- An international United Methodist group has long been working to increase the number of bishops on the African continent.
- Due to changing realities within the denomination and world, many feel it is critical to attend to emerging challenges to ensure sustainable episcopal leadership.
- Still, United Methodist leaders agree the need is great for more bishops in Africa.
An international group of United Methodist leaders has long worked on plans to add five more bishops to the African continent, increasing the total from 13 to 18.
However, those plans are now facing strong headwinds as The United Methodist Church grapples with reduced finances and rising church disaffiliations in the U.S. and the departures of annual conferences in Eurasia. At the same time, church leaders agree the need continues to be great for more episcopal leadership on a continent where the church is growing.
During its meeting in Braunfels, the denomination’s Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters discussed the challenges facing its Africa Comprehensive Plan that includes the five new episcopal areas. The group is a permanent committee of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, that works with central conferences — church regions in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
At the 2016 General Conference, the standing committee asked for and received authorization to work with African church leaders to develop a comprehensive plan for where central conference and episcopal area lines should be drawn. In 2019, the standing committee approved submitting legislation to the coming General Conference that, if passed, would bring that plan into fruition — increasing the African central conferences from three to four and allowing for the addition of five bishops.
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However, the COVID pandemic has delayed General Conference from 2020 to 2024, and a great deal has changed since the standing committee received its mandate from General Conference delegates to develop the plan seven years ago.
Although the standing committee expressed broad agreement on comprehensively strengthening the church on the African continent, the members heard about three critical impacts on their plan.
The first of those impacts are disaffiliations from The United Methodist Church after decades of intensifying debate about the status of LGBTQ people in Christian life.
“We are going to be a smaller church with less financial capacity than before,” Council of Bishops President Thomas Bickerton told the committee.
“But smaller does not necessarily mean a smaller missional imprint and impact.”
So far, more than 2,070 congregations in the U.S. have received the necessary approvals to leave the denomination with property under Paragraph 2553, the disaffiliation policy added to the denomination’s Book of Discipline by the 2019 special General Conference.
The same special General Conference also passed a proposal from the standing committee that any legislation passed during the session not take effect in central conferences until 12 months after the coming General Conference. That includes Paragraph 2553, which is set to expire at the end of this year.
However, annual conferences in central conferences have a lengthy, multi-step process for becoming autonomous in another part of the Discipline, Paragraph 572.
Central and Southern Europe Central Conference Bishop Patrick Streiff explained how the process of leaving the denomination by using Paragraph 572. He noted that the Discipline currently allows U.S. congregations — not annual conferences — to leave, while the opposite is true in central conferences. Under Paragraph 572, annual conferences outside the U.S. have a process to leave but not individual churches.
Four annual conferences are seeking to become autonomous in the Eurasia Episcopal Area and will bring their petitions to a special session of Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference on March 18. The standing committee elected three members who will accompany the four annual conferences in this process.
The expectation is that General Conference will vote on the annual conferences’ separation in 2024.
“When one member wants to leave the body, it impacts the whole body,” Streiff said. “This is why we do this through a mutual process of conferencing.”
Primer on funding
The Episcopal Fund covers the costs not only of bishops’ compensation, travel and meetings but also that of the denomination’s ecumenical staff and at least some portion of bishops’ office staff.
Its revenue comes mainly from the denomination’s annual conferences, church regional bodies that each pay apportionments — or shares of giving — to support denomination-wide ministries. The conferences in turn ask for apportionments from their local churches. Annual conferences worldwide support the Episcopal Fund.
The World Service Fund is the largest general-church fund that supports the work of most general agencies. Its support comes from U.S. annual conferences.
The General Council on Finance and Administration — the denomination’s finance agency — is projecting that U.S. church disaffiliations and closures will result in a significant drop in expected giving.
The Rev. Moses Kumar, the agency’s top executive, told the standing committee that, with such financial hardships in mind, the agency is preparing to send the coming General Conference a denomination-wide budget with an overall reduction of 38%, compared to the budget passed in 2016. The budget would cover general church spending for the years 2025 to 2028, and includes a 20% cut to the Episcopal Fund that supports bishops and about a 43% to the World Service Fund, which supports the general agencies.
Kumar said there will need to be a reduction of bishops worldwide to keep the Episcopal Fund solvent.
Bishops are funded by apportionments — shares of church giving — from both the church in the U.S. and central conferences. However, the World Service Fund receives support only from U.S. apportionments. At present, U.S. giving pays for the bulk of denomination-wide ministries, including the bishops.
“What happens in the Northeastern Jurisdiction impacts the whole church,” said Bickerton, referencing the U.S. jurisdiction where he is a member and leads the New York Conference.
“What happens in Africa impacts the whole connection. We are interdependent, and our decisions impact those outside of our region,” he added. “We are used to doing things independently, and our current realities require us to work together.”
The great need
Bishop Gregory Palmer, who chairs the standing committee’s Africa Comprehensive Plan team, said the team still believes organizing additional episcopal areas is a key part of The United Methodist Church’s efforts to draw people to Christ.
“From the beginning the committee saw the goal as missional: How do we increase and make more robust the mission of the UMC on the continent of Africa,” said Palmer, who also leads the West Ohio Conference.
Even with the dramatic changes in the denomination, the team affirmed the continued missional need for additional bishops in Africa. Palmer said the church needs to find ways to live into the current reality while guided by aspirations.
Palmer said the team is looking at all circumstances to bring a recommendation to the standing committee that does not pit one part of the church against another part of the church.
Bickerton told the standing committee that efforts are already underway to shore up the denomination’s Episcopal Fund.
With last year’s episcopal elections in U.S. jurisdictions, the number of U.S. bishops has already dropped from 47 to 40. Additionally, Bickerton said, jurisdictions are planning to further reduce the number of bishops in 2024.
“We are resetting ourselves around what is reasonable and sustainable,” Bickerton said.
Bishop Harald Rückert, standing committee co-chair and episcopal leader of the Germany Central Conference, said central conferences are showing a great willingness to take responsibility for projects and finances.
“There has been some improvement in some parts of the central conferences around payment of apportionments, but central conferences have a lot of room to grow,” Rückert said. “If we really want to be a connectional church, we must be willing to contribute to the whole. We will always be a church in solidarity with each other, but we must have honest conversations about our own contributions.”
How to go on
The standing committee observed that both the U.S. and central conferences have room to grow in raising revenue for the Episcopal Fund. The committee also agreed the work would be much easier if the group truly had a sense of who was staying and who was leaving The United Methodist Church.
In the end, the standing committee raised questions that will go into consideration of any final proposal to General Conference.
Among the questions under consideration:
- Who needs bishops more? Those regions that are growing or those that are struggling?
- How can United Methodists all come to the table bringing their assets together to invest in their own areas and in each other?
The Rev. Anne Detjen, a German member of the standing committee, said she “was very touched by the way we talked with each other and thought about each other.”
“This could be a model for other committees and especially for the General Conference,” she said.
Ruof is public relations officer and spokesperson for The United Methodist Church in Germany. Contact him at [email protected] or [email protected].
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