Our Mission Forward: Practical and inspirational, Mulenga and Bigham-Tsai share insights on how we communicate our mission forward at UMAC 2018.

by Sybil Davidson

On March 9, the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, chief connectional officer for the Connectional Table, and Rev. Maidstone Mulenga, communications director for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, spoke to United Methodist Association of Communicators members on “Communicating a Mission Forward,” a presentation and discussion moderated by Rick Wolcott, UMAC Vice Chair.

After opening in prayer, Mulenga shared his personal and professional insights on the people and the process. “This is our challenge as communicators,” he said. “How do we communicate our mission forward?”

The Commission on a Way Forward
Mulenga is the first person to serve in the position as director of communications for the Council of Bishops and began the role in March 2017. Among his responsibilities is serving as the communications director for the Commission on a Way Forward.

“The Commission is made up of people deeply committed to the future of The United Methodist Church,” he said. “They are working to strengthen the unity of the church in the midst of disagreement.”

The 32 members were selected from all parts of the world where the United Methodist Church has membership. They are from all jurisdictions, nine nations and 15 states. They are men and women, straight and gay, laity, elders, deacons and bishops. They span generations and span theological positions and views, Mulenga explained.

A “Mission, Vision, Scope,” document, which is available online, guides their work.  The vision is to “design a way for being a church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.”

“So when we find that ‘way forward’ it will be for the entire denomination,” Mulenga said.

The commission’s final report will be submitted in May 2018 to the Council of Bishops. It’s important to remember that the commission reports to the bishops, not to the General Conference.

“Both from the perspective of the commission and the Council of Bishops, it is about the work of God. If we do this work for our preferences and self-interest we fail to place our complete trust in God,” Mulenga said.

Council of Bishops reviews commission’s sketches
Having recently concluded a Council of Bishops meeting, Mulenga shared about the process of interim reports from the Commission on a Way Forward.

“These reports are made of sketches and sketches and sketches. When you’re sketching you do it with an eraser in one hand and a pencil in the other,” he said.

Much of the time in the recent Council of Bishops meeting was spent offering feedback on two sketches.

The “One Church” model maximizes flexibility, he explained. This model, as discussed, would not require any constitutional amendments but would require changes in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

The “Multi-Branch/One Church” model would have a shared doctrine and shared services but have three distinct branches. Five U.S. jurisdictions would be replaced by three connectional conferences based on theology and perspective on LGBTQ ministry. In this model, as it was discussed, annual conferences would pick a branch to affiliate with and then local churches could have a choice to vote to stay a member of the current annual conference or affiliate with another. This a complicated model and would require changes to the Book of Discipline and a number of constitutional amendments.

Special called session of the General Conference
Mulenga explained the content of the Special Session. The Book of Discipline requires a specific reason and stated agenda of a special session.

This General Conference will be “limited to receiving and acting on a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendation of the Commission on a Way Forward.”

After the commission hands over its work to the bishops, the bishops will decide what to do with their recommendation.

Mulenga offered a brief timeline leading up to the special session:

  • March 19-22: Commission on a Way Forward meeting.
  • April 29-May 4: Council of Bishop meets.
  • May 10-11: Commission meets.
  • May 18: Final report is sent to publisher for printing and translation.
  • May 23-25: Judicial Council will meet to deal with any issues that may arise from final report.
  • July 8: Final report is sent to secretary of General Conference and in hands of delegates.
  • Summer and fall: Delegations continue to meet.
  • February 23-26, 2019: Special session of General Conference.


How do we communicate that information?
Mulenga offered advice on how we communicate information moving toward the special session. He reflected that it’s important to remember:

  • We are not like-minded people on the matters at hand.
  • This is not about debate and parliamentary procedure—this is about conversation, prayer, listening and trust.
  • It is not about winners and losers.
  • We are looking for a way to be as unified as possible while recognizing our wide global and cultural mission field.
  • Always ask ourselves, what part of The United Methodist Church am I representing? Members, leaders, seekers or self?


The mission forward
Bigham-Tsai spoke to UMAC about the mission of The United Methodist Church in the midst of the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. She explained that the purpose of the Connectional Table is to discern and articulate the vision of the church in line with General Conference and in consultation with the Council of Bishops.

“Our mission is to make disciples … and it is lived out in missional priorities known as Four Areas of Focus,” she said. “Our mission is made alive in our worldwide covenant that calls us to balance the creative tension of our connectional unity and local freedom.”

She acknowledged that the mission goes on despite the tension in our denomination.

“In a time of uncertainty, change, and fear we can experience paralysis,” she said. “We ask, will our connection hold in this time of uncertainty?”

What is at stake, she explained, is the needs of the world—poverty, violence, global migration, racism, tribalism, nationalism and moves toward authoritarianism.

“After special session of 2019 these challenges will still be before us,” she said. “The local churches will still be challenged to get congregations beyond walls of church and into communities. We will be challenged to reach more people, younger people, more diverse people, we will be challenged to live our values of radical hospitality,” she said.

Those challenges offer perspective.

“After the special session, The United Methodist church will still be here and the mission of God will still need our hands, feet and hearts to be a reality,” she said. She shared ideas on what communicators might share now and into the future.

 What should you communicate?

  • It’s our 50th anniversary; in 1968 we came together in the Uniting Conference that created The United Methodist Church.
  • Celebrate our connection!
  • Tell how people of your annual conference are in ministry with.
  • How are people of your annual conference addressing killer diseases of poverty?
  • How are the people of your annual conference raising up principled and innovative Christian leaders?
  • How are people in your annual conference creating new faith communities?
  • What are the new ministries in your local context?
  • Communicate the ways in which we are a worldwide church.

“All of this is important because it grounds us and gets us focused on what we are here for,” she said. “Equip leaders to carry the worldwide nature of our connectionalism deep into the life and mission of our local congregations.”

Understanding our worldwide nature of our church also informs what’s happening in our local communities, Bigham-Tsai explained. “All around us we’re experience changing demographics. The world is increasingly flat. There is no more ‘here’ and ‘over there.’ It’s all ‘here.’”

She lifted up some of the challenges she sees and points communicators should consider:

  • It’s a challenge to include the voices in the middle because the ends can seem more compelling or louder.
  • Question ideas of proportionality. Be careful.
  • Understand the context, especially in the United States.
  • Beware of a tendency toward divisive rhetoric.
  • Ask what will be the witness of church?
  • Will we be a witness for unity and grace?
  • Tell story that is accurate, gracious and connectional.
  • Tell the local story. What does this mean for the local church? What’s the reality test?

Not just what we communicate, but how we communicate it is important as well, she said.

Rather than “the sky is falling,” for many of our churches they’ll keep going, worshipping and doing ministry with few, if any, changes. For some churches there will be some change.

“Communicate a calm faith and an absolute certainty that no matter what happens at the called session, God has not stopped calling the UMC to its mission,” she said, “and has not stopped equipping United Methodists for the carrying out of the mission.”

Sybil Davidson is conference communicator for the North Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Photo by Matt Brodie.