GC2016: When to add bishops in Africa?

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It’s a matter of wide agreement that The United Methodist Church needs more bishops in its major growth area — Africa.

But when to add those bishops will likely be a subject of lively debate at General Conference 2016, set for May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon.

Delegates have already received a report from the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, recommending the number of bishops in Africa rise from 13 to 18.

But the standing committee first wants an intensive study, leading to a comprehensive plan for Africa that would establish more effective boundary lines for episcopal areas and central conferences, and have funding in place to pay for more bishops.

The new bishops would come after the plan is presented to the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.

Committee members said in their report that they are “seeking to consider the need for additional bishops in a more future-oriented manner instead of simply reacting to petitions for additional bishops sent to General Conference every four years.”

But the Rev. Forbes Matonga, a General Conference delegate from the West Zimbabwe Conference, said the need for more bishops is too pressing to wait on a study.

That’s also the position of the Renewal and Reform Coalition, consisting of the unofficial conservative evangelical caucus Good News and other groups.

“To put that off for another four years is unjust, and it’s going to be detrimental to the continued growth of the church in the Congo at least, and to other areas as well,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, Good News vice president.

Provisional conference in Asia

General Conference delegates are being asked to create a new conference for Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Mongolia.

Called the Southeast Asia and Mongolia Provisional Central Conference, the new body would provide an organizing structure for missions in those countries that currently are administered by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Because it would require an amendment to the Book of Discipline, a two-thirds majority approval is needed to pass the legislation.

Thomas Kemper, top executive for Global Ministries, said some of the missions are nearly mature enough to qualify for provisional annual conference status under a central conference umbrella. While that does not mean that action would occur, establishing the provisional central conference would allow such organization prior to the 2020 General Conference, he explained.

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, president of Global Ministries, believes the new provisional central conference would be a historic opportunity for mission in Asia.

“Bishop Francis Asbury often said to the early Methodists in America, ‘Take the resources from the center to the edge,’” she said. “In Asia, the United Methodist mission initiatives have reached new people in new places, developing leaders, engaging with the poor and (offering) healing ministries.” — Linda Bloom, UMNS.

Candid report

The standing committee is assigned under the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, to coordinate the study of the structure and supervision of the denomination outside the United States — in other words, in the central conferences.

The Book of Discipline requires that the standing committee be chaired by a central conference bishop, and most committee members are from the central conferences.

The committee’s report to General Conference 2016 touches on a range of subjects, including a Global or General Book of Discipline. And it includes, as an appendix, a study paper aimed at helping central conferences become more effective in mission and ministry.

In an early section, the study paper candidly notes “main problems,” including:

  • “Most central conferences exist only to elect bishops.”
  • “Most central conferences are more occupied with episcopal elections than with the mission of the church.”
  • “Term episcopacy (as in the Philippines) brings a politicizing of the whole church.”

The paper goes on to assert the standing committee’s view that the judicial process for central conference bishops needs revision and that clergy and lay leadership needs to be strengthened for, among other reasons, the evaluation and accountability of bishops. 

Central and Southern Europe Area Bishop Patrick Streiff, who chairs the standing committee, said the “main problems” were identified from input from the central conferences as well as from committee members. He stressed that the call for a comprehensive plan for Africa was separate from the study paper and its concerns, though he acknowledged “overlapping topics.”

Before making any recommendations, the standing committee created an episcopal area assessment team, which broke into three smaller teams that conducted studies in the episcopal areas of South Congo and North Katanga in the Congo Central Conference and Zimbabwe in the Africa Central Conference.

“In all three regions, the teams were overwhelmed by the breadth of ministries, the growth of the church, the limited resources and the steps being taken toward local solidarity and self-support,” the committee’s report says.

But the report also describes the central conferences in Africa as “dysfunctional,” due in part to their size.

The report says that the standing committee, after weighing “all the complexities” and “after intense and prayerful discussion,” concluded a comprehensive plan is needed to determine the number of episcopal areas and central conferences in Africa and their boundaries.

A key part of the plan, the report says, would be increasing the number of bishops in Africa from 13 to 18. Those would come in 2021-2024, with the denomination’s Episcopal Fund reflecting the cost of more bishops.

The plan first, bishops later idea was unanimously approved at the committee’s 2015 meeting in Maputo, Mozambique.

Streiff said the standing committee acted “in full awareness that it may disappoint short-term expectations.”

He added: “The plan will listen to all voices on the continent and serve the long-term mission of the church in Africa.”

Streiff submitted a petition to General Conference 2016, asking for approval for the standing committee to organize and implement a comprehensive plan for the central conferences and episcopal areas of Africa, working with representatives from across the continent. The plan would include adding five bishops.

Benedita Penicela Nhambiu, of the Mozambique South Conference, is among the African members of the standing committee in favor of doing the plan first.

“Although I understand the urgent need for more bishops in Africa, especially due to the real and perceived role of a bishop in these settings, I can see that applying patches to an entity needing refurbishment would not, probably, be the best solution,” she said.

Competing petitions

But along with the committee’s petition, General Conference 2016 will consider one calling for a new episcopal area in Nigeria, as well as another that seeks to add a bishop in the Congo Central Conference through the division of the current Southern Congo Episcopal Area.

Advocates for adding more bishops right away point to the large memberships of some episcopal areas in Africa, as well other challenges bishops face there.

“Roads and other infrastructure shortcomings make it much more difficult for African bishops to exercise adequate supervision and leadership,” Lambrecht wrote in the Renewal and Reform Coalition agenda.

The unanimity of the standing committee in wanting a plan to come before adding bishops may impress General Conference.

But the Africa Initiative, a movement of clergy and lay leaders, will be holding a retreat for African delegates in Portland May 4-6, and the hosting group’s priorities include getting more bishops right away.

The Rev. Rodney Steele, a member of the standing committee from the Arkansas Conference, said the need is clear but the plan should come first.

“The hope being that it’s more strategic,” Steele said. “It also gives the church time to figure out the funding.”

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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