A United Methodist leadership body unanimously backed a plan that both changes the church’s map in Africa and adds five new bishops to the denomination’s fastest-growing region.
The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters on March 26 approved legislation that, starting in 2021, adds a new central conference to the continent and increases the number of African bishops from 13 to 18.
The legislation now heads to the 2020 General Conference, the next gathering of the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly.
Establishing a new central conference requires a two-thirds majority vote at General Conference. The delegates, by a simple majority, also determine the number of bishops the denomination will fund.
Central conferences are church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. They encompass groups of annual conferences and oversee the elections of bishops. They also have authority to make “such changes and adaptations” to parts of the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, as missional needs and differing legal contexts require.
The African continent currently has three central conferences — Africa, Congo and West Africa. Each includes multiple countries and languages.
The standing committee’s legislation renames the Congo Central Conference as the Central Africa Central Conference and splits in two the Africa Central Conference — so named because it’s the oldest on the continent.
Under the legislation, the four central conferences would be as follows:
- Central Africa Central Conference — consisting of Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Zambia.
- East Africa Central Conference — consisting of Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda.
- Southern Africa Central Conference — consisting of Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
- West Africa Central Conference — Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
The legislation also would authorize:
- The Central Africa Central Conference to elect two new bishops, bringing its total to six.
- The East Africa Central Conference to elect one new bishop, bringing its total to two.
- The Southern Africa Central Conference to elect one new bishop, bringing its total to five.
- The West Africa Central Conference to elect one new bishop, bringing its total to five.
Ultimately, it’s up to General Conference to fix the boundaries of central conferences and the number of bishops who serve them.
It’s up to individual central conferences to determine the boundaries of episcopal areas and where bishops are assigned.
Still, the standing committee has recommended where the new episcopal areas should be.
Specifically, the committee recommends two new episcopal areas created from parts of the North Katanga and South Congo areas; and one new episcopal area each in the countries of Burundi, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.
The 2016 General Conference approved legislation from the standing committee to add five bishops and study the number and boundaries of central conferences on the continent.
The recommendations come after the Africa Comprehensive Plan task force of standing committee members did a review of the geography and an in-depth analysis of membership and clergy data provided by the General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance agency.
According to the agency’s most recent data, Africa is home to more than 5.4 million United Methodist members.
The standing committee task force also held consultations with lay and clergy leaders from each African episcopal area in Harare, Zimbabwe and then Freetown, Sierra Leone.
“Those consultations meant everything, listening to people,” said West Ohio Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, the chair of the task force, told United Methodist News Service. “We had times where everybody was together, and we had times where bishops talked and delegates talked without their bishops.”
Through the consultations, he and other task force members learned about conditions on the ground that went beyond numbers or even distances on the map.
After Palmer and other task force members presented their recommendations, a number of African standing committee members got up to commend the work the task force did and in some cases, ask questions.
Tunda Prosper, of the East Congo Episcopal Area, said through an interpreter that adding new bishops would help build church’s capacity in a country that faces multiple challenges.
“The United Methodist Church in Congo has a lot of members, but it continues to be developed,” he said.
Palmer acknowledged that a question remains whether General Conference will agree to fund all five new bishops at once or add new episcopal leaders over a period of years.
Even before the recently completed special General Conference shined a spotlight on church rifts over homosexuality, the General Council on Finance and Administration’s board had begun making plans to shrink the general church budget.
The board’s goal is to help U.S. local churches, which still provide the bulk of funding for general church operations. However, the finance agency board still plans to submit a budget to General Conference that will increase the Episcopal Fund to accommodate the five new bishops. African episcopal areas do contribute to bishop funding.
Palmer compared the challenge faced by the standing committee to that of someone with multiple qualified candidates and only funding for one position.
“I wish we had seven or 10 (episcopal areas) to spread around,” he said. “But we have only five.”
The standing committee’s legislation increases the number of United Methodist central conferences to eight.
To accommodate the change, the committee also is submitting separate petitions to General Conference that would ensure the new central conference has representation on church agency boards and other denomination-wide bodies.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.