Francisco Canas, director of the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino ministries, speaks with David Markay, former UM missionary representing the UK.
by Elliott Wright and Christie R. House
For US and European delegates, participation in a mission roundtable probably means a plane trip to a distant land for a few days and finding your prearranged ride from the airport where you land to your destination. It may also mean staying in a small hotel in a village where hotels are scarce. But for delegates from the host country, participation in the same roundtable may mean weeks away from home, family, church, and the fields. It can mean days of walking, or a complicated logistical plan of finding a series of rides, by land or water, from a network of church friends across the country.
For the East Congo Roundtable, held in Kindu, DRC, last August, delegates from the East Congo Episcopal Area gathered over the course of a week or so to prepare for their first roundtable discussion. Some had traveled from the far eastern side of the country—from Goma in North Kivu and Bukavu in South Kivu. It took them three days to travel by boat down the Congo River. Some had come from the north and west, from Equateur and Oriental provinces. A number had come from Maniema Province, surrounding Kindu. The Congolese participants stayed with friends in Kindu, sleeping on the dirt floors of churches, crowding into village huts, or sleeping outdoors in hammocks. But it was important for them to be there—men and women—to sit at the table and say what they had come to say. In turn, they listened to their bishop, church leaders, and overseas visitors.
Mission roundtables represent a consultative process for drawing together a network of equal partners engaged in particular expressions of God’s mission. They may focus on a specific geographic area or a topic or enterprise. They are particularly helpful in denominational or ecumenical contexts for determining the “lay of the land” and what measures may be needed to more effectively facilitate mission. Roundtables are useful in making plans for lay and clergy leadership development. The process and decisions are always guided in large degree by local and indigenous participation.
Let Us Rise and Build
The East Congo delegates numbered 24 at the East Congo Roundtable, but all three annual conferences of the episcopal area were represented. Also represented were a number of languages, as the DR Congo has concentrations of people in tribal communities, though generally their common language is French. The theme of the roundtable was “Let Us Rise and Build.”
Mission roundtables are not new but are increasingly utilized by Global Ministries. They are typically held in a country or episcopal area that allows for local leadership to articulate priorities and for partners to discover how they can collaborate in meeting goals. Dr. Richard Letshu, who served as the East Congo Roundtable secretary, summarized its findings. “The delegates from all areas described a dramatic increase in evangelism and church growth, promotion of women’s leadership, and the rehabilitation of infrastructures destroyed during conflict,” he noted. “The Eastern Congo conferences have established a culture of transparency in management, the promotion of youth activities, and the introduction of better agricultural methods and livestock management for community development. The episcopal office reported a consolidation of partnerships with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), churches, and friends, both national and international. Health improvements were reported in overall sanitary conditions and in the church’s medical facilities. The episcopal area, with help from US conferences, established the Methodist University of Kindu. Delegates also reported an improvement in human relations, mitigating some of the tribalism that grew during the war.”
Yet, the delegates identified many challenges as well. They explained that their churches are in poor condition. Pastors described a decline in the quality of their pastoral training and a deterioration of their living conditions. Some retired pastors lacked housing altogether. Across the conference, congregations have little access to information technology, few computers, and no internet connectivity. While medical facilities have been improved, most are still extremely poor and some remain in an unacceptable condition. The people live in extreme poverty, lacking transportation and financial resources. Throughout the episcopal area, the United Methodist-sponsored schools have deteriorated, having been favorite targets for warring factions on all sides.
Given these conditions, the roundtable participants quantified the needs of the episcopal area, and partners agreed to work together to find ways to help East Congo United Methodists. United Methodist agency, conference, and other international participants agreed to engage national and international corporations and financial institutions, advocating for them to take some responsibility in providing assistance to alleviate poverty in the region and ensure peace and security.
Concerning education, roundtable participants decided that East Congo women and men needed training primarily in theology, management, and information technology. Partner organizations will assist by providing scholarships and grants for students. To improve the area’s communication capabilities, partners will prioritize equipment, such as cellphones, computers, voice recorders, and cameras.
Through its DRC field office, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has been working steadily to improve water resources and health services in the East Congo region. UMCOR has already reconstructed some of East Congo’s crumbling network of medical facilities and small clinics and will continue on this track. Partners also agreed to find more opportunities and resources to help improve medical facilities. Outside funds should help East Congo church members leverage their own resources in their mission outreach and activities. Concerning human relations, East Congo delegates asked for practical resources that would help them develop intercultural competency within their churches, making them welcoming places where diversity is encouraged and embraced.
