theology entails the appreciation of difference and alternative forms of knowledge production, different modes of theological imagination, the recognition and negotiation of alternative inheritances. The essays included in the volume embody these principles as they construct a decolonial Wesleyan theology. Combining Wesleyan theology and decolonial theories, this volume offers a unique contribution to Methodist studies, global Methodism, and decolonial theologies.

Decolonizing Wesleyan Theology presents eight reflections that lead readers into deeper engagements with Methodism. They are as follows:

Filipe Maia: "The Wesleyan Quartet: Wesleyan Theology in the Decolonial Turn"

Pablo Guillermo Oviedo: "Grace that Liberates and Unites in the Mission of God: Liberation Theology and Wesleyan Theology in Latin America"

Pablo Manuel Ferrer: "A Decolonial Physic: Medical Science, Healing, and the Ecology of Knowledge in Methodism"

Elvira Moisés Cazombo: "Wesleyan Methodism and the Interruption of Ancestral Bodies in Angolan Liturgical Practices"

Virgínia Inácio dos Santos: "Ministering While Single: An Angolan Perspective on Methodism and Marriage"

Lilian Cheelo Siwila: "Trapped between the Pew and the Altar: Wesleyan Traditions and Decoloniality; An African Feminist Perspective"

J. C. Park: "Decolonizing the Church of Empire: The Church on the Move for Justice, Peace, and Life"

Amelia Koh-Butler: "Water and Sand: Illuminating Native Theologies with a Wesleyan Lens of Spiritual Experience"

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Jefferson Knight: Embracing a New Future for the UMC through Regionalization

Today's post is by Jefferson Knight. Knight is Program Director of the United Methodist Human Rights Monitor in Liberia and a delegate of the Liberia Annual Conference to the 2020 General Conference in 2024 of the United Methodist Church.

The passage of the regionalization petition signals a shift towards a more inclusive and diverse church that recognizes and values the unique needs and contexts of different regions around the world.

This decision allows for greater regional autonomy, enabling churches to address specific challenges and opportunities based on their local context. It promotes a more equitable distribution of power and resources within the church, ensuring that all regions have a voice and influence in decision-making processes.

Furthermore, the passage of the petition aligns with the principles of justice and love that the UMC holds dear. It acknowledges that different regions have different social, cultural, and theological perspectives, and allows for a more inclusive dialogue that respects and values these differences.

I believe that this decision will foster greater unity and collaboration within the UMC, as it encourages a more participatory and globally minded approach to church governance. It is an important step towards creating a church that truly reflects the diversity and richness of its membership, and I applaud us delegates for this overwhelming support of the regionalization petition.

For too long, the UMC has been US-centric, with dominance by the churches in the USA at General Conference. Regionalization will usher in equality everywhere and provide the opportunity to serve God in diverse contexts based on unique theological understandings. This move ensures that churches in different regions can practice their faith authentically without imposing their beliefs on others.

The future of the UMC shines brightly with this decision, signaling a new chapter in our journey. It is time to embrace change, move forward, and rebrand our church for the proclamation of the gospel in a more inclusive and globally conscious manner.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

An Intercultural Prayer for General Conference

The following prayer was written by Dr. David W. Scott, blogmaster for UM & Global, on the opening of The United Methodist Church's General Conference in 2024.

Triune God, united yet diverse, we thank you for the gift of varied human cultures. We know that you created cultural diversity (Genesis 11), you included it in the very beginning of your church (Acts 2), and it is part of your eschatological vision for your heavenly, redeemed people (Revelation 7). We thank you for the ways in which the multiplicity of human cultures and perspectives help us to understand the multiplicity of ways in which you shower your love and your grace upon the world. We praise you for your creative spirit at work in the human desire to express truth and beauty regardless of background.

Yet we know that cultural diversity is not always an easy gift for us to accept. Give us then the other gifts that will help us better receive your blessing of cultural diversity and will keep us going in the direction of one another, even when we encounter difficulties and conflicts. Give us the gifts of listening, of understanding, of patience, of perseverance, of wisdom, of discretion. Give us most of all the gift of on-going sanctification so that we may be drawn ever closer to one another in holy love. We know that you through your sanctifying grace desire us to come to understand you better and to understand one another better so that we might better understand you.

