God's Word for today

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Methodists, mission, and money

A colleague once said to me that if one is to embark on PhD studies and see them through to completion, the subject matter must be something that keeps one awake at night.  In other words, to use one's research to, if not solve what the academics term "the problem statement", at least shed some light on the issue, open further conversations, and inspire others to take the next step.

Part of the "blessing in disguise" that came from my abortive attempt to register for PhD studies with UKZN towards the end of 2011 (other than being able to cope with the EMMU assignments!) has been to think about what was bothering me at the time in terms of an area of research, but - more importantly - to discover what really scratches away at me.

And now that I'm approaching my ordination year, I believe that the time is right to set the ball rolling.

Something that's been troubling me for some time has been our model of ministry (insofar as stationing ministers is concerned), in that the basis of a "viable" station is whether or not the local community (Circuit) can support a minister financially.  If the answer is "yes", then a minister is stationed - if "no", then the stationing doesn't happen.

The sad part of such an approach is that the communities that can least afford a minister are probably the ones that need a minister most.  I'm reminded of the words of John Wesley, as recorded in the Minutes of the Methodist Conference dated 29 June 1744, where he said that "[y]ou have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work.  And go always, not only to those who want you, but to those who want you most" (my emphasis; the context also indicates that the modern English equivalent of "want" would be "need").

The Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) has partially grasped this vision through the construction of a state-of-the-art seminary, aimed at training the ministers required for this work.  Unfortunately, under our current deployment model, finding stations for those +/- 25 ministers who exit seminary each year is an arduous task - one that we have sought to address by measures such as compulsory retirement at age 65 (i.e. "out with the old to make room for the new").

Sadly, we say that we are a "Connexional church" and local communities are often severely criticised for being congregational in their thinking.  Yet when local communities are in need of support for ministry from the wider MCSA community, there is no formal process by which such support can be obtained.  To be fair, there are wealthier churches that do provide a degree of support, but this tends to be in an unstructured and fairly localised manner.

And the number of local churches that close their doors (mainly in rural communities) bears sad testimony to this.

This got me thinking: Leaving aside financial considerations for the moment, what would be the "optimum" method of stationing ministers?  In other words, how would we station minsters according to Wesley's imperative to "go always ... to those who [need] you most"?

We keep saying that we need a new paradigm of mission today, and part of that must surely be to be in a position to station ministers where they are most needed?  My proposed area of research is therefore to re-examine the missiology of the MCSA in terms of how it deploys its ministers, attempting to put together a model that primarily takes mission needs into account.

Now the bean-counters must be choking on their corn flakes as they read this - after all, even though, according to John 15: 19, we are not of this world, we are in this world, and it's all well and good having these grandiose plans for mission, but these need to be paid for!  That's where the financial management part of the research comes in - how a more optimal model of mission through the deployment of ministers can be financed.

The issue we face as a 21st century church is that our mission has been dictated to by money, but finance needs to follow (and support) mission, not the other way around.  The accounts of the early church confirm this, as do countless missionary enterprises over the years.  However, in all the books I've read on the early Southern African missions, much has been said on the mission work itself, but any detail on how such missionaries have been supported financially has been given scant attention.  My contention is that the financial support must have been there, whether from a missionary society, or a "home" church.  I can't believe that the likes of William Shaw would have been sent off to our sunny shores to spread the Gospel and establish a string of mission stations without at least some measure of initial financial support.

It was these early missionary enterprises that laid the foundation for the church's witness in the 19th century.  The 20th century church owes a great deal of gratitude to these pioneers.  Surely we need to not only learn from our history but also adapt our model to current circumstances to ensure that this witness continues in the 21st century and beyond?

The first step is to convince a university that such a research proposal has merit for a PhD.  The next step would be for the MCSA to sanction the project.  Prayers would therefore be greatly welcomed!