REFLECTIONS ON MISSIONS, INSTITUTIONALISM, AFRICA, AND METHODISM’S FUTURE
By Dr. Riley Case
It appears that there are now more United Methodists in Africa than in the United States. If that is not yet officially so, it is sure to be so soon. There are something like 6,200,000 UMs in America. There are that many, or more, in Africa. This is on the one hand, incredibly good news. It is, on the other hand, discouraging news. United Methodism numbered more than 11 million members at the time of the Methodist-EUB merger a little over 50 years ago, almost all of whom were in the United States. We are down nearly five million from that number in the U.S. Many pastors now in the denomination have never served a growing church.
To make matters more discouraging, we seem not to know what to do about the decline. We are operating with the same structure, the same kind of seminaries, the same kind of bureaucracy, and the same way of doing church that we have operated with for fifty years. While there are theological and moral issues connected with our present divisions, there is also the reason that some persons are simply tired. The new Global Methodist Church at least offers something new and different.
Maybe there are lessons to learn from our involvement with the African church. I was pondering this, along with other things, when I attended the memorial service for Debbie Vance several weeks ago at Hanfield United Methodist Church near Marion, IN. Debbie actually died two years ago in Africa but, because of Covid and for other reasons, it was not until May 2022, that a service could be held in her hometown. Debbie and her husband Ken were United Methodist missionaries in the Congo and Zambia for 38 years. Much of that time they were related to the General Board of Global Ministries until some years ago when they and some other missionary couples were disaffiliated, meaning they were cut loose from the board. The reasons for this have never quite been understood, though it perhaps has not been the tragedy it might have been. The Vances continued to serve United Methodism in the Congo and in Zambia. The bishops they have served under in Africa have requested their presence and churches, many in Indiana, have continued to support them. Debbie and her husband Ken were a parsonage family in the district where I was the superintendent nearly 40 years ago. They had been accepted as missionaries with GBGM to work with Wings of the Morning and the Enrights in the Congo. (Enrights is plural, meaning there was first Ken and Lorraine Enright, then their son John Enright, and Kendra [a sister to Ken Vance], and then [and now currently] John and Kendra’s daughter Elinda and her husband Nate Steury.)
Though Ken and Loraine Enright had been in the Congo (originally the Belgium Congo) since 1950, there had been some complications after 1972. The Methodist-EUB merger had been finalized at the 1972 General Conference along with a complete restructuring of the denomination. The new restructuring had, among other things, created a new super-board, the Board of Global Ministries, which almost immediately took on new directions (and a new theology of missions). “Missions” became “mission.” The board membership was expanded to 177 directors (much too large for effective governing) to accommodate a complex new quota system which was to be “inclusive” of all manner of groups including caucus groups. Reflecting the theological climate of that era, liberation theology became a dominating ideology of the times. This meant, among other things, that monies once used to support missionaries were being directed to revolutionary groups including the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe, the Sandinistas and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and the Cuba Resource Center in Castro’s Cuba.
This meant, along with some other reasons, there was a dramatic decrease in the number of missionaries being put on the field. It should be noted that this was true not just for United Methodism but for all the mainline denominations. Between 1969 and 1975, in just six years, the number of overseas missionaries associated with the Department of Overseas Mission (DOM) of the National Council of Churches decreased 31 percent, from 8,000 to 5,000. United Methodism reduced its missionary force from 1,307 to 870 in just four years. Evidently what Ken and Lorraine Enright were doing: holding camp meetings, developing a flight ministry, establishing a retreat and training center for pastors and families (Kafakumba), and winning converts was not being considered as the wave of the future for the Board of Global Ministries. Not only that, but traditional missionaries were also increasingly being seen as not keeping up with the times and those doing traditional missions were being increasingly seen as “not team players.” When I once asked a GBGM board member why there was not more enthusiasm for Ken Enright, I received the response that he was too much of a “Lone Ranger.” Something clicked. That was a phrase I had heard before. As a delegate or alternative or just an observer to nine Jurisdictional Conferences (where bishops are elected), I remember the phrase being used several times as a description of those loyal to the institutionalism of the denomination. Such as: “John is not a ‘Lone Ranger.’ He has served the church faithfully in every task given to him.” That meant basically that the person had served on one of the general boards or agencies of the church or with one of the ethnic, age, racial or gender caucuses (unless it was Good News—that would disqualify them). They were team players. They were institutionalists.
Whether there is significance or not in these comments as to why missionaries were being sent, or not sent, and what kind of missionaries these were, the truth is that from 850 oversees missionaries in the 1970s the number would decrease further to 700 to 550 to 400 and then to a situation where it was difficult to get up-to date statistics. This is a big reason why there was within the Good News Movement in the early 1970s the forming of the Evangelical Missions Council. The Council sought to be faithful to the mission of the UM church but believed that part of that faithfulness involved spreading the gospel throughout the world. The specific issue was evangelism. There were conversations with GBGM as to why evangelical missionaries were not being commissioned. An oft-heard response was that “we are all evangelicals,” followed by a comment as to whether the Evangelical Missions Council had some political agenda. Eventually the Mission Society for United Methodists was formed. The Society would work with overseas bishops to supply missionaries that the board was not supplying. The bishops responded by denouncing the Society, refusing to make special appointments to the Society (basically forcing some missionaries to turn in their credentials) and then by urging churches not to itinerate Mission Society missionaries within their areas.
Even with this, the United Methodist Church still had a tremendous world outreach. Many districts still sponsored mission saturation programs and district missionary banquets. Sometimes, it seemed, our churches and our districts were more committed than our own general agencies. When John Enright’s commissioning was being delayed in the 1970s the superintendent of the Marion District of the North Indiana Conference, L. G. Sapp (a bit of a Lone Ranger himself), called the pastors of the district together to raise funds for the long-range support of John and Kendra Enright. The money was sent to GBGM with a letter that said, basically, that the money was for support of John and Kendra Enright and if the Enrights were not on the field in six months, the money was to be forwarded to World Gospel Mission.
A few years later when I was the superintendent of the Marion District, we had the exact same problem with Ken and Debbie Vance. I did not raise money and send a letter but, with the support of the cabinet, I had some straight talks with people in New York. The Enrights, and later the Vances, were commissioned and assigned. If John’s father Ken was seen as a Lone Ranger, John was more. Along with other missionaries he operated a pastors’ school, worked with health and poverty issues, opened clinics, and raised support for African pastors. Their area in Katanga Province became home for the two fastest growing conferences in all of Methodism. I remember one report in which John Enright commented they had started 50 new churches the previous year. In 1999 amid civil unrest, the Enrights moved much of their operations to Zambia and developed a new Kafakumba Training School (in addition to the one in Congo) which ministered not just to pastors but pastors’ families. Businesses to help local Christians be self-sufficient developed around bananas, woodworking, fishponds, pigs, goats and honey. Thanks to Indiana connections, the Purdue University agriculture department partnered in several projects and even sent students to Zambia.
How will United Methodist Churches in Africa, or in any of the Central Conferences, handle the present divisions in the denomination? Will they align themselves with the new Global Methodist Church? Will they align themselves with the continuing United Methodist Church? Or, perhaps, will they become autonomous? Many of the African leaders have been putting their hope in the Protocol, the agreement agreed upon several years ago by traditionalists, progressives and centrists to divide the church amicably. This agreement needs approval by a General Conference to be put into effect. Unfortunately, some progressives are reneging on their promises to support the Protocol so it is up in the air and passage is questionable at best.
We need to pray. After that, stay tuned.