May these gifts abound especially during this time of General Conference. We know that it can be difficult to discuss, debate, disagree, and discern even with those who look and think as we do. It requires that much more of us to engage in your work of holy conferencing across cultural differences. But we know that when we engage in such work interculturally, it holds out the potential for special blessings from you - special outpourings of your grace, special insight into how you work in the world, and a special opportunity to witness to the wideness of your redeeming grace. We pray that you may help us to run with perseverance this race so that we might win the prize.

And when this General Conference is over, we ask one more boon of you - that you may give us the space to tend to the work of building your intercultural church outside the pressure cooker of General Conference. Give us the opportunity to eat with one another around the boodle fight and the potluck table, to discuss under the palaver tree and in the seminar classroom, to worship together with the sounds of spirituals and organ music, to travel together by train and tuktuk, and through it all to learn from one another, to laugh with one another, and to love one another more.

Incarnate God, we thank you that you meet us where we are and walk with us on our journeys. May we feel your presence in all of us, now and always. Amen.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Recommended Viewing: Global Ministries on Emily Explains

UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott recently appeared on an episode of "Emily Explains" in his capacity as Director of Mission Theology and Strategic Planning for Global Ministries. "Emily Explains" is a series of short videos created by Emily Allen, a General Conference lay delegate from the California-Nevada Annual Conference. The videos are created to help inform United Methodists about various aspects of the church related to General Conference and the global connection.

In the episode, "What Is the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries?" Scott shares some overview information about Global Ministries and also some information specific to Global Ministries and legislation before General Conference.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Recommended Listening: Un-Tied Methodism on Regionalization

UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott was a recent guest on Un-Tied Methodism, the podcast of the General Commission on Archives and History (GCAH), hosted by General Secretary Dr. Ashley Boggan D. Scott joined Boggan D. and other guests Rev. Dr. Izzy Alvaran and Rev. Dr. Betty Kazadi Musau to discuss regionalization in The United Methodist Church in an episode titled "Reimagining unity: Regionalization and the UMC."

During the conversation, Scott shared some insights from Methodist history, including work associated with the book Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church, which he co-edited with Dr. Filipe Maia, and to which Alvaran contributed a chapter.

Given the significance of discussions of regionalization at General Conference next week, the episode is sure to be of interest to readers.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Tammy Kuntz: Response to Mission Bound: Short-Term Mission as Pilgrimage

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Tammy Kuntz. Rev. Dr. Kuntz is Coordinator of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM), North Central Jurisdiction. 

Mission Bound: Short-Term Mission as Pilgrimage by Rodney Aist offers a consideration of the short-term mission volunteer as a pilgrim on the journey. He defines pilgrimage as “the experience of God, self, and the Other through time, place, journey, and people and the thoughts, images, and reflections thereof.” (chap. 2) He writes, “[Short-term mission] as pilgrimage is a paradoxical journey of give-and-take, in which we help ourselves by serving others …” (chap. 16)

In making the connection between short-term mission and pilgrimage, Aist emphasizes the importance of the “individual pilgrim who must interpret personal experience and situational context as she navigates her spiritual journey.” (chap. 3) He shares many good concepts for the individual who moves in the world seeking enlightenment. He cites Walter Brueggemann defining “transformation as a movement from orientation to disorientation to new orientation.” (chap. 13)

However, in Aist’s focus on the pilgrim as hero, the focus of service is lost. Aist provides little room for accompaniment, partnering, or the concept of risk-taking mission and service. Examples are offered of pilgrims who dictate the task that will be done and how it will be accomplished to the detriment and disappointment of the homeowner.

There is no hero when we serve with our neighbors in the world, and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission are much more than individual pilgrims. Volunteers in Mission move into the world not as individuals, but as a connected group of people serving as the hands and feet of Christ. They know that their presence in God’s mission is an opportunity to live in mutuality as they serve in new places and in new ways, knowing that the experience may change the way they see the world. 

Unlike a pilgrimage, where the individual expects a transformational experience, an effective mission journey is an experience with a team, living in a new culture and context, engaging in God’s mission. Regardless of location or the way people serve – as a medical team, disaster response team, education team, etc. - the connection with mission partners provides opportunities for learning, engaging, reflecting, and serving in mutuality. The opportunity for transformation is great, yet it may never be understood or may be experienced much later, after the story is shared and the extent of the experience is embraced.

Ultimately, this experience is not about us and our enlightenment as Aist suggests in a pilgrimage. It is about God and the ways we are called to share together in God’s world as we live out the Great Commission. As Rev. Jeremy Bassett said, “Therefore, it is not so much that the church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church.” (A Mission Journey: A Handbook for Volunteers, p. 5.) God calls us to mission not just as individuals but as a church.

