Two long-divided United Methodist factions in Burundi plan to join for a special annual conference next month — marking an important step toward reunifying the church’s witness in the East African nation.
Helping to cover the costs of the Feb. 6-9 meeting are the denomination’s finance and mission agencies — in a rare move since both agencies cut funding to the East Africa Episcopal Area in 2012 over still unresolved auditing concerns.
The General Council on Finance and Administration board unanimously voted Jan. 19 to use $5,000 of General Administration Contingency Funds to defray meeting costs. That follows the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries’ decision to give a $10,000 grant to help cover the gathering.
The proposed budget for the special annual conference in Gitega, Burundi, is $68,250 with 800 delegates expected to attend. Conferences typically fund their own annual sessions, but the two general agencies wanted to make an exception in this case to support the cause of reconciliation.
“We want to send a joint message that The United Methodist Church is behind them as they try to reunite as a church,” Thomas Kemper, the top executive of Global Ministries, told finance agency board members.
The divisions in Burundi date back more than 10 years to a dispute over bishop elections, Kemper told United Methodist News Service. One side insisted on having a bishop from Burundi while the other was willing to accept a bishop from another nation.
Bishop Daniel Wandabula, a Uganda native, was elected bishop of the East Africa in a special election in 2006. Since then, the two United Methodists groups have operated separately in Burundi.
But in the past two years, the two sides have begun working to resolve the conflicts that have divided their Christian witness. Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, who leads the West Ohio Conference and chairs the denomination’s Comprehensive Africa Task Force, has helped guide those discussions.
On Aug. 29, representatives of the two Burundi United Methodist groups — along with other denominational leaders — signed a letter announcing plans to operate as “one strong and vital United Methodist Church in Burundi.”
While the church agencies are supportive of the reunification efforts, executives of both made clear the distributed funds would not go through Wandabula’s episcopal office. Global Ministries has set up an account to be used by both Burundi groups, and the General Council on Finance and Administration will reimburse receipts directly from the annual conference.
Wandabula did not return emailed requests for comment about funding for the Burundi Conference.
In a matter unrelated to the Burundi dispute, the two agencies have raised concerns about the East Africa episcopal office’s financial accountability.
In August 2012, Global Ministries — the denomination’s mission agency — suspended mission funds to Wandabula’s office through the Advance, the denomination’s designated-giving program. The General Council on Finance and Administration followed suit, urging all agencies, conferences and churches to halt funding through the East Africa bishop’s office. The moves stem from three unfavorable audits from April 2011 to June 2012 that raised questions of how the office used more than $757,000 in church funds.
Both the finance and missions agency also have an ongoing complaint under church law against Wandabula, which after more than six years still has not reached a resolution.
As recently as August, the finance agency board voted to continue withholding funding for Wandabula’s episcopal office expenses until he resolves the auditing issues.
Global Ministries has continued to fund East African ministries in South Sudan, where the funds do not go through the episcopal office.
While leaders of both agencies hold out hope for a resolution of the auditing concerns, they did not want those concerns to get in the way of Burundi’s efforts.
“This has nothing to do with what Bishop Wandabula does or not,” Moses Kumar, the top executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration, told UMNS. “This is about reconciliation of two parties that have come together and are going to do ministry together.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.