American conflict and The UMC in Africa

April 3rd, 2024

Treating Africa as a territory for American Methodists to conquer is nothing new, as can be seen in the vest pocket edition of A Centenary Survey of Methodist Episcopal Missions, published in 1919. In it, Africa is described as having three “battle fronts,” and readers are urged to send financial support for the Methodist campaign to push back the “Mohammedan advance.”[1] Vestiges of these battlefronts can still be clearly seen by simply looking at a map or statistical reports of The United Methodist Church’s territories and Advance[2] projects. During the colonial period, U.S. and European-funded mission sta- tions working in cooperation with local evangelists led to rapid expansion of the denominations they represented. In the nearly 200 years since missionaries from the Methodist branches that now form the UMC arrived on the African continent, the denomination has grown so large—numerically and geographically—that in the last official published count in 2018 the ACCs boasted thirty-two annual conferences (three provisional), thirteen active bishops, 9,025 ordained pastors, and 5,118,749 recorded professing members.[3] Inevitably, over the years the annual conferences within the ACCs have faced and overcome disagreements and conflicts.[4] Conflict is a natural part of the human experience, and few people like having their dirty laundry aired in front of others. Thus, United Methodists in the ACCs, as elsewhere, have tended to avoid discussing any unpleasant internal politics or discord with outsiders or writing about such things in internationally published documents, those sources cited in the previous footnote not-withstanding. Further contributing to the dearth of information available to most outsiders about ACCs has been the massive barriers to communication (e.g., need for translation, lack of functioning postal system, transport/visa, access to phone/internet technologies, etc.). For generations, foreign missionaries were the sole conduits of information between African Methodists and those in the United States and Europe, and these missionaries had strong financial incentives to downplay any problem/ scandal that might discourage donors; often, the foreign missionaries themselves were not aware of the dynamics at play. Even today, with the game-changing impact of the internet and affordable smartphones, the fear of the potential consequences/retribution resulting from sharing too candidly, combined with the politics of who is granted permission to act as a conference spokesperson, has created a reality where United Methodists not directly involved in any of the ACCs know very little about what goes on there. This is true to the point where they have been unaware of the biggest organized attack on the African episcopal areas to date. In contrast, African delegates to the General Conference sessions not only know of but have been forced to witness the dominating fights between leaders of the U.S. branch of the denomination.

What further makes the ACCs’ political battles different from those in the UMC jurisdictions in the United States is the presence of a large number of powerful outsiders in Africa, mainly in the form of American missionaries and American mission partners of various sorts. I use the former term to describe those who live in the region for some length of time and the latter term to describe those who collaborate on church-related projects and may visit, but do not stay. Over the past several decades, the number of long-term missionaries has been declining and the number of short-term (or entirely at-a-distance) mission partners has been increasing.

The problem with missionaries and mission partners is that they have access to resources (money, education, life opportunities, etc.) that most local leaders do not. This puts them in positions of tremendous power. Most African societies—especially rural ones—are patronage systems, in which those with the most power serve as the community’s patrons. Patronage, as missionary-missiologist Bob Walters explains, is “[t]he social-economic system in which all the resources are controlled by a single person, a patron—for instance, a chief or a missionary. As a community and as individuals, clients petition the patron for needs and favors.”[5] In an ideal patronage system, the patron coordinates the collection and redistribution of the community’s resources for the benefit of the entire population and also brings in goods and skilled persons from outside of their territory. In the UMC across Africa, those elected to the episcopacy (or those with aspirations of being elected) are under great pressure to be effective patrons, acquiring money and needed materials, mediating quarrels, and functioning as the conference’s ATM whenever a crisis strikes. United Methodists from the United States who arrive as missionaries or partners are also expected to serve as patrons and/or conduits of resources for the primary patron—the bishop—to distribute. Regardless of whether foreigners understand or accept this role, they cannot escape it. If they choose to continue the relationship, their three options are to channel resources through the bishop, finance someone with aspirations of supplanting the bishop, or, as has often been the case with long-term missionaries, set up their own organization/mission-station with them acting as its primary patron.[6]

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In their role as patrons, missionaries and mission partners are frequently asked to intervene in local church conflicts. As I have written about missionaries to North Katanga, “Often Americans would become triangulated into a conflict, where less powerful church leaders would come to them complaining about the actions of a higher ranked church leader. Such conflicts tended to involve accusations of the misappropriation of funds/resources, nepotism, or some other misconduct that negatively impacted others.”[7] United Methodists operating out of a patronage system where Americans function as patrons have sought to pull Americans into their conflicts, and American missionaries and mission partners have all too often been willing to have their power leveraged in this way, especially when participation in such a conflict has allowed them to advance their personal agendas or interests.