A Volunteer in Mission should not enter the mission field alone without effective conversation and prior experience with a team. Connectional support is critical in order to engage effectively. Volunteers in Mission provides opportunities for volunteers to engage in God’s mission safely and effectively while serving in accompaniment with the people of the community - as part of a team, contextualizing the work as they honor one another’s spiritual journey. They realize that many facets of the mission journey are shared in the context of the relationships that are established.

Aist states, “Our theological task is to hold things together, to immunize complexity, to create the pathways for ‘both and’ approaches.” (chap. 5) This presents a challenge to the work of Volunteers in Mission as they engage in God’s world. Part of the job is to not hold on to conflict and challenges. Teams are reminded to remain flexible in planning and engaging. Complexities and alternative approaches create opportunities for cultural competency and engagement with our host partners and allow space for the Holy Spirit to be part of the community.

There is no acknowledgement in Aist’s book of the United Methodist Volunteer in Mission program as a resource for connections with project sites and missionaries and training for all aspects of the mission experience for teams and team leaders and individual volunteers. Training for missionaries of all types provides opportunities for reflection, discussion, and understanding prior to engaging with their project hosts. Volunteer in Mission team leaders are trained to facilitate conversations around mission theology and serving in accompaniment.

It is unfortunate that the Volunteer in Mission movement was ignored in this discussion. Something will always be missed; however, excluding this key resource that is available to everyone at God’s table of grace, for volunteers of all denominations, faiths, and secular groups, leaves the conversation lacking an avenue to engage in deeper conversation around how to serve safely and effectively.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Recommended Viewing: Methodists in Climate Mission Videos

The UMC in Switzerland (Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche [EMK] Schweiz) has been producing a series of videos about Methodist (and broader Christian) involvement in climate-related work. These #MethodistInClimateMission videos are part of a larger #MethodistInMission series produced by the EMK Schweiz. The three videos released thus far are in a mix of German and English, sharing stories of Methodists around the world engaged in climate-related mission. They are a useful resource for those looking to expand the conversation on climate mission across cultural and national borders.

Part 1 is primarily interviews in German of four EMK-Schweiz members (Michael Hari, Rev. Sarah Bach, Christian Rolli, and Thomas Oczipka) but features an English-language interview at around the 12:45 mark with Frances Namoumou of the Ecological Stewardship & Climate Justice Program of the Pacific Council of Churches.

Part 2 is primarily in English with interviews of three European Methodist leaders: Daniel Steinvig of the United Methodist Church in Denmark, Filipa Teixeira of the Methodist Church of Portugal, and Hamish Leese of the Methodist Church of Great Britain.

Part 3 is primarily an extended interview in English with Dr. Carmody Grey, a Catholic theologian at the University of Durham in England.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

David W. Scott: Why the Book of Discipline Matters More in the US

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 General Conference convenes in just over a month, it will spend most of its time examining legislative petitions to alter the Book of Discipline (BOD), the denomination’s rule book. And the overwhelming majority of those petitions dealing with the BOD come from the United States.

There are many reasons why so much of the BOD legislation at General Conference comes from the US – the relative size of the church there, the historical US-centrism of the denomination, the lack of any other venue for the church in the US to make policy.

But along with these well-documented reasons, there are also cultural and institutional factors for why US United Methodists want and need a Book of Discipline for church governance more than United Methodists elsewhere. That’s not to say that other parts of the UMC don’t use or care about the BOD. It’s just to say that the BOD has a special significance in the US that it doesn’t hold elsewhere.

I’ll briefly survey four explanations:

An emphasis on the rule of law

Light government regulation of religion

A large, distributed, and diverse church

Significant assets

Each of these factors contributes to the greater emphasis on the Book of Discipline in the United States relative to elsewhere in the UMC.

An Emphasis on the Rule of Law

US Americans tend to place a high cultural value on rules, laws, and formal, impersonal systems. When something goes wrong, the US American attitude is often, “There should be a rule about that!” and US Americans often assume that things will go smoothly if everyone follows the rules.

While this attitude is bred in US Americans primarily by our secular legal system, this preference for formal rules carries over into many other arenas, including the church. Having a book of church laws as the central text for a denomination reflects a particularly American veneration for law.

