Archives for September 2018

Allocation of Bishops Unfair to Africa

Times are changing quickly and global United Methodism needs to start reflecting those changes. Over the last twenty years, the number one shift within our denomination has been the steady decline of membership in the United States and the ever-increasing growth of membership on the continent of Africa. United Methodism is found in at least 16 African nations.

Consider the fact that more United Methodists reside in the Democratic Republic of Congo (3 million) than in the combined North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions in the United States (2.3 million).

The leadership of our denomination should reflect our current reality. That is why we need to reconfigure our outdated representation model to a more just and equitable configuration. And it needs to start at the Council of Bishops.

Currently, while the U.S. has 56 percent of the total number of church members, the U.S. has 70 percent of the number of bishops. This gives the U.S. bishops a dominant role on the Council of Bishops. The African central conferences have 43 percent of the church members, but only 20 percent of the bishops. This yields a dramatic underrepresentation of African perspectives on the Council of Bishops.

When the Council acts, as it did recently in endorsing the One Church Plan, we need to see that action as primarily an American decision not reflective of the true makeup of our denomination’s membership.

How we got where we are

In the U.S., the number of bishops allocated to each jurisdiction is based on a formula. The first 300,000 members yields five bishops for a jurisdiction. In fact, no matter how few members a jurisdiction has, anything less than 300,000 members still entitles a jurisdiction to five bishops. This part of the formula favors smaller jurisdictions, such as the Western Jurisdiction. For every 300,000 members over the original 300,000, an additional bishop is allocated. (This part of the formula is rounded up, so that 1.6 additional bishops equal 2.)

The result of this formula is that the larger the jurisdiction, the relatively fewer bishops it has. For example, the (smallest) Western Jurisdiction has roughly 61,000 members per bishop. By contrast, the (largest) Southeastern Jurisdiction has roughly 210,000 members per bishop. Part of the justification for this is the need to cover large geographic areas, particularly in the West. But it results in a fundamental unfairness.

In the central conferences outside the U.S., the number of bishops is determined by a number of factors: missional potential, number of local churches and clergy, geographic size of episcopal areas, number of annual conferences, and number of church members. There is no set formula.

This approach for the central conferences worked well when these areas were small mission areas still heavily dependent upon the mother church. As the mission field has matured and the churches outside the U.S. have become more self-governing, and particularly as the church in Africa has grown in numbers, the allocation of bishops has not kept up with the need.

The number of members per bishop vividly illustrates the discrepancy. In the U.S., the average number of members per bishop is 151,000. In Africa, the average number of members per bishop is 407,000. The most egregious underrepresentation is in the Congo, which has only four bishops for 3 million members. The number of members per bishop in the Congo is 750,000, five times the U.S. average! There is no way that a bishop can effectively supervise that many members.

Another way of viewing the unjust disparity in representation is to know that the Congo covers an area as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River. In the U.S., there are 29 bishops covering that amount of territory. In the Congo, there are four bishops covering the same amount of territory. And the last statistic I saw was that there are only 500 miles of paved roads in the Congo. (I believe this means intercity roads, excluding streets in a city.) So the ability to get around and travel to the churches is much more difficult in the Congo compared with the U.S.

Where we can go from here

One step forward would be to apply the same formula for allocating bishops in the central conferences as we use in the U.S. That would yield a much fairer distribution of bishops. It would not reduce the number of bishops in the U.S. beyond what the formula already calls for. But it would increase the number of bishops where they are desperately needed.

Applying the formula to the central conferences would add one bishop for the southern and eastern Africa area, which already has five bishops (Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, and South Africa). It would add six bishops to the West Africa Central Conference (Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire), bringing their total to ten. And it would add ten bishops for the Congo, bringing their total to 14.

This approach would yield a much fairer distribution of bishops. The U.S. would have 54 percent of the bishops and 56 percent of the members. Africa would have 38 percent of the bishops and 43 percent of the members. Europe and the Philippines are overrepresented in the Council of Bishops (5 percent and 4 percent respectively) due to language, cultural, and geographic needs of the different areas. Their allocation of bishops would not change under the formula.

The 2016 General Conference voted to add five bishops for Africa in 2020. Where they will be assigned is still being determined by the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. This is a start, but it does not come close to adding the seventeen bishops that are needed to bring equity. Perhaps we could add five more in 2024 and five more in 2028.

Generally speaking, the cost of a bishop in the central conferences (particularly Africa and the Philippines) is about half the cost of a U.S. bishop. Both the North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions stand to lose a bishop in 2020 under the formula. That would pay for four African bishops right there. And the South Central Jurisdiction also stands to lose a bishop, if not in 2020, then in 2024. That would pay for two more in Africa.

Of course, all of this will need to be reconsidered in light of the actions of the 2019 General Conference, which may result in a loss of members (and maybe even annual conferences) in the U.S. Under any of the three plans, there will need to be a reconfiguration of annual conference boundaries and perhaps jurisdictional boundaries, as well.

