Another Mainstream Misunderstanding

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By Thomas Lambrecht

It is instructive to hear how others perceive what one is saying or doing. Having an alternative perspective often sharpens up the message and enables corrections to misunderstandings. Such is the case with the most recent Mainstream UMC newsletter. (Mainstream UMC is a self-identified “centrist” caucus group within The United Methodist Church.)

Mainstream’s newsletter accuses the Global Methodist Church and traditionalists of “abandoning” Africa. This charge comes in response to the note in last week’s Perspective that the 40 percent reduction in the UM denominational budget proposed for the 2024 General Conference means less funding for the church in Africa. In fact, information coming out of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters indicates that Africa is likely to receive only two of the five new bishops they were promised in 2016. And that comes over eight years after that promise was made. (The slowness with which the UM Church is able to respond to critical needs is one source of frustration leading congregations to disaffiliate.)

Our argument has been that United Methodists in Africa cannot depend upon financial support from the UM denomination at the same level as before, due to the loss of funds through disaffiliating congregations, closed churches, and rapidly declining membership. Those who would contend for African United Methodists to remain in the denomination to continue receiving important missional support may be disappointed in the future at the shrinking level of that support.

Will the Global Methodist Church have enough money to support Africa?

In response, the Mainstream newsletter compares apportionment funding in the UM Church with apportionment funding in the GM Church. They point out that, since the GM Church will have only 15 to 20 percent of the number of congregations as the UM Church, it will have only 15-20 percent of the apportionment funding. Furthermore, the GM Church has capped general church apportionments at 1.5 percent of local church income, which is a little more than half of what churches now pay to the UM denomination through apportionments.

Bottom line, Mainstream’s article says the GM Church will have an annual budget of around $10 million, while the UM Church had a pre-Covid budget of $133 million. It is premature to fix on a GM Church annual budget number at this point, but we can grant it for the sake of discussion. Of course, with the 40 percent reduction proposed in 2024, the UM Church’s annual budget would go to around $80 million. That still means the UM Church will have roughly eight times the apportionments of the GM Church.

But this conclusion only paints part of the picture. The GM Church is not the UMC 2.0. It plans to do mission and ministry and denominational funding differently from how the UM Church has done it.

A different way of doing mission

Apportionments in the GM Church are designed to support the structure of the denomination, which will be lean. This frees up more money at the local level to be spent on mission support for projects locally, nationally, and around the world. The pool of money devoted to missions will undoubtedly be much larger than the total of apportionments. So, one cannot measure the denomination’s financial capacity by apportionments alone.

The GM Church conceives mission as an equal partnership between various parts of the denominational family. To foster that partnership, annual conferences with financial resources will be linked to annual conferences with other resources but lacking in finances. Instead of local churches sending money off to New York or Nashville to be distributed by denominational bureaucrats, in the GM Church money will be sent directly to partner annual conferences with whom those churches will have a personal relationship. Such mission money will be over and above apportionments, based on the free-will giving of congregations, which tend to give more to missions than to denominational structures.

Missional partnerships enable the forming of relationships between people in one conference and another. Money is being given to people we know personally, not just a cause or a project described in a brochure.

The funding pattern of the UM Church has in some instances created unhealthy dependency and one-way relationships in the church. Missional partnerships recognize that there are more resources than just money. They enable people in conferences that do not have a lot of money to share the resources they do have, including time, love, prayer, faith, experience with God, ministry strategies, and ways of interacting with their culture. Such partnerships foster mutuality and respect, learning and sharing.

A different way to do denominational structure

The Mainstream article laments the fact that the GM Church will not have an Episcopal Fund paying bishops out of general church apportionments. Instead, annual conferences will pay their own bishops out of annual conference apportionments. Conferences unable to do so will be supported through the partnerships explained above. This is different, but can be just as effective.

The article criticizes the fact that the GM Church will not have a Board of Global Ministries, a United Methodist Committee on Relief, or a Board of Higher Education and Ministry. This amounts to saying that if the GM Church does not do things the way the UM Church does, they will not get done.

The GM Church’s approach is not to build large bureaucratic organizations that carry out ministry on behalf of the denomination. Instead, the GM Church will seek to partner with already established and effective ministries to accomplish the same goals. That way, the GM Church does not have to spend oodles of money building ministry infrastructure, being able to use organizational infrastructure that already exists. It will make the new denomination much more nimble to respond to evolving ministry contexts by simply changing the mix of partner ministries to favor ones that can more effectively meet the missional needs of the moment.

There will still be a missions board to vet potential ministry partners, guide the denomination’s mission strategy, and facilitate the partnerships described earlier. But that missions board will focus on facilitating ministry, not necessarily doing ministry.

There will still be a board of ministry that vets theological schools to identify those most conducive to equipping the ministry leaders of the future. But the denomination will be supporting students’ educational expenses, not subsidizing schools. And it will probably not be founding and supporting “official” denominational schools, unless there is simply no viable alternative. Again, the focus will be on facilitating quality, theologically compatible education, not on building infrastructure.

This is a new way of doing denominational structure. It is a repudiation of the heavy emphasis on institution building characteristic of the post-World War II generation. By getting the right people with the right equipping and the right process in place, the church can accomplish great ministry without having to first build an exclusive ministry and organizational infrastructure that then needs to be supported with high overhead expenses for the next 50-100 years. It is not the United Methodist way, but we believe it can be more effective and more cost-efficient.

Moving toward self-sufficiency

Finally, the Mainstream article ignores the reality that the current United Methodist system of funding has at times created an unhealthy dependency on other parts of the global church. Rather than always approaching the American church with a hand out to receive, there is a growing desire in the African church to become self-sufficient, to stand on their own two feet and utilize the resources that God has blessed them with.

The GM Church is working with African and other non-U.S. contexts to create a pathway toward the church becoming (in the words of the recent Africa Initiative statement) “a free, self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating and self-theologizing church, that will take its destiny in its own hands.” This will not happen immediately, but the goal is to enable this self-sufficiency within a few years of implementing the plan.

The GM Church is not about subsidizing the African church, but about empowering the African church. That is not abandonment, as the Mainstream article charges. Rather, it is about moving toward a more healthy, mutually interdependent relationship between the different parts of the church. This may be a different approach from that taken by the UM Church, but we believe it to be healthier and more effective.

The Mainstream article says that the GM Church is not committed to connectional ministry. However, the article seems to define connectionalism primarily in terms of money and secondarily in terms of bureaucratic structures. The GM Church defines connectionalism as relationship – personal relationships between people and mutual ministry relationships between different parts of the church. We believe this is more connectional and more empowering to all involved than what could be considered a kind of paternalistic, denominationally dominated connectionalism espoused by Mainstream.

The distortions about the GM Church promoted by the Mainstream article are unfortunate and probably the result of ignorance and misunderstanding. It points out the need to fully understand something before one begins to critique it. On the other hand, responding to the distortions enables the GM Church to further clarify and define itself in the minds of readers.

Hopefully, this response has made it clear that the GM Church is fostering a new kind of connection, one that is based on mutuality, relationship, and empowerment. It is certainly not a connection built only for U.S. Methodists, nor one that abandons Africa. Rather, it is a connection that respects the voices and contributions of all parts of the church, both geographically and economically. After all, that is how one builds a truly global denomination.

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