In this veneration of the rule of law, US Americans reflect a general trend withing Western modernity. Yet the large and active lawsuit culture in the United States that is not present elsewhere in the Western world also turbocharges a reliance on formal rules as a way of avoiding bad scenarios.

Not all countries in the world share the same high cultural value on the rule of law as Americans do. Other countries may emphasize personal preferences of a leader, interpersonal or collective systems of arbitration, or implicit cultural standards to tell people how to act and what to do when something goes wrong. These are all alternatives to formal laws and thus alternatives to relying on the BOD for questions of church governance.

Light Government Regulation of Religion

This may seem paradoxical in connection with the above point about the emphasis on the rule of law, but it’s not. One of the foundational concepts in the system of American laws is the separation of church and state. That is not true everywhere, even in other Western countries with a similarly strong sense of the rule of law. The standard in much of the world is for the government to regulate people’s religious practices and organizations.

If the government is not going to regulate religious groups in the US and there’s a desire for those religious groups to be governed by a system of laws, that means the religious groups have to come up with their own laws, since the state isn’t going to do it for them. The BOD is an expression of the US American church’s desire to self-regulate in the absence of much government regulation.

In other countries with a UMC presence, it may not be necessary to put so many rules into the Book of Discipline because the matters addressed, including employment and pensions, may already be covered by government regulation. Thus, having separate church regulation is unnecessary.

A Large, Distributed, and Diverse church

Even after disaffiliation, but especially historically over the past half century, the US American portion of The United Methodist Church is large – millions of members within scores of annual conferences led by dozens of bishops spread across five jurisdictions and every US state and territory. Within this group are very large churches and very small churches; urban, suburban, and rural churches; black, white, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic churches; rich churches and poor churches; and many other forms of variety.

This size, distribution, and diversity mean two things.

First, the church is much too large to operate effectively through informal, personal governance. While there are certainly United Methodist insiders, most United Methodists do not have direct personal ties with one another. Most are not even at one degree of removal, where two parties both know someone in common who could serve as a go-between. In the absence of such personal connections between United Methodists, it is more important to have impersonal rules since behavior and conflict management cannot always be addressed through personal means.

Moreover, there is no central head figure of the church in the United States who could serve as an ultimate personal arbiter within the church. Each bishop is co-equal, and there are dozens of bishops. Short of a miraculous revelation, there is no way to adjudicate a dispute among bishops by appealing to their common superior. Without personal regulation, impersonal regulation becomes more important.

Second, the church is too distributed and diverse for there to be central cultural norms that shape everyone’s understanding of how to act as the church and what to do when things go wrong. Different regions of the country, different racial and ethnic groups, even churches at different stages of the organizational lifecycle will have different notions of what the expectations for church are. Without shared cultural understandings, it is impossible to adjudicate between competing understandings of how to behave in certain situations without some sort of external systems of written procedures.

While this lack of personal or cultural regulation in the United States makes the BOD that much more important there, other countries have stronger systems of personal and cultural regulation that make the BOD less necessary there. The small size of the church in Europe and the Philippines means that many systems for running the church can be established through personal connections and a shared culture without the need for formal regulations. In Africa, the strong power of bishops, who often govern all the United Methodist churches in a country, provides a personal focus for church governance. In many places in Africa, this personal approach to church governance is reinforced by shared cultural, ethnic, and kinship ties.

Significant Assets

Finally, the US UMC has large holdings in property and finances. Pre-disaffiliation, those total assets throughout the US connection were somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 billion. All these assets mean that the financial stakes for church governance in the United States are high. If someone embezzles money, tries to leave the denomination with their church’s property, does something to get the church sued, or makes a bad financial transaction, the ramifications for those actions could be large, at least monetarily.

Thus, there is in an incentive for more extensive formal rules to try to handle and protect this large amount of assets. Regulations on church property, pensions, apportionments, church employment, and other finance and finance-adjacent areas of the BOD are there so that US Americans can manage their church’s assets, especially in the context of a well-developed secular US legal system with significant opportunities for lawsuits. Putting rules in the BOD allows US United Methodists to avoid secular courts more often and set the terms for when cases do end up in secular courts.

The church in all places has some assets. But in no other place is there the same combination of wealth and size that the church has in the US. Thus, no other place has the same financial incentives to put in place a system of formal financial rules through the BOD that the US has.

