Living into a more authentic relationship with deeper connections throughout the world is much more easily said than done. As we prepare for Advent Season I am reminded that many places around the world emphasize different elements of their Christian traditions. I have had the honor and privilege of being in the Philippines the last few weeks working with different groups within the Philippines Central Conference. There are several lessons I have learned and continue to learn during my visit that I think are essential for the CT members as a whole to continue to consider as we prepare to gather in Mozambique in a few short months.
Lesson #1) Don’t assume you “get it.”
I have a little bit of an inside scoop in the Filipino culture because I can at least understand some of the language. But, even though I think I “get it,” I really don’t. There are so many cultural elements that affect people’s lives and effect the way clergy and laity are able to convey the Gospel message through a United Methodist lens that it becomes difficult to generalize any program. The most authentic thing the church can do is listen to one another and equip the people to create missions, ministries and resources from within. Programs developed in the U.S. for a U.S. context don't necessarily translate to another cultural context. Therefore, equipping leaders from within becomes a critical element of any work we attempt to do in a worldwide connection. General Board of Discipleship has been working on developing Discipleship Resources International in which they have been equipping people within the Central Conferences to write their own resources and curriculum.
Lesson #2) Central Conferences are organized according to their capacity.
Our WWN Missional Collaboration Group has been working with the Standing Committee on CC Matters to better understand the organization of the Central Conferences. The Philippines Central Conference in particular is organized in the following way. They have three Episcopal Areas with 24 Annual Conferences that come together as the Philippines Central Conference. There are a few agencies that serve all three Episcopal Areas and are programmatically equipped to function in this way. The Coordinating Council of the Philippines Central Conference meets once a year for 3-4 days to hear reports from the Episcopal Areas and the agencies that serve the CC. They also make decisions between Central Conferences and General Conference. This is what they believe is within their capacity to do. But, their leaders are also raising questions about the feasibility of the way they are organized. Can they do it better? What helps get their system closer to the local churches? When travel can be limiting, is it really feasible to have such a country-wide coordinating council or would separate regional organizations work more efficiently? What serves the mission better?
Lesson #3) Vital Congregations in Urban – Rural – Remote areas of the Philippines will have varying capacities for mission and ministry.
This isn’t too different to other settings around the world, but what I want to lift up are the realities that some of these groups face. Here’s a story of a thriving vital congregation in an urban area. As many of you heard from our colleague, Jovito Sermonia, Jr. ( a member of the CT) his church has been planting mission churches in the Middle East. In fact, they have planted and sustained several new churches and have cast a vision for 15 new church starts and a new church start in Jerusalem. Why did they go to the Middle East? Because the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) were begging for their own faith community in this land as they left their homes to work abroad. The General Board of Global Ministries vision of “everywhere to everywhere” is embraced by Knox UMC in urban Manila, Philippines.
But, what is a vital congregation in the remote province of the Philippines? Remote means an area of the country that is nearly impossible to reach by public transportation. It has very little cell coverage and the people who live in these communities have little financial “treasures.” But, they are rich in many other ways, and pastors still serve these areas. Can they still develop “principled Christian Leaders?” YES! Can they create “new places for new people?” YES! Ministry with looks very different for the people in the remote areas of the Philippines and stamping out killer diseases of poverty means teaching their people how to live off the land and feed their own families. Most of us can’t even imagine what it’s like to serve a “remote” area, so as we consider deeper connections for a worldwide church, we must stop and imagine what that means to a pastor in the northern province of Aurora, Philippines.
The work we do as a Connectional Table to build bridges of understanding, sensitivity and grace to people who claim The United Methodist Church in thousands of places around the world is critical. We have to take off our own cultural lenses and dare to put on others. The work that the General Commission on Religion and Race is doing to build intercultural competence is crucial if we dare become a more authentic worldwide church. How do we share all of God’s gifts more equitably in such a way that helps all of us be open to the teaching of the Holy Spirit through one another? It’s not going to be easy, but it means that we must work that much harder in order to find a way forward.
As you prepare your hearts and souls for this Advent Season, I invite you to pray for the pastors in the most remote places of our connection who barely live off of incomes of less than $5 a week. I invite you to pray for the laity who make daily sacrifices in order to serve God through the missions and ministries of The United Methodist Church. I invite you to pray for one another as we remember who we are and why we do what we do – serving our Risen Lord.
With God’s Love and Grace,
Rev. Amy Valdez Barker,