In the meantime, it would be well to consider that the actions of the Council of Bishops are primarily a reflection of the U.S. bishops, not a globally representative body. And as we configure the United Methodist Church of the future, we should give attention to treating the central conferences more fairly as equal partners in a global church, rather than as “junior” partners or mission stepchildren.

 

What is a “Good” Witness

As we approach the 2019 specially-called General Conference of The United Methodist Church, one of the arguments being made for the One Church Plan is that staying structurally united as one church will be a good witness to the world, and that any sort of structural separation would be a bad one. The argument is made from Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus’ desire is unquestionably that we be “brought to complete unity” by being “in us” (in the Father and in Christ). This unity that is brought about by our being united with God would indeed be a witness to the world that God loves the world and has sent Jesus into the world to bring salvation.

This unity, however, cannot be manufactured by us. Rather, it comes from our being perfectly united with Jesus Christ. As it was once explained to me, the closer we are to Jesus, the closer we are to each other.

What if we don’t have that unity? What if, due to the fact that we imperfectly perceive the things of God in our human condition, our disagreement is of a level that we are not at the same place in our understanding of discipleship and therefore not able to be in unity with one another? The apostles dealt with differences in doctrine and teaching. In some cases, they counseled separation (for example, 2 John 9-10, 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1).

We have in the church two groups that believe the other group is bringing erroneous or false teaching into the church. Traditionalists believe that to change the definition of marriage from one man and one woman would be to violate the clear teaching of Scripture, including the specific teachings of Jesus on marriage. Such teaching would be false and not true to the Gospel and therefore unacceptable in the church.

Progressives believe that the Bible does not speak about loving, monogamous same-sex relationships, and that the Holy Spirit is showing the church a new way that affirms such relationships as equivalent to marriage in every way. They believe that to discriminate (as they see it) against same-sex attracted persons is a violation of Jesus’ commandment to love one another and is therefore a false teaching that must be changed and repudiated by the church.

We should all be able to admit that these two views are mutually exclusive and cannot survive long-term in the same church. When two groups hold each other as purveyors of false teaching, even in biblical terms, separation is justified.

A Better Way

So what is a “good witness” in a situation like this?

Earlier in the same “Farewell Discourse,” Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

If we cannot be united in structure, we can at least witness to the world by treating one another with love and respect. This would be a dramatic departure from the way the world is doing things right now, particularly in the civil and political realm. Love doesn’t mean approval or agreement with another, but reflects the way that we treat one another in our disagreement.

So far, the tone is not encouraging. One United Methodist blogger levelled the cheap slur of “Metho-fascists” against those who believe differently than he does. The slur is not defined or explained, and no examples are given. Reconciling Ministries Network has featured an article by a progressive African pastor serving in ministry in the U.S. charging Good News with taking a “colonial” attitude toward partnership with African leaders and delegates. The article contains factual errors and spends most of its space recounting grievous instances of “cultural imperialism” committed by others decades ago, smearing Good News with guilt by association.

It is a clever and slick political ploy to attempt to drive a wedge between traditionalists in America and traditionalists in Africa. It will not work because we share the same view of the Lordship of Christ, high regard for the authority of Scripture, and a biblical vision for marriage and sexuality. One can ask the three African bishops who attended the meeting being criticized whether they felt dominated or demeaned by any American participation.

Moving Forward

For a number of years, Good News has advocated that progressives and evangelicals come together to agree on a way forward for the church that would allow each group to go its separate way, each doing ministry as it believes God is calling, with the respect and blessing of the church. Could we not be like Paul and Barnabas, who, despite a “sharp disagreement,” parted company in a way that allowed for future reconciliation (Acts 15:36-41)? Could we not adopt the attitude of Abraham in his conflict with his nephew Lot? “Abram said to Lot, ‘Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left’” (Genesis 13:8-9).

There were glimmers of that possibility in private discussions at the 2016 General Conference. However, hopes of working toward an amicable separation were dashed in the Commission on a Way Forward process.

We are left now with adversarial choices that will bring about “winners and losers,” with the resultant pain and turmoil in the church. (Of course, no matter what decision the General Conference makes, there will be pain and turmoil in the church.)

The Traditional Plan, while firm in its accountability process, aims to be gracious toward those who cannot live with the decision of the General Conference regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Maintaining structural unity is not the only way the church can give a good witness to the world. After all, how loving is it to force people to go against their consciences and violate their deeply held beliefs, as the One Church Plan envisions?

If we must take the road of adversarial choices, can we not do it with love and grace toward one another, giving the world a witness of how we believe Christ followers should treat one another? Can we not find a way to allow those with deeply held beliefs that differ from the church’s teaching to depart with our blessing? And cannot those who deeply disagree with the church’s teaching find a more fruitful approach to ministry than to continue badgering the church to force it to change its teaching against its will? That would be a witness to celebrate.