Conclusion

Ultimately, it is neither inherently good nor bad for the US to rely heavily on the BOD or for other branches of the church to rely less heavily on it. What creates a possibility for misunderstanding is when US United Methodists rely heavily on the BOD, other United Methodists rely less heavily on it, but General Conference proceeds as if the BOD has the same significance for everyone. Delegates should be aware when they discuss the BOD at General Conference that delegates from different places will have different understandings about the role of the BOD in the life of the church and may have different things at stake in the discussion.

If General Conference creates some option for the formation of a US region, it will have the benefit that US United Methodists will have a venue in which they can fulfill their cultural and contextual need for an extensive set of church laws and regulations without needing to negotiate all those laws and regulations across international cultures, where the various parties have different understandings of law and different senses of what’s at stake. Such an outlet for US energy around lawmaking would then free up General Conference to focus more on spiritual, relational, and other aspects of what it means to be the church together.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Jefferson Knight: Embracing Regionalization Over Disaffiliation: Safeguarding the Legacy of The United Methodist Church in Africa

Today's post is by Jefferson Knight. Knight is Program Director of the United Methodist Human Rights Monitor in Liberia and a delegate of the Liberia Annual Conference to the 2024 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

In recent times, The United Methodist Church finds itself at a crossroads, facing a critical decision that could shape its future trajectory significantly. The proposal of disaffiliation has surfaced, threatening to disintegrate the UMC in Africa and erase the rich history and heritage that our forefathers have diligently preserved over generations. However, amidst this uncertainty, there exists a viable alternative - regionalization - that promises to uphold the unity and continuity of the church while honoring its legacy.

The United Methodist Church stands as a testament to the enduring faith and resilience of its members in Africa and world-wide who have upheld the teachings and traditions of the church with unwavering dedication. Throughout the centuries, African United Methodists have played a pivotal role in shaping the identity and mission of the church on the continent, fostering a sense of community and shared purpose among its members.

The richness of The United Methodist Church in Africa is not measured in gold or silver, but in the unwavering faith of its members, the resilience of its communities, and the love that binds us together. From the bustling streets of Monrovia to the remote villages of Zimbabwe, the message of hope and salvation preached by the church has touched the lives of millions.

When whispers began to circulate about disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church, some voices from across the ocean are suggesting that Africans should break away from the global denomination. But the leaders and members of the church in Africa stand firm, our faith unshaken. We do not need anyone to tell us how to practice our faith. The Holy Bible remains supreme in our hearts and our minds. We will not waver in our devotion to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The prospect of disaffiliation poses a significant threat to the cohesion and stability of the UMC in Africa. By severing ties with the global denomination, African United Methodists risk isolating themselves from a broader network of support and resources, potentially leading to fragmentation and discord within the church. Moreover, disaffiliation could result in the loss of vital connections with sister churches worldwide, hindering opportunities for collaboration and mutual growth.

Furthermore, the dissolution of the UMC in Africa through disaffiliation would represent a profound loss of heritage and history for the church. The legacy of our forefathers, who labored tirelessly to establish and nurture The United Methodist Church in Africa, would be jeopardized, leaving future generations disconnected from their roots and traditions. The wealth of knowledge and experience accumulated over centuries would be at risk of being forgotten and diluted if the church were to splinter and disperse.

In contrast, regionalization offers a path forward that preserves the unity and continuity of The United Methodist Church in Africa and elsewhere while honoring its heritage and legacy. By aligning with neighboring regions and forming a cohesive network within the global denomination, African United Methodists can maintain their connection to the broader church body while fostering a sense of solidarity and shared purpose.

Regionalization provides a framework for collaboration and shared decision-making, enabling African United Methodists to retain autonomy and agency within the church while benefiting from the resources and support of the global denomination. By embracing regionalization, the UMC in Africa can ensure its continued existence and relevance in an ever-changing world, upholding the values and principles that have guided the church for generations.

We are United Methodists in Africa, and we will remain faithful until the day our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, returns.

In conclusion, The United Methodist Church stands at a pivotal moment in its history, faced with a choice that will shape its future for years to come. By rejecting disaffiliation and embracing regionalization, African United Methodists can safeguard the legacy and heritage of the church while promoting unity and continuity within the global denomination. Let us honor the sacrifices of our forefathers and preserve the rich tapestry of history that defines The United Methodist Church, ensuring its enduring presence and relevance for generations to come.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Recommended Readings: European United Methodist Bishops on 2nd Anniversary of Ukraine War

February 24 marked two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, setting off a war that persists to this day. United Methodists around the world marked this anniversary, but perhaps none so closely as European United Methodists.