A Global Phenomenon
Dozens of roundtables have taken place during the current Methodist quadrennium (the four years between general conferences), with a particular concentration in Africa. There, eight roundtables were held over the past three years, beginning in 2013. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where Global Ministries partners with many autonomous Methodist churches, eight roundtables convened in 2013, nine in 2014, and nine in 2015, with others being projected for 2016. The Latin American events not only promoted more effective partnerships between Global Ministries and the autonomous churches but also more collaborative mission among the churches and partners in the region. Global Ministries encourages partners to explore local resources for any project in which they are involved.
The processes employed in the Malawi and Côte d’Ivoire events in 2013 and 2015, respectively, illustrate the lasting value of roundtables. The minutes indicate that the participants and their affiliates—including indigenous persons, missionaries, agency personnel, ecumenical partners, and annual conference and institutional representatives—agreed to consider one another as equals at the roundtable. All roundtables facilitated by Global Ministries begin with this agreement. A secretary is appointed to take notes, and a facilitator, who usually comes from outside the concerned area, keeps the participants on track. The records spell out agreed-upon goals, challenges to meeting those goals, and various responses considered by the group in confronting and mitigating these challenges. In this practical approach, next-step objectives are described and specific commitments made by all parties. In many cases, roundtables result in formal memoranda of understanding (MOU) that relate to specific mission objectives.
The 2013 roundtable in Malawi and another in Eurasia this year were concerned in part with the progression of these particular faith communities from being “mission initiatives” to becoming fuller participants in the church’s conference structure. Consultations on the Cambodian and Vietnamese mission initiatives also moved church members in those countries toward next steps in the maturation of their faith communities. Healthy partnerships, self-sufficiency, and leadership development within the United Methodist and world Methodist structures were priorities for both of these growing Methodist communities.
More Than Church Connections
Beyond formal delegations and detailed agreements, partners who gather for a roundtable get to know one another in deeper and more meaningful ways. When internet connections and technology are available, members of the wider church body can join in the proceedings, particularly for worship and discussion, without having to travel to the place where the roundtable is being held.
A Lithuanian Roundtable held in November 2012 brought together 80 people, with half meeting in Lithuania and half in the United States. “How can you not be moved when you’re sharing Communion with your partners and they are definitely with you?” asked Patti Bacher of Gulf Breeze UMC in Florida. “We’re praying and singing together. It can’t help but be inspirational, and that surprises the most skeptical person.”
For Camilla Pruitt of Trinity UMC in Huntsville, Alabama, the mission relationship was personal. “It’s one thing to hear about a sister church or about some of the challenges they have in their culture. It’s another when you look at a screen and know, even though they are across the world, we are singing and praying together.”
Bacher said she appreciated the shift in the concept of mission from short-term projects to long-term relationship. “One of the things that sticks with me,” she says, “is that it’s not about an experience; it’s about a relationship. As God’s people, we are called to be in relationship with one another.”
Those relationships have helped her “be connected in knowing that life, God, and the world is so much bigger than you think. If you’re only involved in the local church, that can be good, but it may be inward thinking—not outward thinking. Having these relationships with people around the world and sharing the same faith with them…opens up endless possibilities.”
Elliott Wright is a consultant working with Global Ministries. Christie R. House is editor of New World Outlook. The story from the Lithuania Roundtable was originally researched and written by Sandra Brands. This article was first published in New World Outlook magazine, November-December 2015 issue. Used by permission.
Participants of the East Congo Roundtable included Chief Tunda, an influential United Methodist Leader in East Congo (far left), and next to him, Dr. Richard Letshu (center), who served as secretary for the roundtable, and next to him, Regina Henderson of Global Ministries. Photo: Courtesy Regina Henderson
Staff member Lisa Katzenstein moderates a discussion at the Migration Consultation held in Freudenstadt, Germany, in 2014. Photo: Arthur McClanahan/IAUMC
During the Roma Consultation in Romania, participants went to visit the Roma village of Micesti, Romania, where Samuel Goia (center, kneeling) pastors a church. Photo: Üllas Tankler