‘New Birth’ for United Methodist Mission in Vietnam
By Elliott Wright*
ATLANTA, December 11, 2018—"I believe the Vietnam Mission Initiative is experiencing a new birth,” said the Rev. Sam Peters, a United Methodist pastor from Ohio, as he returned Dec. 2 from Ho Chi Minh City.
Peters was one of several mission partners from the United States attending the Nov. 27-29 annual meeting of the nearly 20-year-old United Methodist Vietnam Mission, related to the General Board of Global Ministries. The meeting measured the extent of indigenous commitment to being “United Methodist” in the wake of action by a retired denominational missionary to form a competing Vietnamese “Methodist” denomination. The Rev. Ut To surrendered his United Methodist clergy credentials in November.
One hundred clergy and laity from 50 churches attended the annual meeting. The emergence of new, young leadership impressed Peters, pastor of South Webster Christ United Methodist Church in the West Ohio Annual Conference. The visit, his third to the Vietnam mission, gave him a sense that the stressful transition was “a necessary experience for the ministry to move forward with more strength, clearer vision and empowered leadership.”
‘A hopeful, energetic spirit’
“There was a hopeful, energetic spirit as we gathered just before Advent,” said Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of North Carolina, referencing the beginning of a new Christian year on Dec. 1. She is the bishop assigned to Vietnam and presided at the conference.
Rev. Nguyễn Lập Tuy and Bishop Hope Morgan Ward preside over communion. PHOTO: MYUNGIM KIM
“The annual meeting was very good, very positive, very interactive, very hopeful,” the bishop said in an email report after the event. She gave an extensive report by audio/video links on Dec. 5 to mission leaders in West Ohio, including resident Bishop Gregory Palmer. (This reporter was permitted to monitor the exchange.)
West Ohio, particularly the Shawnee Valley District, is a longtime mission partner with the Vietnam initiative. Other strong partners include the Minnesota and North Carolina annual conferences. All three conferences sent representatives to the annual meeting.
Roberta Eddy from West Ohio has served since July 2018 as the interim Vietnam country coordinator. She agreed with the positive evaluations of Ward and Peters, provided to Global Ministries staff in writing.
New Vietnamese church leader
Ward and Eddy praised the collaborative leadership style of the Rev. Nguyễn Lập Tuy, who has emerged to lead the executive committee as president of the mission initiative.
“We hope to build a stable and healthy organization that unites the local churches with the leadership team in Vietnam and connects the global United Methodist Church/Global Ministries with the Vietnam United Methodist Church,” he said in a statement emailed to Global Ministries.”
Rev. Nguyễn Lập Tuy, president of the Vietnam Mission Initiative. PHOTO: MYUNGIM KIM
Tuy called attention to the hopes of the Vietnamese United Methodists for expanded theological education; more and better church buildings; more ministries for children, youth and women; more social ministries, and better pastoral care for pastors. Read the full statement here.
In response to questions about the number of churches that may have followed To, Eddy explained in the conference call that most United Methodists in Vietnam participate in house churches. Prayer and study groups in the same locale may be counted as separate “churches,” unlike in the United States.
Eddy estimated that perhaps 40 to 50 groups have identified with To’s new organization. She noted the difficulty of definitive statistics across the history of the initiative. “Five churches from the highlands we didn’t know existed showed up for the conference, bringing with them enthusiastic worship,” she said.
Why “United” Methodist?
In the two-day consultation of Vietnamese leadership and U.S. partners following the annual meeting, the Rev. Paul Kong, who leads Global Ministries’ Asia office, asked the participants, "Do you want to be United Methodist? If so, why?" The responses were a high point of the gathering.
“Each of the leaders spoke personally of his/her journey,” said Ward. “The words repeated over and over were ‘open’ and ‘grace’ – ‘open’ to all at communion, ‘open’ to leadership of women, ‘open’ to all. ‘Grace’ prevenient and free to all. They spoke of the pain of the past year, but the resolution to stay connected in The United Methodist Church.”
The bishop’s words echo Peter’s remarks. “It was encouraging,” he said, “to see the new leadership move forward in a clear Wesleyan way to further the ministry efforts of The United Methodist Church Vietnam.”
Thomas Kemper, general secretary of Global Ministries, who participated in the West Ohio call, pointed out that the Vietnamese-American United Methodist Caucus was represented at the recent meeting and was pleased with the outcome.
Administrative matters for the Vietnam mission can be difficult. The United Methodist Church is not recognized by the central government as a religious entity. Legal status has been denied while efforts continue for recognition. Some local authorities offer recognition in a limited way.
Kemper was asked about tensions over property between the mission and the To group. He replied that the focus was primarily on the United Methodist Center in Ho Chi Minh City, built in large part by funds from West Ohio and Global Ministries. He said that lawyers are looking into ownership issues. Eddy indicated that both the mission and the To group currently use space in the facility.
Goals for partnerships
Immediate goals of the indigenous Vietnamese United Methodist leadership include strengthening their organization and stepping up training for leaders themselves. These focus areas will be important in emerging partnership efforts, according to Ward and Eddy.
Specific organizational objectives include better denominational connections, preparation of Vietnamese for ordination, training alongside other South Asia mission initiatives, a new center in Canto City, and renovation of places of worship.
Education goals include training for committee chairs; financial and human resources for teachers; training for laity, especially with women, youth and children; financial support for evangelism training; more educational and theological materials in Vietnamese, and more missionaries, particularly a teacher of English.
“These requests are helpful in showing the direction the Holy Spirit is moving the Vietnamese Mission Initiative,” Ward said.
Eddy reported that plans are underway to employ an assistant in education through the Nationals in Mission program of Global Ministries as well as someone to adapt to Vietnam the Community Health and Agricultural Development program that has been a success in the Cambodia Mission Initiative.
*Elliott Wright is the information consultant for Global Ministries.