Bishop Harald Rückert of the Germany Episcopal Area marked the occasion with a joint letter to his fellow UMC bishops Christian Alsted (who oversees Ukraine) and Eduard Khegay (who oversees Russia). In it, Bishop Rückert offered his prayers for both bishops and the United Methodists under their care and expressed his hopes for peace.

Bishop Alsted marked the anniversary of the war by traveling to Ukraine. You can see several of his reports from that trip about worshipping and serving with Ukrainian United Methodists on the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area Facebook page.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Jae Hyoung Choi: St. Basil, Charity, and Justice

Today’s post is by Rev. Jae Hyoung Choi. Rev. Choi is Missionary in Residence with the General Board of Global Ministries.

I visited Kenya recently as a member of Global Ministries' core team for Global Mission Fellow (GMF) training. During the program, we had the opportunity to visit Kibera. A Kenyan guide mentioned that Kibera is one of the largest slums in the world, along with Soweto in South Africa, where I had a chance to visit during the 2019 Africa regional missionary gathering.

Observing GMFs engage in programs with children in Kibera brought back memories of Parola, an informal settlement in Manila, Philippines. Parola served as a refuge for those initially arriving in Manila to escape poverty, owing to its proximity to the bustling market called Divisoria. While Parola was smaller than Kibera, the living spaces were considerably narrower. Due to the illicit practice of electricity tapping, known as “jumping,” Parola often experienced fires.

I recalled a grandmother who tragically lost her beloved grandson in one such fire. While she went to the market to buy food, locking the door from outside for the child’s safety, the fire consumed her home. I also knew a woman raising nine children, three of her own and six brought by her husband from other women, who made ends meet by doing laundry in other people’s houses. Despite outward smiles, it seemed they might be silently shedding tears, enduring unspeakable suffering.

I pondered the meaning of missionary work for individuals facing ongoing poverty, injustice, and discrimination. What does it truly mean to “participate in God’s mission” amidst these challenges?

In recent months, I studied Basil, a figure from the fourth-century Cappadocian Fathers. While renowned for his Trinitarian theology, my focus delved into his social teachings and his acts of charity. 

His Christian ownership principles, rooted in natural law and the Scriptures, offer profound insights into contemporary socioeconomic and structural issues. Perhaps his concern for land issues in his homeland, Cappadocia, led him to advocate the Christian ownership principle based on the biblical mandate, “The land belongs to God (Leviticus 25:23),” which underscores a commitment to distributive justice and equitable resource access, promoting communal responsibility.

However, the historical evaluation of Basil’s charitable activities is divided. In 369 AD, a severe famine left many in poverty, some even starving to death. Basil mobilized his assets and connections to aid the poor, establishing the Basiliad, a massive complex dedicated to caring for the poor and sick, which moved Emperor Valens to donate land.

Yet, the church’s charity, including Basil’s, during that time is now facing reassessment in a new light. Historian Peter Brown notes that the eastern church during Basil’s time earned the title “Lovers of the Poor” not only due to its active charity but also because it was an era when the Roman Empire’s unjust economic system mass-produced the poor.

Some wonder whether Basil’s words were prophetic but his deeds were priestly. Why did Basil, who approached the core of social justice through his land ownership teachings, focus only on charity in practice?

Basil’s charitable work was intertwined with his ascetic monasticism, which was based on Hellenistic dualism. At that time, the monastic movement’s ultimate focus was the coming kingdom, emphasizing helping the poor rather than solving poverty itself.

The fundamental reason seems to be his dichotomous worldview dominating his ascetic monastic movement. Ioannes Karayannopoulos comments that Basil’s ultimate orientation was “to the other real life [heaven],” so “Basil does not consider it his duty to try to change [the present system].”

Today, charity remains essential to the church's mission. However, the church must hear that the world is voicing criticisms of its charity. Books like “Toxic Charity,” “When Helping Hurts,” and “When Charity Destroys Dignity” illustrate this phenomenon. Kibera, Soweto, and Parola call for justice beyond charity.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Jefferson Knight: Addressing Human Sexuality in the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline: A Missional Imperative

Today's post is by Jefferson Knight. Knight is Program Director of the United Methodist Human Rights Monitor in Liberia and a delegate of the Liberia Annual Conference to the 2024 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The United Methodist Church is currently embroiled in a significant crisis regarding the definition of marriage within its doctrine. The looming conflict arises from the potential attempt by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church to change the definition of marriage, a move that could lead to serious repercussions across its global connections.