What the coalition of conservative U.S.-based caucus groups has done in recent years is take this dynamic to a destructive extreme by not only building and heavily funding a rival patronage economy (i.e., the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the Africa Initiative, and now the Global Methodist Church) but appointing as its regional leaders those with open ambitions of becoming bishops. Some of these appointments have happened with disregard for the reasons why these persons had lost previous elections or been suspended or even defrocked (for gross misconduct, in some cases involving criminal actions), and the Wesleyan Covenant Association has not held their selected leaders accountable for using unethical methods while attempting to topple the United Methodist bishops of their regions of origin.

The dynamic of ecclesiastic empire working through the means of patronage is one that the church will need to work to dismantle for some time. That work will involve all United Methodists, regardless of their identification as progressive, centrist, or traditionalist. To the average WCA member who had no idea what their leaders have been doing in their name: demand accountability and a new model. To the “centrists” and “progressives”: don’t be fooled by the myth that you and your leaders don’t engage in or profit from empire politics. Greed, lust for power, and even patronizing savior complexes are equal opportunity sins. To the Methodists exiting the denomination: If you want to build a new church, focus on reaching those who do not have a faith community instead of pillaging existing ministries. Don’t pressure United Methodists to leave a church they love—one that has raised them, trained them, and helped them in times of war and disease. To all those intending to remain in The United Methodist Church, whether American or African, conservative or progressive: I plead that you engage in the hard conversations—the holy conferencing—necessary to envision a means of being the church together across national boundaries, one that creates an alternative to ecclesiastic empire. Given the history of Western colonialism, Methodists in the United States must be particularly committed to dismantling rather than perpetuating the systems and structures of empire in all their manifestations.


Excerpted from Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church, edited by David W. Scott and Filipe Maia. Copyright © 2024 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


[1] See, A Centenary Survey of Methodist Episcopal Missions (New York: Joint Centenary Committee, Methodist Episcopal Church, 1919), 14.

[2] “Advance” is the name of the United Methodist program to fund global missionary activity. Note that the UMC has not yet removed the empire and war imagery from the name of its primary U.S.-based system for raising funds for ministries outside of the USA. In the February 1949 issue of The Christian Advocate, this system was its featured cover story and marketed as “The Advance for Christ and His Church, From Crusade to Conquest.” See: The Christian Advocate (New York: The Methodist Episcopal Church, February 17, 1949).

[3] Published statistics used for calculating delegate numbers for General Conference 2020, re- leased in 2018: _Delegate_Calc_by_AC_with_2016_comp.pdf.

[4] See, for instance, Peter Marubitoba Dong, A. J. Filiya, Mary Samuel Bambur, John Pena Bambur, and Ayuba Ndule Bambur, The History of The United Methodist Church in Nigeria (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), Chapter 6, “Schism in the Muri Regional Church”; Levi C. Williams, A History of The United Methodist Church in Liberia (Denver: Outskirts, 2014), Chapter 11, “A Time for Healing”; Michael Kasongo, History of the Methodist Church in the Central Congo (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998), Chapter 6, “The Decline and Fall of the Central Congo Episcopal Area, 1960-1996.” I am not endorsing the views of any of these authors on the conflicts they write about but merely offering a sense of the breadth of conflicts of local origin in the African church.

[5] Walters, The Last Missionary, vi.

[6] For more on patronage and American/Congolese relationships, see Denyer, Decolonizing Mission Partnerships, 67–68, 175–81. Note also why the departure of foreign missionaries resulted in the collapse of numerous mission stations that had been built upon a system requiring a missionary to serve as the collector and distributor of resources.

[7] Denyer, Decolonizing Mission Partnerships, 139–40. 





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