One of the primary reasons for the potential conflict is the disparity in the legal and cultural context of marriage across different regions, particularly in relation to same-sex marriage. In the United States, same-sex marriage has been legally recognized since the landmark Supreme Court decision in 2015. However, this legal framework is not universally applicable, especially in other parts of the world, such as Africa and certain other regions.

In many African countries, laws criminalize same-sex marriage, reflecting deeply ingrained cultural and religious beliefs. As a result, any attempt by The United Methodist Church to change its definition of marriage to include same-sex unions would clash with the legal and cultural norms prevalent in these regions, potentially causing significant discord within the global church community.

Furthermore, United Methodists in the United States and other Western countries may find themselves in a constant state of conflict with the Book of Discipline of the UMC if they were to adhere to their national laws, which permit same-sex marriage, while other countries, particularly in Africa, maintain laws that explicitly criminalize such unions.

This stark contrast in legal frameworks creates a complex and challenging situation for the church, with divergent interpretations of the Book of Discipline causing tension between different regions and members.

This situation has led to the formation of the Global Methodist Church, a US-based denomination that broke away from The United Methodist Church, and it has also led to the disaffiliation of churches from the UMC, mainly in the United States.

In light of these challenges, it is evident that The United Methodist Church must seek a solution that respects the diverse legal, cultural, theological, biblical, and regional contexts within which it operates. One potential path forward could involve defining marriage within the Book of Discipline based on regional contexts wherever applicable.

By acknowledging the legal and cultural differences across its global connections, The United Methodist Church can strive to define marriage in a manner that respects the varying perspectives and realities of its members. This approach would entail recognizing and respecting the legal frameworks and cultural norms related to marriage in different regions, thereby allowing for a more inclusive and harmonious coexistence within the church.

Moreover, establishing a framework that respects regional variations in the definition of marriage would help mitigate potential conflicts and foster a spirit of unity and understanding within The United Methodist Church. By embracing diversity and adapting its doctrine to reflect the complex realities of its global membership, the church can navigate the current crisis and emerge with a strengthened sense of inclusivity and community.

However, it is essential to recognize that the missional context of the church extends far beyond the confines of any single issue, including human sexuality. The UMC's global reach necessitates an approach that acknowledges and respects the diverse cultural, social, and theological perspectives of its members across different regions. The proposal to regionalize the church as proposed by the Christmas Covenant underscores the recognition of these differences and the need for a more localized understanding of faith and practice.

The idea of regionalization holds significant potential for addressing the complexities surrounding human sexuality within the UMC. Rather than attempting to impose a singular stance on this issue that may be incongruent with the beliefs of certain regions, a regionalized approach allows for the accommodation of diverse perspectives in accordance with the unique cultural and contextual factors at play.

In conclusion, the crisis facing The United Methodist Church in relation to the definition of marriage underscores the need for a thoughtful and inclusive approach that respects the diverse legal, cultural, and regional contexts within the church's global connections. By defining marriage in the Book of Discipline based on regional context wherever applicable, the church can pave the way for a more harmonious and respectful coexistence, ensuring that all members feel valued and heard within the broader church community.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Recommended Reading: Cambodian Theology Students

Cambodia is one of six Mission Initiatives supported by Global Ministries. Mission Initiatives are endeavors to spread Methodism to countries where it did not previously exist. The Cambodia Mission Initiative is a unique undertaking because it is jointly sponsored by Global Ministries, Connexio (the mission agency of Swiss United Methodists), the Korean Methodist Church, the Singaporean Methodist Church, and the World Federation of Chinese Methodist Churches. Together, these five agencies have sponsored the growth of the Methodist Church in Cambodia, a soon-to-be-autonomous denomination.

Part of the process of a church growing toward autonomy is developing indigenous leadership, which the Methodist Church in Cambodia has done. Congregations are led by indigenous pastors, and there is a Methodist Bible School for training pastors. As part of their partnership with Cambodia, Connexio has shared a recent interview with two students at the Methodist Bible School (translated into English here). The interview is a good snapshot of what life is like for young adults preparing to enter the ministry in Cambodia. It's worth reading for the sake of learning more about Methodism in Cambodia, Mission Initiatives more broadly, and pastoral ministry in different cultures.